Once each year Global Music Awards honors a musician with its Odyssey Award for Lifetime Achievement in Music Award. This year the award goes to Alan Williams, one of the world’s most accomplished film score composers.
Williams is a prolific composer and conductor with more than 100 motion picture and television credits. Williams’ scores include the Academy Award nominated IMAX film, Amazon, Sony Pictures Classics’ Mark Twain’s America in 3D and some of the highest rated movies made for television. He composed the award-winning score to the animated film, The Princess and the Pea, and co-wrote the original songs with award-winning lyricist David Pomeranz. His score to Estefan received an Annie Award nomination for Best Original Score. He was awarded the Insight Award for Excellence for his score to Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa, and fourteen Accolades for Best Original Score. Over the years, Williams has received eight Global Music Awards’ honors for his albums: The Cinema Collection, The Documentary Collection, Patriots of Freedom, Cinema Voce, The Princess and the Pea, Television Suites, The Christmas Carol Collection and Moving Art: Underwater.
We recently caught up with Williams for an interview.
Q: You have certainly had a remarkable career. How did that come about?
A: My career has been a series of opportunities and lots of work. You never know where the opportunities will come from but I’ve learned that hard work creates most of them. It’s like the definition of luck; when opportunity meets preparation. I have been fortunate to work in many musical genres. So many of the films I have scored have brought me great creative joy and satisfaction. It's always difficult to look back over the last 26 years of scores and pick favorites. However, there are some films that have proved to be more significant than others because of their creative opportunities.
Without question Amazon was one of those projects. Early in my career I hoped to work on a large-scale project so when the Academy Award winning director Keith Merrill called, inviting me to score his upcoming IMAX film Amazon, I jumped at the opportunity. I only had two weeks to compose, record and mix 40 minutes of music for the film. I had an 80-piece orchestra, choir, ethic winds and percussion instruments that we recorded at the famed Sony Pictures Scoring Stage. Standing in front of world-class musicians was a monumental achievement for me. At the time, it was the pinnacle event of my career. Even though I was so thrilled to be standing at the podium, conducting at Sony Pictures, I feared I might never get back there again! Amazon went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1997. I did return to Sony Pictures to record the scores to the IMAX films Mark Twain’s America, Island of the Sharks as well as Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa. Each project and collaboration seems to provide future opportunities. You may meet a future collaborator from a current film. Each project is important and special. I’ve learned to take each project very serious and strive to do my best work no matter the scope or budget of the film. At the end of the day, it says “music by Alan Williams.” That credit will live forever so I had better do my best work.
Q: It must be amazing to listen to your music attached to spectacular IMAX footage, which always have bigger than life visuals. How do you approach such films?
A: There is nothing like hearing your music in an IMAX theater. IMAX or Large Format films focus on music more than other genres. Many times, the music and images are all that carry the story. Music becomes a character in the story. I approach the musical score for Large Format films just as if they were any other dramatic narrative. For Amazon and Kilimanjaro there were not a lot of dramatic elements from characters in the film, but there were many opportunities to treat the river or the mountain as characters themselves. By thinking this way, I approach the score just the same as if it were a dramatic feature. I still work on creating a melody or theme that encompasses the location as if it were a character or underlining emotion of a feature story.
Q: You have written scores for both feature and short films. What is a highlight?
A: In animation, I've been fortunate to work in both feature and short films. Writing the score to animated feature The Princess and the Pea was certainly a highlight. I felt I could really stretch my musical muscles with both the score and the songs, which I wrote together with David Pomeranz. The music and songs for Princess are very thematic and melody-driven and stands as some of my best, most musical work.
I’ve also scored numerous animated shorts. They have all been unique and very entertaining. It’s an art to tell a story in only a few short minutes. The score to Pajama Gladiator and Estefan were very special projects. Pajama Gladiator won the Student Academy Award for Best Short and Estefan was nominated for an Annie Award for Best Score. Estefan contained no dialogue at all, so music and image conveyed all of the drama and story of the film. I love when music takes a larger role, where it acts like a character in a film and really can take an active role in developing the story, and not just as underscore music. I'm very proud of those scores.
Q: Do you still find the work engaging?
A: Yes. Although I've written scores to more than 100 film and television projects, I still enjoy the challenge of finding just the right sound, theme and voice for each new project. I feel that I'm more prepared now than ever before to look at a film and work to get inside of it, to determine how the music can really enhance and further the story. That is really the function of film music. It's all about story. I love new collaborations with filmmakers. I love collaborating with the musicians who breathe life into the scores. I love any form of storytelling, whether it is live action films, animation, documentaries, live events or even games.
Q: What have been your influences?
A: There have been many influences on me throughout my career. I have been shaped, influenced and inspired by so many great composers. Certainly, Jerry Goldsmith is at the top of the list for me. Jerry had a gift to get inside of the story and translate the pure essence of a film or its main character and creating a theme that could be developed and varied throughout a film, with an emotional payoff like no other composer. Having attended many of Jerry’s recording sessions, I would look at his scores and I was always amazed at how few notes on the page created such an enormous emotional experience. There are so many other great film composers, John Williams, James Horner, John Barry and James Newton Howard who have influenced me and taught me how music and image are married together to tell a story. Vaughn Williams, Shostakovich and Stravinsky have also been great influences. For me, film itself has been an incredible influence. I have learned so much about drama, character arch and pure story, simply by being immersed in film.
Q: You did a TED talk about creativity. What do you suggest to other composers?
A: For the next generation of composers, I suggest a few things. First, learn from the past. Many young composers don't know the music and films from the past. Learn the works of the masters, both composers and filmmakers. Why has their craft endured? There is a reason. Discover it for yourself; it will be different for everyone. Know the past even if you have no interest in writing a certain style of music. Be a student of film. As film composers, we must never forget that half of our job title is “film” so know all genres of film and learn about the process of making a film. Directors don’t speak “music”; they speak “film.”
Q: What is your work ethic?
A: My work ethic is simple. Write, write, write! A composer needs to compose daily. Those creative muscles need to be strengthened on a regular basis. Don't wait for a project to be creative. Explore, discover and compose each day. There are so many creative outlets for composers. Establish a schedule to help with the discipline of being a composer. For me, I'm most creative in the morning before the day becomes cluttered with other distractions. I've found for me; the best schedule is a regular schedule. When I begin a movie, I determine how many minutes of music needs to be composed for the film and how many days I have in which to write the score. I then figure out how many minutes of music I must compose each day to meet the deadline. My day doesn't end until those minutes have been written. If I finish early, then I can forge ahead into tomorrow's minutes, or finish early for the day. Since my studio is at home, work is always there. I've found that this discipline of writing a pre-determined amount each day has allowed me the structure to work and meet the deadline and still be able to leave work to spend with my family.
Q: Have you had failures along the way?
A: There have been many triumphs as well as many failures throughout my career. There have been more rejections than successes. I believe this is true for most composers. Music is subjective. If a director doesn't like my music, either for a scene in the movie or for an entire project, it doesn't mean I'm a failure as a composer. I just may not be the best musical fit for the project or I many need to go back and work hard to find a better creative musical solution for the scene. It's also important for young composers to know that this is the music business. It is a business so know business and especially the music business. Bill Conti, composer of Rocky and The Right Stuff, told me 27 years ago, when I was a student at the University of Southern California, "Talent never was a prerequisite for success in this business." He was totally correct. I've reminded myself of this quote over-and-over again, in so many different situations. He also told me, “A composer needs to be totally committed; you have to be all-in. If you wake up in the morning and can’t imagine doing anything else, you may have a chance in this business.” So that has been my passion for these past 26 years, waking each day searching for the next opportunity to write a new score and writing music each day.
Q: What are you composing now?
A: I just finished composing the scores to 2 new films for the Netflix series Moving Art. Both Moving Art: Dolphins and Whales and Moving Art: Angkor Wat will premiere on Netflix May 01, 2017. I also just completed the score for a new feature documentary, Toxic Puzzle narrated by Harrison Ford as well as a new album release called Oceans. I’m looking forward to beginning a new animated feature and I have my first book being released this year entitled, Directing Creativity: The Art of Innovation.
