Hey film fans! As you know from my past posts, my favorite music genre is film scores. One of my many opportunities I'm aiming for is to work with one of my favorite film composers of all time, John Powell, when I become a director. If you are a individual that loves film scores too, then do I have an article for you! Our friends at Collider.com had an in depth interview with John Powell for [How to Train Your Dragon 2](movie:44736), also talking about the state of film scoring and more! This is a real treat since Powell isn't known for interviews of this length, so enjoy!
Collider: First of all, I just want to say I am a huge fan of yours, your score for How to Train your Dragon is absolutely one of my favorites of the past decade and I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with the sequel.
JOHN POWELL: Oh thank you, hopefully I haven’t fucked it up!
What was your first reaction when you found out that there would be a sequel and that you’d be coming back to compose the score once again?
POWELL: I think I was very pleased because it felt like a film that I was quite close to. I did like the directors very much and although not both of them are on the second one, Chris [Sanders] is off doing his other things, but Dean [DeBlois] is in charge of this one and he’s absolutely wonderful to work with. So I was very pleased about the people staying the same basically, and I have great affection for the story as well and the characters. Even when I first heard of it, heard of the title of the movie, all those years ago when they sent me the books, Cressida Cowell’s books, which I love. She’s got this sort of great turn of phrase and these crazy drawings she does as well. They’re different from the film, but there’s something about the characters I think has maintained- the sweetness of the characters is maintained between the books and the first movie, and hopefully the second movie. I certainly think the second movie- personally I think it’s good, so I’m hoping that will really work for people, because I know they’ve been waiting for a sequel not to suck.
What I really admire about this is that DreamWorks didn’t just rush the sequel into production as quickly as possible, it feels like the really gave Dean and his team the time necessary to craft the best one that they could.
POWELL: Yeah, I think they were a little shocked at how well received the first one was, [laughs] by lots of people, I mean it’s such a broad scale of things. They’re used to having successes, but with younger audiences and things, and I think a lot of adults really like this film. It felt a bit more of a serious film, so I think they were very careful not to disappoint that audience.
I think one of the things that kind of stood out from other animated films at the time was that it was such a deeply compassionate film. It didn’t feel like there was any cynicism in it at all and I felt like that was something unique that a lot of people latched onto.
POWELL: Yes! I really think that’s in the original books, that’s in Chris and Dean. I mean Dean is just- he is that way. Everybody’s hearts I think are in the right place on this one. That’s why I think I was happy to come back and work on it. Basically I’m not really doing any films, but this one was one that I really couldn’t turn down.
So how early do you come in on the process on a film like this?
POWELL: This one- well we had a song or two to try and sort out early on. There’s one song where people are actually singing in the movie, so it’s almost like source music. So we had to do that about- when did we start? About a year and a half ago, I think, eighteen months ago. That got done, because obviously they can’t advance the animation until the song was right. So that was Jónsi and I that wrote a melody for one of these scenes, then we got words by Shane MacGowan, and once we had that we got the art from the voice artists to sing it, that was all done. That was really the only early thing I did on this. I try and get involved early just to start thinking about the film. I was probably writing themes for this a year ago, trying things out, then as the film kind of coalesces, you kind of get a version of the film that is really working and then I’d start to take scenes away and work on them. That was about six months before hand, and then the last three months are just pure havoc, chaos, and trying to get it all done [laughs].
What are those first conversations with Dean like when you’re discussing the score and what kind of themes to approach?
POWELL: Well, he showed me an early version of the movie probably about a year ago and at that point I think pretty much I would have seen where I felt the story was giving me the moments that I could- not the moments, but the through lines that I could attach themes to. One of the themes is called “Lost and Found”, and that’s one of the central themes to the movie as well, sort of a growing up theme, and that’s obviously very important to Hiccup in the movie. He has grown up and he’s going to continue to grow up throughout the course of the film in a really quite serious way, so I needed some serious tunes that were new to the franchise. I could obviously utilize anything from before that felt as if it was appropriate and we did. We took pretty much all the tunes and used them in the first five minutes of the film, kind of like an overture from the first movie, everything is there from the first movie just about [laughs]. Then we have a song sequence with Hiccup and Toothless flying, which is kind of an amalgam of some of Hiccup’s flying music from the first film and Jónsi wrote a song with that material as well. Within the first eight minutes of the film we try to return you to the world, return you to the themes, return you to the characters. From there on themes are very carefully introduced, linked into these ideas that the film is following throughout, the story is following.
