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Oscars 2018: How the ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Phantom Thread’ Original Scores Dodged Disqualification

Composers Hans Zimmer and Johnny Greenwood haven't always been able to avoid the music branch's chopping block.

"Phantom Thread" and "Dunkirk"

“Phantom Thread” and “Dunkirk”

In the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ announcement of 141 films qualified for Best Original Score, the biggest news stemmed from an absence: No controversy. “I, Tonya” and “The Greatest Showman” scores were deemed ineligible based on their predominant use of songs, while “Call Me By Your Name” and “Detroit” didn’t even submit, presumedly knowing they wouldn’t qualify. Those omissions merit a shrug, unlike the outrage that followed last year’s disqualification of Johann Johannsson’s “Arrival” and Lesley Barber’s “Manchester By the Sea” scores.

This year, people were closely watching what happened to Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and legend Hans Zimmer. Each has a history of running afoul of qualification rules, and each has one of the most celebrated scores of 2017, “Phantom Thread” and “Dunkirk.”

In the case of Greenwood, devoted fans still haven’t gotten over the disqualification of his brilliant 35-minute original score for “There Will Be Blood” in 2007, which the Academy deemed had been “diluted” by the use of “preexisting music” (specifically, Johannes Brahms and Arvo Pärt). Seven years later, PTA was promoting his next movie, “The Master,” and was still ticked off. “Oh, the fix was in, wasn’t it?” said Anderson in an interview with The Guardian. “They just couldn’t stand the idea of a guy in a rock band with moppy hair being that good, I suppose. But hey, no sour grapes.”

Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood


Anderson gave voice to the perception that the Academy’s music branch is too set in its ways and against cutting-edge, nontraditional scores of modern composers like Greenwood or Johann Johannsson, whose “Arrival” score was disqualified last year.

While railing against the old, white (although increasingly less so) Academy feels good, in Greenwood’s case it’s not necessarily a fair portrayal. The music branch’s rules are fairly clear, and the qualification committee uses a quantitative approach by carefully examining cue sheets, the detailed timeline breaking down source music and musical contribution for every second of a film. And while gray areas can require interpretation, the rules don’t punish an unorthodox approach to composition. In fact, there’s only three real ways a score can be disqualified:

  1. It has been diluted by the use of pre-existing music
  2. It has been diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs or any music not composed specifically for the film by the submitting composer
  3. It has been assembled from the music of more than one composer

While it’s fair to argue Greenwood’s 35-minute score was a substantial contribution worthy of award recognition, the estimated 45 minutes of previously recorded music in “There Will Be Blood,” based on the rules, was disqualifying. On the other hand, Greenwood’s “Phantom Thread” score, which plays for approximately 90 minutes, or 70 percent of the film, was clearly well within the safe zone.


Melinda Sue Gordon

Many kept a close eye on what happened to Hans Zimmer’s “Dunkirk” score because it incorporated a reworking of “Nimrod” (from the Enigma Variations written by Sir Edward Elgar in the late 19th century), which gives the intense and menacing score its rare moments of light. Going into the qualification phase, most observers felt the Zimmer team’s reworking of “Nimrod” was relatively minor compared to other recently disqualified scores like “Manchester By the Sea,” in which Kenneth Lonergan relied on recordings of recognizable classical music as much as he did Lesley Barber’s beautiful original score.

Use of previously recorded material is not the only point of friction for Zimmer, who has a collaborative nature and likes to shine a light on his team of regulars. Their contribution helps him be prolific, and he ensures they are included on the cue sheets that determine publishing rights and that they receive public recognition. With “Dunkirk,” this meant doing a major New York Times interview with musicians Benjamin Wallfisch and Lorne Balfe, along with director Christopher Nolan, about the process of creating the film’s intensity.

In the weeks leading up to the December 1 submission deadline, there was chatter that maybe all three composers should be eligible for a potential Best Score nomination for “Dunkirk.” (Only Zimmer has the film’s the composer credit.) Before this year, the Academy ruled that only two composers could qualify per film, and the contribution of each should roughly equate to at least half of the score. This year, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer both submitted and qualified for “Blade Runner 2049,” but Zimmer ran into problems with “Dark Knight” in 2008: The score he composed with James Newton Howard was disqualified, as the two men’s combined contribution didn’t meet the bar.

Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

This year, the music branch allows three or more composers to apply for a “group statuette.” Essentially, instead of applying as an individual, collaborative composers may apply as a group; if they win, their names are all engraved on one Oscar rather than receiving individual statues. The Academy made a similar rule change a few years ago in the Best Original Song category. (If a rock band or rap group wrote a song for a film, under the old rules only two members could submit for Best Song; now, Arcade Fire or The Roots could apply to win one statue.)

It’s a rule change that seems tailored to solve Zimmer’s collaboration problem, but for 2017 two other films took advantage with “Lake of Fire” and “Second Coming of Christ.” Zimmer kept it simple: He was the only one to submit for “Dunkirk,” and therefore the only one on his team qualified for an Oscar nomination.

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