Alan Williams has earned our admiration and our Odyssey Award for Lifetime Achievement in Music for his contribution to composition of film scores, the depth to which he has developed his skills and the manner in which he has lived his musical life.
That “Other” Williams
The Film Music by Alan Williams
Interview by Randall D. Larson
(as featured in the Winter 2001 issue of Soundtrack Magazine)
You may have seen his name on an especially intriguing documentary or a cute family film, enjoyed the spark and flavor of the music that underlined the narrative or the drama. For several years now, Alan Williams has been quietly providing some of the most interesting scores for family films, TV-movies, IMAX documentaries, and smallish features, adopting a fluidity of melody and enough varied nuances of texture and style to make his work defy categorization. Alan Williams grew up in Colorado and began studying classical music at the age of 7. He’s been scoring films since 1993. Interviewed last October, Alan described his approach and experiences in film scoring.
Q: What led you into film music?
Alan Williams: From a young age, I knew I wanted to write music for films. Film and music are the two most powerful mediums. When they are combined there is nothing more emotionally stimulating. I am one of those guys who actually trained to be a film composer. I studied classical piano since the age of 7. I received a Bachelor of Music in Composition from Brigham Young University and then did graduate work in Film Scoring at the University of Southern California.
Q: How would you describe your personal musical style, as it applies to film composition?
Williams: I think melody is the most important element to my approach as a film composer. Although I have worked on a varying array of film projects, I approach each one with melody foremost in mind. I feel it important to try and come up with some type of melodic content that embodies the emotional content of a film. Although there might be many different nuances to the drama and emotion of a film, the building blocks of a score come from one or two underlining melodic ideas. I don't know if I have a specific "style" because the musical style varies from film to film. I do try however, to capture the essence of the story with a melody.
Q: What influences do you feel have affected your approach?
Williams: I have been influenced by music from a variety of composers since I was a young. The music of Vaughan Williams has certainly influenced my melodic sensitivities as a composer. The use of rhythm by composers such as Stravinsky and Goldsmith has been influential as well.
Q: You have scored a variety of dramas, television movies, children’s films, and documentaries, each of course with their own unique needs. Do you have a particular preference as a composer, or is the variety to your liking?
Williams: Variety is a good thing because it forces me as a composer to come up with fresh ideas. With the unique needs of films in many different genres I have the opportunity to expand my base as a composer. I can experiment with musical elements that cause me to stretch as a composer. I think this is invaluable for a composer. Getting comfortable writing the same type of score again and again weakens the music for the film. That having been said, I certainly have films that I enjoy more than others. Dramatic films with good stories are the ones I most enjoy working on the most. I find it more rewarding being able to get into the characters and the story and to help add the intangible dramatic and emotional elements from the music that you are not able to do with say a documentary film.
Q: How do you approach a documentary, such as AMAZON or the new KILIMANJARO? Is the function of music different in a nondramatic film like a documentary, versus say a dramatic feature film?
Williams: Although documentary films such as the IMAX score I have written are not traditional dramatic films, I approach the music as if it were a dramatic narrative. For AMAZON and KILIMANJARO there were not a lot of dramatic elements from characters in the film, but there were many opportunities to treat the river or the mountain as a character itself. By thinking this way, I approach it the same as if it were a dramatic feature. I still work on creating a melody that encompasses the particular location as if it were a character or underlining emotion of a feature story.
Q: ISLAND OF THE SHARKS was an especially pleasing documentary score, rich in melody. There seems to be a John Barry influence here. Was this due to a temp score?
Williams: The film was temped with Barry. The filmmakers wanted a romantic theme for the sharks, showing their grace and beauty. It seems that whenever a score has a long, broad melody it's reminiscent of a John Barry score.
Q: Was the temp a problem for you on this score? Do you find it awkward when a temp score may dictate an approach not necessarily of your own choosing?
Williams: Most of the time composers don't enjoy temp scores. They do serve a purpose however. They can point a composer in a particular musical direction that the director wants to go. The problem arises when the filmmaker WANTS the temp as their score. A composer can be handcuffed by this. There have been cases when I have felt that all I was asked to do was rewrite a piece of temp music. That is a real problem. A composer should be hired to collaborate with the filmmaker and compose an original score, not rewrite an existing score.
Q: What kind of musical research have you had to do to create authentic sounding ethnic music for some of these scores such as AMAZON or DEAD SEA SCROLLS?
Williams: I try and familiarize myself with as much music as I can. When called upon to write a score with ethnic music, I do a lot of listening to both indigenous instruments and to musical styles.
Q: How closely have you worked with producers or directors on scoring documentary films? Is there a difference in the composer-filmmaker relationship on a documentary versus what you find on a feature film?
Williams: My experience has always been that of working closely with the filmmaker. It doesn't matter what the film genre, directors have a vision of their film. They have lived with it much longer than I have and have an idea of what the music needs to do in their film. Whether it’s a documentary or an action picture, the director and producer always have taken a collaborative roll in the music process. All of them hear thematic material before I proceed with writing the score. Nowadays, they all want to see a demo of the score before we go in the studio and record with the orchestra.
Q: What particular challenges does the IMAX format pose for you as a composer?
Williams: I love the large-format venue. For a composer it truly is a dream. First, every single nuance you put on tape, you know you are going to hear in the theater. IMAX theaters have the best sound systems in the world. Also, the music plays a much larger roll that it might in a dramatic feature. I find I have fewer car chases and loud sound effects to contend with than I would in a feature. One of the best phone calls I have received was from the dubbing stage of AMAZON. The director called to say that they were dumping the narration for the last 3 minutes of the film and were just playing my music. That never happens with a feature.
Q: How does the need to have a larger than life sound, matching the large scale of the visual image, affect your compositional or orchestrational approach?
Williams: It all depends on the subject matter and what the filmmaker wants the audience to feel. Most of the time, the large screen calls for a large sound. Working with large orchestras to achieve this has been fantastic.
Q: At the same time, does the large format or the fact that everything is SO big and SO discernable offer you any logistical challenges in orchestration or recording that the relatively smaller scale of, say, a documentary or children's film might not present?
Williams: Actually, the only consideration is the recording and mixing in surround. Most of the same considerations are made when I record any feature since they are always delivered in surround. The only difference is that IMAX theaters are far superior in their sound systems so you have to be very sure where things are planned and how they are balanced. For instance, on AMAZON and KILIMANJARO, there are some very large drums and when they are played loud, you actually shake in your seat in the theater because their presence and force is so great. It's pretty cool to literally "move" the audience with your music.
Q: There has got to be a good story behind the score for ADVENTURES OF SPACE BABY AND MENTAL MAN. How do you approach a children's film, as a composer? Are the needs different than that of an adult drama? Does the younger audience dictate a different approach?
Williams: Well SPACE BABY is an interesting film. It's your not-so-typical story of a boy who fights the evil of the universe and saves the world. As you know, I have worked on a number of so called "family films." I like to think of them as this rather than kid films. Kids nowadays are quite sophisticated and I have been able to write scores to these films that are equally sophisticated. These films also have allowed me to write some very fun yet intelligent music. I have found myself sometimes trying to convince directors that there story is appealing to a wider audience than just kids and the music should also reflect this. In almost every case, when the music can be dramatic rather than cute, the story is better and the audience, especially kids react better to the story. I think music knows no age limit.
Q: What can you tell us about your latest fairy tale score, THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA? What kind of score did you write for this film?
Williams: I am very excited about this project. About 3 years ago I was approached to write the score and songs for this animated feature. After reading the script and then seeing the character designs, I was very excited about being a part of a great story that I knew would appeal to a wide audience. I began by writing 7 original songs with lyricist David Pomeranz. Since the songs had to be written first so that the animators could animate to the actual singers, the songs have been completed for nearly two years. To date, they might be my best work as a composer. I am very proud of them. The songs are for character solos, choir and orchestra very much in the tradition of musical theater. I'm finally beginning to work on the score that is a very traditional symphonic score. Lots of big dramatic and emotional moments along with fun, whimsical, and action-packed sequences. You might say, there's something for everyone in the score.