You obviously have experience working with sequels before, was it your idea to get the first film’s music out of the way at the beginning of How to Train Your Dragon 2? I’m curious how you go about composing a score for a sequel without repeating yourself, especially when you have such an amazing theme that you’ve crafted for the first movie that you would clearly like to weave into the second one.
POWELL: Well I got very lucky on this film, on the sequel, because normally on sequels they temp- they temporarily put the music from the first movie into the second one as they’re constructing the film. That’s just part of it. Kung Fu Panda was like that, all the Bournes were like that, and the scenes are almost built up using music from the first movie, so by the time a composer comes in you’ve often really got no choice. You have to kind of follow the plan that’s being formed without you [laughs], as it were, utilizing the music that exists. Now obviously if it’s a sequel that you did the first movie and you’re doing the sequel, then it’s your music, that’s okay. On the Bourne movies they were utilizing music from the first movie, that’s no problem. If it’s somebody else’s music then it’s hard, but if it’s your own music that’s one thing. On this one Dean and I talked, I think it was actually at an Oscar party- I think it was after the Oscars because I think he pitched me the story for this one then. He was thinking about it all the way back then, and one of things I think I just said probably in a drunken stupor of the party was just, “Please don’t temp it with the first music.” I didn’t think much about it [laughs] and then he must have taken it to heart because the great thing about this one is they didn’t. Basically Dean said, “Right, we’re not going to use any of the music from the first movie.” They used it maybe just for some public screenings within the last four or five months as the film was really coming on, as I was coming on, so that wasn’t a problem really because by that point they hadn’t kind of locked it all in.
So this gave me a much better chance to really have some influence on the form, influence of the structure and the form. So that was why I felt like let’s get everybody back in the world, that’s what the whole first scene is about, you can tell. When you watch it, it literally starts the same way as the first film, same voiceover, same shots, but then there is a difference, which is rather than the dragons attacking, it’s a dragon race scene. It’s fun. So we took all of the themes, we kind of threw them in the air and jumbled them up and had fun with them. That just kind of let every body relax, and from there onwards then you look for the moments at which that the audience feels the story is really moving forward, and that’s when you start a new theme and start to introduce them carefully and slowly so they feel as though the new themes connect with the new story.
You said that you worked with Jónsi on some of the songs in the movie as well, and I’m a big fan of Sigur Rós too; how did that collaboration work on the film? Did you guys work together on the actual score as well or was it just on the specific songs?
POWELL: No, it was just there’s one moment where we have a song for the characters to sing, it’s like a little folk song. It’s Stoick and his long lost wife meeting again. It’s a such a moment, and it was a dramatic moment that they first meet, how he then tries to persuade her to kind of come back. Dean wanted to try and do it in a way that wasn’t just expositional, wasn’t just all talk. So he was talking about this and we came up with this idea of well, maybe he could sing a song that they both know, kind of like a courting song, like a song they both used to sing when they were young. In the same way that me and my wife probably remember having early dates to something from the late 80s, some shitty 80′s song [laughs] we both know. This had to be kind of a cultural song that they would both know and both as he started to sing it, he knew that she would recognize it and if he could get her to sing it and maybe dance with him again then he would win her back. So it was a very deliberate, dramatic reason to have the song. So when Dean explained it to me and he said I’d love you to work with Jónsi on this, who had worked on a song for the first movie, and we really loved him and he’s a very good friend of his.
So he said yes, and he was over for a little while, I think mixing one of the albums. It was about January of 2013 and he was over mixing the Sigur Rós album for a month. So while he was in LA we kind of utilized him and he would come out to the studio and we had what we called “play dates”. So we would just write some things and the first one became that song. Then the next one was basically- I did new arrangements of some of the flying scenes for him, then I gave him that material and then he took it back to his studio and he worked on it, and we kind of passed it back and forth across the Atlantic a few times. So that’s how the second song came about that we worked on. And we utilize that song twice, once at the beginning of the movie, once at the end of the movie. It was great fun to work with him, he’s lovely to work with and he’s very sweet. I try and see him when I’m on that side of the world.
