Harry Gregson-Williams is the distinguished musical luminary who has defined the sound of an eclectic range of Hollywood's most elite films and beloved franchises, including The Martian, The Chronicles of Narnia, Shrek, Equalizer, Man on Fire, I Am Legend, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Town, Early Man, Bridget Jones' Diary, The Meg, Deja Vu, Monkey Kingdom, and Live By Night. Throughout his influential career in film music, Harry has demonstrated mastery of the art of storytelling, capturing the imaginations of his audience through his intelligently crafted, all encompassing musical worlds. Presently, he is nominated for his very first Emmy Award for his expressive work on "The Commuter" episode of Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams. In our focused conversation, Harry speaks on his recent adventures in television composing and how he brought a megalodon to life with his sweeping, panoramic score.
Congratulations on your very first Emmy nomination for Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams. You are best known and widely respected for your work in film music. Can you elaborate on how this opportunity came about?
Thank you very much. I feel I'm a slight impostor here because I'm a little bit new to TV. I haven't done that much. I really have concentrated my energies on film composing. I was really, really happy to be asked to do a couple of episodes of the ten for Electric Dreams. I had great fun doing it.
The showrunner, Michael Dinner turned out to be a really nice chap. He called me over to his office at Sony and asked me if I'd like to read 10 scripts and see if any of them appealed. His original idea was to have five composers do two episodes each. I immediately picked out ‘The Commuter’ and then I picked out another one which he had actually written and directed, so it worked out really well. Then he said, “On top of this, would you like to do the main title? If so, you should do it.” So, I jumped at the chance.
The Commuter episode is arguably one of the most moving narratives of the anthology, revolving around a train station attendant and his relationship with his mentally unstable son. Through an alternate reality, he is able to experience a world in which he and his wife never had a child at all. Can you tell us why you initially gravitated towards "The Commuter'"? What about the narrative personally resonated with you?
I was particularly drawn to 'The Commuter' because of the father-son relationship. I have two sons, one of which is a teenage boy. He’s not quite as surly and sulky as that chap, but that dynamic really appealed to me. I could tell there was going to be a lot of emotion coming from the music, not straight out emotion, but something layered with mystery.
Some moments in your score have an almost surreal Pink Floyd esque quality to it. Was this a conscious influence?
Wow. Don't compare me to Pink Floyd, one of my all-time favorites! I love that band. That never really occurred to me, but there was plenty of scope in writing the music for 'The Commuter'. I was going for slightly fantastical, expressive music. When I read the script, I liked the episode because I didn’t think it was too far out. It’s got some strangeness about it, but at its core, it’s an emotional story about a father’s relationship with his son. He’s wondering whether there could be anything better than what he had and it comes full circle towards the end. It was really pleasant to do. The second episode I did, 'The Father Thing' was directed by Michael Dinner. It is pretty far out, very sci-fi, almost like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Your score for The Commuter felt expertly designed to help the audience fully relate to Ed's plight. As a viewer, the music elicits a visceral reaction to the concept of loving someone who isn't necessarily good for you. What did you set out to accomplish with your musical treatment?
Towards the beginning of the project before anything was set too solidly, I spoke with the director and he said that it would be great if the music could grow out of the sound of the train. For instance, there’s no music at the beginning of the first train ride, but Timothy Spall’s character arrives in this utopia and jumps off the train along with everybody else. So, I started with the rhythms and sounds of a train. I didn’t use that same sonic space obviously, but rhythmically, a piano pattern grew out of that. It was an interesting approach and very fun to work with the director, Tom Harper as well. I had a really good experience. As I said, it’s not my first time working in TV, but certainly being asked to do a couple of episodes and then within a few weeks the main titles, I loved it. In fact, it's whetted my appetite!
Your main title theme is a beautiful composition with sweeping delay and reverb that contrast with distorted sounds. Did you score it to picture? Can you tell us about the steps you took to complete the piece and where you drew inspiration from?
Good question there. Actually, no, I didn’t score it to picture. I was doing the other two episodes, and I had already been asked and agreed to do the music for the main title, but I didn’t know what shape or form it would take. One day, Mike Dinner said to me, “It’s about time we get our thoughts together for the main title.” I said, “Well, great. When will I get the picture?” and he laughed and said, “I think we might need the music first.” They already had a clear idea of what they were going to do with the main titles but hadn’t shot it.
So, he gave me some images and ideas, explaining that the whole thing would be from the POV of an A.I. He said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d like you to do your thing”. I asked him, “What’s my thing?” and he said, “Well, do a mash up! It doesn’t need to be one thing. It could be your classical thing. It could be mixed with grungy guitars and beats. There’s bound to be a couple spaces where it’s going to be kaleidoscopic. You’ll figure out what you want to do with it, but it can be a mixture of musical styles.” So, I actually wrote the track, which is only about 40-45 seconds long and it was a fun process. The intention was for it to evolve as one got deeper into it. The theme has both pretty sounds and a few dirty and distorted sounds in there, which you can usually bank on with me. There’s a duality going on.