Q: What was your toughest assignment so far?
Williams: I don't know if I have one toughest assignment. I have however, had a couple. First, writing the songs for PRINCESS were especially challenging since I had no real prior experience writing songs for musical theater. SOUL ASSASSIN was also a challenge for a couple of reasons. The director and I have known each other for quite awhile. He came to me and said he wanted a techo-action score. He knew I didn't have much experience in this genre, but he said he wanted me to do the film. It was a tough project - a 90-minute film that had almost 85-minutes of very intense action music. It was a very fast-paced film and the music had to do a lot of things.
Q: When working on a score that includes songs, such as PRINCESS & THE PEA (albeit you wrote those songs) or SOUL ASSASSIN, what's your approach in linking/skirting/accentuating/contrasting the songs with the instrumental score? Obviously SOUL, with its heavy techno rap approach is going to be a far different thing than the surely more gentle songs of PRINCESS, but I wonder how you approach a film that uses songs when it comes to employing your instrumental score.
Williams: The songs in PRINCESS are very different than the typical use of songs in movies. They help the plot unfold while further developing the characters. All of the songs are from the same musical tapestry. They belong to the same whole. Thematic material finds its way throughout the songs and also the underscore. The songs could be thought of as large musical montages. In a film like SOUL ASSASSIN, the songs are used in a more typical way. The filmmaker will say, "You don't need to score this because there will be a song here." I hardly have any input as to what songs they use. Sometimes a song is a great choice. Other times it simple disrupts the musical flow of a score. Some times, as in the case with SOUL ASSASSIN, some of the score is replaced with a song simply to facilitate a soundtrack deal. The soundtrack for SOUL ASSASSIN interestingly enough contains 85% songs and about 15% score, yet in the body of the film, the songs comprise maybe 5% of the total music, not counting the end credit song.
Q: Which project has been the most rewarding for you, either in its final result or in the experience of working on it?
Williams: All of the films I have worked on have had rewarding moments. I look back at each of them as scores that have their own unique story. I would have to say that AMAZON was one of the most rewarding ones. There's something special about a first. AMAZON was my first IMAX score. It was the first opportunity I had to record a big orchestra at SONY. And finally, I had less than 2 weeks from spotting to dubbing to write the score. The film then went on to receive an Academy Award Nomination. AMAZON will always be a bit special.
Q: Are you comfortable in your current niche, or would you like the opportunity to score larger films or more big-budget features? Where would you like to be in another five or ten years?
Williams: I am grateful for the opportunities I have had so far. I do wish to have more opportunities to work on bigger films. That is where my heart and passion are. I hope to meet new directors and have more opportunities to collaborate with them on a larger scale. Those opportunities seem to be getting closer.
Q: What type of film would you especially like to score that you haven't yet been given the opportunity to do?
Williams: I would love to do a big, epic picture. I would also like to do some type of a love story.
Accolade Film Awards
By Yayoi Lena Winfrey
Film music composer Alan Williams must be doing something right. To date, he’s won several Accolades! That makes Williams the top award-winning music composer in the Accolade Competition’s six year history.
For Williams, “Movies are a powerful medium, and music is certainly the most powerful universal language. Until people watch a film or scene that doesn’t have any music, they don’t realize how stale a scene is without it. Music is an emotional character that you don’t see on screen, but you feel it. You notice when it’s not there. Music is what makes you laugh, cry, and be scared.”
Williams started playing the piano when he was eight. He knew early on that he wanted to be a film composer, probably by his sophomore year in high school. The Colorado native attended Brigham Young University before completing graduate work in film scoring at the University of Southern California.
Q: What challenges have you experienced working with filmmakers?
A: Even when you work with a director on more than one occasion, you still have challenges on every project. Every film is different. There’s always a scene that needs extra attention or something that requires extra work on the music side, or maybe the director didn’t quite get the performance from the actors so looks to the composer to see if there’s something we can do. Every director is different. It varies from, ‘I have no idea what I want, I trust you, go ahead and write.’ The other is, ‘If I could write music, I would, but I can’t so I’m going to dictate to you what I want with every nuance. I won’t give you much liberty.’ True collaborations are the best experiences. I get to add my creative input and the director gets to add theirs.
Q: What’s your advice to filmmakers about working with composers?
A: Talk to me as if they were talking to an actor. My job is to translate and interpret drama and emotion in the music. I’d much rather have the director say, ‘We need the audience to feel angst or jubilation at this time or, ‘We really feel sorry for this character,’ instead of ‘It would be great if we had guitars playing right here.’ I don’t have a problem with a filmmaker playing a piece of music and saying, ‘This is the kind of sound or music I’m looking for.’ I’ll ask, ‘What is it that you like about it?’ That’s a better model of communication than when a director or editor will cut in a piece of existing “temporary music” while they’re editing. It helps with pacing, but what happens is they fall in love with that particular piece of music, and when the composer sits down with the filmmakers, they say, ‘We just want you to rewrite this piece of music.’ We haven’t had the chance to talk about drama or emotion, or see what it is you like about that music or what doesn’t work about it.
Q: What about newbie filmmakers?
A: I love working with first-time filmmakers. They tend to be a little more open to collaboration, sometimes more than experienced filmmakers, depending on what their background is and how much they freely communicate with a composer. But, they also don’t have experience in how important an original score is for their project. They’re not sure what things cost and they under-budget both money and time. Music is the last thing that’s added at the very end of the production, and chances are they have over-budgeted in every other area. It’s a million dollar score they want to produce, and they only have a few days. Those filmmakers that understand the importance of the music do all they can to preserve their monetary budget for it. They give the composer the script, send dailies and rough cuts, and have discussions. The more time you have to work with things, the better and more cohesive the project is.
Q: What distinguishes your scores?
A: There’s a trend in scoring of being atmospheric and groove-oriented, and I’ve always written scores as a thematic and melodic composer. Themes become the building blocks of the score that goes some place, as opposed to a lot of individual themes. It’s a unit that is tied together with themes rather than textures.
Q: How did you develop your style?
A: I think one’s style is always developing. For me, music is about melody, harmony and rhythm, and you have to have all of those in some fashion.
Q: How long does it take for you to write a score?
A: Ideally, it’s six weeks to do a motion picture. That isn’t always the luxury. With IMAX’ Amazon, I had two weeks. Music is the last thing that’s added to a movie. I write to the picture then, record it. They mix the tracks with dialog and dubs just before the movie is released--making little changes on the film all along. If they take out 30 seconds of a scene, it impacts what the music does and I have to rewrite that.
Q: What skills should a film composer have?
A: You have to have a pretty strong dramatic sense. Just because you can write really good music doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a scene. You may have an 85-piece orchestra at your disposal, but that doesn’t mean a solo oboe isn’t all the scene calls for. You have to remain true to the film.
Q: Any favorite past assignments?
A: Amazon is one of the best highlights for me. It was a good film, even though I had only a small window of time to write the music. Plus the film got nominated for an Academy Award. That was my first big score on a big scoring stage at Sony Pictures. I look back on that experience, and have a nice sentimental spot for it.
Q: Any exciting assignments ahead?
A: The Lost Gold of Khan is a big action adventure film. It will be a totally fun project to work on. It’s an American production that begins in Mongolia.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished up a real interesting project on Abraham Lincoln. It’s all the background leading up to the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln is CGI, there are historic photos, and everyone else is an actor. The music will be very much Americana.
Q: Any additional advice?
A: From a filmmaker’s perspective, music is a very scary thing. A director can write, direct, star in and edit his film, but when it comes to music, that’s one aspect that they can’t do. Because of that, they feel a lot of fear in passing their baby over to someone and giving up control. They may feel a sense of inadequacy in communication. Music is another language, and they don’t speak that language. Most directors are not composers, but I wouldn’t want to direct a film. I’m very, very happy just being a composer!
