John Powell’s introduction to Hollywood was assisting Hans Zimmer on an un-released drama documentary directed by one Terrence Malick. “He didn’t know who the hell I was but he treated me like an artist straight off,” remembers Powell. “He is profound. He will say something that you will have to go and think about for 48 hours.” Since his big feature break with Face/Off, the British-born Powell has risen to become one of most sought after composers, building relationships with directors like Paul Greengrass and Doug Liman and straddling the worlds of live action and animation — next up is How To Train Your Dragon 2. Here he talks through his key scores...
FACE/OFF (1997)"I think John Woo had worked with Hans Zimmer and asked him to do Face/Off. He said, 'I can’t but I know this kid who can.' I wrote some demos and they liked the demos. To begin with they thought he’d written them. John Woo’s got a big heart. He loves very melodic and very emotional music. One of the few things he said all the time was 'More emotion! More emotion!'"
"Harry Gregson Williams and I worked with Hans on The Prince Of Egypt, the first DreamWorks animation movie. I did a lot of the song arranging and Harry did a lot of work on the score. So when it came to Antz, Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted Hans to do it but he was stuck on something else. So I think Jeffrey said, 'What about those two kids?' Harry is truly wonderful. We are very competitive against each other so I think that probably helped everything. I think Jeffrey knew that. I would go in and listen to one of Harry’s cues and think ‘Shit, that’s fucking good.’ I’ve got to push my game up." - - - - - -
CHICKEN RUN (2000)
"I would have never got to have worked on a Nick Park movie if I hadn’t had that luck with Harry and Antz. They used to say 'If it flies, get Ron Goodwin.' (Goodwin composed The Battle Of Britain, 633 Squadron and Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machine**s). I am beginning to feel a bit like that myself now, now that I’ve done Dragon, Chicken Run and Rio. Everything is flying." - - - - - -
"Shrek was hard because it didn’t need much music. The score had to be very precise about its nature. Even though there were two of us, it took a long time to write 38 minutes of music, to find the tone of it. It was trying to find the postmodern angle to it. You mustn’t wink too much with the music but you mustn't be too serious either. Harry came up with that great theme for Shrek and I think the only useful thing I did was perhaps point it at the Princess. It fitted better. We had another tune that wasn’t as good but worked well for Shrek. We got lucky with that."
RAT RACE (2001)
"Rat Race was a fun score to do. We did it quick, it was hysterical to record and it made me laugh all the time. Unfortunately, right at the end of it my mother died. I remember thinking, 'This is the way the universe works. If it is too easy some times, something bad is going to happen.' But forever more, I always listen to that score and think of my mother. It sounds strange but she was always very jolly. The DNA of the music came from her and so I always think of that score as sounding like my mother." - - - - - -
THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002)
"I replaced Carter Burwell on this. It was difficult as I respect Carter highly. I do like his scores very, very much. But the great thing about replacing a composer is that it helps you learn from their misfortune. I knew they’d spent a lot of money recording an orchestral score and that he and (director) Doug (Liman) hadn’t really communicated enough. So I realised that if I was going to keep the gig, I had to make sure it wasn’t orchestral at all. So it was all electronic. It wasn’t until the last minute that we added the orchestra back in. The orchestra really became the strings and by that time we could only afford a string section. So the strings became an overdub that became more of a cinematic colour. I also made sure I used it as a real propulsive mechanism. That was a last minute addition and very effective. "People have used it as a temp. One of the hardest pieces on Face/Off was temped to David Arnold’s music for Independence Day. It was hell. Everything was being compared to this and you can’t get past it. He later said to me, 'That fucking Bourne Identity score keeps coming up in fucking temp scores.' I said, 'Well, I got you back.' That’s why film music is getting terribly uninteresting. It’s a snake sucking its own cock. Everything sounds like The Dark Knight if it is big and epic. Everything sounds like Bourne Identity if it is small and spy-y."
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004)
"I didn’t know who Paul Greengrass was. It turns out he directed a load of wonderful documentaries and then I watched Bloody Sunday which was absolutely devastating but there was hardly a note of music anywhere. So I was very nervous about that. Paul was smart enough to know that he was walking into a franchise and even though he was going to bring his own sensibilities to it, he wasn’t going to try and reinvent the wheel. So brought back the same production team and me. He walked in and said, 'I liked the music on the first movie, just keep going.' I did for him what I thought was the next score I could do for the movie. "For Paul’s film, I had more of a free reign to try and develop the orchestra in it because I had been so nervous about the orchestra in the first film because of Carter Burwell. So for the second film I thought I could get a bit more richness out of the orchestra. That seemed to be something Paul liked."
MR & MRS SMITH (2005)
"As a composer, you are sometimes looking for shorthand. Doug (Liman) kept saying we’ve got to get across the idea that the passion is lost from this relationship but it comes back throughout the movie. I realized with Latin American music there’s a cliché within it that immediately spikes SEXY in our brain. So that was purely used as a quick way to manipulate the audience into that way of thinking."
