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To score a movie, just give him time

August 15, 2004|Susan King

James Newton Howard

Film Composer

Current projects: M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village," Michael Mann's "Collateral."

The downbeat: "Many composers are very comfortable working in a short amount of time. My preference is to have as long as possible to think about and sort of let a score develop and unfold unconsciously, which is a way of saying that I start working on a film as soon as I am hired, even if it hasn't been shot yet. I read the script, generally speaking, and meet with the director and talk about the kind of movie he or she intends to make. Once I have that knowledge, then the unconscious process just starts to occur."

He's got the music in him: "You start feeling themes and shapes and ideas for the music. Then, as I guess is the case of many composers, it is a kind of stream-of-consciousness process for a while where I will sit at a piano or an electronic keyboard in my studio and do a certain amount of improvisation and just play and hopefully have the ability to recognize a tiny little morsel or snippet that is worth pursuing. Once you have that tiny little idea -- it can be like a two- or three-second-long piece -- and you feel that it connects to the emotionality, the essence of the narrative or whatever part of the movie you are trying to connect to, then it is about adding on to that."

In sync with a new director: "Working with a new director is sort of like your first date with the girl, and you are afraid you are going to have a piece of food on your teeth. You want your first outing to be a good one. It is very nerve-racking. I am always nervous about presenting work to anybody. I remember with Michael Mann, when I played my first ideas for 'Collateral,' it went very well. We had a lot of give-and-take and many, many lengthy, detailed discussions of what he liked and what he didn't like. I make very elaborate demos or mock-ups of my entire score from beginning to end while I am composing before I ever compose it with a real orchestra, so everybody has a chance to really discuss and get used to the idea of what the score is going to feel like."

Comedy isn't pretty: "I like as big a musical opportunity as possible. I would say, generally speaking, though it is not always the case, comedy is probably the least gratifying for most composers because it is more specific about what the music needs to do. And it is limited in what the music can do because there is a certain convention that needs to be addressed in a lot of romantic comedies. I have done [comedies] and enjoyed it, but I would say I prefer dramatic movies. I think, ultimately, the action genre is in some ways the most challenging for a composer. To do it well, it takes the most technique and the most versatility. One isn't really held to one particular style ... you are allowed to be surprising and a little bit unconventional."

Credits: Oscar-nominated for "The Fugitive," "The Prince of Tides," "My Best Friend's Wedding." Also: "Pretty Woman," "The Sixth Sense," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Grand Canyon" and the TV series "ER."

Age: 53

Residence: Santa Monica

Union: American Federation of Musicians

Salary: "I would say when you first start off, you can make between nothing and $2 million!"

Idols: "Jerry Goldsmith, I have to say, is my single favorite composer of all time. He was one of the most innovative guys ever to do it. You go back to 'Planet of the Apes' and it is just a monumental score -- the sound design and approach to percussion was just so extraordinary. One of his great scores for me was 'Alien.' "

How he got into it: "My grandmother was a violinist, and I started piano lessons when I was 4. I was a piano performance major at USC. I left before I graduated because I realized at some point I wasn't going to be a concert pianist and I was too attracted to popular music. I joined Elton John's band in '75. He not only allowed me to play the electronic keyboard on his albums, he also let me do the orchestrations. Then I left the band and started producing records. I was not really a popular kind of hit music guy. I was attracted to more esoteric things. I got offered a movie [to score] in '85, "Head Office" with Danny DeVito and Judge Reinhold. It was really a silly movie, but I did feel very comfortable writing for pictures, and it just seemed ultimately the perfect fit for me."

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