James Newton Howard on Vertical Limit

An interview with James Newton Howard by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.76/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

On Monday June 26th when I arrived at the Sony Scoring Stage in Culver City, California, the orchestra was rehearsing and just about to record the cue ‘Peter Sets Out’ – one of many breathtaking moments from the new Sony action adventure film VERTICAL LIMIT. High atop K2 a dramatic scenario was developing, as actor Chris O’Donnell decides to run with all his might and jump off a cliff. Perilously flying through the air, the climber collides into a solid wall of rock as he swings the two pick axes in both of his hands, slamming them into the rock to hold him firmly from falling endlessly to his death. Composer James Newton Howard’s score highlights every visual movement throughout the scene. His music had completely merged with director Martin Campbell’s new drama. Scoring is one thing, but this became a symbiosis of movement and music in perfect synch. The score precisely articulated one of many high adrenaline filled moments from Howard’s purely emotional approach.

Next, ‘Avalanche’ highlights an avalanche that overtakes the whole situation by flying directly into the face of a climber who turns around to be immediately blown away by its sheer power. This impact is underscored with the orchestral force of a devastating sound, an overwhelming musical moment. These two cues leave you in awe, imagining what other powerful imagery VERTICAL LIMIT has to offer.

As the afternoon progressed, Howard’s extended compositions highlighted the high voltage action and exhilarating suspense that VERTICAL LIMIT offers. The film never lets up with one mind-blowing event after another. Then it was time for the last cue, ‘It’s A Good Song’. Howard’s last piece is for a scene where actor Chris O’Donnell and actress Robin Tunney, a brother and sister, share a final emotional moment. A thoughtful look comes over Martin Campbell. The cue was exactly what the director wanted, in fact, with a smile on his face, it appeared to be even more than he expected. Through all the apocalyptic action scoring of the day, a key moment of thoughtful solace emerged. It’s this sensitivity to how a film plays out that confirms James Newton Howard as one of the top film score composers in the industry today.

It’s been a long road for composer James Newton Howard who’s been scoring film after film since the mid-eighties. Currently at a rate of around five films a year, Howard has continued his development as a film composer creating memorable film scores, project after project. MUMFORD, RUNAWAY BRIDE, THE SIXTH SENSE, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, and STIR OF ECHOES, were the results of 1999. This year his scores emerge in DINOSAURS, M. Night Shyamalan’s film UNBREAKABLE, Sony’s VERTICAL LIMIT, P.J. Hogan’s UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, and the first sessions to Disney’s animated feature, ATLANTIS.

On Friday November the 17th I spoke with Howard as he was scoring the trailer for ATLANTIS.


James Newton Howard How did you get the job to score VERTICAL LIMIT?
Martin Campbell called me up and asked me to score his picture. We talked a number of times on the phone before I actually signed on. He was in New Zealand shooting the picture. It was a very difficult shoot; it lasted one hundred and forty days on a glacier on Mount Hood. It was brutal. I would talk to him while he was on location. We actually talked two or three times, not about whether or not he wanted me to do it – he wanted me to score this – but initially there wasn’t enough money in the music budget to do the kind of score that I wanted to do. My message to Martin was that “I’d like to do this movie, but I will only do it if they allow me to do a large orchestral action score.” Finally they did and we proceeded. We both wanted a balls-to-the-wall big score, and there’s only one way to do that, with a lot of bodies.

When starting to score this film, how do you deal with the temp?
The temp doesn’t usually bother me. I am very relaxed about it because I’m confident that I’ll blow the temp away. I always have! Occasionally there have been a few moments in movies over the years where I have run into a problem. Mostly the problem has been when the movie is temped with my own music, that’s the hardest thing. I don’t mean to sound arrogant when I say “I know I’ll blow the temp away,” but it’s easy to replace music that wasn’t written for a scene. The music can be spectacular music, but if you can’t improve upon something that was culled from another movie and laid in there, then there’s something wrong. I was quite relaxed about it and felt that the temp in VERTICAL LIMIT, to varying degrees, was hurting the movie, sort of making it melodramatic where it shouldn’t be.