It was kind of nerve wracking and reminded me of when I did those early Metal Gear Solid video games. In the old days, there were no cutscenes, no pictures, nothing. Just a little brief description from a man I’d never met in Japan, saying, “I want 30 seconds of sneaky. Give me 30 seconds of sneaky!”.
As a film composer, one takes inspiration and guidance from the picture. So, when one's confronted with writing without pictures, it can be a little disconcerting at times. Once I had the picture, I dotted the “I”s and crossed the “T”s. It was so colorful and trippy. I got a great kick out of it.
The Meg centers around a brazen rescue diver's mission to save his ex-wife and her team from an ancient and rabid Megalodon. What were the unique challenges of scoring a film that implemented such a grand use of CGI?
The process was interesting because of the fact that the megalodon itself was obviously CGI. The finished shots didn't come in until quite late in the process, but I knew it was going to be a magnificent creature, understood the scale of it, and that we’d want to be afraid of it. Early on, I could see how fast it would be moving. So, I wasn't working in the dark there, but as the CGI came in, I made alterations accordingly. It was great fun.
I don’t think I’ve ever done a film like The Meg before. It is what it is, and I appreciated that. When I met with the director, Jon Turteltaub initially to talk about whether I’d be involved in it, he was very clear about the movie he was making and he felt it would be a big challenge musically. From the start, we weren’t thinking for one moment that we trying to take on Jaws. Only the most recognizable movie theme of the 20th century! In fact, I saw a quote from Jon the other day and he said his intention was to set out and make the second best shark movie of all time.
Jon has a great sense of humor. That’s not to say that the process was all lovey-dovey and simple; it wasn’t at all. It was hard and challenging.
With much of The Meg taking place underwater, there is a lot of sub-bass and cascading, oceanic sound design. Did that have an impact on your composition?
Well, yes. When one's working on a movie, a noisy movie no less, it's always best to try and take that into consideration. Thinking of the megalodon, how are you going to transmit that energy to the audience? A lot of that bottom end in the sound effects is inevitable. I tried to stay out of the way as much as I could in those places. There's no point in trying to fill up the same sonic area as the sound effects.
Can you take us through the various traditional Asian instruments that you decided to implement into your expansive orchestral score for The Meg?
The Meg is set off the coast of China and about half the cast are Chinese. The family theme that I wrote has several Chinese elements in it and features Chinese flutes. At the core of the film is Dr. Zhang, the scientist and the father of a woman who befriends Jason Statham’s character, and then her daughter, who is a delightful little girl. Those relationships were the jumping off point for the thematic material. Other than that, Jason Statham obviously has his own theme, which starts off quite clumsy and has the ability to grow into something heroic.
Of course, the Megalodon itself had it's own signature. I used a conch to resemble an ancient call from the wild and then used a chromatic, low motif to signal when The Meg was nearby.
I also found a Taiko troupe based in Singapore on YouTube, a whole lot of them banging away on these huge drums. So, I contacted them and they were only too pleased to have a part in it. They recorded in a studio over there. Because of the time difference, we had to do it in the middle of the night. I never met them, I just heard them. It was in excess of 2 am. They were fantastic and truly awesome.
In terms of your compositional approach, do you have different creative modes for scoring films versus television shows?
The turnaround is certainly much quicker for TV. For instance, on a film like The Meg, I completed it at the end of last year. We actually finished it much earlier than it would seem that we did. I had four or five months to prevaricate and prepare for it. That’s often the case for a film. There’s plenty of time and there’s one story to deal with. For the two episodes of Electric Dreams, I had to be concerned with two completely different story lines and the turnaround was a lot quicker. It was a beast with many heads.
If you’re working for Ridley Scott or Ben Affleck or a director who knows his music, who the studios trust, you’re really presenting music just for them. I have them over to my studio, they'd listen to music and make their comments, then I'd make my changes. That might be it.
Electric Dreams was very different than doing a film because, in terms of 'The Commuter', I had two and a half weeks to do it. That was plenty of time, but for a feature film, which admittedly can be twice the length, if not more, there’s certainly more than twice the amount of music to deliver. You have much more time to go down a path and think, “I need to beat a hasty retreat here!”. You can come back to the starting point and set off in another direction
Going forward, can we expect more instances of scoring for television from you?
Earlier this year, I did a pilot for ABC called Whiskey Cavalier in the hope that it might get picked up and it sure did, so I’ve been asked to do the music for that. I’m looking forward to it.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research| Ruby Gartenberg, Paul Goldowitz
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Harry Gregson-Williams and Jeff Sanderson of Chasen & Co.