Interview: ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ Oscar-Nominated Composer John Powell On The Challenges In The Industry

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John Powell earned his first Oscar nomination in 2010 for the first How To Train Your Dragon but he boasts an impressive resume spanning 25 years with a mix of animated franchises and thrillers including Shrek, The Bourne Trilogy, Happy Feet and United 93. He got his start in Hollywood in the mid-90s helping Hans Zimmer with the songs for The Prince of Egypt and was subsequently invited to score Antz. In 2014 he composed the scores for Rio 2 and How To Train Your Dragon 2, collaborating with Sigur Ros for a few songs. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Beware a couple spoilers for How To Train Your Dragon 2 at the start.

What do you connect to the most about How To Train Your Dragon?

The father dying was interesting because that happened to me about the same age. I drew on that quite strongly and tried to make sure that was my entry point emotionally. I knew I had to get that bit right.

Were there any scenes you were looking forward to composing for?

Sometimes they’re the hardest ones to do and you put them off. In the first movie, when Hiccup and Toothless get to know each other it was the last one we did because I didn’t want to face it. In this one, after Hiccup gains Toothless back from his hypnotic state, there’s an incredible shot where everybody falls – scenes like that you look at the cinematography to inspire an epic a piece of score as possible.

Did you try anything new for How To Train Your Dragon 2?

I was experimenting with a choral effect that I want to really try more. A friend of mine sent me some recordings from a choir in Northern Scotland. They’re Protestant psalms but the way they sing them is very unusual, they start singing but everyone follows really late, so it’s like this smeared vocal version. It’s a fantastically interesting sound to me.

How do you decide what elements of your previous scores to keep in sequels? Does repetition concern you?

Repetition is sometimes essential. On Bourne Ultimatum Paul [Greengrass] felt that he needed the score to sound more like what everybody was used to so we replaced what we had written with music from the first two films. That can be essential to relax people into feeling that the sequel is in the same world. In this case, right at the beginning of the movie where we reintroduce everybody I used all the old tunes and once we start the new story I started introducing new tunes.

What would you say has been the most challenging score of your career?

The most challenging moments are trying not to tell the director to go jump off a fucking bridge, or telling the studio that you don’t give a shit about their film. Those are the moments when it’s hard because you’re wanting out.

What situations have you wanted out?

Either I couldn’t go on because I wasn’t able to write what they wanted, which is normally not the case because you can if you work a bit harder. Or they’re pulling you in lots of different directions simultaneously. You’re getting messages from the filmmakers that don’t seem to align with the film. If things are out of whack with how you perceive the film it’s very hard to move forward.

It took me a while to learn to calm down and just say we’ve got a certain amount of time, I can write whatever you want and I will just try then we’ll see what we’ve got by the end. I always tell people I get paid 10 dollars an hour to write music and a million dollars to stay calm.

What’s been the most gratifying moment of your career, or perhaps your proudest contribution to pop culture?

I don’t think anyone should be proud of contributing to pop culture. The danger of pride and creation is very hard; it’s not necessarily about quality but about zeitgeist. I didn’t know when I was doing Bourne Identity that it was gonna be significant to lots of people who temped it into other movies and TV. Then everybody else made music that sounds similar to it. At the time all I knew is that I had a great director who didn’t want what everybody else did.

Are you pleased that Bourne is being used as temp music?

Finding any music that people haven’t really heard before is very hard. Every cue you make is a question – ‘is this going to work?’ When it does work it takes a lot of energy to do it. So when you see something come along and they rip it off you think ‘couldn’t you think of something interesting?’ But I know that’s not the job. The job is to do what the director likes.

I do love it when people do a Bourne Identity impression but only if they get it far enough away. You can hear when people do really shitty minimal music because it doesn’t have the intelligence of when, how, and why you change. Minimalism in film scores can be horrible because people who are doing it can’t get passed the fact that it’s really simple so they’re not able to manipulate it in the right way.

Is there any film in the past 15 years that you wish you could’ve composed for?

I was on the list for the new Sherlock Holmes, I thought this could be exciting. Hans [Zimmer] got the gig so I didn’t think much to it and then I saw the film and thought that’s really good, I wish I thought of that. Then the question comes, would I have? Or would I have fucked it up?

What was the most important lesson you learned from Hans Zimmer?

Early on meeting him, he was talking about a film and he kept saying ‘our editor, our cinematographer, our costume designer’ and I kept thinking ‘why’s he saying ‘our’? I realized that he felt that he was part of a team and he was being given this moment to be a part of the creation of the film. He was totally invested.

Another thing that amazed me is if the director says he didn’t like his cues, Hans always says “goodie, I get to write it again.” Even if you take away the pieces he just spent weeks writing, rather than his ego going nuts, his ego says ‘wait, this is good because this time we can do it even better.’ That’s an incredible piece of brain twisting with the ego in the right place for such a collaborative process.

If it interests you, I asked [Globe Best Song Nominee for ‘Big Eyes’] Dan Heath the same question and he said that Hans’ work ethic was the most important lesson.

Oh no, Hans’ work ethic is fucking crazy if you ask me. That’s one I disagree with. He likes to sit in a room for 18 hours a day in the dark – it’s like Vegas in there. I like to work in a room that’s nothing but glass so I can see outside all the time. I can only work about 6 hours a day and then I’m done. I admire that he can do it.

What’s your favorite animated movie score?

Besides the obvious ones like Finding Nemo, which is an amazing score for animation, but one that isn’t quite animation that I love is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I’ve always thought is one of the best animated scores ever. It felt as if it was straddling this world of animation and live action in a really serious way.

One of my favourite scores is the music to Moonstruck which has these little Italian band arrangements of Pacini. I always cry at that movie because of it. I have very weird tastes. I’ve never been able to stay awake through Citizen Kane. Babe has got a great score. It’s a pure of heart movie like the pig itself.

What would you like to see evolve in mainstream composing?

I’d like it to not be stuck in the past so much. It would be wonderful if people who are a bit more studied in music and people who are less studied in film music got into it. Three of my favorite scores of the year are Under The Skin, Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner. I always say to students, why would you listen to film music? It’s the worst thing to listen to. Try to be inspired by anything else, but they always argue that they enjoy it.

I enjoy listening to Ennio Morricone, but if you hear the 17th iteration of somebody doing an impression of Morricone it comes out as an impression of music, not actually music. There’s new music being made all the time – Plan B’s Ill Manors would totally have been what I’d be trying to rip off if I was doing the next Bourne. Why aren’t others ripping it off? It’s always been a composer’s job to rip off society’s interesting music and make it work. So the idea of film composers listening to nothing but film compositions is the end of the world.