The Versatile Composer of Melodies -
An Interview with Alan Williams
Interview by Stephan Eicke (Cinema Musica)
Prior to your academic studies, what kind of musical experience did you gain? Did you play in a band and did you write any music?
Both. While in high school and college, I played keyboards in a band and percussion in school orchestras and I wrote a few classical pieces, chamber music for instance.
When did you know that you wanted to become a film composer? For example, Jerry Goldsmith saw “Spellbound” and was inflamed with love for film music. Did you have that kind of crucial experience as well?
No, not really. Since high school, at age fourteen, I knew that I wanted to be a film composer. Even when I started to play the piano at age eight, I loved to add a few bars to the pieces or change them a little bit. There was no specific soundtrack that inspired me, I simply loved the orchestra and the movies – it was wonderful for me to combine them both.
What happened then, after College?
First I obtained my Bachelor in Music and Composition, and then I moved to Los Angeles, where I composed commercials for a few friends, who I’ve met in college. In addition to that I wrote the music for a couple of student films.
How did you get your first assignment for a studio film?
A friend of mine recommended me to a director. So I sent him some of my demos and he liked the music enough to hire me. It was only a small feature, but a great experience for me. It is difficult in Hollywood to get anywhere without contacts.
Let’s talk about the IMAX-movies. You scored quite a few of them – movies about Mount Kilimanjaro or the Amazon River as well as television movies. What is more inspiring? Nature or human conflict?
That’s a really good question… and the answer is that it depends on the theme per se. A gripping story combined with beautiful pictures is very inspiring to me. To swim along the Amazon River can be as inspiring as human drama. For me it depends on what is more exciting: the story, the people or the images. In the IMAX-movies music plays a much bigger role than in other films because there are no actors, just images and music.
I would say, that both are equally inspiring.
In your film scores you often utilize a lot of different styles – folk music, synthesizer beats or ethnical sounds. Where did you learn to compose like this?
A film composer should always bring along a variety of musical styles, because every movie is different and almost every movie demands a different score or a different approach to film and music.
I had a good musical background to be able to meet these demands. When I was studying, I wrote 20th century concert music; alongside I composed for television commercials. I was already working with the director of “Soul Assassins”, when we were both in college and then he came up to me and said: “Alan, I want you to do a Techno-Action-Soundtrack. I know, it is not your favorite genre, but I trust you.”
It really wasn’t my preferred genre, but it was wonderful to have a director who trusted his composer, even though the composer never wrote that kind of music before. It’s so frustrating that today directors and producers immediately underscore their films with demo music to show their composers what the score should sound like. And if you don’t compose exactly what they want you to, they never talk to you again.
…the trouble with temp tracks…
Yes, exactly. It’s interesting because they didn’t have any temp tracks in the early years of cinema. It can be very frustrating to be forced to sound like someone else. Music is something that the producers and directors cannot make themselves. They can write the script, roll the camera, do the editing and so on, but when it comes to the music, they don’t have any experience with that. So what do they do? They take music that has already been written. The editor cuts the rough cut and underscores it with temp tracks to create a certain atmosphere, and according to all these pieces of music he finally edits the film. Then they spend a lot of time hearing the temp tracks over and over again, virtually falling in love with them. Finally the composer comes in and now he has to be creative according to their ideas.
Isn’t it terrible for a composer that, while he wants to compose something new, he is forced to reproduce other people's music?
Yes, it’s frustrating. When I work with a director, I want him to talk to me about his ideas, in the same way he would talk to an actor. Then it’s my job to process those ideas into music. But when a director tells me: “I want oboe here and trumpets there,” then he is trying to speak in a language, which he has never learned. When he talks to me, he should say something like: “Here I need something that scares the audience, here I need something dark.” He can play me his favorite music from the movies and explain to me, why he likes it. If he likes the percussion in it, then I’m going to use a lot of percussion, if it supports the film. I think that’s good. It’s bad, when a director tells you: “We want John Williams, but we can’t afford him. Here's the temp track, now go on and compose like him.”
Is this an indicator that directors don’t trust their composers anymore?
The IMAX-movies are set in all kinds of places like Africa or Egypt. How important is it for you to use ethnic music in those situations?
I think, it’s very important. It doesn’t have to be entirely ethnic music, but I love to combine ethnic influences from all over the world with orchestral music. If special traditional instruments of a country enrich the orchestra, it creates a unique sound. But if you composed a score just using percussion and panpipes, the music would be very limited and would begin to sound boring rather quickly. Therefore you should combine those elements with the orchestra to gain a better dramatic effect.
I remember Jerry Goldsmith once said: “If a movie is set in Russia, it doesn’t mean that you need to write Russian music. And if a movie is set in Mexico, it doesn’t mean, that you need to compose Mexican music. But you have to include influences from those regions into your music, because it aids communication.” Does that make sense?
Absolutely! How flexible do you have to be for an IMAX-movie?
You have to be very flexible and versatile. It is not easy to write music for nature films or documentaries. When you are doing a film for cinema or TV that is centered round human conflict, you have for instance two people sitting in a room, discussing their problems, and you underscore that scene musically by highlighting the dramatic turns of their conversation. What kind of music do you compose for two monkeys jumping from tree to tree? Here it's considerably more difficult to find the right music. Sometimes the movie-makers have an idea and sometimes not.
I’m surprised that for an IMAX-movie there is always enough money for an orchestra. Other composers have to record abroad, where it is cheaper, and some scores for nature films have to rely on only a few instruments and synthesizers.
Not with the IMAX-movies! They always have enough money for an orchestra and expect orchestral music. I record my music with the same orchestra that other IMAX-composers use as well.
But I have also written music for documentaries and nature films that weren’t IMAX, which had less money and just a small budget for a certain number of musicians. It all depends on what the directors expects. IMAX has a certain image and the movies they put on the big screen are really good. If you go to the cinema and watch an IMAX-presentation, even the seats are moving and that’s great, it's a fantastic feeling. You don’t get this on television.
You have also written the music for the animated film “The Princess and the Pea”. Can you tell us something about this work? Where is the difference between composing for an animated film and a live action movie?
It takes a lot more time to develop an animated film. It’s a very slow process, especially if songs are used, because those have to be written before the film is completed, in the best case even before the actual shooting starts. David Pomerance and I had composed a few songs, and then I composed the soundtrack, for which I had about two years time. But I fulfill the assignment to write music for an animated film in the same way as I fulfill the assignment to write for a live action picture; there is no difference for me.
But you have written pure synthesizer music for movies like “Asylum” or “Soul Assassins” as well. How did that come about? Did you choose that concept?
Well, in the case of “Soul Assassins”, even if we had enough money for an orchestra, it wouldn't have fitted the film. To create an electronic score is good, if that's what the movie needs. Sadly, today synthesizers are too often used to imitate an orchestra because there isn’t enough money for a real orchestra, and that’s frustrating. If it's up to me, I would choose an orchestra for every kind of music, no question about that. An orchestra can do things that only an orchestra can do, and I prefer that. Synthesizers can create great effects and provide the right rhythm, but it’s not the same.
What do you think, how important is the synthesizer in today’s music business?
If they are used for percussion or to create a certain sound design, they fulfill the purpose they were designed for. They are best used to create musical colors that an orchestra simply cannot provide. Sadly, this kind of use is very seldom nowadays and synths are mainly used if you can’t afford an orchestra. The budgets for music are decreasing more and more and that’s a big problem. Today’s technique is really good and samples sound great as long as you don’t compare them to an orchestra – than they simply can’t keep up.
To name a few examples, Jerry Goldsmith used synthesizer for “Logan’s Run” and Hans Zimmer for “The Rock” – back then it sounded fresh and innovative, but today everything sounds a bit dated and old fashioned. I think that's a big problem with synthesizers.