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)
"I walked into it talking to Brett Ratner about using existing tunes but it turned out none of the tunes in the first movie were used in the second so they didn’t care. They weren’t feeling that there was a through-line at all. I’d never really studied the comic book world at all. I looked at the film and I thought this was a fantastic metaphor for any outsider in the world. It was a real call to America, in particular, to realise they had these sub-cultures of people they were treating as mutants. The metaphors in that story, I found, very strong. Brett just asked me to go for it. So I tried to do as bigger, operatic score as I could." - - - - - -
UNITED 93 (2006)
"It was a very hard film to do. I basically just watched the film with sound once. Other than that, I couldn’t watch it with the sound up. It becomes very distressing. I took forever trying to avoid writing any music for it. I really didn’t feel music was appropriate. It was Paul that kept pushing for something. He said, 'I need you to be there to hold everybody’s hand as they go along.' So it had to be a score that was very transparent and didn’t feel like it was there. It took a little bit of time to find the voice of that film. I don’t think I did a bad job. It’s an unusual sounding score, very minimalist. But it’s not appropriate for many films. "I started with the end first. I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with the music in this film. The only thought I had was at a certain point a child from a fundamentalist religious state is going to be exactly the same as a child from a non fundamentalist religious state. My son happened to be five at the time so I took him into the studio, set up a microphone up in front of him, sang things to him and asked him to repeat them. He had this sweet little voice. I took recordings of him singing these little melodic fragments and started to place some orchestra and harmony underneath it. It was a bit arse-about-tit but I thought it was a good way of describing my feelings about the situation so that’s the only reason I started from that position."
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007)
"At the last minute we pulled a lot of the score and went back to the temp music which was from the first two movies. I think my main mistake was that I got obsessed that it was the third movie so I put more triplets in. Here, you have a lilt because three (the time signature) is an uneven number, whereas in two or four, it is more of a march. I think I had too much three so Paul pulled a lot of that and went back to material from one and two which was in four." - - - - - -
KUNG FU PANDA (2008)
"The history of cinema’s musical approach to the Chinese world from a western perspective is a mixture of delightful and racist. We went all over the map musically but we used all sorts of instrumentation — Pipa, little guitars, the Guezheng, a harp — and all sorts of melodies that comes out of the tradition. There are some beautiful melodies that come out from China. I tried to take my inspiration from that rather than the Lalo Schifrin, martial arts movie approach. I do like that but it just felt like a Hollywood insider joke. We only had it one time, in a dream sequence. It was apart from reality and I thought that might make everything else sound more real."
ICE AGE DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS (2009) / ICE AGE CONTINENTAL DRIFT (2012)
"Sometimes on the Ice Age movies they want everything hit; they want comedy, comedy, comedy using a lot of trombone slides and comedy noises. I call it The Stalling Factor (after Looney Toons composer Carl Stalling). I ask filmmakers what Stalling Factor they want. So a Stalling Factor of 1 would hit anything and a Stalling Factor of 10 would be Bugs Bunny. It’s a style and it says something to the audience. You can wink at them and it says you can laugh and you can understand it is a cartoon. But done wrong, it can also diffuse any real drama. You have to be very careful with it." - - - - - -
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)
"I always say that in every movie there is one scene that is going to kill you and the forbidden friendship scene was it in this one. I think it probably helped that I left it to the last minute because I had more animation finished. The subtlety of animation means you are really able to read the whole scene properly. The body language and facial acting was so superb. I truly had to wait and see the inner meaning that was there." - - - - - -
RIO (2011) / RIO 2 (2014)
"Once we knew Rio 2's story was moving into the Amazon, it opened up the rest of the country musically. The rest of Brazilian music is very diverse so we had a smorgasbord to choose from. Every number in the film is a hybrid of something but trying to bring in the feeling of Brazil as many times as we could. "'Poisonous Love' was down to (t**he voice of cockatoo-obsessed poisonous frog Gabi) Kristen Chenoweth. As we saw the character develop, we thought it would be wonderful for her to sing a song about the sadness of her situation: she is in love with Nigel who is oblivious to it. Carlinhos was writing a tune for somewhere else in the movie and it reminded me of a patter song, very fast little lines. I thought, 'What are the best patter songs written in the last 30 years?' Then I remembered watching the Animaniacs when I was younger and loving some of the incredibly fast and clever lyrics that they used. So we tracked down the writer Randy Rogel and we asked him to come over. It just seemed right for the character to go pretty over the top and we had a lot of fun with that one.
"I wasn’t sure about using 'I Will Survive' at first. It was too ubiquitous. But once we got Jemaine Clement in the studio and he said, 'How about we have a rap section?' It was so distressingly funny I thought we should try it. So I got a beat going and he started coming up with this hysterical stuff. We got yards and yards of it and it took ages to whittle down but I thought it just worked. It just seemed right for Nigel. He’s such an arsehole. He really is. He is so demanding. If he was going to sing a song at an audition, this would bring out the true nature of his character: over the top, cheesy and misunderstanding the whole point of what he was supposed to be doing. He makes a line about not using auto-tune. The funny thing is we auto-tune the hell out of it."
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)
"It uses some of the same tunes but there are also lots of new tunes. It’s going to have bagpipes in it. There is a fantastic group called The Red Hot Chilli Pipers who are coming down from Scotland for us. We have a big choir, a big orchestra. Everything is the same but it has a new set of characters and a whole new story. The characters have grown up since the last film so things are slightly different. It’s a maturation story."