There was a brief stir in January when composer Harry Gregson-Williams publicly expressed, via Facebook, his surprise at hearing music he didn’t recognize at the premiere of Michael Mann’s thriller “Blackhat” — and at not hearing a lot of score he did write.
The composer says his Facebook post has been blown out of proportion, but admits it was disappointing to see music he toiled over dropped (or replaced) in the final cut. But, he stresses, that’s just part of the game.
“You win some, you lose some,” he says, relaying his early mentor Hans Zimmer’s comment that you haven’t made it as a film composer until you’ve had a score rejected.
Gregson-Williams is simply the latest in a long line of composers who’ve watched scores tossed out and replaced whole-cloth, partially substituted by pre-existing tracks, or mangled beyond recognition. Mann is notorious for “tinkering” with his soundtracks — often hiring multiple composers or licensing songs from multiple artists.
“In the end, it’s the film and my vision that dictate which music is used and how,” the director said in a recent interview. “If a composer wants to have his music stand alone, he should be a recording artist and let his work contest itself in that arena.”
Elliot Goldenthal, who has contested his work in the concert hall — partly as a respite from the bloody battleground of cinema — has worked for Mann twice (on “Heat” and “Public Enemies”). He’s quick to point out that Mann (often the screenwriter, director and producer) is “more difficult on himself than on anyone else.”
“Like a soldier or policeman or fireman, you have to know what you’re doing,” Goldenthal says about being a film composer. “If you personalize it, or don’t give a damn on the opposite side, you’ll run into trouble. You have to be there, knowing that the surface you walk on is constantly changing.”
Goldenthal has never had a whole score rejected — though he did replace George Fenton’s score for “Interview With the Vampire” — but nearly every major film composer (with the notable exception of John Williams), from the Golden Age through contemporary times, has had at least one score kicked to the curb.
Some of Hollywood’s most famous soundtracks were built on the ashes of a rejected score. In a famous example, composer Alex North — who crafted the memorable themes for Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” — reteamed with the director on “2001,” writing an original score and recording it in London. When North attended a studio screening of the film, he was shocked to hear only Kubrick’s original “temp track” filled with iconic classical pieces — and not a note of his own music. Kubrick never offered any warning, and the two never worked together (or spoke) again.
Jerry Goldsmith’s multi-piano, noir score for “Chinatown” was in fact an 11th hour replacement for Phillip Lambro’s initial effort. But Goldsmith had his own share of scores tossed out: for “2 Days in the Valley,” “Babe” and Ridley Scott’s “Legend,” among others. Oscar winner David Shire has mourned a long list of spurned scores, for “White Buffalo,” “Homeward Bound,” and even “Apocalypse Now” (an electronic score he spent nearly two years writing).
French composer Georges Delerue received a brusque welcome to Hollywood when his stormy score for Disney’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983) was chucked. (It was Ray Bradbury who told the studio: “The music is no good … get a new composer.”) A few years later Delerue’s neoclassical score for Mike Nichols’ “Regarding Henry” (1991) was replaced by an all-synth score from up-and-comer Hans Zimmer.
Sometimes studios are nervy about their movie, and swapping in a new score is one of the few things they can do to “fix” it. Sometimes a more “commercial” soundtrack is ultimately desired over a more traditional approach. Sometimes there’s bad chemistry between director and composer. And sometimes the first score truly isn’t right for the film — or just isn’t good.
The membership list in the rejected scores club is long and legendary, and includes: John Barry (“The Golden Child”), Elmer Bernstein (“Gangs of New York”), Alan Silvestri (“Mission: Impossible”), James Horner (“Romeo and Juliet”), Howard Shore (“King Kong”) and Randy Newman (“Air Force One”). Alfred Hitchcock rejected Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Torn Curtain” effectively ending his relationship with the man whose scores made many of the Master of Suspense’s movies, including “North by Northwest” and “Psycho,” so distinctively compelling.
It’s practically a rite of passage for composers to have at least one score get the boot. And it’s certainly not a rite limited to music. The path of moviemaking is strewn with the corpses of writers, editors, and even whole performances.
Elliot Goldenthal looks for the humor in it. “You don’t start off for an exciting vacation to Antarctica and then complain about the weather when you get there,” he quips.