Did any of your song work that you guys did together impact the rest of the score or did those two worlds kind of exist separately?
POWELL: It sort of exists separately, except for one scene I can’t tell you about, there is a good reason why we shouldn’t talk about it [laughs]. It is much better for people to come across that scene. It’s basically yes, so we use that tune for this song and then one other moment, and when you watch the film you’ll know that other moment, and we kind of do an arrangement of that tune for very good reasons. Those were the two moments for that melody.
After the success of the first movie DreamWorks obviously got pretty excited about this as a potential franchise and we know that there’s going to be a third film. Does knowing that this is the second film in a trilogy impact your composition of the score at all?
POWELL: In no way whatsoever. You have to function purely for this story. It’s not like I’m setting up themes, or maybe I am, I really don’t know yet for the third one. That’s a couple years away, so I’ll happily review this score to see what the themes mean for the third story, but in the view of how I worked the music, it was purely to ply this story with the correct music.
Have you guys had any conversations about [How to Train Your Dragon 3](movie:570818) yet, or has everyone just been focused getting this one finished?
POWELL: Yes, I saw Dean in Cannes, we had a premiere of the film there. He was kind of very merry and drunk and he sort of knew about three, but I think it was mentioned to him by Jeffrey [Katzenberg] that maybe they would do four, and that was definitely a real kind of eye opener for Dean and for me. Because it was like, I thought- I thought this was a trilogy [laughs]. So I don’t know, and it might be good because he’s got a lot of story left to tell so maybe splitting it into two will work, but I just don’t know about that yet. I’m just supposing that at the moment Dean has an idea for the third one and just isn’t telling any of us yet.
Looking back over your career, obviously scoring any film is a fluid process, but how locked down are the movies when you start recording the score? Are there times when these animated movies have had big structural changes that have kind of impacted what you’ve already done?
POWELL: No, not with animated movies, they tend not to be, they tend to be quite stable structurally. What can change is the tone, you can be asked to change the tone. In some of the Ice Age movies we had to make sure that the tone was funny enough, and perhaps we used wa-wa trombones a bit much to try and do that [laughs], but you can definitely be asked to do that in animated film. What I call the stalling number, how cartoonish the music is. And I think you’ll hear that the music in How to Train Your Dragon is very uncartoony. The first one wasn’t that cartoony and this one certainly isn’t, but some of the other animated films definitely are, and sometimes I get involved in the structure of the film itself.
Happy Feet was definitely- I was on the film four years before the film came about, because the main premise was about the song of the heart, this idea that we all have a heart song. So George dragged me into that really early and the film kind of sunk or swam based on whether or not those songs felt integral to the action. Then you can have an influence on the structure, but mostly it’s live action that can suddenly throw you for a loop. They can suddenly change things around dramatically and the things that you’ve done previously become null and void, and that can be a bit of a shock sometimes, but that’s just the nature of filmmaking now. It’s really all changed since Avid. Thirty years ago, forty years ago they really couldn’t change films that significantly, obviously you could edit it a good lot, but you couldn’t constantly nibble away at the film until two days before the premiere, which is always what happens now in live action.
Did you always know that you wanted to compose music for films or did that decision come later in your life?
POWELL: Yeah, it was much later. I wanted to play music from the age of seven. I suddenly fell in love with it and that’s what I was going to do, or to be involved with music. It was just speaking to me at a level that as a seven year old I suddenly realized the world was capable of supporting in my head a lot more than what I was understanding verbally and visually. Suddenly music came along and everything clicked. So from that point on I was set to do music, however playing is much, much harder than composing in my opinion, becoming a player. If you want to be a player for all your life either you decide not to do it professionally and just enjoy it and just do it every weekend, but if you want to be a professional musician- hardest thing I could imagine and I really wasn’t capable of doing it. So thankfully I kind of fell into composing as a teenager and realized well, I think this will make me happy in music, it’s not quite what I wanted to be, because I thought I wanted to play, but I’ll organize other people into playing for me [laughs]. Then I wanted to write music for music’s sake and discovered that that’s very difficult to do. You don’t have any money, you don’t have any facilities, everything I now take for granted is very hard to come by, and the film industry is a way of allowing yourself- for the cost of making the music fit people’s film and having to divert your attention towards your story rather than just kind of the internal story of the music- you get the best players, the best studios, and you get payed to do it. So that’s fantastic, but I never really intended to do it I just fell into it.
