For any film music buff, Harry Gregson-Williams is no stranger. We owe him such notable scores for all three Shreks, Gone Baby Gone, Chicken Run, Man on Fire, Flushed Away, Domino, Phone Booth, Bridget Jones: The Age of Reason, Enemy of the State, Antz and Kingdom of Heaven, among others. Such impressive credits that prove his being as comfortable in live action as in animation to provide elegant, smooth and at the same time strong scores.
Born December 13 1961, Gregson-Williams began his career as a music teacher at the Amesbury School in Hindhead, Surrey, England, then at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where he had been a pupil, and also for a short period in both Egypt and Africa, thus experimenting music as a universal language, before stepping into film music.
Prince Caspian is his fifth collaboration with director Andrew Adamson after composing the scores for his Academy Award-winning Shrek (co-composed with John Powell), the hit sequels Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for which he collected Golden Globe and Grammy nominations for his score. From the delicate and otherworldly notes of an electric violin to the stabs of a furious, full orchestra, let him be your guide through the sounds of Narnia…
Animated Views: First of all, congratulations for your wonderful score for Prince Caspian! It’s a pleasure to retrieve the beloved themes from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and enjoy them in a new context, along with new ones.
Harry Gregson-Williams: I’m glad! I don’t take it for granted because I think probably some people felt like a little disappointed because I quoted a lot of music from the previous score. But it seemed to me that it would be just a missed opportunity not to take on the themes from the first movie, move them forward and then write some nuance. So, that’s what I tried to do!
AV: What are the main directions of your score for Prince Caspian?
HGW: The first thing was how much Andrew’s vision for the film would include thematic material from the last score. When I came to the movie at about Christmas last year, he had already experimented with some of my score from the previous movie. Although it felt that it was going to work, it didn’t work precisely because, of course, it needed to be re-orchestrated, re-developed, re-arranged for the new film. We went through Prince Caspian finding spots, particularly for the children theme, the heroic theme, the family theme and Aslan’s theme. These themes didn’t seem to want to change. They wanted to be the same themes as we’d had before, but put in a new context. So, rather than start writing the score with the old material, I wanted to start something fresh, something new. So, the first sequence I wrote was the first eight-minute sequence with Prince Caspian riding off through the woods. A fresh start. It was very percussive and exciting, so, it was a great spot for me to start.
AV: How did you deal with the fact that Prince Caspian takes place 1,300 years after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
HGW: When I looked at Prince Caspian, I thought that the amount of years that had gone by was actually irrelevant. We were still in the same place, we were still in Narnia, that same place that Lucy discovered stepping through the wardrobe. So, there are main themes in Narnia that wanted to remain the same. From the orchestration standpoint, I think it’s a little bit heavier this time because the whole mood is a bit darker. And, whereas in the first movie, I used choral elements to heighten emotion and subtly bring a kind of beauty to certain spots, in this score, I quite often used the choral element more like a kind of a Greek chorus, adding exclamations. They’re almost like commentaries on the action as it went by.
AV: In his introduction to the soundtrack album, Andrew Adamson wrote: “Rather than the linear story of the previous film, Prince Caspian weaves three plot lines.” How did you deal with that?
HGW: It was clear that the four Pevensie children, who have one theme, team up with Prince Caspian. As for Lord Miraz, being the dark character here, it was fun to write something for him. It was quite a lot darker than anything we had in the previous movie. So, it was very clear for me to follow these: Prince Caspian, the four Pevensie children and Lord Miraz, three very different things: two new themes I wrote, for Lord Miraz and Prince Caspian, and the themes I already had for the four children.
AV: Andrew Adamson also wrote about “the intimacy and nostalgia of a child rediscovering a world she thought was lost forever.” Here, we think about Lucy, of course.
HGW: I’ve always thought Lucy’s character as the one that I’ve been drawn to the most. I mean, the first score that I wrote on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the theme when she steps through the wardrobe for the first time into Narnia. And it’s difficult to see Prince Caspian without having her steal your heart! She seems to be the center of everything that happens in this movie. She’s the one who has faith to Aslan as going to appear. She’s the one, ultimately, the children turn to. The emotional beat that I placed in the first score, I was able to bring forward into this one. It’s very similar in that respect.
