Shore, Howard: Interview with Brilliant Composer

Howard Shore is a multiple Oscar-winner for the trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.” Despite his brilliant composition for “The Aviator,” the Music Branch disqualified him for Oscar consideration, claiming that the film’s score was not original enough. Shore’s next big project is Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,” which Universal will release in December. The film is already touted as a potential Oscar contender.

Levy: Congratulations for winning the Broadcast Film Critics Award for “The Aviator.”

Shore: Last night, thank you!

Levy: My first question is about the nature of your collaboration with David Cronenberg. You have done a large number of compositions for him.

Shore: Weve done 10 films together.

Levy: How did it begin What’s unique about working with Cronenberg

Shore: This collaboration is very important. It goes back 25 years. The first film we did was “The Spider,” in 1978, and jumping to the future, I worked with him on “Spider,” which came out in 2002. These pictures have all been very important “The Brood,” “Scanners,” “Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” “Naked Lunch,” “Crash.” We grew up making movies together, David and I. He learned how to work with a composer, and I learned how to work with a director. That collaboration has really been the creative backbone of a lot of my work for many years, because it allowed a certain type of experimentation, if you will, a certain type of creative energy, you know, because we were always attempting something new.

Levy: Do you get any specific guidelines from Cronenberg before the movie begins What kind of information does he offer before you start composing

Shore: David always sends me the script very early on, and we look at the film when he has a cut. We both feel that the film tells us what it wants. We look at it together, and we talk about it, but David doesn’t start with a preconceived idea. He shoots and cuts, and then he starts to feel what’s required to tell the story effectively, how to use music in the film. We have experimented with a lot of different ways, from the early films, the guerilla films like “Videodrome,” to “The Fly,” which is a symphonic score. It’s really an opera score. And then there are minimalist scores like “Crash” and “Spider.” So weve tried a lot of different ways of using music in film, and that’s what’s always so interesting about it.

Levy: At what point, do you show him his work Is the music an integral part of the process How does it work

Shore: Weve done various different ways of working. But with David and I, it’s really intuitive. We do work together well, and I do, obviously, play him pieces that Im working on. But we work together very intuitively; it’s the best word I can use. There’s not a lot of discussion. It’s really in service to the film to really be able to tell the best story, and to do that with music. And so we let the film tell us. The film expresses the idea to us, the filmmakers, of what’s required to tell the story well.

Levy: Is there any way to estimate how long it takes to write a film composition

Shore: It depends on the project. On “The Aviator” I wrote a whole year. I was reading the Hughes biographies, “Empire” and “The Untold Story,” and I was literally writing music, over the course of the year, about Howard Hughes and about the script, which I had. And then as the film came in, I started applying some of the compositions to the film. With “The Lord of the Rings,” each one of those three films was created over a year: the composition, orchestration, and recording.

Levy: Going back to Cronenberg, who is one of my favorite directors, do you have a special affinity for the horror genre that Cronenberg has specialized in

Shore: My interest in doing film music, when I started in the 1970s, was really because I had a strong interest in trying to capture the recordings of things I was thinking about in music. In other words, my interest was really in music. The collaboration with Cronenberg, with the subject matter, allowed me a lot of latitude, a lot of room for experimentation, a lot of ways to use music, a lot of ways to record different kinds of music. What was really my interest in going into film was the access to creative minds like Cronenberg’s, and access to great musicians and recording studios. It was a way to play good music, really.

Levy: Let’s switch to Scorsese. Your first score was for “After Hours” in 1985 How does the collaboration with Scorsese differ from that with Cronenberg

Shore: I think all these director-composer collaborations are very different. The energy and the flow of ideas are very different. I mean, with Peter Jackson as well. There are different ways of working, different relationships with people. Im very open to working different ways with different directors. You have to be, really.

Levy: You came on board “Gangs of New York” rather late.

Shore: I never really did come on board. I was working on “Two Towers,” and of course I had known Marty from New York. He called me and we started discussing certain aspects of the music, but my work that year was really on “Two Towers.” And the piece in “Gangs” is a concert piece called “Brooklyn Heights.”