That’s exactly where we have to be careful! An orchestra can never sound old fashioned! I am a great fan of Jerry Goldsmith and the main theme for “Hoosiers” is great – but the percussion sounds dated…
... it sounded modern back in the 80ies.
Yes, but it still sounds good today. And if you listen to some of Hans Zimmer’s scores from the 90s, the synthesizers do still sound very contemporary.
You have your own label "Silverscreen Music.“ Why do you publish your music yourself?
Originally, I just wanted to publish promo CDs, which I wanted to hand out to directors and friends. I didn’t mean to earn any money with it, I just wanted to get my music circulated, most of all among directors and people from the press.
Which music do you choose for publishing? There are still some unpublished scores. I think “The Loch” could be interesting.
Yes, at the moment there is a discussion going on to publish this music on one CD together with some animated short movies. The music is very entertaining and I hope to be able to publish it very soon.
That sounds very good! How would you describe your own style?
That is difficult… melodies are very, very important to me. I would say, I’m more a writer of melodies. I don’t like sound designer music. Not because I can’t do it, but because I feel more attracted to melodies.
Not the Graeme Revell type of composer then.
Absolutely not. That’s not my cup of tea at all. I admire Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.
You’re not the only one…
Because they are both great composers. Both have worked for over 40 years in the movie business and had a great career.
Young film music fans are more interested in Hans Zimmer and only a few know Jerry Goldsmith or Elmer Bernstein. That’s regrettable and aggravating.
That’s right, but there are many reasons for that. One of them is that obviously both Bernstein and Goldsmith aren’t writing music for current movies anymore. But it also due to the different types of movies and their directors. Movies aren’t made the same way they were made back then, and expectations nowadays are different. If Hans Zimmer would write the music for a movie on which Jerry Goldsmith had worked before him, then we would have two very different score and the question of quality would be very subjective. I wish the young listeners would be more interested in Jerry Goldsmith.
I also think that the movies themselves are a problem. Many of the movies that Jerry Goldsmith has scored are generally unknown, and he has written music for many bad ones as well.
Oh yes, he has!
The more famous the film is, the better known is the music. Hardly anybody knows “High Velocity” but “Pirates of the Caribbean” is immensely popular. Do you think it's a problem that the popularity of a score is always connected to the popularity of the film?
That’s a problem, but not for Hans Zimmer. For him, that’s great! (laughs) It’s hard to say, because lots of very good scores were written for really bad movies. A relatively successful movie usually has a relatively successful score, because millions of people watch the movie and therefore are listening to the music. Besides, a big Hollywood blockbuster always has a huge budget for music. It’s hard to make an orchestra of a hundred musicians sound bad.
How do you compose? Sitting at your desk, with pencil and paper or at the computer?
That’s an interesting story. When I got married and bought my first computer, a small mac, I told my wife that this would be all that I would ever need for composing. Before that I was always composing with pencil and paper at my piano, and over time I bought a lot of equipment for my studio. I am still using the piano a lot, but I’m using the computer as well because I have to produce a lot of demos. Nowadays there is not that much composing with pencil and paper anymore, because composers not only need to compose, they also have to produce demos of their works.
Sadly, so far you didn't have the chance to work for a big Hollywood picture. Would you like to do that?
I would love to work on such a project, but the final step towards a big studio production is very hard. Firstly, those are very expensive films and they have the money for an orchestra, but they don’t want to take a risk with the composer and secondly, they already know exactly what they want. That’s the reason why the always go back to the same composers. That’s not always a good decision though.
I am not as expensive as the big name composers, but I probably could accomplish as much as them. It’s just difficult to get the first chance to prove it. I’m still waiting for that.
At the moment you are working on four new films, which will be directed by Mark Roemmich: “Snow Princess”, “Lost Gold Of Khan”, “Children of the Runes” and “Black Widow”. Can you tell us something about these projects?
Mark’s first movie was “Taylor”, for which I wrote the music as well, that’s how we met. Then he closed the deal with a small production company, for which he will be directing these four films. They are just features, but I can nevertheless work with an orchestra. The movies are in production right now.
How much time do you have to score those four films?
About eight weeks, a little bit more time than I usually have, so that won’t be a problem.
Which musicians and composers do you admire?
There are many great composers. Of course, for me Jerry Goldsmith comes in first, followed by John Williams. They are extraordinary and very different composers. They both achieved to capture the essence of film music and music in general.
I’m also a great admirer of Ralph Vaughn Williams, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.
Have you written concert music as well?
Not since college. At the moment I am very focused on film music. Maybe at some point in the future I'll write concert music, but not right now.
Do you have an opinion on illegal music downloads? I think that’s a big problem.
Yes, it is. Composers want to publish their music because they want people to listen to it. And when I’m writing a score, which I’m really proud of, I want others to listen to it. I don’t support these illegal downloads at all. You know, good music doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere. We have talked about symphonic music and synthesizers and one of the differences between those options is the price. To produce an electronic score is much cheaper than orchestral music, and if it continues in that way with downloads, we won’t stand a chance to refinance an orchestra because the market for soundtracks isn’t all that big. If you sell a thousand copies of your music, that’s quite good. (laughs)
What do you think about the usage of songs in films? Can they replace composed scores?
The best way to include songs in a film, is to use songs which were actually composed for certain scenes. If you take a song in, it should push and support the plot. If you succeed in doing that because the lyrics and the music fit the scene, it’s good. If you just use a famous song to put it on the CD release to enhance its sales, then it’s not a good way to use songs in films.
What do you think are some of the biggest problems in Hollywood?
(thinks for a long time)
I don’t want to force you to say anything bad about your employers.
Thanks, I appreciate that. Personally, I would like the studios to be a little more open-minded. They often make decisions because those decisions are easy – not really creative and sometimes just not good at all. But that’s not only a musical problem. Why do they spend so much money on a single movie? There are a lots of stories waiting to be told. There are a lot of people, who rack their brains over this for a long time, but they just don’t understand it.
What have you learned during your time in the movie industry?
Not to get discouraged. You know, the last thing Hollywood needs is another film composer. I am composing and I want to do this… there are so many people who discourage you, who tell you: “That’s not our music. We don’t need you.” The thing I worked on the most is persistence and endurance. I hope that there are enough directors out there, who will give me the chance for a fruitful collaboration.
What do you think about the young Hollywood composers? We were talking briefly about Hans Zimmer et al. Are they the future of Hollywood?
I don’t know if they are the future, but it is interesting when you are going back a few years, back to the 60s. John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini all wrote film music at the same time, but their styles were very different and they made music for very different movies. They were all great composers and will always be famous for their quality. That’s what I’m trying to do – I am always trying to write the best possible score.
Alan, thank you very much for this candid and detailed interview!
Interview by Martin Provost
What are your first memories of music in your household?
There was always a piano at home. Since I was very young the piano was available to play on. As a young boy, I wanted to learn to play the drums. My parents said that would be fine after I learned to play the piano. Piano started at age 8 with percussion beginning at age 13. I remember many evenings laying on the living room floor as my father played classical recordings of the great symphonies. I would close my eyes and be swept up in the music. I did not realize that this would be the beginning of my love for orchestral music.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
When I was young, most of the music I listened to was what my parents would play on the record player. Besides classical music, I do remember listening to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. We had a few recordings of the pops orchestras. I loved hearing the great movie themes played by the orchestra. even though I didn’t know what the movies were about. I distinctly remember loving that music very much.
What are your first memories of movies?
I don’t know if I recall the first movie I saw but I have always loved movies. I love great stories told through film.
When did you become aware of and started listening to film music?
The Boston Pops recordings of film music was my first exposure to film music. Ever since that time I have been listening to film music.
Why did you study film music?
I didn’ t begin studying film music. I started playing piano since 8. Since 13, I played percussion in the middle of orchestras. By 16 I knew I wanted to study composition and write music for films. I began by getting my Bachelor's of Music degree in composition. For me it was important to learn about composition, orchestration and counterpoint first. Then I did graduate work specifically in film and television music composition from the University of Southern California to apply the compositional techniques to film.
How did you get into the film music world (business)?