AV: VFX supervisor Wendy Rogers told me that, in spite of the scope and the scale of the battles, her job in such big scenes was first of all about characters. How did you approach battles musically?
HGW: I generally write music from a character point of view anyhow. So, in long periods of time like the battles, I tended to break the sequence down into separate cues. Take the night raid on the castle which happens in real time. When we were still in the early stages, we tested the film to an audience, and it become clear that the audience was slightly confused and asked who was doing what, because there’s a lot of activity with all these people running around the castle. This was the first sort of action sequence that I scored, and I realized that part of my job was to clarify the underlying emotion of any given moment. So, it was important for me to be quite specific with the music. The music is either heroic or it’s emotional as, for instance, at the end of that, as Peter rises off leaving many Narnians there to die, or it’s very tense as it is at the very beginning as Edmund is around the castle.
AV: How was it, working on Prince Caspian logistically?
HGW: There was a geographical issue I had to address first of all. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe post-production took place here in Los Angeles, so I composed the score here and I recorded all the music here. For Prince Caspian, Andrew Adamson was doing post-production in London. So, that required me to pack up my studio here in Los Angeles, freight it over to London, find a studio space, set up my studio, try to make the conditions as good as possible for me to be able to be creative, and then start work. So, it was a bit like Kingdom of Heaven in that respect. When I did that movie, I had to pack up my studio and take it over because Ridley (Scott) was doing the post-production there, too. So, I started quite early, around about Christmas last year. Just after Christmas, I left the States with all my gear, my studio, I set up and about two weeks later, I was writing in London, because Andrew was cutting the movie there.
AV: What kind of material did you have?
HGW: When I started work on the film, it was probably about an hour longer than it ended up. It was a process, and I was part of that process. Very much like on Kingdom of Heaven. When I started writing the score for that movie, I was writing it to a movie that was about three hours and a half long. At the time we finished, there was more music than there was movie! Similarly, with this movie, of course, one can’t wait until the last moment, until you have the final cut. If I had waited until we had the final cut, there would have been no score at all, because Andrew was finally cutting in VFX the day before we mastered the movie. So, it was necessary for me to take a leap of faith and really start work on this film before the pictures were final, in the knowledge that I would probably have to come back and edit these pieces or even re-think them and re-write them.
There’s no short cut to this process. It happens on most films. I’m just looking at the first cut of Ridley Scott’s next film which I’m starting to work on now. It’s difficult for me to see the shape of it. He hasn’t even finished shooting it and I’m looking at very, very rough cuts scenes, with many scenes missing. But that lets me get an idea of what I might do. This is a good time to experiment, explore. And that’s what happened on Prince Caspian. The first month or so of work on Prince Caspian, I didn’t involved Andrew so much. I wasn’t ready for his involvement to play him music. I wanted to get underneath the skin of the movie myself.
AV: I guess, because of that timing, all the VFX weren’t finalized.
HGW: No, they weren’t at all!
AV: So, how did you get the right emotion or the right tone for a scene?
HGW: Where the VFX were missing, there would be storyboards or there would be very clear indication. And, you know, I work very closely with Andrew Adamson. He would be in my studio every day, every other day, three or four months, and he’d point things out.
I remember, on one occasion, we were on the scoring stage with the orchestra. It was a moment in the movie where Peter and Lucy are sitting in Aslan’s How and Edmund runs in and says: “Peter, you’d better come out and have a look at this!” They all run out to the top of the hill and look over a field. And about two seconds later, there’s a hard cut to one of the Telmarines and his metal mask.
I had written some music that tracked the children running out, with a little bit of tension as they look over the field and then “boom!”, hard cut, and the music starts very, very big as we see the Telmarine soldier. But, on the scoring stage, Andrew waved me to a stop as I was rehearsing the orchestra, and I learned that, as the children ran out, there was gonna be soldiers all over the field that I saw, so I didn’t need to wait the hard cut to make the statement with the music. What they were going to see was a huge army.
