Shyamalan’s go-to tunesmith weaves music of the Night

Helmer brings Howard in at the script stage to help set the mood

James Newton Howard’s music for director M. Night Shyamalan’s films — five so far, from “The Sixth Sense” through the latest, “Lady in the Water” — may be the closest parallel in contemporary film to the legendary 10-year collaboration of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, which yielded such landmark suspense scores as “Vertigo” and “Psycho.”

“I am very proud of the work we’ve done together,” says Howard. “Those five are among my favorites. They are tremendous musical opportunities. Night’s movies are very quiet,” he adds, “and that’s always the challenge: six-minute sequences where there’s not a lot happening on the screen. It’s like going to school every time.”

Recalls Shyamalan: “He came on very late in ‘Sixth Sense,’ and we had only a few weeks to put together the score, which ultimately turned out to be amazing. On ‘Unbreakable,’ he came on before we started shooting. I showed him storyboards, walked him through the whole movie. I described the feeling of the movie, and I said, ‘Go write down your emotion in notes.’ He did that.”

That’s been the practice ever since, on “Signs,” “The Village” and now “Lady in the Water.” Shyamalan flies Howard back to his home turf of Philadelphia before shooting begins. They review storyboards, discuss the movie and its musical needs, and Howard returns to L.A., writing themes and variations and sending Shyamalan demo CDs of the material, which the director evaluates.

Unlike virtually every other director in the biz, Shyamalan does not “temp” his movies — that is, add music from other sources (usually other film scores) during editing. Shyamalan and Howard together work through a variety of approaches, often including multiple false starts. “It’s been brutal on James,” the director says. “It’s very arduous and difficult, but it creates very pure pieces of art. There’s not a drop of music that’s not original, not his, in the movie.”

“Signs” was based largely on a three-note motif that was continuously transformed into varying moods to suit the film’s dramatic needs — in Howard’s words, “benevolent, mysterious, threatening and hostile.”

“The Village,” an Oscar nominee (and last year named one of filmdom’s all-time top 250 scores by the American Film Institute), was distinguished by the violin solos of classical virtuoso Hilary Hahn.

The composer spent the first five months of 2006 on “Lady in the Water,” Shyamalan’s “bedtime story” about a mysterious water creature (Bryce Dallas Howard) who transforms the lives of an apartment-house superintendent (Paul Giamatti) and those around him.

“It needed a sound that was inspirational but not saccharine,” says Shyamalan, “not sentimental, but strong and positive. James came up with a theme — we called it the ‘Blue World’ theme — which is inspiring and addictive.”

The composer calls it “my most evolved score compositionally. It’s the most symphonic score I’ve written, with a choral element and a fair amount of electronics as well. I hope it seeps into people’s consciousness a little bit. It’s quite haunting.”

Adds Shyamalan: “I think we’re very similar in our approaches to storytelling. It’s very organic and self-aware. We work through it with a faith that we’ll accumulate a movie full of inspiration rather than ‘settling’ on anything — an inability to accept something that’s just OK. He’s inspirable and inspiring. We’re better together than apart.”

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