Getting into the business is a process. It is about getting or making opportunities and building upon them. As a student at USC, I wrote more music for student films than I did for my course study. I used that time as a training ground and as a chance to meet young filmmakers. This gave me a chance to record a lot of orchestral music for those films. Those films created my first demos that I could then pass around to other directors which led to my first real films. Since then, each project seems to lead to something else.
Since you started in the film music world, do you think it has changed?
Yes things have changed a lot. I used to need a video player, a piano, a lot of score paper and a pencil. Now an entire electronic studio is needed to demo the scores before recording. Schedules have become shorter and budgets seem to be shrinking.
As a composer, you seem to reach and touch people when they are watching the movie in the theatres. There seems to be a limited of number of people buying the score CDs. What do you think about it as a stand-alone listening experience? Do you buy scores yourself?
I think many scores can be a stand-alone listening experience. However, you have to realize that the music was not written for that medium. Film music is written to accompany visual images. Some scores work better than others as stand-alone CDs. You have to be true to the film first. Hopefully it translates to a soundtrack as well.
Do you think that classical music is more art than film music? Have you ever considered writing something else outside of the film industry?
The debate about the validity of film music continues to go on. I believe that film music is art. It is the opera and program music of today. If Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner were alive today I’m sure that they would be writing for films. For me, I care about dramatic music. Drama and emotion are the most important elements of music. This can be achieved in the concert hall, however contemporary concert music is more about atonality. Melody is such a big part of music that I find much of today’s current concert music lacking melody. I would consider writing something outside of the film industry but I would want it to be accessible to the general public.
What struck you when you first saw Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa?
It is a beautifully filmed movie. I knew that music would play a large role. I also immediately knew that it was not just an African score but that there would be many layers and elements to the score.
How did you prepare for Kilimanjaro?
Can you explain the choices you’ve made concerning this score? How did you approach it? The preparations for the score consisted of a bit of research on East African music and instruments. From there, the musical choices came from the director and myself. The director wanted the main theme to have African elements but also convey the majesty of the mountain. I love combining ethnic instruments with the traditional orchestra. I also added choir for both the traditional African vocals in the main theme as well as for the more “spiritual” and “dramatic” parts of the film. Percussion is a big part of the score as well. Rhythm is as important in my scores as is melody. Working with African rhythms and percussion was a real treat.
Did you prepare a demo for Kilimanjaro? Are you usually asked to prepare demos?
Yes I prepared demos of the score. Directors always want to hear demos before we record with the orchestra. It has become the rule.
Was Kilimanjaro “temped’ ? Have you ever been given a film without a temp score?
Yes. Most films I do come with some amount of temp music. I was fortunate when I wrote the score to “Princess and the Pea” because it was not temped. It was very liberating to write without a temp score.
You said that you can experiment with musical elements that cause you to stretch as a composer. Is there a particular style that would be challenging for you?
Probably my next film. Every project comes with its own set of challenges. I have been fortunate to work in a wide range of genres. This has given me opportunities to write in many different styles. However, I think that every project makes a composer stretch. If not, he’s playing it too safe. Rewriting the same score gets boring.
Have you been impressed by film music these days? Which composers or scores in particular?
I am not impressed with a lot of the film music today. I think that there is too much music in movies and certainly not enough memorable scores. It seems a lot of filmmakers are wanting atmospheric, groove-driven, texture scores. These elements are great but too many times a film is lacking the emotional connection with a memorable theme. Then the development of the theme provides the emotional payoff. Unfortunately a lot of the scores are not written from a thematic point of view. The result is a lot of cues put together to form a score rather than a cohesive “musical” big picture with themes and motives being developed to construct a complete work.
Soul Assassins is a very intense action score. Can you explain the choices you’ve made on this one? Was particular challenges did it present?
This was a very interesting score. Techno music was something I was not a fan of nor I had I listened to much of it. The director was very specific about the musical choices especially with regards to the pacing. There were many complex edits. The music had to keep the pace going for the entire picture. Although there was really only one memorable theme from the score, many of the other musical elements served as the motives for the score. They ultimately became the building blocks for the score.
You have done many IMAX films. (Amazon, Mark Twain’s America, Islands of the Sharks, and more recently Kilimanjaro) Do you approach them differently than a “regular film”? Is this something you would like to pursue?
I really don’t approach IMAX films any different than other films. I begin with writing a theme that encompasses the entire film. This is no different than writing a theme for a regular film. Music serves the same purpose in IMAX as it does in features. I treat every project the same with respect to the construction of the score regardless of whether it’s a documentary or feature.
You appear to be more at ease with the orchestra as a medium to convey your emotions. How do you deal with synthesizers? You compose with them?
I do feel at home with the orchestra. I love the orchestra. I love the power and intimacy of the orchestra. I do enjoy the electronics as well but only to be used as another instrument in the orchestra. It is very exciting to combine the orchestra with the electronics. I do use the synthesizers and samples a lot as I have to demo all of the cues. The beginning stages of composing however, always begin with just the piano.
The songs you wrote for The Princess and the Pea are very much in the tradition of musical theatre. What was it like to undertake that challenge?
This was a big challenge. I previously didn’t have any experience with musical theatre. I knew that the songs were a very important part of the film. In animation, music plays a larger role than in a live-action films. The songs would be the most important part of musical approach. Since the songs were written before the scenes were animated, I was on the project from the beginning. I would write the music first and then David Pomeranz would work on the lyrics. We would then get together and “fine tune” the songs. These songs had to develop the characters while furthering the plot and remaining musical and memorable. We spent more time writing the 7 songs than I did composing nearly 60 minutes of underscore.
I began the songs for “Princess and the Pea” nearly 5 years ago. The songs were written over about a 5 month time frame. Each song was written after discussion with the director and producer as to the songs usage in the film. Each song had to further the plot and develop the characters while not slowing down the storyline. Each song was storyboarded after being written. The songs were then recorded with full orchestra and the singers so that the animators could animate to the final music track. Then nearly 3 years past as the animators finished the film. When the entire movie was finished and then edited together, I began writing the underscore for the film. I had about 6 weeks to write and record the score which comprised about 55 minutes of the film. The songs totalled about 25 minutes. The film came in at 85 minutes with more than 80 minutes of total music. Start to finish, all most 5 years from the first song to the last note of underscore! I am very proud of all of the songs. I had no real prior experience with musical theatre. These songs are very much in that genre. The songs are very tuneful and needed to be as memorable as possible. To that end I am proud of the final product. If I must chose one, “My Kingdom of the Heart” would be it. This song was the first one I wrote for the film. As with all of the songs, the music came first. Then David added his clever lyrics. “Kingdom of the Heart” became the main theme for the film. As you know, there is a reprise of the song which is a duet in the film. It’s really a lovely moment as the two main characters long to be together. Each believes the other is lost so as they sing together they are physically apart. It works very well. At the end of the film, the tune becomes the emotional payoff as the true princess and prince are married. Then there is the pop version of the song for the end credits. Brass was a big part of the score. The story called for lots of regal action. Brass fits the bill. Thematically, the score was structured with themes for Daria (the princess), Rollo (the prince), Hildegard (Laird’s daughter) and Laird (the villain). Sebastian (the raven) also had an additional thematic element besides his song. There were some other secondary themes but they were more for elements such as kingdoms, etc. Structurally, the themes were introduced and developed as the characters were in the story. There was a great moment towards the end of the film where Laird and his daughter Hildegard are conspiring against Rollo, the prince and both Laird’s theme and Hildegard’s theme are play at the same time to form a very unique, yet perfectly-fit counterpoint. As far as the rest of the structure, there was a lot of action in the film. So I used fragments and then fully developed themes for the characters as the action unfolded. This score became very operatic in nature with respect to the themes and characters.
Is it getting a general release soon?
As far as the release of the film, yes it will have a wider release. I’m not sure of the exact plans but it will be released this year.
What is next for you?
