An Interview with James Horner by Steven Simak
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
James Horner’s music for STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK is, much like the film itself, a direct continuation of the score he composed for STAR TREK II; THE WRATH OF KHAN. Although there is a preponderance of exciting music for the battle sequences, STAR TREK III is, however, primarily a character film, a trait the score equally portrays. “I’m using a couple of themes and reweaving them differently,” Horner commented. When writing the score for the second STAR TREK feature, the composer kept in mind that he would have to reuse certain music, certain “givens” (the Enterprise theme, Kirk’s theme, etc.) in an impending sequel.
The two major themes that Horner has “reweaved” are the Genesis theme and Spock’s theme, and it is these that dominate the score. Horner doesn’t make extensive use of the main title he composed for STAR TREK II; it is the Genesis theme that serves as the sweeping, majestic title music over images of the landscape and sky of the mysterious Genesis planet. The closing title from the former film, however, is reprised almost verbatim over the closing credits of STAR TREK III.
Horner has also expanded Spock’s theme, an opportunity not really available in STAR TREK II, to bring feeling to the exotic, thousand-year-old culture and heritage of Spock and Vulcan mysticism which play so major a role in this film.
Horner has also written what he describes as a new “percussive and atonal” theme for the Klingons. “I don’t know how one would characterize it,” Horner said. “It’s obviously very different from any of the other themes. This film does deal a lot with Klingons, and there’s a lot of Klingon music in it.”
Horner makes even greater use of the fanfare from the television series in this score. He feels that the fanfare, like the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock, is an established trait of the STAR TREK mythology and that he would be fighting a natural instinct if he didn’t use it. The effect, aside from leaving audiences cheering, is that it reunites them with the feeling and atmosphere of the television series.
Horner feels that his score for STAR TREK III is superior to his work on the previous Trek movie. “That was 2 years ago for me. I was twenty seven and a half when I wrote STAR TREK II and now I’m thirty. So a lot of musical time has gone by for me and I just think that the score for STAR TREK III is just so much vastly better than STAR TREK II. It’s a much more interesting score and, for me, a much more beautiful and emotional score than STAR TREK II.”
As with all his films, Horner approaches scoring as a response to the feeling that the film projects. “The mood of the film dictates a certain sound in my head and that is what I try and connect with right away, way before I’m writing melodies or tunes or anything like that. I’m trying to find an orchestration for the film that says what I want to say musically.”
Horner returned to score STAR TREK III to fulfill a promise he made to producer Harve Bennett after STAR TREK II, that he would score a sequel if it was made. “I have very mixed feeling about doing epic scores. Lately I’ve been trying to do more and more small films, gentle films rather than this sort of epic blockbuster because I like what I can do with a small film. I find it more interesting than what I can do, usually, in a large film.” Horner’s reservations in regard to large films is a result of not always being given total freedom in composing what he thinks is right for the film. Producers, he feels, generally associate epic films with traditional symphonic scores and because of the high cost factor involved, are wary of giving him room for the composition of something exotic or experimental.
“When I’m talking about free reign I’m saying – and in STAR TREK it might not work because there are so many givens – but let’s say I was to do a new space movie, whatever it’s called. If I wanted to do something much more in the style of the avant-garde music that was used in 2001, I would have a very hard time convincing the filmmakers to let me go, to let me just do something avant-garde. They would probably want me to do something more traditional.”
Horner cites the Widow’s Web sequence in KRULL as an example of a scoring situation in which he was given some degree of free reign. “I used a lot of voices and weird stuff, and that kind of writing really fascinates me,” he said. “The whole thing that interests me in that sequence is not so much the literalness of the spider coming out but the whole feeling of this mystical thing. I’m always trying to convince filmmakers to let me give a mystical feeling to the film instead of just a literal feeling. The spider was a situation where I was allowed to give this kind of ambience. Even when the spider shows up, the ambience is part of the whole thing. It wasn’t literally monster-spider music. But it’s rare for that to happen because sometimes filmmakers are very conservative.”
Another recent assignment was in composing a score to Walter Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE. Horner’s music, however, was subsequently rejected in favor of a rock score by Ry Cooder and serves as an example of Horner’s problems with free reign. “The score that I wrote for STREETS OF FIRE was a very percussive, propulsive score. It used a lot of different, varied, exotic instrumentation. They decided to take that feeling out. They wanted something a little more traditional and they went with 50’s rock and roll.” Horner attributes the difficulty with the score as the result of his willingness to experiment. “I tried something very risky in STREETS OF FIRE. I thought it worked terrifically and so did everybody, actually. But after about a week of living with it, thinking about it, the director started to feel I perhaps had gone too far. Now there’s a difference between perhaps going too far and reverting back to 50’s rock and roll!”
STAR TREK III, like many of Horner’s large films, has, however, given the composer the opportunity to score stunning special effects sequences, a task he finds most rewarding: “I like scoring special effects because I think they’re so exciting to watch.” Horner clearly understands the importance of the score in enhancing an effect. His music for the sequence in which the escaping Enterprise clears the space doors in STAR TREK III is a powerful, surging celebration of brass, percussion and strings, rousing the visuals to life.
“The music is very hard pressed to keep up with the visuals and that is what’s so challenging: to write something musically that is just as terrific on the ears as the visuals are on the eyes. When the Enterprise takes off from drydock, maneuvers or goes into warp speed, it’s wonderful to be able to write this big, sweeping music for that kind of thing because it’s so romantic, in a way, this huge, beautiful ship on the high seas–I mean, that’s what it basically is. And I try and take those opportunities when I can.”
As in STAR TREK II, both producer Harve Bennett and the director (in this case, Leonard Nimoy) were very involved with Horner on the score. Horner described four-hour-long conversations with Nimoy in which they discussed the score and agreed that it was the romantic, sensitive music from STAR TREK II, as opposed to the “bombastic” pieces, that were important for STAR TREK III. Despite any reservations about working on another large picture, Horner is in no way dissatisfied with the project. “STAR TREK is what it is. It’s never going to be God’s gift to man, never ever. And STAR TREK is also the kind of thing that the studio, for better or worse, is never going to spend 50 million dollars making either. They have a budget and certain constraints. I think that STAR TREK III is the best of all the STAR TREKs. It’s made with the most amount of feeling, in a certain sense, of all of them. It’s made by someone who knows the characters of STAR TREK so much more intimately than anybody else involved, except maybe Gene Roddenberry. The fact that Leonard Nimoy directed this film gives it a whole flavor and a whole taste and a whole interesting light that it would never have had with anyone else. It was fascinating working with him.”
Another recent effects-laden film scored by Horner shortly prior to the third STAR TREK movie was Douglas Trumbull’s BRAINSTORM. Scoring the very different visuals for this picture posed an unusual challenge for Horner in that he was being asked to musically describe death beyond the literal sense. “In a film like BRAINSTORM, you have special effects which are very different and the intent is not so much one of beauty, grace and majesty. It’s one of texture and one of the unknown. The visuals are avant-garde compared to STAR TREK.” Horner’s approach to BRAINSTORM was to give the death sequences a feeling of “going back” by incorporating into them music from different centuries. “A lot of the music, while it sounds atonal, is actually a combination of many different types of music that I wrote all in different styles, playing simultaneously so that it gives this weird effect. You hear a chord and then you no longer hear a chord. You hear this low grumbling and roaring and then you hear another sort of chord. It’s difficult to describe but that’s what I was trying to do, give the feeling that you were going back.”