With nearly 90 credits, cleffer works to make each one unique

He’s known as one of the industry’s most versatile composers, as proficient with high-octane thrillers as he is with romantic comedies or contemporary dramas. Yet, more than two decades and nearly 90 films later, James Newton Howard labors more intensely than ever to come up with a unique sound for every film he scores.

Maybe that’s why so many top helmers want to work with him. He’s just finished his fifth film with M. Night Shyamalan (“Lady in the Water”). Last year alone, he collaborated with Peter Jackson (“King Kong”), Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins”) and Sydney Pollack (“The Interpreter”). Before that, it was Michael Mann (“Collateral”) and multiple films with Lawrence Kasdan (“Grand Canyon”), P.J. Hogan (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and other top directors.

Amazingly, Howard admits, “I feel like I’m just now learning to really pay attention to the movie. For the first 10 years or so, because I was a classically trained musician and player, I was preoccupied with the music. I would pay attention to compositional details that weren’t necessarily in the film’s best interest.

“My scores of the last few years represent a better connection between music and the picture,” he feels. “Now I’m mostly concerned with, what is going to make this different? What is going to give it a voice, an identity that resonates, that belongs only to this film?”

Those “voices” have included virtuoso classical violinist Hilary Hahn’s warm but unsentimental tone for Howard’s Oscar-nominated music for “The Village”; lush choral textures and traditional Japanese instruments for the wartime drama “Snow Falling on Cedars”; and the alternately ferocious and tender orchestral gestures — a mixture of the old-fashioned and the modern — demanded by last year’s remake of “King Kong.”

That combination of the classic and the cutting edge may, in fact, define James Newton Howard, who often nods in the direction of the classic symphonic movie score while incorporating the contemporary-music lessons learned from his years in the record business as a keyboard player, arranger and producer for leading pop artists from Elton John to Randy Newman.

“The orchestra fills up the screen in a way that nothing else can,” Howard says. “It evokes subtleties of emotion, of counterpoint and subtext. When you’re competing with sound effects and dialogue, the dynamic range of the orchestra is often the only way to express what’s happening and still survive as part of that equation.”

Howard’s comfort with the technology is apparent during a visit to his high-tech Santa Monica studio, where he incorporates electronic sounds into many of his scores and creates highly polished synthesizer demos of every cue that enable him to preview music for directors long before studio musicians assemble for the actual recordings.

He has also managed to avoid that bane of most composers’ existence: typecasting. His resume runs the gamut from the romantic sweep of “The Prince of Tides” to the edgy jazz of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” from the lighthearted comedy of “Pretty Woman” to the melancholy string passages of “The Sixth Sense.” Says Howard: “I’ve been lucky to have been given opportunities in different genres. And most of the time I’ve felt that the exploration, the composing, the collaboration, was a move forward.”

Not only does he dedicate more time, on average, than most composers spend on a single project — sometimes as long as five or six months, especially on a Shyamalan film — but he often finds himself rewriting cue after cue.

“It’s easy for me to write a quasi-virtuosic orchestral score,” he explains. “What is harder is to do that and say, all right, that works, but how else can you do it? And then have the courage — because it requires a tremendous amount of energy the third or fourth time — to say, OK, I’m still willing to explore another possibility here. The music doesn’t have to work so hard; it can be a smaller stroke, more of a textural idea rather than a melodic one. Try and create something that feels more ‘in the movie’ than laying on top of the movie. We have to be able to see it from the audience’s point of view.”

Still, he says, the most satisfying part of the job is simply doing it: “Just me in my room, by myself, with the film and the music. That’s what keeps me going: those moments of solving a problem, of what happens to a movie when the right music is added — and what happens to the music when the movie’s working with it. It is that particular event that occurs only when music and images are put together and it’s just infinitely powerful.”

He also loves the recording sessions, even though he doesn’t conduct (preferring to remain in the booth where he can monitor the mix and confer with the director). “I can’t believe that I get paid to walk into a stage with all those incredible musicians and have them play my music,” he says. “It’s beyond a fantasy.”

Asked how he has changed during his two decades as a composer, Howard surprises with an immediate answer: fatherhood. He has two boys, ages 9 and 12. “Becoming a father allowed me to become a much better composer,” he asserts, “because it allowed me to have tremendous patience. I have much more tolerance for opposing opinions, short attention spans, changes of heart. And faith in the future.”

Howard says that, while he’d prefer to just do two or three movies a year, he often winds up doing four or five because friends — or new directors who have liked his past work — call. On his fall schedule are two thrillers for first-time directors who earlier wrote films that Howard scored: “The Lookout” from Scott Frank (“The Interpreter”) and “Michael Clayton” from Tony Gilroy (“The Devil’s Advocate”).

Howard still talks about writing music away from film — perhaps something for violinist Hahn in the concert hall. But, he says, “I’m having too much fun doing movies. I feel as vitally connected to the process as I ever have — in fact, more so. I have less fear. The unknown doesn’t scare me as much now. It excites me.”

HIGH SCORES
Top grossing films featuring music by James Newton Howard.

Rank, Pic (yer), Worldwide B.O.*

1. The Sixth Sense (’99), $663

2. King Kong (’05), $549

3. Pretty Woman (’90), $438

4. Signs (’02), $402

5. Batman Begins (’05), $371

6. The Fugitive (’93), $369

7. Dinosaur (’00), $356

8. Runaway Bride (’99), $310

9. My Best Friend’s Wedding (’97), $299

10. The Village (’04), $258

*in millions of $
Compiled by Anthony D’Alessandro

NOTABLE NOMS

Academy Award noms
The Prince of Tides (1991) — score
The Fugitive (1993) — score
Junior (1994) — song
One Fine Day (1996) — song
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) — score
The Village (2004) — score

Golden Globe Noms
Junior (1994) — song
One Fine Day (1996) — song
King Kong (2005) — score

Emmy noms
Men (1989) — main title theme
ER (1995) — main title theme
Gideon’s Crossing (2001) — main title theme (won)

Grammy noms
One Fine Day (1996) — song
Dinosaur (2000) — instrumental composition
Signs (2002) — instrumental composition

Career honor
ASCAP Henry Mancini Award for career achievement (2000)

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