Making music for Russian spies: ‘Hunger Games’ team reunites for ‘Red Sparrow’

Composer James Newton Howard during the scoring session for Twentieth Century Fox’s “Red Sparrow.”
(Charlie Gray)

“This is one of my favorite parts of the filmmaking process,” says director Francis Lawrence, sitting in one of the session rooms at AIR Studios in London in October.

He and composer James Newton Howard have decamped to London to spend a week recording the score for “Red Sparrow,” a new Russian spy film starring Jennifer Lawrence (no relation). “You’ve been living with these synthy, sample versions of the music for so long so to have the real, well-recorded score with skilled musicians makes a huge difference,” he adds.

“Red Sparrow” is Lawrence’s sixth collaboration with Howard, an eight-time Oscar nominated composer with whom he first worked on “I Am Legend” in 2007. Howard scored three “Hunger Games” films alongside the director, as well as “Water for Elephants,” and the pair have created a dynamic working relationship that relies on strong communication.

“There’s a certain level of trust,” Howard says. “And there’s a process you establish. Francis expects and hopes that I will write fairly quickly and start early and provide him with music during the cutting stage. Our last three movies together have been ‘The Hunger Games.’ This movie is so completely different. It created a different kind of excitement and anticipation around the recording.”


He adds, “I was interested in exploring the world, but as always I’m most interested in the story and the human dynamics that take place in the movie, which here are pretty intense.”

The film, adapted from Jason Matthews’ novel, follows a Russian ballerina turned spy named Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), who travels to Budapest to seduce CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Her loyalty and motives remain uncertain throughout the story. The music, which is intense and layered, matches that aesthetic.

Lawrence looked to classical pieces like Mozart’s “Requiem” and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” for tonal inspiration, and even listened to them in headphones while filming. Because Howard had limited time in his schedule, he started writing the score before seeing any of the film. It didn’t take him long to find the right sensibility, which veers between tense and ominous, and lyrical and atmospheric.

“I start the way I think most people start, which is just by playing music,” says the composer, who has experience in the spy film genre from “The Bourne Legacy.” “I sit at a piano and play. I try and write a fair amount in the beginning without the movie. And then when I do get the movie I create these demos, just mock-ups, and I throw them up against the picture and some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t. But I’m very careful before I play anything to picture, because that’s such a profoundly important moment. It can be very encouraging or very discouraging because you can love a piece of music before you play it to picture and then it doesn’t work. Or it unlocks something special.”

Jennifer Lawrence in Twentieth Century Fox's "RED SPARROW."
(Murray Close )

A central moment in the score is the opening sequence, which cuts between Nate in action on the streets of Moscow and Dominika dancing onstage in a ballet. The ballet is an original piece by Howard, who had to write it to a predetermined rhythm. Lawrence used “The Firebird” when filming the choreography, and then overlaid Howard’s version later.

“The idea was that it should feel Russian, but he could interpret it in his own way,” the director says. “We got very specific with the rhythm and the beats per minute. The choreography stuck very closely to specific BPM and then my editor created a click track to that BPM and we created the sequence to a click track. James knew that he could write something to a rhythm and it would work with the dancing. It was really technical. I think my music video background gave me some help with that.”

For Lawrence, every scene in a film needs to stand on its own without the sound. When cutting one of the more visceral torture scenes in “Red Sparrow,” he worked to create the tension without the score or sound effects first. The eventual sonic tone of this particular sequence, which takes place in a kitchen late in the movie, is sparse, with the music building to a cacophonic climax alongside the violent action.

“The sound of the whole movie, which was a big discussion, informs some of the other choices,” Lawrence notes. “When you get to a scene like the one in the kitchen there’s a palate of sounds and themes to pull from. You can start to decide whether you create something new or hint at other sorts of themes or call back on something.”

There are also moments where music is purposefully left out. On Lawrence and Howard’s first collaboration, the apocalyptic action drama “I Am Legend” starring Will Smith, Lawrence ended up using only 24 minutes of Howard’s 80-minute score. At first Howard was disappointed, but when he saw the final cut he understood. “There’s much more music now in movies than there used to be,” Howard says. “Maybe sometimes there’s too much music.”

That’s why a pivotal scene involving Dominika in Sparrow school (where the film’s spies are trained) humiliating another cadet was best accompanied by silence. “It’s very bare and raw,” Lawrence says. “It was very brave what Jen was doing. It plays beautifully stark.”

Ultimately, both Lawrence and Howard want the score to bring a new sense of worth to a scene. It should be barely noticeable, blending into the other elements of the film, and offer a new level or surprising note to what’s happening on screen.

The orchestra at London’s AIR Studios records the score for “Red Sparrow.”
(Charlie Gray )

This particular score, which was recorded in AIR Studios over six days — with five for the orchestra and one for a choir of 40 — doesn’t hit you over the head, even when it becomes undeniably intense. Still, it’s memorable, especially when the music feels slightly off-kilter with what’s happening to the characters on the surface.

“I never think you just want to play into whatever the emotional value of the scene is going to be,” Lawrence notes. “Sometimes the music can speak to a different layer that’s happening. A perfect example for me is the first time that Dominika and Nate have sex. The music is actually very mysterious. The weird thing would have to have it be romantic because it would have been selling this feeling that isn’t really right. For the music to stay mysterious through a love scene, to me, is adding value as opposed to laying more icing on top of icing.”

“I’m a melody guy,” Howard says. “To me, that’s a musical souvenir people take from a movie. They remember a theme or a feeling, and if they’ve had a good or bad experience it evokes that sensation whenever they hear it again. I believe very strongly in having melodic hooks, whether they’re short or intricate, that you really remember in a movie.”

And the creative partnership with his director is at the root of every choice: “What I’m really trying to do is get the whole thing to feel and sound the way Francis was hoping it would. And beyond that, maybe reveal things in the movie that even he didn’t expect, which is what happens when music and movies really connect together in a magical way. You get this third entity that emerges.”