So, you see, as long as I stayed in tune with Andrew, I was safe! As you can see, it’s almost impossible to write a score that will do the right thing to one of the early cuts of the movie!
AV: Can you tell me about your new themes?
HGW: The Caspian theme is the first thing I wrote. I actually wrote it here in Los Angeles just before Christmas. I played it to Andrew. I sent him a CD of just me playing the theme at the piano and then waited for his reaction. I originally wrote it in 3/4 time. It was quite a sensitive and almost emotional theme, and the way I played it on the piano, I played it quite slowly, quite gently. That’s what came to me to begin with. When Andrew called me back, he said he was very surprised by my theme because he could feel it a much more emotional and three dimensional cue than he was expecting, but he’d liked that and said: “well, I really like that and I think that would work in one or two emotional moments, but you do realize this is an action film we’re about to do, and it’s gonna have to work in 4/4 time, at a fast bpm [beats per minute] and have to become more heroic.” So, I agreed to, as soon as I was over in London, launch into the first eight-minute sequence, and at the end of that, if we’d look at each other and say: “look, this theme isn’t going to work”, then I would have to work something else out. But I’m pleased to say that it did seem to work in 4/4. So, we looked at each other and said: “Great! We’ve got our theme and we can play it many different ways.
As for Miraz, now, he seems to be a character who knew what his destiny could be and he was going to make sure that it happens. He did a lot of plotting as you know. So, his theme is quite “snake-like” and it turned out to be actually the heroic theme, the main theme of Narnia upside down, inverted. It seemed to me that he was the antithesis of everything the children believed in.
AV: What is the role of music in Narnia?
HGW: Each score and each film is different. Take a film like The Number 23 for instance, the last Joel Schumacher film that I did. It’s kind of a scary film, almost a horror film and in this genre, it’s necessary to keep the audience and never let them relaxed and think that everything’s gonna be ok. So, the music is usually leading. In Prince Caspian, I’m not aware that the music is leading too much. I think that most of the music is seen through the point of view of the children. That was the concept of the first score and that’s the same with the second score: the music discovers Narnia along with the children, and discovers whatever is going on.
AV: Can you tell me about your role in the creation of Regina Spektor’s song, The Call?
HGW: We first asked Imogen Heap to write a song since she did such a beautiful thing last time. She wrote a wonderful song but it was quite dark and it wasn’t quite right for the end of the movie. That’s basically what she wanted to do but unfortunately that didn’t work out. So, we got in touch with Chris Douridas who’s a very fine music supervisor – I worked with him on Shrek 2, actually – and he thought of three or four artists. One of the Disney executives flew to Paris and I think to Berlin and I think to London to meet and show different artists the film – although it wasn’t finished at the time – to give them an idea of what the movie was about, and they made demos for us. And as soon as Andrew and I heard Regina Spektor’s voice, let alone her song, we knew that was gonna be right for the movie.
So, she flew over from New York and I worked with her closely. It was quite difficult for me because I had just about finished the score. I was pretty much a heap on the floor! Because I was quite exhausted. It was very, very intense for four or five months. But I had to pick myself up. She already had a song which was already written but the arrangement of it and how that was gonna work to picture was something I had to work on with her. It was great fun and she’s a really fine artist. We had a great time doing it. And then, I arranged some strings and we did a strings session, a little orchestra session at Abbey Road, and that was it!
AV: Just like Peter, Prince Caspian was your last journey to Narnia. How do you feel about that?
HGW: I totally understood it because, let’s face it, the reason why I’ve been fortunate enough to do the Narnia series so far is because of my association with Andrew Adamson. Now, I understand that the director of the next chapter of Narnia has his composer, David Arnold. So, it’s all right. Also, I’ve been very fortunate to do two of these movies. So, it’s good that somebody else has a chance. But I can’t deny that I’ve become very attached to the characters and to the cast in person, the four kids who play the Pevensies. They’re really fabulous children. So, I’ve had a great musical journey. I’ve been very lucky!
With all our gratitude to Harry Gregson-Williams, Jeff Sanderson and Allie Lee at Chasen & Co. and Maria Kleinman at Walt Disney Records.