Levy: It must have been a challenge to work on “The Aviator,” which is set in during a crucial period in Hollywood and American history

Shore:It’s a fascinating era, because when Hughes made “Hell’s Angels,” he originally made it as a silent film. “The Aviator” bridges the gap between the silent and the sound movies.

Levy: What type of music was used at the time

Shore:It was mostly classical music, played by piano or organ, and then it transitioned into music that was specifically written for films. The first significant score may have been Max Steiner’s 1933 score for “King Kong.” There’s still classic music in “Hell’s Angels,” but it’s for Hughes’ next picture, “The Outlaw” (1943) that more particular movie music was used.

Levy: The music for “The Aviator” includes different styles of music: jazz, big band.

Shore:The story spans two decades (1927-1947) and so it shows the bridge of music from the jazz era of the 1920s through the 1930s, and into the big-band music of the 1940s. Since the movie is very historical, the score is written to create the sound of that period.

Levy: Would you consider “The Lord of the Rings” the most challenging composition or project on which you have worked You have done over 50 films by now


Levy: Is there any way to evaluate, to say which was the toughest, which was the most challenging, which was the most rewarding

Shore: Id say that “The Lord of the Rings,” the trilogy. Composing that music took close to four years.

Levy: You worked on it from the beginning

Shore: I started in the summer of 2000. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens worked on the films for eight years. That was really the most challenging project that I had ever worked on. I mean it was the culmination, really, of everything I had learned about films, about theater, about drama, and about working and collaborating with other artists. It was just everything I knew about music and films.

Levy: When it comes to music, how does it work Do you read the screenplay What’s the first idea Also, if you could talk about the motifs running through a composition

Shore: Well, with me, I like to read a lot. I like the printed word. I find that structure–of words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters–a very good structure for writing music. Music also has a very linear quality on the page, of those five parallel lines and the bar structure of music. I start on projects always by reading. And the other literary adaptations Ive done, like “Crash,” J.G. Ballard’s book, and William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch,” and Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” and “The Lord of the Rings.” I love doing literary work because it allows me to read a lot. “The Aviator” was fantastic because there’s so much great written biography of the period and of Hughes. I love historical pieces. And I find that the words really generate a lot of the music ideas. Im writing, really, to the ideas. And then once I see the imagery of the film it sparks another creative flow of energy based on the visual imagery of what’s been created from the words. And those are the real sources of the composition. I usually write a lot of music based on the words and imagery of the film. And then I start a more technical process of actually applying the composition to specific scenes–how will it work in this scene, how I will use this music in this scene

Levy: When you read the screenplay, do you compose music for a specific character, or a specific issue of a film

Shore: The process that I was describing to you just now is much more intuitive. Im not really thinking about character that much, Im just thinking specifically about the story, the period, the feelings I have about it. Then, the secondary process is how to use this raw material, this compositional material, in the story. And that starts the process of using light motifs for characters, objects, or things, or how to use themes in the film. In “The Lord of the Rings,” there are over 70 motifs in the story, and theyre used to describe places, objects, characters, and cultures. It was a way of clarity of storytelling to use motifs and themes. “The Lord of the Rings” is really the best example of that. In “The Aviator,” there are three major themes in the piece that describe Hughes’ obsession, his fascination with speed, and also just his ambition.

Levy: So which are the three motifs that are in “The Aviator” Can you be more specific

Shore: The film’s key words are speed, technology, innovation, and obsession. Those are pretty good starting points for composing music. They describe Hughes’ passion for speed, his obsession with speed, and his obsession with obsession. You know, his obsession with all things related to youth, his cleanliness obsession, and all of that. And then there’s just his ambition. The man was a bigger-than-life, epic person who at one time owned RKO and TWA. He was incredibly ambitious, way beyond the aviation world.

Levy: Your composition was inspired by technology

Shore:More than anything else, the film is about Hughes’ aviation career. He designed, built, and actually test-flew three significant airplanes. That was very helpful. One broke the world speed record for planes; one was reconnaissance plane, and then the Spruce Goose. I tried to how in my music Hughes’ innovation, his mechanical way of thinking, his obsession with details.

