Director Andrew Adamson, with whom Harry Gregson-Williams collaborated on the “Shrek” and “Chronicles of Narnia” franchises, recalls when the composer first played him the demo theme for “Shrek’s” big green ogre. It was, he says, a “classic Harry moment.”
“He called me and said ‘I’ve got this great theme for Shrek!'” says Adamson. “He played it and it was the perfect fairy-tale theme — but it wasn’t right for the Shrek character. Harry was a little depressed when I told him that, and we hung up.” Fifteen minutes later, Gregson-Williams called back. “He sounded excited and said, ‘I’ve got this great theme for (the princess character) Fiona!” It was, of course, the very same theme he had played for Adamson moments earlier. This time the pairing worked — Fiona’s theme was deemed so successful, DreamWorks adopted it as its own.
In this regard, producer-director Tony Scott describes Gregson-Williams as one of the “most character-driven” composers he’s ever met. “If the character is going to a dark place, he goes there, too,” says Scott, with whom Gregson-Williams has worked on more than a half-dozen features, including “Spy Game,” “Domino,” “Deja Vu” and their latest, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” “And in each movie,” says Scott, “he gives me a piece of his soul.”
Scott and Gregson-Williams have developed a distinct working process over the past 15 years. After discussing overall sonic themes, Scott will present Gregson-Williams with various references: from classical music, from other movies “or from all over the place, really.” Gregson-Williams then uses the references as thematic touchstones.
“He’s very quick to understand what I’m chasing in terms of emotional content,” says Scott. Then Scott cuts his images together with Gregson-Williams’ temp tracks, and the score builds from there. “The reason he’s so good is because he’s insecure — insecure about getting it better and getting it right,” says Scott. “He’s always reaching — and that makes for outstanding work.”
Although Scott’s “True Romance” predated his working relationship with Gregson-Williams, Scott likes to compare the composer with Patricia Arquette’s character in that movie. “She’s beautiful and she’s sweet, but she has a dark side — and that’s what Harry brings to his music, that bittersweet element.”
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was first introduced to Gregson-Williams through movie music maestro Hans Zimmer and brought him in as a composer on 1998’s “Antz,” the studio’s first full-length animated feature. Gregson-Williams went on to score many of the studio’s more popular family titles: “Chicken Run,” “Antz” and the “Shrek” movies.
“Shrek 2,” which Gregson-Williams scored alone (the first “Shrek” soundtrack was done with John Powell), is the studio’s most successful title to date. In fact, “Anything that has the word ‘Shrek’ on it — aside from the Broadway musical — has Harry’s name on it,” says Katzenberg.
He lauds the composer’s ability to keep the big green ogre fresh-sounding, even with a fifth movie in the works (it is scheduled for release in 2013). “Harry is never interested in just repeating himself,” says Katzenberg. “Every time he brings something unique to the characters, he invents and he adds. That’s something we always look forward to.”
Scoring an animated film is a “marathon endeavor,” contends Katzenberg, one that demands the kind of unending focus that characterizes Gregson-Williams’ work ethic. His staying power, Katzenberg says, is just one of the reasons the Brit composer has become a go-to collaborator for so many of the studio’s animated projects.
“For most live-action movies, a composer is actually writing against the picture, while in animation they start collaborating with the filmmaking team two to three years out,” Katzenberg explains. “They become truly integral to the process, much more so, I think, than in any other kind of filmmaking. They are part of the creative process all the way to the final mix.”
Describing his friend’s work ethic as “intense,” Adamson often jokes with Gregson-Williams about taking some well-earned time off from movies. “After the first ‘Narnia,’ he said he was going to buy an RV, set it up as a studio and just drive around and write music for a while,” Adamson says. “But he has a hard time saying no — and as a director, I’ve been happy to exploit that.”