A Long Talk With James Newton Howard, One of Hollywood’s Most Accomplished Composers

Photo: Frank Hoensch/Redferns

Terrence Malick movies tend to have great music. They also sometimes infuriate the composers who work on them because the director often prefers to use preexisting classical pieces. His latest, the magnificent A Hidden Life, might be the rare recent case where many of the movie’s memorable pieces come from the actual credited composer. Of course, that composer happens to be James Newton Howard, one of the most accomplished and versatile figures in Hollywood, having scored everything from Pretty Woman to The Sixth Sense to (with Hans Zimmer) The Dark Knight to the Hunger Games movies. It turns out that Howard and Malick have been trying to work together for some time, and the composer went into their partnership fully aware that much of his work would be left on the cutting room floor. I got the chance recently to talk to him not just about his experiences with Malick, but about his storied career — his collaborations with Zimmer, his long relationship with M. Night Shyamalan, and some of his early efforts, when he admits to having been a bit of a “diva.”

How did you connect with Terrence Malick?
We had actually begun work on a film probably eight or nine years ago that never happened, which was a sort of parallel story between Jerry Lee Lewis and Jerry Falwell. It sounds very odd, but it was a really cool, unusual script. It had a long title. Something about the Chief of Sinners. Terry and I got together for a number of sessions over a period of three or four weeks, and then it just kind of went away. Terry went off to do The Tree of Life, and I didn’t hear back from him again. I figured I must have written something that he really didn’t like, and it was enough to drive him away to go do another movie. Then, when A Hidden Life came along, he gave me a call and asked if I’d be interested in working on it with him, and I certainly was. Like many people, I’m a big admirer of his.

I know that many years ago Malick had been hired to do a draft on the movie that eventually became the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, made by Jim McBride. Apparently Malick turned in a version that was way too depressing and strange for the producers. From what you say, it sounds like he’s still fascinated by the story of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Yeah, he certainly was. I guess I can’t really say what kind of value that this screenplay would have had on a commercial level because it was somewhat obscure. But we talked a lot about this guy, [Bishop] T.D. Jakes. Is that his name? One of these really evangelical, dramatic, charismatic guys. We watched a lot of his sermons together. Terry would actually emulate him, quite effectively, in talking about how he wanted the whole thing to feel. The music I was writing was terribly wrong. Now that I’ve been immersed in Terry’s sensibilities, I can see more clearly why he went off and worked on something else.

It’s interesting when a director brings in the composer so early on during a project.
I think that’s a great plan. Terry has a wonderful sense of music, and there’s music from all over the place in A Hidden Life. The original score is one part of it. Quite frankly, I wish I could have gotten involved even earlier, and written music that he would have started using in the very beginning, and been able to replace some of the other classical music with original score. I still feel fortunate that I got at least 30 to 40 minutes of this score into the movie, and I’m proud to be involved.

Some other composers in the past have been upset about his working methods. James Horner went on a rant against him, after The New World came out, about how the music was misused and the movie was ruined. But it seems like this is just part of how it happens for Malick, and how he works.
I’ve witnessed it full force. When you walk into a collaboration with an artist, you either walk in with your eyes open or you don’t. I was familiar with all of Terry’s work, and I thought that the music was pretty spectacular in every one of his movies. And his use of different sources of music and different composers was emblematic of his work. So I really didn’t expect this to be any different.

It was similar to working with Michael Mann. I worked with him on Collateral. I knew that Michael was going to use music from all kinds of different places. But I wanted to work with a great shooter like Michael Mann, and have maybe 50 percent of my music survive — which I think it did, so I felt satisfied.

Mann has the same phenomenon where some composers bristle at the fact that much of their music was removed at the end. That happened most recently with Blackhat. I guess the response to that is, “What did you think was going to happen? Have you seen his other work?”
I think that’s very well said. It happens with Marty Scorsese. On The Last Temptation of Christ, Peter Gabriel was surprised, we’ll say, by just how much his music was moved around. That’s the way certain directors use music. I totally get it, by the way. I don’t have a problem with it. I remember when I was working with Hans Zimmer on The Dark Night and Batman Begins, we would often send Chris Nolan these long pieces of music that he would then take and edit into the movie where he saw fit. A lot of times you get really happy results from that. Sometimes you might disagree with the spotting.

