In the age of nonstop studio blockbusters, a composer is never out of work. And no composer works harder than James Newton Howard. The brains behind more than 150 scores for film and TV, Howard has been nominated for eight Oscars across a career spanning more than four decades. His work includes the “Hunger Games” series; “Pretty Woman”; and every M. Night Shyamalan movie.
And music from all those films was on display at the 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where Howard was honored during the June 30 opening ceremony with the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema.
“I’m very lucky,” Howard told IndieWire at the festival the next day. “I do seem to be in demand.”
Fittingly, after receiving his award, Howard led an outdoor concert in the town plaza. He conducted the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, performing selections from his score for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
That film presented a particular challenge for Howard, because he was determined to make his score stand out from the iconic John Williams themes that have dominated the “Harry Potter” film series since Williams composed the first three entries. At a July 1 Master Class session at the festival, Howard told a capacity crowd that he knew Warner Brothers would insist on opening the film with the first few bars of “Hedwig’s Theme,” and that if he couldn’t figure out the transition into a standout opener of his own, they might have elected to use a lot more of it.
The opening transition to Howard’s original music takes up only 35 seconds of screen time, but Howard joked that it was “the longest 35 seconds of my life.”
He played his different opening demos for the crowd on the piano. His first, somber go at the theme “sounded like a funeral march,” he said, and his second, jauntier attempt “sounded like a circus.” But, he noted, he’s used to frequently having to rewrite his work: “I’m very good at hitting Command + A + Delete.”
Finally, keeping in mind director David Yates’s suggestion that the music feel “like we’re being invited into a grand adventure,” he hit upon the winning bars: an eleven-note string phrase that alternates between three tones with almost magical force.
Howard’s creative struggles scoring the ninth film in a still-expanding cinematic universe are telling of how industry veterans are dealing with a Hollywood increasingly focused on tentpole franchises and familiar properties. Those priorities affect the kind of work composers like Howard find themselves doing.
“I’m compelled to write more big, epic action music than I might particularly like to, because that’s the task,” he said. “I think that is not necessarily what I would like to be doing all the time.”
Like many actors and directors, Howard prefers to alternate the big moneymakers with smaller “palette-cleansers.” He cited his score for Edward Zwick’s little-seen Bobby Fischer biopic “Pawn Sacrifice” as one he is particularly proud of.
This fall he will be embarking on his first-ever live concert tour, performing selections from his compositions across Europe, and he’s nervous about stepping onto the conductor’s podium.
“I never like to conduct, quite honestly, because you have to be a bit of a dictator and it’s exhausting,” Howard said. “I have so much regard for the art of conducting. It’s easy to look not so good up there. But then I thought, it’s time for me to really encounter my music in that way.”
He was partially inspired by his friend Hans Zimmer, with whom he collaborated on the scores for “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” Zimmer brought the house down during a live performance of his best-known scores at Coachella this year, and is now embarking on his own tour.
Howard won’t be taking on Zimmer’s pyrotechnic-heavy scale. “His is really like a rock-and-roll spectacular,” he said. “I fully expect to eventually be able to go out and do a respectable, 2,000-seater kind of thing. Which for me is perfect, because I prefer a concert hall environment to an arena. It’s just better suited to my music.”
Though Howard’s own work tends toward the orchestral, he’s an admirer of electronics-heavy scores as well. He cited Mica Levi’s “Jackie” and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s “Ex Machina” as two recent scores he greatly admires, and called Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work on “Arrival” his favorite score of 2016.
Jóhannsson and other up-and-coming composers may be changing the sound of cinema. But odds are that when most people close their eyes today and think of what “the movies” sound like, they’re picturing Howard’s full-bodied, sweeping arrangements.
“I know I’ve force-bullied my way into a lot of people’s living rooms by virtue of having written the music,” he said. “I just go from one movie to the next and try not to get fired. That’s my best hope.”