This should have a very dreamy quality, very mysterioso. Winds, just keep it very delicate. Violins and violas, come in at bar 18 but pianissimo. I need a warm, muted sound. …”
Composer James Newton Howard is addressing a 108-piece orchestra during rehearsals of “King Kong” cue 2M6B, for a part of the voyage to Skull Island in Universal’s $200 million remake of the 1933 giant ape movie. It constitutes only a fraction of the two hours, 48 minutes of the music that would be recorded before scoring finished recently, just three weeks before the film’s Dec. 14 opening.
Howard, a six-time Oscar nominee whose scores include “The Sixth Sense” and “The Village,” replaced Howard Shore as composer on the film. Shore — whose cameo as the pit-band conductor during Kong’s New York theater appearance survives the cut — won three Oscars for his music for “Kong” director Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies.
The last-minute change stunned the film-music community because of Shore’s close collaboration with Jackson over nearly four years of work on the trilogy. Jackson’s only public comment came in an Oct. 14 statement: “During the last few weeks, Howard and I came to realize that we had differing creative aspirations. … Rather than waste time arguing with a friend and trying to unify our points of view, we decided amicably to let another composer score the film.”
Sources say Shore recorded his unfinished “Kong” score for nine days (three in Berlin, six in Wellington with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). Shore and Howard declined interview requests, but sources say — although Shore had been working on themes for months in advance — post-production was running so late that he could not spend sufficient time with the edited film.
Unlike most film composers, Shore orchestrates and conducts his music. He averaged eight minutes of recording per day on the “Kong” score, none of which will be used. He has told friends that Jackson’s press statement is essentially correct, that the decision to stop was not a Universal mandate (as had been widely speculated after the mid-October revelation that the film’s running time had ballooned to three hours and that the studio was negotiating with Jackson about how to cover the extra $32 million required to finish the movie).
Howard began recording Oct. 29, about two weeks after he was hired, and utilized six orchestrators and three conductors in order to record the necessary 15-20 minutes a day to finish on time. Recording sessions took place at L.A.’s three biggest stages, Sony, Fox and Todd-AO, and involved a 40-voice choir as well as separate sessions for percussion, ethnic instruments and solo voice.
The move of the “Kong” sessions from New Zealand to California has proved a bonanza for L.A. musicians, although it was a scheduling nightmare. With most scoring stages already booked for much of November, Howard’s score was recorded mostly on weekends, using whatever large stage was available on short notice.
Choral elements were added at night. Some of that material consisted of strange, unsettling vocals; other times, weird native sounds invented by Howard; still more was warmer, more traditional “oohs” and “aahs” that provide additional emotional support.
Howard composed all of the major themes in just three days, and has never met the director in person. They communicated solely by phone and video conferencing. Howard’s longtime music editor Jim Weidman flew to New Zealand to help coordinate music efforts on-site; a live video hook-up enabled Jackson to comment on each cue as it was recorded.
On Nov. 4, for example, Jackson heard Howard’s 4M1, music for the crew’s initial encounter with the natives of Skull Island. “It’s a great, twisted, weird sort of sound,” Jackson commented via video. A famous fan of the 1933 “Kong,” he also asked for occasional musical nods to Max Steiner’s classic score for the original.
None of the team currently working on the film heard any of Shore’s “Kong” music. But observers agree that the Howard score, although being written and recorded on a breakneck schedule of less than six weeks (he had about the same time to rush through a score for “Waterworld” in 1995 and that was only two hours of music), is alternately thrilling and tender.
For 4M2, music for a battle on Skull Island, Howard implored the orchestra: “You have to play this as viciously and as out of control as you can.” Playback of 9M4, the final five-minute elegy for Kong, with its heartbreaking melody and rich string passages, caused musicians to burst spontaneously into applause.
A rare lighthearted moment during the mostly intense recording sessions occurred Oct. 30 (Oct. 31 in New Zealand), which was Jackson’s birthday. During a playback for the director, who could hear the L.A. orchestra via ISDN hook-up to New Zealand, the musicians launched into a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Jackson, who looked tired but pleased, remarked: “We’ll have to find a scene in the movie for that.”
On less pressured assignments, Howard usually writes two minutes of music per day. On “Kong,” the average was five or more. He confessed, on one of Jackson’s authorized video “post-production diaries” for the Internet, that he has never worked this hard on a score.
Mused Jackson: “I’ve got a strange feeling that inspiration kicks in when the time is short.”