I have to ask about that Hans Zimmer collaboration because I was very surprised to learn that you did actually work on it together. When I first saw two well-known composers credited on Batman Begins, I assumed that one of you did it for a while and then was replaced or whatever. But it really was a collaboration?
It really was. I mean the first one particularly. In Batman Begins we were holed up at Air Studios in London, across the hall from each other. And the doors were open to each of our rooms, and we could hear each other pounding away and writing a specific piece of the scene from the movie. Then at times I would actually go to his room, and he’d come to mine, and we’d have four hands on the keyboard, and we really plunked it all out. We worked on every cue together pretty much in that movie.

I will credit Hans with writing the iconic two-note Batman theme. I had written another theme that I thought was really good, but I lost that one. It was a very lovely, friendly competitive thing going on. We’ve managed to remain good friends ever since.

The tune that you came up with, did that ever manifest itself in the movie?
It’s in the movies somewhere else. It’s a slightly darker, Wagnerian-type thing. One day, Chris Nolan came and said, “You know, guys, I had the strangest dream. I dreamt that both of your themes were together in one theme.” So we decided we’d link them together and see if they work. Hans’s was better, I guess, for this. Hans always comes up with a brilliant distillation of an idea that serves to really act as a thumbprint for a movie.

How odd that your piece was the more Wagnerian. Zimmer’s style I think of as being very dark and brooding and big — lots of brass and drums and things like that. And your work is often more … well, “lighter” isn’t the word, but maybe airier and a little more melodic. But that counterpoint fits the themes of the film.
We influenced each other. The thing that we do share, even though our styles are very, very different and our voices are very different, is our methodology of creating scores. Because we both have backgrounds in the record industry, which means that when we make a demo or we make a mock-up of a piece of music, we really approach it like we’re making a record. How does the bass drum sound? How does the bass sound? How does the high-end sound? How is the orchestra fitting in with the background of this percussion instrument? We work a lot with the same kind of computer programs, so we could communicate very well with each other.

Is there one director that jumps out as the best working relationship you’ve had?
I have a really good relationship with just about every director I work with. I continue to have a great relationship with M. Night Shyamalan. The earlier movies that I did with him were really important to my development as a composer because there was so much distillation — trying to come up with a complex bunch of music and strain it down into its simplest form. What is the easiest, simplest, most economical way this could be stated? I think that’s a good thing to know as a film composer. I loved working with Chris Nolan. I love working with Lawrence Kasdan. Dan Gilroy. Francis Lawrence I love.

There are very few situations that I’ve been unhappy in. If I got really unhappy I would just leave. I haven’t been fired yet, but I left two movies in 2009 because, well … we won’t talk about that … Actually, sure, I’ll talk about it. I started a movie with Jason Reitman called Up in the Air and I think I was just the wrong sensibility. It was very friendly, though. Jason and I just parted company on that one. And then I was actually working with Hans on another movie called It’s Complicated with Nancy Meyers. I was a third wheel, so I exited stage left. But generally speaking, I can learn. I feel the first ten years of my career I really didn’t care what the director said because I felt so arrogant. I was so certain about what should happen. But then I became a good listener. So I think I learn every time now.

How did that arrogance manifest itself, do you think?
Well, first of all, I wasn’t doing a lot of very good movies. I was taking anything I could get, and I just did not respond well to somebody asking me to rewrite something. But the whole essence of what I do is rewriting: You write something, you present it, and some of it is liked and some of it isn’t. Maybe the whole thing isn’t liked, and now you have less amount of time to do the same thing again. It can be a very stressful and maddening process. I used to lose my temper and act very divalike and stomp around and say, “I’m not going to do that,” blah, blah, blah. It’s a miracle I kept getting hired.

Was there a specific film you can remember where you acted “divalike”?
Gosh … Well, the first two movies of any size that I did were a movie called Everybody’s All American that Taylor Hackford directed — I was pretty diva on that — and then Pretty Woman, which is probably my first real breakthrough. I remember Garry [Marshall] — who was such a lovely man and it was amazing that he even hired me, because I had very few credits at the time — asking me to rewrite a couple of things, and I was seething internally. Of course I didn’t let it out externally because he was so nice. But my stomach was doing flip-flops, I was really angry. I was ranting and raving to my agent. Obviously, I’ve learned from that, but it’s hard. “You what? You want me to do what?”

