He Scores, They Shoot: The Unusual Twist of ‘Unbreakable’


It’s fairly common for an A-list film composer to be booked months in advance, sometimes even a year or more. Directors like to be assured that the composer they want will be available during post-production. What’s much rarer is for a director to ask the composer to begin writing his score even before a frame of film has been shot.

That’s what happened to James Newton Howard on “Unbreakable,” the Bruce Willis-Samuel L. Jackson film that opened Wednesday. Director-writer-producer M. Night Shyamalan, who worked with Howard on the phenomenally successful “The Sixth Sense,” last year flew the composer to Philadelphia some six weeks before shooting began last spring.

“I want you to score the movie you see in your head,” Shyamalan says he told Howard. “This isn’t about you matching the picture. This is about both of us talking about the same emotion. You score that emotion, and we’ll get it right before we even get into seeing the movie.”


The director spent hours going over storyboards with the composer. “I described the feeling of the movie, the look of it,” Shyamalan says, advising Howard to “go write down your emotions in notes.”

So Howard returned to L.A. and started writing. Over the ensuing weeks, he began to send Shyamalan CDs of music he had written and recorded in his Santa Monica studio. “Most of it didn’t get used in the movie,” Howard admits. “But Night responded to one thing in particular. He said, ‘I know that’s in our movie.’ And sure enough, it’s one of our two primary themes.”


It’s been that kind of year for Howard, a five-time Oscar nominee. He began on “Unbreakable” only weeks after finishing the music of Disney’s “‘Dinosaur,” which the studio liked so much that it signed him on for two more animated features (“Atlantis” in 2001 and “Treasure Planet,” due in 2002). Then, after starting “Unbreakable” but before writing the final score, he did Sony’s high-altitude thriller “Vertical Limit,” which opens Dec. 8.

During a season when thoughts are beginning to stray toward possible Academy Award nominations, it’s hard to tell whether the music for “Unbreakable” will be noticed. Like Howard’s unnominated music for “The Sixth Sense,” it’s often subtle and understated.

A more likely Oscar candidate is the music of “Dinosaur,” which became a driving narrative force in the film. “I called Tom Schumacher, who runs our animation department, and told him I think we should give James a story credit on ‘Dinosaur,’ ” says Disney music president Chris Montan. “He captured the scale of these animals and the world they operated in.”

Each one of Howard’s scores for this year’s films is distinctive:

* The “Dinosaur” score is alternately majestic and playful, with African-style jungle rhythms.


* “Unbreakable,” written primarily for string orchestra, piano and solo trumpet, relies on careful mood shifting to dramatize the changing relationship between security guard Willis and comic-book art dealer Jackson. The two major themes--a mysterious, repeated motif that links the two primary characters and one that belongs to Willis alone--almost subconsciously suggest the direction of the film.

* “Vertical Limit,” is filled with what Howard describes as “orchestral violence . . . , a big, loud, action-adventure score with a big theme.” It’s music designed “to energize the movie, to make you nervous, excited, thrilled,” he says.

Martin Campbell, who directed “Vertical Limit,” says he chose Howard “because the film has such a contrast: We have moments of humor, moments of high drama, of big action, of very quiet, almost emotional moments. It needed somebody with the ability to do all of that.”

Next year figures to be even busier. Howard has already written 10 minutes of music for “Atlantis,” while he works on “Unconditional Love” for director P.J. Hogan (for whom Howard scored “My Best Friend’s Wedding”). He’s also scheduled to score next year’s “Big Trouble” for Barry Sonnenfeld as well as a Stephen King project for director Scott Hicks (with whom he worked on last year’s “Snow Falling on Cedars”).


All told, the 49-year-old Howard has scored nearly 80 films, including several commercial hits and a fair number of critical favorites: Oscar nominations for the scores of “The Prince of Tides,” “The Fugitive” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and the songs from “Junior” and “One Fine Day”; good notices for the edgy jazz of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Copland-esque Americana sound of “Wyatt Earp,” the lighthearted “‘Dave,” the raucous cartoon music of “Space Jam” and the 17th century pastiche of “‘Restoration,” among others.

Plus, he’s Julia Roberts’ composer--or at least it seems like it, with five films so far: “Flatliners,” “Pretty Woman,” “Dying Young,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Runaway Bride.” And he’s just signed to do his sixth, Joe Roth’s tentatively titled “America’s Sweetheart.”

“I just consider myself lucky because I’m always swept away by her on the screen,” he says (a sentiment that’s echoed by much of the filmgoing public). In fact, Howard gets a lot of repeat business from directors; Joel Schumacher directed two of the pictures he’s worked on, Garry Marshall two more and now Shyamalan.

James Newton Howard--the full-name credit originated long ago, before the movie assignments, because he didn’t think “Jim Howard” sounded distinguished enough on an early solo album--has been scoring films for 15 years, but has in recent years avoided the spotlight. He was once married to Rosanna Arquette, and was for a short time (during filming of “The Prince of Tides”) romantically linked with Barbra Streisand. His lifestyle is much less public now: He’s married, the father of two young boys and lives in Santa Monica.

Howard is one of the current crop of film composers who have emerged from the rock world. Yet his embrace of the 19th century romantic tradition of most Hollywood film music marks a return to the classical roots of his youth. His grandmother was a violinist who played for the Pittsburgh Symphony. He began piano studies at age 4 and continued his classical education at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West and at USC.

Finding greater stimulation in late ‘60s and early ‘70s rock, he gave up the collegiate life for a more lucrative career as a studio keyboard player. It was while touring with Elton John that Howard began putting his early training to use, doing orchestrations and even conducting the London Symphony Orchestra for one album.

String arrangements, like the one he did on John’s 1976 hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” led to a demand for his services by other artists. He also began producing records for less mainstream artists like Chaka Khan, Rickie Lee Jones and Randy Newman.

He was offered his first film in 1985, the corporate-world satire “Head Office.” The film is pretty much forgotten, but for Howard, “something different happened to me when I started to write music to images. It was a feeling of excitement and connection and a sense of being in the right place that I never had before.”

Like every dues-paying composer, however, he did “an incredible number of bad movies.” His breakthrough year may have been 1991, with Oscar attention for “Prince of Tides,” working with director Robert Mulligan on “Man in the Moon” and joining forces with Lawrence Kasdan for the first time on “Grand Canyon.”

Says Kasdan, with whom Howard has also done “Wyatt Earp,” “French Kiss” and “Mumford”: “He is incredibly versatile. He absorbs the text and the visual material that brings you out of the text, and it goes through some sort of filter in his head that starts to be music.”

Somehow Howard has largely avoided being typecast. True, “Fugitive” and “Waterworld” led to a rash of action pictures, but he’s also composed for period films like “Restoration” and complex dramas like “Snow Falling on Cedars,” which was a classic case of a stunning score going down in flames with a box-office dud. Howard’s music, which employed solo cello, the Japanese wind instrument shakuhachi, orchestra and extensive choral work (singing texts in English, Japanese and Latin), was one of the year’s most evocative. For every commercial failure, however, there is consolation in the royalty payments for things like Howard’s theme for the hit NBC series “ER,” now in its seventh season.

Howard says he’s thinking of taking a year off after the current spate of assignments. He’s toying with several possibilities, including making an album, writing concert music or possibly “putting a little group together to go play some clubs.”

For now, though, he remains passionate about composing for film. “It’s a natural fit,” he says. “As far as the creative process goes, I’d rather do this than anything else, by far.”

Adds “Vertical Limit” director Campbell: “It’s a director’s dream to film scenes that work well, but then someone like James Newton Howard comes along. His score just lifts the film. He adds another 50% to the story.”