It’s the life of a film composer: One week you’re in a fairy-tale world populated by green ogres and talking donkeys, the next week you’re dashing around 6th century Persia with a spunky princess and a magical dagger.
“Had the tasks been similar, it would be a very dull life,” says Harry Gregson-Williams, composer of both “Shrek Forever After” and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” two big summer movies opening within a week of each other this month.
"' Prince of Persia’ has lighter moments, but it’s dramatic and intense, an adventure,” adds the composer. “‘Shrek,’ from the first movie, has been some of those things, but it’s very concerned about relationships — love, really — and being able to be who you are. So they’re very different.”
Gregson-Williams, 48, is one of a handful of composers in high demand these days for their combination of classical training — which enables them to write for traditional orchestra — and their grasp of modern music technology, including the samplers, synthesizers and sequencers that are now an integral part of most music-making for Hollywood films.
The English-born composer, a Los Angeles resident since 1997, has been responsible for several grand-scale symphonic scores in recent years, including two “Chronicles of Narnia” fantasies and Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic “Kingdom of Heaven.” “Prince of Persia,” with its 80-piece orchestra and 40-voice choir, nearly matches them for size and outdoes them for sheer musical energy.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer — who has worked with Gregson-Williams on nine other projects for film and TV in the last 15 years — calls the “Prince of Persia” score “heroic, haunting and romantic, a throwback to Old Hollywood. It had to capture the majestic nature of the story, the characters and the landscape. I think it’s some of his best work.”
The landscape, in particular, offered the composer a musical challenge: How to convey the atmosphere of the ancient Near East within the context of a big action-oriented movie score? Gregson-Williams wanted to reflect “the sounds, flavors and colors of a Persian city in ancient times” but found that Bruckheimer didn’t want him to “go too far” in that respect.
“So rather than write a melody in a mode that might be perceived as Persian,” the composer explained, “I’d write melodies that would come naturally to me as a Westerner, and through the orchestration and instrumentation, give some flavor of the geography.” Thus, the use of the oud (a stringed, plucked instrument), ney (an end-blown flute), the sitar (another stringed instrument, usually associated with India), an electric cello (for “high drones and icy atmospheres”) and various exotic percussion instruments including the tabla.
And because he wanted the choir to sing something other than the usual “oohs” and “aahs,” Gregson-Williams found a handful of ancient Persian words (among them “city,” “king,” “prince,” “battle”) and applied them as necessary to specific on-screen moments.
“Persia” director Mike Newell quickly discovered he had something in common with his composer: “We were both choirboys in Church of England churches. We could hum one another [the old hymns].”
As a boy chorister, Gregson-Williams performed across Europe, eventually attending London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama and then apprenticing with British film and TV composers Richard Harvey and Stanley Myers. In 1995, Hans Zimmer asked Gregson-Williams to conduct the choral portions of the score for “Crimson Tide,” which was recorded in London. The two hit it off and soon Gregson-Williams moved to Los Angeles and began working for, and with, the well-known film composer.
Many of Gregson-Williams’ early credits were collaborations: “The Rock” with Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith, “Chicken Run” and the first “Shrek” with John Powell, “Enemy of the State” with Trevor Rabin and several “additional music” credits on films like “Armageddon” and “Prince of Egypt.”
The “Shrek” films — which Gregson-Williams has done solo since the second one — are just a few of the DreamWorks animated projects that dot Gregson-Williams’ 50-film resume (in addition to “Chicken Run,” he has scored “Antz,” “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” and “Flushed Away”).
Says DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg: “Harry has this unique ability to find the heart and soul of these movies. Somehow he is able to see inside the drawings before they even come to life. Animation is probably the ultimate collaborative sport in the world of storytelling, and Harry is just a great collaborator.”
The composer says that, on his sixth “Shrek” project (counting the TV special “Shrek the Halls” and the “Shrek 4D” theme-park ride), creating music for the big green ogre doesn’t get any easier. “It’s about finding a way to make things feel fresh without ignoring the fact that there’s a history here,” he says.
And even though the “Shrek” films send up the fairy-tale genre, the music tends to play it straight, appropriate to princes and distressed damsels in faraway lands. “In a way, it’s misleading, yet in another way it’s truthful and honest,” says Gregson-Williams. “Fiona’s theme is tied to the fairy tale, with conventional fairy-tale orchestration. It’s quite earnest.”
The composer — who works in a colorful, multi-leveled studio in Venice — lines up his projects far in advance. He spent nine months on “Persia,” five more on “Shrek,” and did the still-unreleased “Twelve” for director Joel Schumacher in between. Next, Gregson-Williams will do his seventh film for director Tony Scott, the thriller “Unstoppable.” (Others have included “Man on Fire” and last year’s “Taking of Pelham 123.”)
Scott admires the composer’s work ethic: “I remember going into Hans’ studio early in the morning and finding Harry asleep on the sofa, having spent the night there. That’s Harry. Every movie takes a piece of his soul. Whatever he does, he immerses himself totally in the world of the characters.”
For his part, Gregson-Williams concedes, “Looking down the barrel of 100 minutes of music before one’s actually managed to write the first minute is inhibiting. But one is not alone. It might seem like it sometimes, when one is sitting in one’s room trying to come up with musical ideas. But everyone is emotionally invested in maximizing the thrill of the audience in the final product. So there’s a lot of support and goodwill. And hope,” he adds with a laugh, “there’s always hope.”