Did you work with Garry again after?
I did. I worked with Garry on Runaway Bride, which was a great experience. I was more mature at that point. I kept growing up, and it all got easier and better. I’ve managed to get myself into a mode where I’m not wrecked every time something is rejected because it’s just the way it’s going to be.

Is there a way of working that you don’t like, in terms of the different processes different directors have?
Well, yeah. The thing that is most upsetting is for a director to be inconsistent. To accept a theme or an approach, like a palette that we’re using, and then have a change of heart somewhere down the road. That’s happened lots of times. It happened really significantly — and I don’t blame the director for this one because he is one of my favorite collaborations — with Night on The Village. Everybody thought in the very beginning that it was a thriller, so I had written this thriller score. Then we watched the whole thing and played it in front of an audience, and it just didn’t work. And we realized, well, it’s really a love story. So I rewrote the whole thing for Hilary Hahn, solo violin. It turned into a love story with a couple of little scary bits, and it really worked much better.

You said Terrence Malick knows his music pretty well. What’s that conversation like? Is it granular and technical? I hear he loves to talk in metaphors.
Yeah, it’s very metaphorical. He thought of A Hidden Life really as a battle of light and dark. He described the village in Austria where their farm was as the Garden of Eden and that the Nazis were the snake that came in and poisoned everything. What he talked about more than anything was the river. These people live near the river, and the sound and the feeling of the river — that really was the inspiration for the rolling accompaniment of the violin line. I think it was effective. He heard it and warmed to it, so I kept developing it and trying it in different iterations throughout. He really did want a sound for light. A sound, or a tune, or a feeling, or a motif for hope.

There was also one that we called “Descent.” Which was really part of going into the heart of darkness and making that decision to give up his life and his family — going into hell. Is he doing the right thing by abandoning his wife and children in this very unforgiving town? Or should he dedicate himself to a cause that he despises?

How do you compose that conflict?
Any composer should be able to synthesize the primary feelings that the characters are going through in the movie. The idea of leaving my beloved wife and my children and being in a dark prison, preparing to be executed for a political position that I really believed in … I could imagine that I would be so desperate for the light, so that it just came out of me in a very romantic way. I literally just decided to write music ascending up the scale. It sounds stupid, but there are conventions in music that work because they work. It’s hard to get away from writing a low note when something ominous is going to happen, because it works so damn well. I thought of “Descent” as a chaconne, really, something that has a six- or seven-chord sequence that just kept going down and down and down on one level, but then another part would build up in the opposite direction.

Terry also wanted a piece, which we called “Knotted,” which was two solo instruments. They would be intertwined as Franz and Fani. He was very specific about the shape, and the arch that started with one instrument, then combining two counterpoints between the two and then just being left with the other instrument. The music was the voice of these two characters very specifically and architecturally.

Obviously, there are existing classical pieces in the film, too. Where do those fit in? Are they there as temp tracks early on?
Oftentimes they’re there. Sometimes my pieces replace them. Or he’ll say, “I’m going to use this piece in here,” and then I’ll have to construct a way of segueing out of that piece into score — in a way that I don’t embarrass myself, because he’s usually using music from rather talented composers like Dvorak and Handel and all kinds of folks. You don’t want to sound too puny up against this glorious music that you’re coming out of. So for me, there was no question I was going to remain in a traditional 19th-century modality. Even though there are electronics, there are ambient, contemporary sounds in the movie, they’re blended very subtly with the orchestral noises.

Being able to match the sound and sensibility of a classical piece pays other dividends, too. To this day some people will hear “The Carnival of the Animals” and say, “Oh, it’s the music from Days of Heaven.”
Right. And they’ll credit [Ennio] Morricone with having written that, and I’ll have to remind people he didn’t. Maybe I’ll get credit for some of the Handel that’s in the movie, right? I think I already have, and I’ve had to say to people, “Well, I have to remind you a lot of that isn’t my music, but thanks anyway.”

A Long Talk With Hollywood Composer James Newton Howard