Composer Stephen Hilton has helped score some of the biggest movies of the last 15 years, including “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Quantum of Solace”, the “Oceans 11” movies, “Moulin Rouge” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. This week he sits down with Box Office Insider to discuss the process of scoring a film, his work with Hans Zimmer and his own musical influences.
So first off, explain how you got into this business
Well it was kind of my accident really. I started off with bands. When I was 23 years old, Depeche Mode approached me, I had done some music on my own and they liked a couple of songs, so I went in three weeks later and they kept me through the whole process and it was amazing and in three months we did three songs.
For which album?
It was “Ultra”. And it was an amazing experience so that’s how I learned to go from making my own songs to working with bands and I kind of took to that. Then a funny thing happened as I had worked with a guy named David Holmes and we formed a band together called Free Association and we made an eleven track album where all of the songs were synced with films and so all of a sudden I guess people started hearing the tracks and started thinking, well rather than licensing the tracks let’s just get the guy who made the tracks to come to do music for our film. So I came over here (US) with David and we did Oceans 11, 12 and 13 to start off with and that worked really well then I met Hans (Zimmer) and it was funny because I came out for two weeks to do a film called “Haywire” with him and we ended up having to wait to score the film and during that time Hans said to me that he had done a track with Pharrell (Williams) and Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics) and we’re going to give you the track and then just do you do with it. So I just went to town on it
So when Hans came to you and said he had this specific track was it for a specific film?
No, they just got together, did a track and gave it to me and I think it was his (Hans) way of just trying me out
So when someone like Hans says “do what you do with it” what does that exactly entail?
I’m an electronic musician and my influences are mainly hip/hop, which is my background, so I tend to be very off-the-wall with what I do, so I always want to make things a bit bizarre sounding but I also work extensively with orchestras as well. So when I did what I do with the track Hans gave me I thought “well, I’ve gone too far” and he ended up loving it! He then and there asked if I wanted to stay here in the States and do lots of films with him. And I said “yeah….all right”
So give us an overview of the films you’ve done with Hans
Wow, we started off with “Megamind”, that was the first thing, then “Madagascar 3”, we did a film with Ron Howard called “Dilemma”, along with “Kung Fu Panda 2”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” plus I also did two video games which I had never done.
How many artists like you does Hans employ on a film?
It varies. We did “Kung Fu Panda 2”, we’ve done a lot of animation the last few years, and there were only four of us but on a film like “Pirates of the Caribbean” there were twenty of us. That was insane, there were twenty people in the room and you look around at everyone and go “wow!”. The thing about Hans is that he is so generous as well. When a producer or the director comes in to view the score he always has all of us in the room and he points out “he did this scene” or “this guy did that scene” so he loves to give credit and he’s so open hearted, it’s so refreshing.
Are you working exclusively with him?
Well yes, he’s kept me extremely busy. We have this thing where I go off and do my own thing-I love to work with bands so I like to keep 50/50 bands and film.
What bands have you worked with that are up and coming?
Well there’s an artist called Twigs, who is really going to make it big here in the States in the next year. I spent two years on her record. I also did a lot of work with No Doubt, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack to name a few.
So when a composer first comes to you and says he has this film and we’re ready to start prepping the score, how long from beginning to end does this process take.
It tends to be about three months. He will come to me when we’re working on a film and give me a few scenes and say “go crazy with that, give me as insane of a version as you can come up with”, for example there’s a scene in “Kung Fu Panda 2” where there’s an Indian percussionist who Hans had brought in and he told both the guy and me to do one particular scene. We each didn’t know the other was working on it. Then he brought us both together and told us to keep it to a specific tempo and to mesh our two scores. We were like “this is never going to work”. But at the end it worked brilliantly and that’s why he’s such a genius.
When we hear about great film composers like Ennio Morricone or Hans Zimmer, we think of them as just sitting by themselves and writing all the music and then just giving it to the London Symphony Orchestra and away they go and it magically appears on screen but it’s really amazing that you could possibly have twenty people sitting in a room together scoring a film.
It’s funny because when I was working with bands it was basically just me and then I went from that immediately into working on four James Bond films in the UK which was just three of us in a recording studio and then into a room with twenty people!
When you view a scene you are scoring how often it is finished film and how often is it just a work in progress? It has to be extremely complicated.
Yes, that’s the thing, it’s almost always a work in progress when you start. So I do a general arc of music so that the director can see what we have in mind for the scene.
And obviously you have to go back and tweak it as the scene is finally completed.
Yes in fact that’s actually harder than writing. I remember doing “Moulin Rouge” with Craig (Armstrong) and we were in Australia and we had these set pieces where Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor were singing together, so then we had the two vocals and there was one scene where they were both singing a combination of David Bowie songs, Queen songs, Elton John songs and we spent an entire week getting that exactly right because they were singing live on stage and also they were lip-syncing so it was really hard and then the editor came back and said that she shaved two seconds off of the scene and you’ll just have to make it work and we were like “oh no!!!!!”. So back we went! The thing about the score for that film is there must have been a hundred tempo changes to get their voices to work along with what the orchestra was playing. It was insane. That was the most challenging film I’ve ever worked on. But I loved working with Baz (Luhrmann), he’s a one off. I’ve never seen a director interact more with an orchestra or the composers.
What do you have coming up?
Coming up we have a film that I can’t talk about which is very exciting. Also I am doing a lot of stuff for Apple. The head of Apple is a fan of a couple of the tracks I’ve done for them. Apple is doing their own commercials and they want cutting edge music for them, even though they never tell me what product it’s for! When the Ipad first came out David (Holmes) and I did the music and all we got was a Dustin Hoffman voiceover which never indicated what it was an ad for! We had no idea. It was the most bizarre thing but that’s how they work. And more things with Hans coming up as well. I am also working with a Scottish director named Richard Dobson, who I love and whose films are super dark and he has a new film coming out. I’m also doing a film called “Last Will and Testament”. I wouldn’t have ever picked this profession but now I love it. Band-wise, last year I worked with a British artist named Badly Drawn Boy…
Yes, the guy who did the music for “About a Boy”
Right. I’ll work with him and I love him and he’s a good friend of mine. But I don’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I enjoy this.
Thanks so much for talking with us, Stephen.