You’ve worked on a number of films for DreamWorks Animation going all the way back to the early days at the company with films like Antz and The Road to El Dorado and then of course Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. As the studio has evolved over the years have you noticed any major changes to the way that the animated films are scored at the studio?
POWELL: The very first thing I ever did almost in LA was Helping Hands on songs for The Prince of Egypt, which was DreamWorks first film. We’re doing this 20th anniversary concert in three months at the Hollywood bowl this summer, so it’s been fun to go back and look over all the things that myself, Hans and Harry have done. So I think the thing is that really right from the very moment- I remember Jeffrey on Antz for instance, basically saying to Harry and I, “You’re not scoring an animated film, don’t even think about scoring an animated film. Think of this as live action.” That was the way he really wanted to begin the company’s attitude to it. I think that he’s now ironically relaxed that. I think he’s realized that there’s a kind of comedy nature to music that I think he’s feeling the company has- they’ve earned the right to be sometimes cartoony. Ironically I haven’t done that many of those films for them recently. Kung Fu Panda has got a lot of comedy in it and we had to be a little careful about comedy music in that, but in Dragon certainly it just didn’t seem right to do that. I mean, he never even had to say to me to do that. In fact, if anything, he was the one on this one, on How to Train Your Dragon 2, who probably got me to lighten the score a little bit and treat it a little bit more for a younger audience perhaps, musically, because the story is a really good story, a very solid, emotional story. I think the music can have an effect on that. It can either make everything that’s kind of dark about the story darker, or you can balance, you can offset some of the darkness and you still end up with the same emotional impact, but you just don’t have to kind of have a hat on a hat sometimes. So I think they’ve always had an attitude that they had to stand out, they had to be different from Disney at that time. Now it’s a much more crowded field as well, and I think I’ve been lucky enough to be on some of the films where they’re really finding their heart a bit more.
You talked a little bit about how late changes can affect working on live action films, are there any other main differences between composing music for animated films and live-action films? Because you’ve done quite a bit of both.
POWELL: Yeah, I mean, essentially no, but I definitely felt over the years that I was being asked to write very different music for animation from what I was being asked to write for live action. I’ve enjoyed the live action I’ve done, but I was finding that a lot of the live action stuff was trying to clamp down on some of the musical freedom, and it was very minimalist. That’s part of my own fault for creating The Bourne Identity, which has kind of gone on to become a very apparently influential score if you turn on TV or whenever you see action scenes [laughs]. There’s a certain sound to it, which is this kind of mixture of minimalism and electronica and things like that. It worked very well then, I was happy to do it, because it felt different then. It’s hard now because everybody was asking me to do the same thing that everybody else was doing, and I wasn’t finding that I was interested really in the music that I was being asked to write as much as when I was in animated films where I felt as if they let me take the gloves off a bit. So that’s the essential difference for me and that’s why I’ve ended up doing so many animation films.
Yeah, I’m a fan of your score for Knight and Day, which is kind of this big fun caper-esque movie and the score complements that well, but is that the last live-action film you scored? Do you have any plans to dive back into live-action at some point?
POWELL: Well, never say never, but at the moment I’m taking a little hiatus to sort of refresh. I think the right film might come along that’s maybe looking for me to find something interesting for it, that isn’t just requiring me to sound how you’d expect an action film, or a live action film. And maybe a bit of time away from all of this stuff will allow- I’m hoping will allow me to refresh and get interesting ideas, because I know that film scoring, nevertheless my ideas, but film scoring will continue very successfully without me and people won’t really notice that I’m gone other than my name doesn’t appear as much [laughs]. I think I’d like to have a bit of time off and come back, and when I come back I’ll try to come back with a real cracking, interesting film and an interesting sound to reinvent a few things again. That would be the way to return I think [laughs]. Unless of course I get divorced and I need the money.
