Film composer and Grammy Award winner James Newton Howard spends most days engrossed in the world of whatever movie he’s working on. He stays indoors and locked away from the public while scoring the next great soundtrack. His methods have garnered him accolades for many of the films for which he has composed, including Defiance, Michael Clayton, and The Village, as well as The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight trilogies (the latter co-written with Hans Zimmer).
In 2016, the composer has taken on a new role: teacher.
As the freshly crowned artistic director of the Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, the Tinseltown veteran succeeds multi-Grammy-winning trumpeter and bandleader Terence Blanchard and leads a new crop of aspiring professional musicians.
This Friday, "From The Dark Knight to The Hunger Games: The Movie Music of James Newton Howard" will bridge the gap between these two newly intersecting identities. Throughout the evening, the HMI Orchestra will perform live to movie clips. Howard will be joined by Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg for a special piano cameo. In addition, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is scheduled to appear and celebrate the eclectic career of his friend and longtime collaborator.
New Times spoke with Howard ahead of the performance and discussed his career, his process, and the silver lining of a terrible movie.
New Times: You've officially been the artistic director for the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra for a month. What has it been like so far, and what is your vision of the program's future?
James Newton Howard: I was afraid you were going to ask me that question... This first month has been mostly in preparation for the concert we’re going to do this week. Because I am a film composer, as I’m sure you know, we don’t get out that much with orchestras and the audience; it requires a lot more preparation on my part than what would normally be my day. In terms of my vision, I can’t say I really have one, other than I’m excited to interact with the school and with the orchestra and sort of see what happens from there.
This may sound like something one of your students might ask: How does your creative process work when scoring a film? Is it a more collaborative effort with the director, or do you set off on your own with an advance copy of the script?
Initially, it starts with a conversation with the director and reading the script before it’s shot. Once I’ve got the job, a lot of the time, I’ll just start writing music. I always encourage composers, first and foremost, to write music that is beautiful and interesting. Then, after you’ve got the music, put it up against the picture and see what works, what doesn’t work, start tailoring it for a finer cut of the movie. At that point, one starts to interact with the director... It’s important for the composer to have a point of view, before too much collaboration occurs. Inevitably, directors will have thoughts and ideas to the process, but a composer should have an idea or an intention of what they want to accomplish with the music.
What is the most difficult thing about any composition?
I think there are a couple of things. I think anything a creative person has to contend with is dealing with the black page. Walking into a studio every morning at 9 o’clock and sitting in a chair and trying to write something, many times nothing will happen that’s very productive or encouraging for hours at a time... The second thing for me is melody; I’m a melody guy. That’s one of the reasons I was so influenced by Henry Mancini. He wrote great melodies, great tunes. I think I’m always feeling the burden of Am I going to come up with a good melody for this movie? Am I going to write something that has a personality which is unique to this movie?
Let’s talk about your longtime partnership with M. Night Shyamalan. What has drawn you to his work?
My relationship with Night is a very special one. We’re very good friends. It started off when I was shown The Sixth Sense before it had music, and I just found it to be a beautifully crafted, sensitively made movie... I think that he has such an original, inventive point of view; that’s what drew me to that movie. He has managed, through a great deal of back-and-forth between he and I, to get some of my best music out of me. He’s really guided me to be more disciplined about the choices I make... Night and I have been through successes together and some disappointments, but through it it all, we’ve always tried to do the best work, and there’s never been any question about that. You know, when you’re in a relationship with a director, it’s a marriage. You’re there for the highs and the lows and the in-between.
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Speaking of when a film has those lows, has there ever been a time when one of the films you worked on didn't do so great critically but you can sit back and say to yourself, Man, I nailed the music even though the rest of the movie isn't great?
Yeah, I think that’s a very insightful question. Listen, if you try to do your best work as a composer, sometimes, many times, I have felt the movie was maybe a little disappointing to come up to the level that I was hoping it would. There have been times where my score didn’t come up to the level I was hoping it would... I did a version of Peter Pan many years ago that didn’t do so well; that meant a lot to me. There’s an adaptation of a great book called Snow Falling on Cedars; that’s one of my favorite scores, but the movie did zero business. Yeah, that happens a lot. It’s just something that comes with the turf.
You've been very busy for the past 30 years or so — you've been involved in more than 100 movies. What film score or piece are you most proud of?
I’m asked that question a lot, and it’s difficult. I think Snow Falling is a very special score for me, but then there are always personal moments in an score where an artist says, I think I managed to succeed at something better than I had before. Maybe it’s an action or two or a melody for a romantic piece. I really like the King Kong score; I liked Signs. There were parts of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, for instance, that had some really great action sequences in it... When you write as many hours a year as I do, it’s very easy to get sick of yourself. I’m always looking for a way out of that.
Is that how you selected the program for the upcoming show?
Yes. I tried to do that... It’s really difficult, for instance, to figure out what’s a good-flowing program that represents both what I think is interesting and what the audience thinks is interesting, and what has been successful commercially that people will want to see, versus what I think is interesting musically that wasn’t successful. I’ve tried to find a cross section of it. I thought it was important to unveil and do a long piece from The Hunger Games series. The Maleficent score, I was quite fond of that score, and that was something I wanted to debut in Miami with the orchestra. And then there are a couple of oldies and goodies.
The Movie Music of James Newton Howard
Friday, February 19, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Visit arshtcenter.org.