Currently, I am starting a feature called “Where Rivers Meet” which is a wonderful film. It is a period piece along the lines of “A River Runs Through It”. Then I start “Secret Santa” a Christmas movie for NBC which will air during the Holiday season. The musical approach for this film is basically Americana. It will be a combination of orchestral and featured guitars, woodwinds and fiddle. The scope of the music ranges from small, intimate scoring to large epic moments. It is going to be a very melodic score. Presently, I don’t see any use of vocals in this score but that could always change.
Film score Republic (Poland)
Interview by Mariusz Tomaszewski
Q: How did you become a film composer? Choice, accident, destiny?
Williams: I guess I always knew I would be a film composer. By the age of 14 I knew I wanted to be a composer. Music is a very powerful language. Film is a powerful medium. When the two are combined, you have the greatest emotional language known.
Q: How did you start with IMAX projects?
Williams: My first IMAX project was “Amazon”. Kieth Merrill, the director, was familiar with some of my work. Although I had never worked with him, he phoned one morning and said he was finishing up an IMAX film about the Amazon rainforest. It would need a musical score that combined the traditional orchestra with the native ethnic music from South America. He wanted to know if I was first interested and second be able to deliver a completed score in 2 weeks. Two weeks from that phone call, “Amazon” was being mixed on the dubbing stage with a 40-minute score with an 80-piece orchestra, combined with ethnic woodwinds and percussion and choir. That was how I started with IMAX projects.
Q: Where do you find inspiration to writing music for your movies?
Williams: The inspiration always comes from the images themselves. I use the film to create the inspiration.
Q: Are there any classical or film music composers with any specific scores you enjoy?
Williams: There are a number of scores and pieces. Too many to name but I will name a few composers whose work I find very inspiring. From the classical world, Vaughn Williams, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. From the film world, certainly the top of the list is the late, great Jerry Goldsmith followed by John Williams.
Q: Was there any particular project you were especially proud of?
Williams: Certainly “Amazon” was a success. For the film to receive an Academy Award nomination was wonderful. I am also very proud of my work on “The Princess and the Pea”. A very big project! With 7 original songs and nearly 85 minutes of total music, the scope of the project was quite large: choir, soloists and a 95-piece orchestra.
Q: What is your collaboration like with directors?
Williams: Every director is different. Some know exactly what they want and others are not sure. What I always suggest to directors is to speak in terms of drama and emotion, the same way they speak to actors. It’s my job to translate those directions into musical terms.
Q: Do you know how the score should look right after reading the script or does the vision come into existence in the middle of the work?
Williams: I have read many scripts and never has the final film looked anything like I envisioned it when I read the script. Reading the script helps with the overall feel of the film but that’s about it. The score evolves as I’m writing it, working with the picture.
Q: How much time usually do you have to create the entire score?
Williams: As much time as they give me! Actually it seems that there is less and less time. “Amazon” was 2 weeks. “Mark Twain’s America” was 10 days. That’s not normal. Usually 3-5 weeks seems to be normal. I’d love 6 to do a project. It mainly depends upon how much music and the type of music. If it’s a large orchestral score there needs to be enough time to orchestrate the score. This requires more time than say an electronic score.
Q: Do you work better under pressure, or do you prefer a lot of time to work on a score?
Williams: I always prefer more time but I do work well under pressure. The deadline forces inspiration. That is good sometimes.
Q: What in your opinion has the most important role in move music: main theme, underscore, action score or maybe something else?
Williams: I feel the most important role of music is to support the drama and emotion. Music adds the emotional quality that can’t be put on film. It needs to help the audience feel what the characters and story are feeling. The main theme, underscore and action all contribute to this. Which is more important? It depends on the story being told. Generally, the underscore provides the emotional shifts in a story but themes are important for emotional payoffs. This music generally can be derived from a main title.
Q: Now I would like to ask about my favorite score: “Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa”. Was there any special way to treat that score to capture the spirit of that magnificent mountain?
Williams: I’m glad you enjoyed that score. David Breashears, the director, wanted the music to do exactly what you are saying. It was to create the grandeur of the mountain while still letting the audience know that it’s in Africa. Because it was a journey to the top of the mountain, the score evolved as the climbers moved through the different climate zones finally reaching the climax as they reached the top of the mountain.
Q: When you are writing music to a movie, do you think about how it will sound on the album or are you only focused on how it will sound in the movie?
Williams: Film music is music for motion picture. I’m concerned about how it works with the picture. Hopefully it will stand alone on a CD but that is secondary. I must commit to the movie first.
Q: I think you’re a master with documentary films. If you will compose a couple more scores as good as “Kilimanjaro” and “Amazon”, the IMAX producers will never let you go. Are you afraid that you could only be associated with IMAX movies?
Williams: I have been fortunate to work in many different genres. I do love the IMAX format because music plays such a vital and important role in the film. IMAX theaters also have the best sound systems so my scores always sound fabulous in the theater. I don’t want to be labeled as only a certain type of composer but IMAX films have allowed me to write melodic, large orchestral scores. If I am to wear that label, that would be OK.
Q: Would you like to write the music to a big epic movie?
Williams: Yes, very much. I love the genre and would enjoy writing music for such a film.
Q: What can you tell about your next projects?
Williams: Presently I’m writing the score to the feature “Crab Orchard” starring Judge Reinhold and Edward Asner. I then begin work on the feature “Lost in New Harmony”.
Q: When can we see and hear you in Poland in concert?
Williams: I would love an opportunity to have a concert in Poland. I just need an invitation.
Making Music for the Movies
Interview by Sylvia Finlayson
Walking into composer Alan Williams's home studio, I was struck by the complete order and stark nature of the office. Yes, there was the latest in high-tech sound boards, mixing equipment, DVD and video paraphernalia; but here was a man whose profession demands the utmost in creativity, and yet his working environment was tidier than a marine's quarters during inspection. Having heard some of the lingering melodies from the IMAX movie Amazon and the recent release of the soundtrack to another movie picture, Kilimanjaro, I knew Alan to be a man acquainted with a broad range of emotion and gifted imagination. You see, Alan has composed music scores for some of the most successful IMAX films including the Academy Award nominated, Amazon, as well as Sony Pictures' Mark Twain's America, Island of the Sharks, and Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa. He has scored everything from family films to romantic comedies and animated features to thrillers. The critics have referred to Williams as one of the significant 'up and coming' musical composers in Hollywood. His is what many would consider the dream job; composing music for Hollywood film and TV. Furthermore, he does all of this without even leaving his front door.
The orderly surroundings were not exactly what I expected to see from a man whose music gives motion picture its life-blood and moves the audience from tears of sadness to light-hearted joy, all within a few picture frames. Exactly where did his inspiration come from? How did he draw from thin air the musical themes that make me feel I'm personally climbing Kilimanjaro or back in my childhood neighborhood riding my bike again? The office is function over form and, quite frankly for a non-techno type, well . . . technical looking.
I immediately put on a favorite CD of mine to help me relax, plus I wanted Alan's take on it. Alan relaxes slightly in the leather office chair with a somewhat wistful, far-off look. "Celtic. Piano and two violins (I'd always thought there was just one)." His first comments cover the technical aspects of the music; its style, composition, and structure. I'm beginning to see that it is skill, technique and experience is as crucial to success as that elusive creative element. At the end of the piece, Alan then comments on the mood it engenders, "It has a very haunting feel." The puzzle begins to take shape. It is the precision and perfecting of skills that allows for the creativity. Not the other way around. I'm going to go home and clear out some of that clutter in my office, maybe take down that 'evil eye' I picked up in Istanbul last year.
As a young boy, Alan Williams wanted to learn to play drums, but his parents insisted he learn piano first. When he was sufficiently skilled on the piano, in Jr. High his parents let him take drum lessons and he ended up playing percussion in an orchestra for six years. In high school he joined a band and by the time he was a sophomore, the Colorado native knew what he wanted to do for his life's profession. Williams went to BYU with this in mind, and earned a bachelor's degree in music and composition. He studied 20th century concert music and at the same time took classes in media composition, studio recording, and song writing. While still an undergraduate, he found his first 'real job' in the profession scoring music for several commercials. He left BYU with a degree covering the classical side of music and near completion of another in the media, contemporary side.