What was the key that opened up your ideas when scoring this film?
I had a thematic idea that I was working on because I was signed on to do the movie in December 1999, but I didn’t start writing it until March or April. I love doing that because it gives me a month or two to start thinking about thematic ideas, and I knew that this was going to be a thematically driven score.
I was anxious to take this theme and try it in a few spots to see if it worked in the first place. I tried it early on in the first reel, in the scene where the Chris O’Donnell character and his assistant are hiking through the Pakistani mountains. His assistant has an accident and he’s airlifted by helicopter to a hospital. It was quite an opportunity, very scenic, very big; it was an opportunity to layout the main theme.
Martin sent me an assembly of the film on VHS from New Zealand. I watched that, so by the time he came back to Los Angeles months later, I had seen his film a couple of times and was quite familiar with it. It’s about structure for me. Structure is paramount. I look for a couple of key spots to get this theme working. So I try and usually score a long big scene first that’s pivotal to the rest of the score.

On most of your scores you usually create a complete mock up for the director, isn’t it more intensive and a lot more work to do this an a huge orchestra score for an action/suspense drama?
Actually I do this for myself mostly. It’s a security blanket for me. If I can plug in a demo of the entire score and dub it myself in my studio to a version of the movie, I can just watch the score go by and there’s a lot I can learn from that.
The first reason is I do it for myself. The second reason is to create and provide temp score for the preview process, so people don’t get addicted to temp scores, which I’m comfortable and relaxed about, but I would just soon avoid it if possible. Yes, it’s a huge amount of work.
Some of my sequences for VERTICAL LIMIT have close to two hundred tracks of information, plus tons and tons of other stuff, and lots of doubling to get the sounds big, a lot of percussion. It just has a lot of elements, a lot of layering on this score. My assistant who produces the electronic score, Jim Hill, loads and unloads samplers and also engineers, but I do all the sequencing, playing, and sound design.
My mock up for VERTICAL LIMIT was very labor intensive and exhausting. Here are the options: you can either be exhausted from creating the demo and sequencing and basically orchestrating the movie, or pick up a pencil and spend four weeks sketching, which was mind numbingly difficult and time consuming. So at this stage I would much prefer to do the demo process. I’m very fast at it. It allows me a lot more time to compose and I don’t have to sit and be sketching, which I used to do for weeks at a time. How could I sketch this score for weeks at a time when I only have five weeks from inception to completion? It’s impossible for me and I’m speaking from my own experience. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve temped, with my demos, the biggest action scores, as big as anybody’s ever done. THE FUGITIVE, VERTICAL LIMIT, and many of my other films have been previewed with my demos in there very, very successfully. That’s a lot to ask from a demo because they can often sound cheesy, and mine have from time to time, but I try to avoid it. Though a lot of lay people would have trouble telling the difference, it’s night and day for anybody with any kind of an ear, especially when you hear it played with a real orchestra, which I always do.

Would you explain the scoring structure at VERTICAL LIMIT?
There is really only one theme in VERTICAL LIMIT. There was music that has smaller themes or material that I would use consistently for Chris O’Donnell and his sister Robin Tunney. Also, there was a type of sound I would use to represent the mountain, that really had to do with Asian gongs, bells, and some flutes. I tried to do that minimally because I felt it would be mired in cliché every time you saw the mountain and all of a sudden it would sound like a travelogue. That to me is a trap, so I wanted to use just a bit of the exotic flutes or bells every now and then for a little spice, but essentially I played it pretty straight. Then from my theme the score branched out into many variations. The actual architecture of the score is what occurs in this process, I call it the connective tissues. Whatever connects pieces of a theme to other pieces of themes, they become memorable bits and pieces barely fully developed and then I start to specifically assign them to certain characters and that kind of thing.

