By Jon Burlingame
Magic, wizarding, giants, strange creatures — fantasy always needs music to help us suspend disbelief and imagine new worlds.
This year, two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed composers tackled big special-effects fantasies: five-time Oscar winner John Williams, in his 27th film with director Steven Spielberg, “The BFG”; and eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard, launching the new J.K. Rowling franchise “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
“I loved doing it,” says Williams of “BFG,” “because it was a change from a lot of the things we’ve done. It was done with such feeling and such humanity that it represented a charming palette for me.”
For Williams, the orphan girl Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and her adventure with a Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) “was really an opportunity to compose and orchestrate a little children’s fantasy for orchestra.” He likened the experience to working on “Home Alone” 26 years ago, especially “the lightheartedness and fun of it. Even when scenes are threatening or ominous, we know that it’s not serious.”
Williams composed more than 90 minutes of music for an 85-piece L.A. orchestra, including especially virtuosic parts for the flute section. “We tried to animate these little dreams that flit about the screen with flutes and harps and wispy harmonies,” the composer adds.
He praised the L.A. musicians as “world class” and was so inspired that he took the same ensemble over to UCLA’s Royce Hall a few months later and recorded an entire album of Spielberg movie themes, which Sony Classical will release next year.
“BFG” was based on a 1982 children’s novel by British writer Roald Dahl, whom Williams often encountered at the home of his friend and collaborator, director Robert Altman, in the late 1960s. “He seemed to be a tweedy, literary type,” Williams recalled, noting that he “had interest in music” and that they met not long before “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” the 1971 musical version of his “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Williams concedes that he had hoped for greater commercial success for “The BFG,” which was deemed a box-office disappointment after its July 1 release. His next film, however, won’t be: He begins recording “Star Wars Episode VIII” in December and expects to record off and on through March or April 2017.
To some degree, Howard is following in Williams’ musical footsteps with his ambitious and lengthy score for “Fantastic Beasts,” the spinoff franchise from the “Harry Potter” series (of which Williams scored the first three installments).
Howard even links the two series by reprising Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” at the start of the movie. After that, it hurtles off into its own new direction. Explains Howard: “My goal was to try and keep the bar high in terms of thematic legacy for these movies, which John had established so brilliantly. But it’s a new franchise, and I felt the music needed to stand on its own two feet.”
Stories involving magic invariably demand “pretty detailed and somewhat sophisticated orchestral writing,” Howard says. “You’re going to have a lot of woodwind and percussion flourishes, a certain chromaticism in terms of the melodic structures. Also choir and harps, and in my case, a fair amount of electronics as well.”
And a single theme won’t suffice. “The opportunities for really great thematic structure were so great in this movie. Once I felt that I had the themes, and David (director Yates) was happy and it was all working, then it becomes a massive architectural project, telling the story.”
There is an opening fanfare (which Howard says was written quite late in the process and will be exploited more in the next film), a mystery-filled “Fantastic Beasts” theme, two themes for Eddie Redmayne’s eccentric Newt (one somewhat lighthearted — “Newt can be quite a Chaplinesque character” — and another more heroic) and several secondary motifs representing supporting characters and creatures.
There are also grand setpieces, as we discover what’s inside Newt’s suitcase and for some of the large-scale creature scenes. The sheer variety of music required, from waltzes to marches to romantic music, “is what appealed to me the most. It was the broadest musical spectrum one could imagine.”
Augmenting his 94-piece London orchestra were a 40-voice choir and the 20-voice Trinity Boys Choir; an early-music consort including baroque cello and viola da gamba; and a small jazz combo for Howard’s colorful ’20-style jazz (part ragtime, part Dixie) featuring fun clarinet solos, muted trumpets and stride piano.
Howard spent seven months on the score, including three in London working closely with Yates. “There was a lot of experimentation and rewriting,” he reports, adding, “I think I worked as hard on this score as anything I’ve ever done.” The final tally was two hours and 10 minutes of music, among Howard’s longest-ever scores.
The composer is planning a first-ever European tour next year after he scores the “Jumanji” remake and adapts Tchaikovsky for “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” He’s already been asked to score the second “Fantastic Beasts” film in 2018.