What’s so hot about James Newton Howard? Ask any of the directors who swear allegiance to the composer, and the same answers come up again and again.
“He can bring an enormous open mind and prodigious skills and history and talent,” says Lawrence Kasdan, who never works with anyone else. “But he doesn’t repeat himself. You don’t automatically say, ‘That’s a James Newton Howard score.’ He’s worked in every kind of style.”
“He’s brilliant,” agrees “Peter Pan” helmer P.J. Hogan, who has used him on every pic since “Muriel’s Wedding.” “What I most like about James is his passion. When he gets involved in something, he gives it his all.” And even though Howard keeps himself busy, Hogan says, “When you’re talking to him about your film, it’s as if he hasn’t got anything on his plate but your movie.”
Ivan Reitman, who worked with Howard on “Dave,” “Space Jam” and “Father’s Day,” says: “His reputation is topnotch. He’s one of two or three people who are the most sought after. His melodies are not only beautiful, but they have a beautiful emotional range that add an enormous amount to the films.”
Howard is also one of the most copied. “I know ‘Dave’ is a great score because I’ve seen it imitated dozens of times in temp scores — you almost recognize the chordal and melodic shifts,” Reitman observes.
Says Michael Hoffman, who hired Howard for his first film, “Some Girls,” after liking one of his demo tapes, “I decided I never wanted to work with another composer.” But by the time Hoffman sought his help on his next film, Howard was already too busy. “He was kind enough to come in and do a temp score out of the goodness of his heart. He’s been incredibly generous on a number of movies where I couldn’t pay him a fee, like ‘Restoration.’ ”
In a business that’s always crunched for time, Howard’s ability to turn around a score in a remarkably short period is one of his strongest assets. “He has a tremendous facility, and he can write very quickly,” Hoffman says.
Andrew Davis, who collaborated with Howard on “The Fugitive” and two other pics, cites another reason: “His temp scores sound like finals.”
Howard, whom Kasdan says “displays an encyclopedic knowledge of music,” can take just about any cue — a Mahler symphony for “Some Girls,” Gershwin for “One Fine Day” or Warner Bros. cartoon melodies for “Space Jam” — and run with it.
“We always find interesting starting points,” Hoffman says. “I was very interested in 17th-century English music on ‘Restoration,’ so he got intrigued with Purcell and the kind of eccentric harmonics he uses. On more than one score, I’ve sat with him during the entire composing process, day in and day out, which is a pretty rare thing. He listens to my bad musical ideas and ends up coming up with something better.”
Davis first worked with Howard on 1989’s “The Package,” a Cold War thriller, at a time when the composer was known mostly for his comedy scores. “He was eager to have an opportunity to show new colors,” Davis says. “I wanted Aaron Copland with Howard’s hip rhythms. James nailed it.”
“His level of professionalism is remarkable,” says Kathy Nelson, Universal’s head of music, who has worked with Howard several times, most recently bringing him in on the “King Kong” score. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone whom he can’t get along with and work with.”
Hogan admits to being shocked that Howard wanted to work with him again after “Muriel’s Wedding.” “It’s not that we argued, but I can be demanding, and James stands up for what he believes in. So sometimes we clashed, but that always resulted in something good.”
Whether a director has a degree in music, like Reitman (who admits that makes him tough on composers), or cheerfully claims musical ignorance, like Hogan, Howard manages to please. “He takes the mystery out of it,” Hogan says. “He doesn’t make you feel like a musical idiot if you don’t know who Debussy is.”
“So many composers can do a great job,” Kasdan says. “What you look for is someone who feels resonance with the material. You work with him once, you’re sold.”