Do you approach scoring an action film differently?
It’s completely different. Quite honestly, action scores have become harder and harder for me. I’ve become better and better at them, but they’ve become more difficult because they’re almost like a physical or athletic event for me. It’s a lot of work. It has to happen very quickly usually, they’re tough. The process is one of great fortitude, discipline, and working on loud ruckus music when your soul is speaking to you about something soft and poetic. You just have to go in and do it every day and it’s very hard. It’s not always the kind of music I want to be writing on any given day. That’s part of the job here; you have to ignore your spirit on some level and just charge ahead and write what is required by your particular predicament.

So you’d rather score romantic comedy?
No, scoring romantic comedy is my least favorite! I think scoring action movies is probably like the decathlon. It really in some ways presents the greatest musical opportunities and the music is more complex. Consequently I tend to be quite gratified by the end result a lot of times. I have to mentally and psychically prepare for it for a longer period of time.

It sounds like each action film you’re scoring is getting more intense and you’re having to keep up with it.
I’ve got them paced out now so I’ve got some intense and then less intense, I have a nice calm spell up ahead.

When you worked with Martin, how did he communicate with you to get the score he needed?
He was very positive, right off the bat, about most of the material I played for him. We had very little contentiousness on the music as a whole. There were a few scenes he had differences of opinion on; he was very clear about what he needed for his film. He would say, “I don’t think you’re highlighting this in the way I wanted, when I wanted to hear it with more of a surprise or shock,” or “This needs more energy” or “I really wanted this to be romantic, I don’t think you’re addressing that.” That kind of thing. He was very specific. We communicated very well together.

Scoring tor action films takes a whole different approach, but still your strong thematic work was important here. How did you balance these two techniques, scoring high intensify action and writing thematically?
Sometimes they are one both the same. My theme can be used in a very action oriented way. When there’s less urgency, perhaps that is a time when a theme is more appropriate. Where there’s a narrative point where something horrible is about ready to happen or has just happened and you’re either scoring the response to something or the anticipation of something, then you’re more specific. When there’s a neutrality of tone or a time passing sequence, then it’s more thematically oriented. There are no hard and fast rules to this because a lot of this is intuitive and you don’t really know, you just go with what feels right.

Did you find the contrast of on the edge action scaring combined with scaring for an emotional bond between a brother and a sister to be a satisfying dynamic?
Yes. It all directly deals with the drama on I the screen, you’re being action specific. To me usually it’s obvious when I have to approach it actively or when it’s going to be sparse and slow. Sometimes you’re blurring the line a little bit and try to energize scenes that on the surface seem slow, but they accept pretty high energy music and everyone’s happier because the pace of the film is quickened. Sometimes that can have the opposite effect though. Oftentimes people will play music that has a fast tempo into a slow scene and it has the unfortunate effect of actually making scene seem longer. You react emotionally to the film and what’s appropriate; it’s not so much an intellectual process.

Martin pointed out that on one hand you’ve got these huge action sequences, but on the other hand you have these very quiet intimate scenes, and the music contrasts this beautifully.
A composer has to be able to do that. You just can’t go in there heavy-handed. Some composers can’t do it. They are writing interesting, loud music, but when they get into some close intimate theme, it gets embarrassingly bad. I feel confident that I can handle both genres comfortably in the same movie and I like the dynamic that is created as a result of that.

When you’re scoring intense action dramas, one of the greatest challenges for the composer is overcoming or scoring with the sound effects in mind. How did you deal with that?
With the same tried-and-true methods. Somebody once said that composers have the edge sonically and I think that’s really true. You have to know that in a big action sequence a lot of the detail is going to be wiped out – you’re really going to be left with hearing the edges, meaning the highest and the lowest frequencies. You try and orchestrate it carefully so that a lot of brass, the trumpets or the higher winds are carrying more thematic material. You’ve really got to be careful about detailed percussion stuff. I try to keep the percussion very much in the lower frequencies so it’s something you can feel as opposed to really hear. It’s a kind of pulse you can feel in your sternum. That seemed to work very well.

