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Music Is ‘Everything’ to Awards-Contending Films

Music Is 'Everything' Awards-Contending Films
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Ask Ridley Scott about the importance of music in his films and he simply replies, “It’s everything,” adding that probably every director feels the same way.

“If you don’t have great music, your film just won’t work very well,” he continues. “Even though you might think film’s basically a visual medium, a great score is crucial; it can make or break your movie.”

For his critical and commercial smash “The Martian,” Scott turned to Harry Gregson-Williams, the prolific Brit whose 90-plus credits include the “Shrek” franchise and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

“When Ridley talks about music, he’s actually discussing it in terms of art, because he’s an artist and very visual,” says Gregson-Williams. “He’ll discuss the score in terms of its tone, texture, color, and then I’ll translate it into musical terms.”

One main challenge was coming up with a theme for Matt Damon’s marooned astronaut “that both reflects his innate optimism and his dire circumstances,” he adds. To create the motif, he used rising open 4ths and 5ths “played simply and purely with piano and electric guitar,” and underlaid that with a bubbling synth figure played on a Mini-Moog, “to reflect his nerdy, scientific side.”

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The composer then gradually expanded this spare approach into a full orchestral score, adding “various ebbs and flows to parallel his setbacks and triumphs.”

Carol” marks the third collaboration between the equally prolific Carter Burwell and director Todd Haynes, for whom he also scored “Velvet Goldmine” and “Mildred Pierce.” “It was a great canvas, and the biggest problem was that I had far too many themes,” says Burwell. “Ultimately we whittled them down to three main motifs that we could develop over the course of the film that would speak for this romance.” Noting that schedule and budget often affect the process as much as inspiration and creativity, Burwell created the orchestral score Haynes wanted for performance for a spare 12 musicians. “I tried to make it sound bigger than it really is.”

Burwell also scored “Anomalisa,” which uses puppets and stop motion. To help audiences “open their hearts” to the characters, he deployed nine musicians and a cabaret-style approach. “There’s one brass, one woodwind, one guitar, some percussion — a little bit of every possible color so I could mix and match a broad palette from a small group of players.”
Talking about his testosterone-fueled “Mad Max: Fury Road,” writer-director George Miller says he “set out to make a silent film, driven by the action and score,” and for the latter he turned to Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL.

The Netherlands-born composer and producer spent almost two years creating a pulsating, immersive, wall-to-wall score to capture the insanity on the screen. “It’s a rock opera, and just as stuff is repurposed in the movie, I took rock guitars and drums and repurposed the sounds,” he says. “I did a lot of sampling and sound design, and hyped up the drums, used distortion and very aggressive brass.”

Holkenborg faced a “very different” challenge scoring mob drama “Black Mass.”

“Ironically (director) Scott Cooper called me after seeing some reels of ‘Mad Max’ and said he loved my oddball approach. But while that needed a no-holds-barred approach, ‘Black Mass’ was very restrained.”

To help humanize the murderous mobsters without blunting their violence, he used “bare-bones piano, solo cello, a string section and woodwinds” and overlaid parts of the score with “creepy piano sounds.”

To reflect what he calls “the quest for the truth” at the heart of “Spotlight,” Oscar winner Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings”) wrote six themes that were then developed into pieces with such titles as “Pressure of the Church” and “City on the Hill.”

“They were all very interlocking, and we recorded the 10-piece group in both the U.S. and the U.K.,” says Shore. “We wanted to tell the story as gracefully and honestly as possible.”

After getting a call from “Far From the Madding Crowd” director Thomas Vinterberg asking him to score the period film, Craig Armstrong initially “played around” with old folk and church music, before taking a less literal approach.

“Thomas loved the idea of a solo violin, and in the end the score went from having a slight echo of English romanticism to a more contemporary feel, to parallel the emotional journey,” he says.

An emotional journey also lies at the heart of “Brooklyn,” and Michael Brook’s challenge was to write a score “that supported the emotion without pushing it,” he says. “(Director) John Crowley and I worked hard to avoid anything cheesy, and we did a lot of fine-tuning over the three months we worked on it.”

The duo ultimately settled on “more violin and mandolin” for the Irish sequences, and “more clarinet and upright bass” for the American scenes. “We had to find just the right, delicate balance throughout.”