Levy: What do you take from classic Hollywood cinema by way of music, and how do you differ from it

Shore: I think youre really part of that tradition.

Levy: You continue to be part of the classic Hollywood cinema

Shore: Yeah, we all are, sure. It was interesting because at the Palm Springs Festival, I received the Frederick Loewe Award. And I mentioned in the acceptance speech that Loewe was a silent film pianist, but he was known for throwing away the music that they gave him to play, and playing his own compositions. So the tradition of music and movies comes from the nineteenth Century, from opera, from theater. Were all part of that. Max Steiner’s score for “King Kong” in 1933, considered one of the great film scores of that period, is the leader of how to use music in films. It’s showing you this whole new creative way of how to use symphonic music, of how to use theater music in motion pictures. We are all, my contemporaries and the younger generation that’s writing music, part of that tradition.

Levy: Is there any composer of the Classic Era who is a role model, or inspirational, like Alex North or Elmer Bernstein

Shore: When I was a youngster growing up in Toronto, there was a music library near where I lived. And I would wander in there and discover composers purely by accident. And one of the composers I discovered was the great Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, who worked with Kurosawa. He did over 90 film scores, wrote a lot of concert music, wonderful electronic music, too, and music for solo instruments. And I found his music interesting and very creative, and I would listen a lot to his music for years. I love all the Italian composers, Nino Rota and George de la Rue in France. I was interested in how different cultures told different stories in music.

Levy: You are doing the music for “King Kong”

Shore: I was in New Zealand about a month ago. My wife Elizabeth and I were in a scene where Kong escapes. It’s like a Broadway theater; there was an orchestra in a pit. Peter Jackson has shot approximately half the film at this point. I wrote music for specific scenes in the film that required music to shoot. Therere vaudeville scenes, there’s this scene with Kong with orchestra. Ive been working on that, sketching out, writing, and preparing. This is my major project this year, so the compositional process has begun.

Levy: When you work, do you begin with music for a particular scene, or do you have an overall vision for your composition

Shore: These are overall impressions, because Im not creating scores specifically to scenes. Im writing music based on the ideas of the story.

Levy: Who decides exactly what bit of music is inserted in what scene

Shore: Well, I do that with Peter, or with Marty, or with David. That’s called a spotting session, and those meetings actually go on all through the process. And that’s a very close collaboration with the director and the composer discussing how to use music in the film, how to use the themes, how to use the motifs in the film.

Levy: How concerned are you about doing a remake like “King Kong” I spoke to Peter Jackson about it, and he is very concerned because it’s a cult film. In terms of music, since you mentioned Max Steiner, is it a burden Is it inspirational Is there pressure not to repeat or imitate

Shore:When you work on films like “King Kong,” and any of the films I work on, you want to give a piece that’s from your heart. You want to feel that what youre contributing is something you really trust and believe in, and that you can craft and give it to the film. There’s been this history of music for films, and there’s been great work done, and the Steiner score is brilliant. But you want to feel like, What do I have to offer What do I have to say about this story’ So once you go into that process and youre truthful, you just give a true expression.

Levy: How concerned are you about repeating yourself as a musician I want to bring the issue of auteurism. For example, Scorsese has recurrent motifs, consistent ideas and visual images in his work. What about composers Do you consider yourself an auteur composer with recurrent motifs or concerns

Shore: No, I think that Im looking at each of these pieces as separate pieces. There must be some thread that runs through them, that must have this quality of my work in it, because were all human. But I look at each piece as a separate project. And I don’t try to bring my ideas into it. I try to create the best piece, really, just to try to tell the best story. Whether it’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” or “Se7en,” Im interested in how to tell that story in music.

Levy: You have composed several horror films, such as “Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en.” Do you feel special affinity for this genre

Shore: It had to do with music in that the stories allowed a certain type of music expression and was of interest. The music of “Mrs. Doubtfire” is completely different from the music of “Silence of the Lambs.” The stories are different. The way you are telling the story in music is very different. And the darker stories that had that level of psychological, if you will, detail to them allowed a deeper form of music expression.

