An interview with film composer Harry Gregson-Williams
We talk to the composer of the soundtrack to Shrek about his latest projects, including Disney's live-action remake of Mulan
Harry Gregson-Williams is a Grammy-nominated film composer who first achieved success in the 1990s after being taken under the wing of Hans Zimmer. He has since composed the music for Oscar-winning film Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia and video game franchise Metal Gear Solid.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve actually just finished a score for Disney Nature. These amazing film makers from Bristol go out and film a single animal, then make a story around it with a narrator. A few years ago I did a movie for them called Monkey Kingdom, centred around a bunch of monkeys from Sri Lanka. This new one is called Penguins.
It’s an amazing opportunity for music to shine because, as the director told me in my first meeting with him, ‘Penguins don’t smile – you’re going to have to do the smiling for us’.
I’ve just finished that score and I’m coming back to London to record it at Abbey Road in the first couple of weeks of November, which is very exciting.
Is it a live-action film?
It’s made by an amazingly accomplished wildlife filmmaker called Alastair Fothergill, who is behind things like Blue Planet. The cinematography is unbelievable. Filmmakers go out and live among the penguins, then bring footage back and write a script with a story arc, which is told by a narrator.
The music doesn’t have to compete with dialogue – penguins don’t talk! – but it has to be full of character. There are some epic shots in the film as you can imagine, but with that there’s an engrossing story focusing in on one penguin and how his year goes.
How does your compositional style change when it’s not working around as much speech?
I do have to contend with a narrator, but he was recorded in a sound booth, so it’s a very controlled situation unlike many films.
With Penguins, the only dialogue is the narrator, which doesn’t have to sync to anybody’s lips, and can be shifted. Say, for instance, if the music naturally wants to climax at a certain moment, but there was a line from the narrator right at that second, I can ask the director if it’s possible to put his line a second later.
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What’s your next project going to be?
On my return to LA I’ll be starting the live action remake of Mulan. I have five children, three of them daughters, and it’s such a great story of empowerment for them – this girl pretending to be a boy so she could go and fight for what she believed in and bring honour to her family. So I’m really looking forward to it, and I feel really fortunate to have been asked.
I remember when it was announced thinking ‘I would love to score that’, but I had no reason to think that anybody would chose me. Then a couple of days later I saw on the front page of a newspaper that the director they’d selected was Niki Caro, who I had just finished working with on The Zookeeper’s Wife.
What’s your process with a film that’s got a pre-existing score? Are you influenced by it or do you completely disregard it?
I’ve actually banned my children from watching Mulan so I can’t listen to the original Jerry Goldsmith score. I have done a few remakes of films – years ago I did Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 123. I thought my first move would maybe be a remix of the opening title, but Tony told me to ignore what I knew of the film, because he wanted an original contemporary score.
I think the same could be said of Mulan. I’m actually going to visit China and immerse myself in that old pentatonic scale. But there’s no prizes for being 100 per cent authentic, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired me, they’d have hired Tan Dun. Hopefully I’ll be allowed to write the score in the way that I feel is right.
Could you tell us about scoring for video games and how the process has evolved in recent years?
When I was asked by Hideo Kojima to do Metal Gear Solid I wasn't sure how it was going to work, having had no experience in writing for video games. He didn’t speak a word of English, and I certainly don’t speak Japanese, so through a translator I would send emails. We worked out a system where he would send me a small paragraph describing what might be going on during the game and what he wanted to feel from the music.
By the time I had done the sequels, things had moved on quite a bit. He would send me what he called ‘cut scenes’ – scenes which would unfold if the player reached that part of the game. So it was more like scoring a film.
A few years on I was asked to do Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, but I was a little reluctant. I’m not such a fan of shoot 'em up games, so I talked to them about that and they said I could do the multi-player menu items, which didn't involve shooting. So I ended up only doing about 30 minutes of music, but it incorporated a live orchestra and I really enjoyed it.
Are you involved in the recording process?
Absolutely. It’s what motivates me every day to do what I’m doing – stepping in front of real people and real musicians, in a real life situation to hear the music come alive.
I can’t wait to record my Penguins score. I’ve been working on that nearly 10 months, mostly in my studio alone. I create music with computers and samplers, then send them off to film makers who give me a tonne of notes. Then I’ll address those notes and present the music again. This process goes on for a long time.
That’s the life of a film composer and it’s great fun, but what I’m heading for is, in the case of Penguins: 1 November. 10 o’clock. Abbey Road. Studio 1.
Harry Gregson-Williams was announced as a BMI Icon at the 2018 BMI London Awards this month.