How much of your score was electronic?
I used a very little amount of electronics here because my score was mostly orchestral. I created electronic percussion tracks which I then overdubbed live musicians to. I kept some of the electronic percussion in the score. There’s probably synthesizer in ten cues here, just to enhance the richness of the piece or the low end to make it richer or a little more ominous.

Do you ever use your electronics to help you cut through some of the sound design or Foley?
Yes, sometimes I would take sampled orchestral hits and double my orchestra hits and sample marcato strings from my library and double the orchestral marcato strings because people always expect the strings to be louder than they are.

What did you learn from Martin Campbell by scoring his film?
He gave me a great musical opportunity and a lot of support. I really was given the chance to expand my knowledge of the orchestra, which is what I’m always trying to do. I find that to be the most interesting part of the process. Martin gave me a great deal of trust and that’s when I perform the best.

How does it feel to be scoring five films in a year?
I really enjoy it. I’ve got four films ahead of me and then I’ll take a month off. Then I’ve got another film in March of 2002, so that’s a year and a half of work.


James Newton Howard
Martin Campbell and James Newton Howard (Photo Rudi Koppl)

When the orchestra plays their first notes, signifying the beginning of days of work, the joy for director Martin Campbell has begun. “The scoring sessions are the most satisfying, enjoyable time in movie making for me.”

Campbell is modest and quite humble, but he’s always looking for that new challenge in filmmaking. He turned down at least three motion pictures just to get the opportunity to direct VERTICAL LIMIT. “I was involved with THIRTEEN DAYS at one point which I dropped out of, and QUILLER, a secret agent story with a good script that I’d developed, but I felt I’d done it before with Bond.”

When I found out he was in the director’s chair for CRIMINAL LAW, NO ESCAPE, GOLDENEYE, and THE MASK OF ZORRO, it threw me off guard. He’s as personal as some of the first time directors surfacing in the business and has worked with some great scoring talents – Jerry Goldsmith, Graeme Revell, and James Horner being just a few of his collaborations.

Through his myriad of scheduled interviews, Martin took time out to discuss his outlook on the music in his new film and the man who overwhelmed him when realizing it, composer James Newton Howard.

How did you get involved in directing VERTICAL LIMIT?
I had just finished THE MASK OF ZORRO and I was looking for another project. I had something like four movies to decide on and VERTICAL LIMIT stood out among the rest. One, it was different from all the other films because it was up a mountain and it was physically very challenging. On the face of it, it seems almost impossible to make. The other movies I was offered, they were all kind of city-based. One was in Los Angeles, another was in New York, and another was a secret agent story, and so on and so forth.
The truth about VERTICAL LIMIT was that it was something that I’d never done before. To be honest, it had a lot of elements that I disliked. For example I get terrible vertigo, secondly, mountain climbing is not my thing, and also helicopters are not my thing. So all of those three things plus the story taking place on the toughest or second highest mountain in the world, was the reason I did it.

After you finished the film, did you get over your vertigo?
You know what happened? You don’t realize it actually, but by the end of the film you’re suddenly doing things that you would never have done at the beginning of the movie. Vertigo is something that once you get used to it, it starts to diminish. You find yourself doing things without even thinking about it, whereas at the beginning of the film I would have never done these things. Hanging off cliffs and all that stuff! You never conquer your fears, but while I was doing it I certainly went a long way to conquering them. By the end of the movie I was very happy in helicopters and I’d lost a lot of my fear of heights. It made a big difference by the end of the film.

What did you want the score to do for your film?
I wanted the score to elevate the movie. Given the scenery that we had, the mountain that we had, the epic adventure, and also the action. We have some very hair-raising scenes in the film and we also have some very emotional moments in the film, so the range and style of music was tremendously varied. We have very intimate scenes between the brother and sister, Chris O’Donnell and Robin Tunney, and on the other had we have a helicopter being blown to hell on the side of a cliff with everyone trying to get out, while the turbulence is throwing it all over the place. Musically it was a hell of a challenge for James and it came out magnificently.