Levy: I love your score for “Ed Wood.” I like the whole movie very much. Can you tell me something specific about working on “Ed Wood”

Shore:This is a favorite period of mine, and this is the great period of Mancini’s work, “A Touch of Evil” and “Swamp Creature,” and all those horror movies of the late 1950s at Universal. I just love that period. It was also the period when Cuban music was mixing with jazz, and the Afro-Cuban sound was starting to take place. So it’s just a wonderful, really vibrant music period. Working with Tim Burton was a joy. He’s a creative, amazing director. I was a fan of his movies for years, so to be able to work with him on that film was just wonderful.

Levy: Is there any way to characterize film music of the last decade Is there anything really new

Shore: I don’t think you can characterize it because I feel it’s shifting every six months.

Levy: Are we in a good phase, as were with independent cinema at the moment. What about film composition What’s the state of the art

Shore: There’s music being made for movies all over the world. I look at that, and I see composers coming from Germany, England, and France, and I see fantastic work being done. The creative energy is there, and the ideas are there. How it’s expressed is different, and the technology is constantly changing. And how people look at movies, and how they think about them in terms of music is, as I said, constantly changing. I think every six months you feel little shifts in how stories are told and how music is used. I find all of that very interesting.

Levy: Is it a good time to be a film composer now

Shore: I think there’s a lot of creativity in working with films. There are wonderful directors making movies. In the past few years weve seen amazing movies being made. So I think, yes, there’s a lot of creativity going on and people have a lot of ways to express themselves.

Levy: How important was it to win the Oscar award You have three Oscars. How influential were they in terms of your career

Shore: It was very gratifying to have my peers honor me in that way. And for the whole film, it was wonderful to have that kind of reaction to that film. And it’s just a great feeling being able to create that work and have it honored in that way.

Levy: Was the Oscar influential Can you estimate the effects How does it work for film music How rich are you

Shore: (Laughing) There’s no money attached to the Oscar. Youre still back at writing afterwards. I think the achievement gives you a bit of energy as a composer, when your peers are saying what youre doing is good. It’s just a great pat on the back, saying Keep up the good work. Let’s have some more good work, and let’s do some more good movies.

Levy: Youve always worked with brilliant directors, like Cronenberg or Burton, or Fincher. You were brilliant and successful before winning the Oscar. So how influential is the Oscar award in terms of recognition

Shore: I don’t know. Im probably not even the best person to ask that question!

Levy: Should I talk to your agent, to see if he gets more money for you Who is your agent, by the way

Shore:Sam & Mike Sam Schwartz and Mike Gorfaine.

Levy: What’s coming after “King Kong”

Shore: After “Kong,” Im working on an opera production, which Ive dreamed about doing for a while. It’s based on Cronenberg’s movie, “The Fly.” David Henry Wong is doing the libretto, and Cronenberg is going to direct for the L.A. Opera. I felt after so many years working in films, that I had an idea that I wanted to try it on stage for theater. And it feels very natural, after having written 12 hours of music for “The Lord of the Rings,” for the symphony orchestra, for chorus, for children’s chorus, and for soloists. Im a great opera lover. I thought, let me try my hand at this form.

Levy: When will it premiere

Shore: It’s coming in 2007 or 2008. Im writing it now.

Levy: How do you actually write music

Shore: My compositional sketches are in pencil on 4-6 stave paper, and I do my own orchestrations in ink on 32-staves, the big score. There’s a part of my music that’s very nineteenth century. There’s another part that’s very twenty-first century, where Im using video conferencing for working in different places of the world at the same time. Ive been using the Internet and digital technology since the 1970s. I kind of combine technologies of the nineteenth with the twenty-first century.

Levy: And skipping altogether the twentieth century

Shore: Well were not in the twentieth century anymore. When I was in that decade, I was using that technology. But Im very interested in the new, and as you can obviously tell in the music, in the traditional as well. I like to use those tried and true forms.