From BYU, Williams moved to southern California to attend one of the finest film schools in the world, the University of Southern California (USC). Disappointed to discover there was little crossover between the film school and the music school, Williams struck out on his own to bridge the gap in order to work more closely with up-and-coming film directors. Williams was not about to leave his dream or chosen career to chance. He offered to write music scores for student projects, and ended up producing more work for the student films than that required for his class assignments. Not only did this introduce Williams to a new generation of filmmakers, it allowed him to produce music for his own demo tape, using professional musicians and recording studios, all at no cost to himself. No one wants to hire a composer without experience, and now Williams could shop his music to directors with concrete evidence that he was talented and capable. So began the tedious process of sending out demo tapes and waiting for that first phone call.
Alan caught his first break when a director heard one of the demo tapes and called him. Alan says, "Talent is not a guarantee to success in Hollywood. Often it is sheer dumb luck that puts you in the right place at the right time." His first movie experience was working an independent feature film that actually didn't do much as a movie. It did, however, introduce him to his next job. A producer on the film liked Williams’s work, and introduced him to another director. Williams was able to send out his first feature film soundtrack with some great orchestral music; the director liked it and subsequently hired him. This film was moderately successful, and it was right after that that Williams hired his first agent.
I asked Williams if there was every any doubt in his mind about his ability to work in film. "Absolutely not," was out of his mouth before I could finish my sentence. Williams was quick to say, "You've got to have self-confidence in this business. After wanting to be a composer for many years, then spending many years studying and preparing in school, then working on numerous student films for several years, you just feel like 'Put me in the game coach!' The most frustrating thing is to know you've got the skills and the ideas and yet you're not in the game." Williams continues, "The sports analogy doesn't translate exactly, because if you are good in sports, you will get to play. That is not necessarily the case in Hollywood. There are many talented people around, but some just don't get the breaks and others do."
Hollywood has embraced the concept of agents and, although agents could completely go away and business would still carry on, it has proven a useful and effective system for film artists. Williams appreciates the fact that when he sits down with a director, his conversations can be focused on the creative aspect of his job. Having an agent negotiate the details of salary and budget allows Williams to attend to the purely artistic aspects of writing music. Williams will discuss the details of a contract with his agent and attorney (yes, he has one of those too), but this separation of the finances from the creative process allows for an artist to use his talents without the threat of money or other concerns interfering.
The Creative Process
So, what then, is the process of scoring music for a film? "Sometimes the composer is brought in early on to read the screenplay. Much of the time directors are not concerned about the music until it is time to be concerned about music, which is after a picture is shot. Music is the last thing added," says Williams. "I might be hired early on to develop thematic material, but I can't write the specific score until I have the scene in front of me. The music is frame accurate and must literally change tempo and character on frame. One of the hard parts of the process is to make it sound musical when three or four bars of romantic music must shift suddenly to scary music."
Scoring music for a film goes way beyond the technical know how. Movie making is a keenly directed effort, and Williams must often work within the specific vision of the director. "Some directors know exactly what they want and others are not as sure," says Williams. "My job is to add music, which is the drama and emotion, into the film via the vision of the director. So I have to understand that vision, and translate it into the score."
"No two motion pictures are the same," Williams continues. "They might be similar genres, but many times they require different musical approaches or styles. Many composers have their own musical styles; still they are able to do a wide range of genre projects. Nonetheless, you can identify stylistically who the composer is, even though the types of music vary greatly from film to film." Williams notes that, "You have to follow the film and make it flow from one scene to another." Most musicians don't have these types of constraints in writing their music, hence an even greater need for consummate composition skills.
I wondered if Williams felt stifled, limited or compromised by having to work within someone else's framework. "No, it is actually a stimulating challenge to be pointed in a direction and told to be creative within that direction," he says.
My eyes wander back around the home studio; black couch, immaculate wood floors, and CD soundtracks hung neatly along the wall. How is it done? Where do the notes come from? How does one actually come up with the tunes? What is the inspiration for these flowing melodies and poignant pieces that pull at the heartstrings? "Well, that's the 64 million dollar question," quips Williams. "I react emotionally to what I see. The story and characters are all part of the inspiration musically. Some themes and melodies come very fast and sometimes it is really tough work. If anyone tells you differently, they are lying."
According to Williams, the hardest part of the process is coming up with the movie’s main theme. Imagine coming up with the theme to Star Wars, Indiana Jones or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The theme is the part that is labored over more than any one other thing. The thematic material is the building block of the entire score. It serves as the foundation for the entire musical score, and nothing can be done until the theme is in place.
Williams adds, "Once you have that, it is just a matter of being a composer and writing to the scenes. You've got your arsenal of themes, or one really great theme, and it is then just going through the course of developing and varying the music to fit specific emotions. Hopefully the theme is good enough to use in a romantic, sorrowful, elated, tense, etc. way."
And, of course, Williams has a whole orchestra from which to choose his specific instrument, or instruments, for the piece. Williams explains that each instrument or combination thereof, has a different effect upon the listener and can create a different emotion. There can be completely dissimilar emotional responses based upon the arrangement or orchestration of the music.
Sounds like a high-pressure job, to be sure. I wanted to know what the most enjoyable part of the process was. "Hands down, the recording process," Williams is quick to reply.
"There is nothing better than standing in front of an orchestra with something you've labored over for 4 or 5 weeks, and hearing some of the world's foremost musicians perform it," declares Williams. I can easily picture Williams at home in front of a 95-piece orchestra; baton in hand he comfortably commands a roomful of artists. His piercing blue eyes are as direct as his approach to the music and it is quickly apparent who is in control. "It is just really exciting," Williams becomes most animated talking about the recording process. "The music comes to life because there is so much more musical camber around you; percussion, strings, woodwinds, brass. Everyone on stage is playing off the same page and it is so wonderful because they are responding and reacting to each other. That is why some performances are better or different than others, because of the interaction between the musicians and conductor."
One might think this a risky and unstable business, but Williams doesn't. Some friends and family members use to ask what he planned to fall back on when life as a professional musician didn't work out. That thought never entered Williams mind. He is an extremely focused and disciplined man, and it was evident from those early days in high school that he would not be deterred from his course. When he is working on a project, it can take 14-hour days for four weeks, but he is home for dinner and still drives the kids to school every day. Between projects Williams has more time than the normal dad to spend with his wife and three young sons. Williams is quick to add that all careers require sacrifices for a family. "It can be a bit crazy knowing that when a job is over you're unemployed again," says Williams. "I always have to worry about the next job, but there is never time to do that during a job because you are so wrapped up in the work." But fortunately, for a talented musician, there is enough good work available to keep him busy.
Alan has composed scores for some of the most successful IMAX films including the Academy Award nominated, Amazon, as well as Sony Pictures' Mark Twain's America, Island of the Sharks, and Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa. He has scored everything from family films to romantic comedies and animated features to thrillers. The critics have referred to Williams as one of the important 'up and coming' musical composers in Hollywood.
Williams has confidence in his abilities and is passionate about his work. "For me, the most important thing is that I have to feel good about what I put out there. You can't please everyone all of the time, and if I feel good about my product, it doesn't matter what others say," says Williams. "To me, good music is music that stirs one's soul, and I mean exactly that, stirs one's emotions. Those can be emotions of joy, tragedy or fear but the music literally moves one to emotion."
Now, somehow the office surroundings seem more fitting. For Alan Williams, the creativity does not come from a room full of doo dads and nick knacks, nor is it exhibited in funky furniture and a wild color scheme. The powerful themes and touching melodies come deep from within a man who has devoted much time, thought and energy to bringing meaningful music to the individual. His is an art form that requires incredible mind, spirit and skill, and is not an arbitrary mystical event that descends upon the lucky few. Alan Williams is a man of passion and determination, and there is nothing 'messy' about that.