[Laughs] I was curious about your thoughts on the state of the world of film composing now, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on with popular artists like Trent Reznor and Arcade Fire’s William Butler getting into film and stuff.
POWELL: That stuff I do like. I like it when people who don’t know anything about film music come and score films. What I don’t really enjoy particularly is these scores that sound like the temp, and you can spot a temp a mile off. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I know why the pressure for composers to do that is there, and I completely understand, but just as a viewer it’s not really interesting to me. When Trent Reznor comes in and does something then that’s much more interesting, because he’s not been sitting around listening to how to score to this, he’s not listening to the temp- it hasn’t been temped with James Newton Howard and he’s trying to sound like James Newton Howard, he’s just doing what he does and that’s when you suddenly get interesting steps forward in an art form.
I’m much more interested in that, yes, absolutely. I’d love to hear what a score sounded like done by MIA, I think she’s just so fabulously talented, just incredible, but it requires the right director, it requires the right time frame. Films often don’t have enough time for these kind of artists to develop things. Because an album can take a year to do, we get- I know I’ve said I come on a year beforehand, but often if you come on a year beforehand, you do three other films before you finalize all the tracks for the film and you cant really finish it until the end. There’s a pragmatic side to film scoring for a lot of films that just doesn’t suit the interesting artists. Honestly I think the Jonny Greenwood stuff is phenomenal and I love that. The score to The Master was incredible, I think that was under- overlooked, I should say. It should have been much more heralded. I like some of his other scores as well, all of them, but that one I was just stunned by. I loved it. Jon Brion always brings such a brilliant sound to film. It doesn’t sound like scoring. I’ll be interested to see what happens. The guy who does Breaking Bad is really good [laughs] (Ed. Note: Dave Porter composed the score for Breaking Bad). That was completely much more interesting than your average TV score. So I’m looking out for it, but I definitely fall asleep often in films that kind are kind of rehashing the temp, and I understand [laughs].
It sounds like what you said talking about the time crunch of film scores, a lot of those like Jonny Greenwood and Paul Thomas Anderson or Spike Jonze with his Her score, it seems like those really interesting scores are ones that the filmmaker will take a year and half to do post-production on and take the time to fine tune the score with that non-traditional composer.
POWELL: Yes, it almost requires the director to edit to their music, because obviously the nature of that kind of writing is not as flexible. It’s all about the effect of it on you as it comes out, you’re creating it as an artist. I really think that’s the difficulty for film scores, people who do a lot of film scores like me. I mean, I was always aware that I was stuck somewhere between being a supplier and an artist. You have to supply the end result on time, on budget, that fitted what everybody was asking. Not just the director, but sometimes the studio has notes about music, they have an opinion about what the music should be doing. So you’ve got all these forces asking you perhaps contradictory things of the music and then the other side of you is you saying “I need to treat this as if I’m creating an album for somebody.” That’s what I always tried to do. Even Knight and Day I was trying to do that, on Mr. and Mrs. Smith I was trying to do that. I was listening to the albums around me and I was thinking how did these guys make these interesting albums? A Beck album, and I was thinking how did he make this? And you suddenly realize, oh goddamnit, they spent a year messing around with these tracks, that’s how they’re so good and I’ve only got two months to do this. That can only be a 40% element of it, the other 60% has to fit in with what he movie needs. It’s a game of kind of compromises, always. It depends what kind of thing the director wants. They are the ones who drive it. Yeah, it’s much more interesting when you’ve got a director who’s willing to kind of find the music, and live with the music, and work with the music, and make the film work to the music sometimes, rather than the other way around.
It seems like a lot of scores kind of borrow from what Hans Zimmer does. You worked with Hans Zimmer a while ago for Remote Control Productions I believe, I was curious what that experience was like working with him and collaborating with him on some scores.
