U.S. Studios Calling on Foreign Composers as Globalization Grows

Gustavo Santaolalla Composer
Vern Evans

Filmmakers once turned primarily to American composers to score their movies. The names Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein or John Williams adorned many films in the ’70s and ’80s.

Today, the landscape could hardly be more different. Ten of the past 12 Oscar winners for best score were born outside the U.S., and many of this year’s awards-buzz movies feature music by composers from Europe or Latin America. Some observers suggest that Oscar’s final-five list for best score might have no American composers on it for the first time in Academy history.

Argentina-born Gustavo Santaolalla (“The Book of Life”) began to sense the shift when he won his second Oscar eight years ago for “Babel.” “It was an affirmation that things were changing,” he says. “More and more people from different parts of the world are making the film industry much richer, providing it with a wider vision than just that of a select group of people.”

Antonio Sanchez, the Mexico City-born percussionist whose solo drumming propelled this year’s Michael Keaton-starrer “Birdman,” also praises the musical melting pot. “That’s the beauty of music. You bring to the table whatever it is that you grew up with, whatever you listened to and whatever else you acquired once you left your country,” he says.

Sanchez, hired by “Birdman” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, a fellow Mexican, notes that the filmmaking base itself is expanding. “It used to be (only) the main powers of the world” that made movies, he says. “Now little countries with little budgets can make amazing films.”

There are no statistics that list how many foreign composers are at work in Hollywood. Society of Composers & Lyricists president Ashley Irwin (who is himself Australian-born) points out that several successful, high-profile composers who ply their trade in L.A. are foreign nationals (German Hans Zimmer, Brits Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell, for instance). He adds that it’s not just the music side of the biz that benefits from a global perspective: “Just take a look at the number of foreign d.p.’s working on major motion pictures. I would say they easily outnumber the foreign composers,” he says. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, too, there was an influx of global talent, as movies embraced foreign-born composers who fled Europe before WWII and after, although many of those musicians either became U.S. citizens or made the U.S. their permanent home.

Johann Johannsson could be the poster child for the new international film composer: Born in Iceland, he’s now based in Berlin, but recorded his score for “The Theory of Everything” in England. The film’s director, James Marsh, a Brit, had heard Johannsson’s music for low-budget documentaries in Denmark.

“It’s a big world out there,” Johannsson says. “Music is an international language.”

For Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias (“The Kite Runner”), who is finishing work on Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the international nature of 21st-century filmmaking became apparent while he was working on the epic. The composer visited Scott in France while the film was being edited, studied Hebrew music books for inspiration regarding the biblical saga, then wrote his score in Spain, and recorded at London’s Abbey Road studios.

Yet Iglesias maintains the European scoring process is looking more and more like the American model, and he worries about potential homogenization. “There is a uniformity derived from a global industry,” he says. “Globalization brings together scattered cultures, but it also expands the prevailing cultures more rapidly.”

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum chose French composer Alexandre Desplat to score “The Imitation Game,” a story set in World War II England. “No one else but Alexandre could have created this music,” Tyldum says. “He really captured the spirit of the film and the emotions that I wanted. He has so many ideas.”

And now Desplat — whose Greek mother and French father met at a California university in the ’50s — is composing the score for “Suffragette,” a movie about the British women’s voting-rights movement of the early 20th century. He recently finished the music for Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” opening Dec. 25.

“I’m not just doing American movies,” Desplat says. “Over the past 10 years, I’ve been going back and forth, with French, Italian and English commitments too.”

Ultimately, Santaolalla ascribes the film industry’s movement toward international composers to an increase in globalization at large. “We are more of a global society than we used to be,” he explains. “We are broadening our horizons. It reflects what is going on in the artistic spectrum — being aware of other rhythms, other timbres, the use of other instruments. All that is really positive.”

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