Why did you hire James Newton Howard to score your picture?
First of all, I love his themes. He’s a great theme man and he’s done some beautiful work for us on this, but also he has the ability to score action. Being the professional he is, a man of his experience, when for example you’ve got a helicopter scene or a big action scene, like an avalanche happening, you have to work it out in order to get the music through all those sound effects. You have to be really talented to do that, the choice of instruments, how it will cut through all the effects, how it will drive the scene; to be able to do that and to also be able to give a very beautiful, haunting theme to the more emotional elements of the story, this is exactly why I hired James.

How did you communicate what type of score you wanted for your film?
I’m not great on music. What I do is to sit down with the composer and the film, we just go through it. I run the movie and I talk to him what the scene is about. What I think the scene needs. I let him translate that into music. I rely on the composer to give me a lot of help because I’m not music savvy, I need them to give me their input. That’s what I do, I just go through the film, we talk about it, we spot it, but then I always leave the entrance and exit points of the music open. James often would alter them and actually make them much better. I also talk to the composer on what the themes are about. In some of the action scenes I would talk to James about how I wanted to mix the movie. In other words, if it was very effect heavy, then we would have to design the music around that, the way in which the music drives the scene forward. That’s the way I would communicate with James. He’s such a talent and a professional, so he would pick up on it. It was terrific when he recorded it, it’s always so much better. He surprised me, it was absolutely wonderful, a thrill!

What did you temp your film with?
We temped it with everything. First of all I hire a guy to do the temp. I did this on THE MASK OF ZORRO, I would go through the same process and he would sit there – he has his own workshop – so he sits there with five to six hundred soundtracks and finds music to use in the rough edits of the film. Basically the temp is almost a score within itself. I hire this guy; we talk about it, and experiment. When the film is shown to the executives, they pretty much get a full temp score with the film.

How do you want the composer to deal with this?
What I say, specifically in James’s case, is, “Do you want to listen to the temp score or not?” In fact he did, I guess to get more of an idea of what might work or what might not work. James was basically very relaxed about it.

What did you find unique about James?
Apart from his extraordinary talent, his professionalism, he’s just so on the nail about everything. The way he played mocks up for me, so I could listen to the themes. The efficiency with which all the music was recorded and the surprise of hearing his score. I’m thinking, “That’s really good, that’s really lovely.” All of those things.

What was your experience like when working with him on the scoring stage?
Extraordinarily professional! By that you see that everyone likes him. He’s one of those guys that gets on very well with everyone. Very efficient, and a perfectionist, he wants it to be absolutely perfect. Because he’s a musician himself, he understands and connects with the orchestra. How they hear these things I don’t know, but he can hear a certain way in which a cue is played. I’m in awe of these people.

Were there any particularly memorable moments when working with James Newton Howard?
Just about all of them (laughter). I can tell you, the whole bloody exercise was memorable. There’s nothing particular because it was all memorable. There’s always this thing with interviews where, after the film is made, you say this was great or that was great, and sometimes it wasn’t bloody great. As directors, we tend to make sure that we’re politically correct and say everybody was wonderful. I’m not someone like that.


Thanks goes out to Ronni Chasen and Jeff Sanderson of Chasen & Company, Pete Anthony, Brad Dechter, Jeff Atmajian, Amy Lescoe and Jack Newafu (Assistants to Martin Campbell, Director, Writer, Producer Martin Campbell, and especially to composer James Newton Howard


Composer: James Newton Howard
Conductor: Pete Anthony / Artie Kane (June 21st only)
Where: Scorinq Stage at Sony Studios – Culver City, California
When: 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, and 28, 2000
Orchestrators: Brad Dechter, Jeff Atmajian
Additional Orchestrations: by Frank Bennett, Jon Kull, and Pete Anthony
Orchestra: 101 players
Engineer: Shawn Murphy
Keyboard Players: Ralph Grierson, Mike Lang
Electronics: James Newton Howard, assisted by Jim Hill
Composing Time: Approximately 6 Weeks
Length of Score: 88 minutes
Contractor: Sanely DeCrescent



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