POWELL: Yeah, that’s how I got my break in Hollywood, just due to his generosity of time and spirit, and I was mentored by it as well. Because, you can learn all these things theoretically, but when you’re on the ground with somebody who’s really doing it, and really doing it on the highest level, it all kind of snaps into place, and without that experience, its very hard to see how people can get anywhere. For me it was all about him having faith in me and underwriting the possible films that I was put up for. That gave people a guarantee that even if this person they’ve never heard of, me, messed it up, somebody that they have heard of, Hans, would come in and sort it out. He never did have to, but it allowed me to kind of get my career going in a real fast track fashion. So for that the other part of it, the giving part that I could give back to him was to be part of a kind of group of people around him just trying to challenge him. That was what I always felt I should be doing, because he’s not somebody who wants to stay the same. The economics of it are such that- if you think of Hans he’s reinvented himself more than anyone else, how his sound goes, but then- and there’s nothing wrong with the fact that that sound gets utilized for quite a few movies. You can’t reinvent yourself for every movie. I mean, he’s done a hundred movies, but the very fact that he’s figured out how to get such an original sounding score so many times, you can see that so few people are able to do that.
So you’re around all the time and he liked people who came in and challenged him. I would be one of those that came in at four in the morning when he was doing something and tell him, “It’s great, but it’s boring. Why are you doing something that you’ve done a thousand times before?” That was kind of our job and he liked people giving him a hard time about things that he suddenly realized, “Oh, this is the easy way out.” I worked with him on The Thin Red Line and that’s a brilliant, brilliant score, and I wasn’t doing anything other than trying to support what he was trying to do on that and be around for it. I’d worked with the director as well on a previous film, on a film called Endurance, and so I think it gave Hans an ally who understood Terrence Malick a little. I just had a fantastic time when I was there. Obviously at a certain point you realize as your career takes off that somebody like Hans has a massive hat, as I say, he’s got a big shadow, so you have to try and figure out your own language. Not just your own language, you have to let Hollywood figure you out as being different. I had to sort of leave, fly the coop, and do Bourne Identity to make sure that Hollywood knew me as being something that was different from everybody else at Remote Control.
And now of course, that Thin Red Line score is in the first trailer for at least one movie a year it feels like.
POWELL: Oh at least, and when that’s in your temp, that’s a killer. When it’s in a temp, it’s hell. That was one of the pieces that was in the temp to How to Train Your Dragon 2. That sinking feeling of “Oh my god, how am I going to do that?” You won’t spot it though, because what I ended up with doesn’t sound anything like it.
Is there any one project over your career that stands out as kind of being the toughest or one that was the hardest to crack?
POWELL: Definitely Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2. I loved working with George [Miller] and he’s complex, and I learned so much, I really did, but it’s a very tough nut to crack. Having said that, Paul Greengrass is complicated as well, and wonderful. They’re all- I’ve worked with Doug Liman, and he’s fantastic as well, but again very complicated, trying to figure out how to give them what they want, what they need, and trying to make sure that the studio doesn’t kill us all. There’s pressures that you sometimes have with more complicated directors, who are magnificently talented, and you want to be involved with them but you’ve got to really- I’ve always said the only way to deal with people like that is you have to join them in their madness. If you’re not part of the madness team [laughs], you’ll never fully understand and you’ll never understand what they want. So that wonderful kind of mad chaos that was Happy Feet was wonderful, it was crazy and when the film finally worked it was a joy to see it. I learned a lot on that movie [laughs].
Besides How to Train Your Dragon 3 and possibly How to Train your Dragon 4 you mentioned a sabbatical, is there anything else on your radar or are you just trying to take a break and not think about anything?
POWELL: I am taking a break, but I’m trying to write a piece for an oratorio for an orchestra in London for performance probably early next year, and it’s based on a story that I’ve been developing about the beginning of the first world war. So I’m working on that at the moment. I’ll probably finish that at the end of the year, then record it, then we’ll do a performance at the beginning of next year. Other than that, I’m trying not to think about that. I’m working on a trebuchet with my son for his medieval class, his medieval warfare class [laughs]. We’re building a wooden trebuchet, only about three feet high. So I’m trying to practice my woodworking skills at the moment, and my fathering skills.
That was amazing! So what did you guys think? Have you future film composers been inspired further? What did you fans of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise think? Or everyone's thoughts in general? Whatever you thought; comment below let me know!