Harry Gregson-Williams: Follow Your Instincts

Harry Gregson-Williams is a world-renowned composer, orchestrator, conductor, and music producer. We caught up with him to talk about how he begins work on a new score, the importance of collaboration, and the valuable lessons he has learned throughout his prolific career.

Whether working with Ridley Scott, Niki Caro, or the late Joel Schumacher, Harry has realized that the world of film scoring is highly unpredictable—not only in how his scores come together but also in how they land on his desk. Even though Ridley Scott’s film Exodus: Gods and Kings already had a composer attached, Harry had to be on-hand to add his creative flourishes, without much warning.

“I wasn't expecting a call from Ridley. He called me and asked if I would consider just doing the emotional parts of the film for him. He believed that I could bring something to those moments. I loved that movie.”

For Harry, scoring jobs can come from a phone call, a letter, or even a mysterious script landing on your doorstep.

“Before Exodus: Gods and Kings, the same thing had happened with Prometheus. Ridley didn't call me. A script came to my house with a very cursory note that said, ‘Read it, like it, do it.’ That's what I did.”

"There is no tried-and-tested formula to creating a successful score"

There is no tried-and-tested formula to creating a successful score, and as Harry admits, some of the best results appear from challenging your own conventions:

“With a lot of my scores, I try not to be reined in by having a sonic template. I don’t want to feel that I have to be pegged in. But I try not to break those boundaries in a very obvious way so as not to distract from what's going on the screen. I guess it's a dance that we do. There are no prizes for being utterly authentic, but there are prizes for being able to enhance the story and the cinematic experience for the viewer. I think the task is to find a route into a musical score that's going to bring another dimension to the story, perhaps a dimension that isn't there on the screen or, if it is, then enhancing it.”

“I think the path to that can be manifold. I remember listening to my brother Rupert's score to the first season of The Crown and really enjoying it, really enjoying the series. But a lot of my enjoyment came from the fact that he was using synths—I thought that on something like The Crown, it would be all string quartet and harps, very courtly. Although he was using some of those instruments, there was a synth element to it, which was slightly unexpected and definitely brought some interest, enhancing the story and the intrigue. That's a pretty good example of sailing slightly closer to the wind and not necessarily channeling precisely what you see on screen. That's a good path for the composer to take if you can.”

His work on the Joel Schumacher film Phone Booth was definitely a huge learning curve in his career. A film based around a solitary phone booth in New York City, Harry had to think of alternative ways to build drama and suspense with his music. As soon as he heard the plot of the film, he knew it would be a challenge.

“I didn't reach for the safety net of the orchestra straight away, and that was quite liberating. I didn’t sense there would be an orchestral component—very little, if any. I was just getting into Cubase at the time: generating synth noises and routing my synth through Cubase to manipulate them. I developed and learned so much working on Phone Booth.”

"As a composer, a lot of your time can be spent locked away in the studio, sheltered from the influences of the outside world."

As a composer, a lot of your time can be spent locked away in the studio, sheltered from the influences of the outside world. This hermit-like approach can be effective, but letting in the outside world can also provide unique, evocative sources of inspiration.


“On Veronica Guerin—another collaboration with Joel Schumacher—I visited the set and some good things came from that. I flew into Dublin and a taxi dropped me at Grafton Street, which is the pedestrian precinct in the middle of Dublin. It's a university city; it's full of young people, with a pub on every corner. In the hustle-and-bustle of the city, I could hear this little child singing, this young boy belting out folk songs. He was a busker. He had a bucket which people were throwing money into—not many people, it has to be said. He had a slightly brutal voice. That one moment led to another and I actually managed to record his voice. That recording became the backbone of the score. On that score, I was inspired by the sound of that boy and the memories that it brought back for me, particularly.”

As a master of creating famous themes and unforgettable melodies, how does Harry begin the process of searching for that elusive hook?

“Early on, when I'm trying to find thematic material or harmonic material, even if it's just two or three chords in a row, or a melody, I tend to sit at the piano and just play and play. I quite often use my voice; I'll sing and hum and find a melody that way. It sometimes comes more naturally to me that way, perhaps because of my background, growing up singing. I let my hands accompany the melody as opposed to my hands having to find the melody.”

Once he has found that interesting melody, idea, or theme for a score, how does he share his vision with the director?

“Generally, if I'm pretty sure that I've got the right melody, I might share it with the director right away, just sitting at the piano. But I usually have a cue up my sleeve. Whilst working on Mulan, I remember bringing Niki Caro down to the studio. I would explain my ideas, and then play her a melody at the piano, gauging her reaction. If she looked at all excited, I would then move over to Cubase and say, ‘Well, great. Look at this.’ There's no point in leaving someone dangling, just by playing them a melody. If the director likes it, what follows, an awkward silence? No. Let’s actually see how it's going to work in your film. It's quite instinctual. The only way to see if your instincts are right is to start throwing your ideas at the film.”

“With Mulan, for instance, I knew I wanted her theme initially to be in compound time. I just sensed from looking at her character that that would suit her really well. There's something a little bit feminine about that, it just felt right to me. However, sitting down, playing an E minor, for instance, D naturally seemed right. What I mean to say is that I didn't constrain myself to work within the pentatonic scale. Yet, that was obviously on my mind. Actually, with that theme, I had tried to imagine what delicate accompaniment I could find before I actually landed on the melody. It was through quite an inspiring guzheng sample, which is one of the two Phoenix Orchestra samples that I found; a little trickling thing that seemed to be just perfect to set the theme on.”

"Sharing ideas and forming a bond with collaborators is an essential part of succeeding in the film scoring industry."

Sharing ideas and forming a bond with collaborators is an essential part of succeeding in the film scoring industry. After all his years in the business, Harry has learned that empathy can help fortify the connection between himself and a director and that it’s always best to form a strong relationship as soon as possible, as he explains:

“My experience has definitely taught me that the sooner you get a face-to-face meeting and get a filmmaker on board with the concept for the music, the happier everyone’s going to be. I think the collaborative aspect of this is key, and it's something that, as a film composer, you have to get used to because it can be uncomfortable. You've got to understand that directors can be in a very similar situation to us composers: They have their own insecurities, their own anxieties.”

When your life and work revolves around music, it can become a burden. Some professional musicians need a break after working with music all day, some form of escapism from the demands that the industry puts upon them. Harry doesn’t see it this way:

“No, quite the opposite. I have a home studio, so when I get home I might sit down and play some Rachmaninoff or Chopin, something like that, or I might work on some fun jobs. I had great fun doing string arrangements for the likes of Paul Oakenfold and Perry Farrell, that sort of thing. I don't generally bring my scores into the house unless one of my kids wants to know how to play the piano part for Shrek. That has been known to happen. I can't imagine life without music. I'm sure a lot of people relate to that, not just people who earn their living from music.”

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