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Film Score Icons Williams, Morricone and Horner Loom Large in Oscar Race

When it comes to movie maestros, few are held in higher esteem than John Williams, Ennio Morricone and James Horner, all of whom have scores in contention during the current awards season.

Williams, 83, touts a record 49 Oscar music nominations (and five wins, for such classics as “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and “E.T.”) and may well earn a 50th for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” his seventh score for the franchise.

“When we did the first film in London, we all thought, that’s a nice little film,” Williams says. “It captured the world’s imagination in a way that I certainly couldn’t have anticipated.”

For the new edition, Williams has written a handful of themes for characters including Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), along with “a major march piece” for the Resistance and a choral motif for Snoke (Andy Serkis) based on a Kipling poem translated into Sanskrit.

‘FORCE’ FIELD: Williams wrote a handful of themes, including one for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Courtesy of Disney

And while “there are a few short references” to themes from earlier films, nearly all of the two-hour-plus score is new, Williams says. The recording process was “very luxurious,” he adds, with 12 sessions scattered over a five-month period between June and November.

This is the first “Star Wars” score to be recorded in L.A. “Originally we were going to London, and do it all in the space of two weeks’ time, the way we’ve always done George’s (Lucas) films. That would not have worked in this case, because J.J. (Abrams)’s editing process is very different.”

The composer began work last December and basically continued all year, completing the recording in mid-November. His 90-piece orchestra recorded 175 minutes of music, he says, although nearly an hour of that was discarded, modified or rerecorded as Abrams re-edited the film. Snoke’s theme was recorded by a 24-voice men’s chorus.

Williams says the decision to do another “Star Wars” film was basically simple: Abrams asked him, and he said yes. Abrams — who only heard Williams demonstrate two early themes last December, leaving dramatic and musical decisions up to the composer — “was very enthusiastic about everything,” Williams says.

For “The Hateful Eight,” director Quentin Tarantino departed from his usual m.o. by hiring 87-year-old Italian composer Morricone to compose an original score. Morricone, whose 400-plus features include “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Mission” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” is one of only two composers to have received an honorary Oscar for his body of work.

LIFE & DEATH STAKES: “Hateful Eight” and “The 33” were scored by Morricone and Horner.
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co./Warner Bros.

Tracks from various Morricone scores have often popped up in Tarantino’s work. The maestro wrote a new song for Tarantino’s last film, “Django Unchained,” but the two didn’t actually meet until June, when Morricone presented Tarantino with an award in Rome.

“Quentin really felt like it was the perfect story for an original score,” says music supervisor Mary Ramos. “It’s suspenseful, it’s a mystery, it’s like a horror film, all these different things, more than a Western.”
Morricone recorded 30 minutes of music with the Czech National Symphony in Prague, Ramos says, including a three-minute overture for the director’s much-talked-about roadshow version. The 85-piece orchestra was supplemented by a small male choir for one key piece.

That’s not a lot of music for a three-hour film; Ramos confirms “there are licensed pieces of music” in the film but insists “the meat and potatoes of the music in the film is the original score.”

Three scores by James Horner figure into the Oscar race: “The 33,” “Southpaw” and “Wolf Totem.” The Oscar-winning composer of “Titanic” and “Avatar” was killed when a private plane he was piloting crashed June 22 in a remote area of the Los Padres National Forest. He was 61.

“(Horner) brought us that region of the world (Chile) with these very authentic and original sounds.”
Patricia Riggen

The Academy’s music branch could potentially honor Horner with a posthumous nomination (as they did with Bernard Herrmann, who received two in 1976 for his last two scores, “Obsession” and “Taxi Driver”). “Southpaw’s” harsh electronic textures are less listener-friendly than the gorgeous symphonic approach of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Inner Mongolia tale “Wolf Totem.”

“The 33” — about the 2010 Chilean mining disaster — may be the most Academy-friendly for its colorful mix of woodwinds by Tony Hinnigan (on the quena, an Andean end-blown flute; sikus, which are cane panpipes; and chajchas, bunches of llama hooves) and guitars by George Doering (who played charango, guitarron and baritone ukulele).

Patricia Riggen, “33” director, says Horner likened his creative process to painting. “He brought us to that region of the world, with these very authentic and original sounds,” she says. “He was an extremely sensitive man; he cried many times during the recording. We had a really wonderful relationship. You have no idea how painful it is that he’s gone.”

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