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Oscar Best Score Contenders: The Inside Story of Creating 5 Diverse Frontrunners

This year's original score Oscar contenders offer a diverse range of musical expression, from action to intimacy.

Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in Lion


The Weinstein Company

There’s no shortage of musical brilliance from this year’s original score contenders, which easily run 10 deep. But here are five that represent the scope of genres and styles that help define the journeys of their heroic characters: “Lion,” (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka), “Miss Sloane” (Max Richter), “The Jungle Book” (John Debney), “Hacksaw Ridge” (Rupert Gregson-Williams) and “The Secret Life of Pets” (Alexandre Desplat).


For the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel)), the Indian who used Google Earth to locate his birth family several decades after his separation and adoption in Australia, director Garth Davis hired the classically-trained Halloran and Hauschka to compose the score. Unbeknownst to Davis, however, the talented pianist-composers were not only friends but had also performed together.

Yet instead of splitting the score into two (child in India, adult in Australia), Halloran and Hauschka connected the music together. “We found out pretty soon that the music should mix up elements from both and appear in the second half and Garth agreed,”Hauschka told IndieWire. “We worked on many pianos and experimented with different sound elements and played with the mics and rooms and textures,” added Hauschka, who’s known for placing objects on or between the strings (called preparations).

Besides the separation of chord structures and melodies, there’s always a through line with Brieley’s point of view. “The longer process was honing in on the main theme because it needed to work in a lot of ways and have the momentum of a journey,”Halloran told IndieWire. “And because the story never resolves, the way the chords work they’re constantly modulating and you can play them forever.”

Miss Sloane - Jessica Chastain

“Miss Sloane”


“Miss Sloane”

In composing the score about the eponymous D.C. lobbyist (Jessica Chastain), who battles the entire foundation of political corruption as well as her own demons, composer Richter (“Leftovers”) provided a trajectory through the complex machinations.

“The way the storytelling works, there’s the political aspect of it on one side, and I approached that by using a lot of pulsing, interlocking, grid-like material,” Richter told IndieWire. “And on the other side, there’s Miss Sloane’s interior world, and that has rather tender, orchestral music.”

Richter, whose haunting “On the Nature of Daylight” was included at the beginning and end of “Arrival,” which inadvertently disqualified Jóhann Jóhannsson’s brilliant score, focused first on the harmonic language of the orchestral part, before experimenting with the power part.

“I also used low frequency tones, which grows into an orchestral language during the interrogation scenes,” Richter added. Overall, he said, “[The score] allows you to watch what Sloane’s doing and to follow the story very beautifully, but it does affect you on a very deep, emotional level.”

“The Jungle Book”


“The Jungle Book”

In paying homage to the original animated Disney classic while offering some new dramatic musical directions for the Jon Favreau-directed hybrid, composer John Debney had plenty of freedom. “We gravitated toward one of my favorite themes, which eventually became Mowgli’s theme,” Debney told IndieWire. “This was lonely and noble.  It starts with a simple bass flute and builds from there.”

While the inclusion of “The Bare Necessities” was always a given and worked really well, “I Wanna Be Like You” (featuring Christopher Walken as the voice of King Louie) posed the most difficult challenge. It floated in and out and evolved dramatically throughout the production.

“The fear was, it would become a song and dance number and there would be no sense of danger that Jon wanted for the sequence,” Debney added. “The way it ended up, where you sneak it in early and thread its way through with the orchestration, was the best we could do.”

“Hacksaw Ridge”

“Hacksaw Ridge”

For Mel Gibson’s World War II drama about the miraculous true-life heroics of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) in Okinawa, composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (“Hotel Rwanda”) wrote an unconventional score with both spiritual and romantic elements.

“Mel and I talked about this as not a normal war film and Desmond as not a normal action hero,” Gregson-Williams told IndieWire. “And so musically it was trying to drill down into the emotional anchor of the film and into Desmond’s head.”

As a result, there are not the usual bombastic war themes that define the genre. “Musically, I wanted to make him spiritually aware, so I wrote a piece that harks back to earlier psalm music, and I tried to make that a constant journey through the film.

“For instance, when he’s in the throes of horrific battle, I hark back to a simple romantic theme for Dorothy [Teresa Palmer] and Desmond. He’s always wanting to get back to Dorothy, which makes this a love story.”

“The Secret Life of Pets”

“The Secret Life of Pets”

With Illumination’s  animated pet adventure, Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) finally got to compose the jazz score he’s been dreaming of, inspired, in part, by the late, great Henry Mancini, particularly “The Pink Panther.”

“The jazz influences are much wider in range here so I could play at interweaving the score with the orchestra,” Desplat told IndieWire. “And all these chases and fast tempos were fun.”

However, as a pet owner, Desplat related to the emotion and humor as well. “The moment when they travel in New York with this old, crippled dog, there’s a mix of Bossa Nova from the ’60s,” he added.

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