Honoured at the 69th edition of Locarno Film Festival, Howard Shore attended the Swiss event to receive his lifetime award and to introduce a few screenings. ScreenAnarchy was offered the chance to talk to him about his impressive career and comes back on his lifelong collaborations with David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson.
You said in an interview that it is always the director who dictates the style. Taking this into consideration, how do you manage to still be able to express yourself?
What I try to do is to have a good collaboration with the director. What I want to do is to express the ideas that I have and then have the director guide me, as to what he might require for the film with the music. I always try to write from my heart and kinda give what I think is really a true expression that what I have for that story.
How different was it to collaborate with David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson?
They're all great directors. They have different ways of working. I think you just adjust to different sensibilities. With Cronenberg I'm more working as a fellow artist. He's made his experiences, he made a lot of films and I've done a lot of films with him so there's really a great trust there.
With Scorsese also I've worked for a long time - since 1986 on After Hours - and he loves music. It's a really fun environment. The process is definitely different: there's more discussion about it, sometimes we look at other films, older films. We also look at the movie a lot, every few weeks we look it even no whatever shape it's in. Martin is a real fan of music. He has a fabulous library of music and when he puts music in a film it's not by accident. It's very detailed. He could spend a day or two just to put music into the film. It's a very interesting process. With David it's really not the same.
With Peter, because he was in New Zealand and I was in New York, we worked differently. I visited him in New Zealand, we worked a lot of the internet and we met in London for the recordings. Peter attended all the sessions. Cronenberg wouldn't go, he would just let me do the recordings. So yeah, they would really work in different ways.
Of course you have an impressive career but for many people your work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS is the soundtrack of the century. Do you consider it as well as a highlight or a consecration or do you see it as another piece of your career?
Well, it was definitely everything I knew about filmmaking, music, composition, orchestration, conducting, producing, recordings. It came at a point when I was in my late fifties, so it was a good period. I had done a lot of films after that point - maybe 70 films - and I knew this orchestra very well. I wrote the piece specifically for this orchestra. At that time I was really able to do all these different things and at the same time keeping it very small, as if I was doing a very independent film. I had control over all aspects of what was being done. I think that helped creating the piece.
How do you tackle such hugh scores such as THE LORD OF THE RINGS or THE HOBBIT? Don't you ever get bored? How do you keep surprising yourself?
On The Lord of the Rings I never got bored. Actually it was a daunting task, when you look at that book and you have to write a piece for it. You knew that these things were coming, for instance the destruction of the ring. You knew you had to write that at some point. So you kinda just work your way up to that and each day was just a small journey. If you thought too far away it would be crushing. But if you just thought: 'How would I get from here to here" successfully and you just join the dots. It was never boring. After four years of The Lord of the Rings, I kinda had to drag myself away from this because you get so far inside of it. I was so happy writing in that world.
Could you maybe come back on your work for KING KONG, which was eventually not used for the film?
Well, you always hope for a great collaboration but people change, things change. It's like a relationship. Sometimes the magic is there and it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I don't know if the music will ever be released, we'll see. I'm not sure there's a reason for it.
I feel there's a been a huge change of paradigms in terms of film scoring. Film music used to abundantly rely on themes - Theme A, Theme B -, notably during the classical era from the 1930's to the 1950's. Nowadays it's much more unusual to find such kind of compositions, although of course you can still find some exceptions - as with your work with Peter Jackson. How do you perceive this evolution of film scoring?
This style of using thematic ideas and using leitmotifs comes from the 19th century, from Wagner. Before that, music wasn't meant to express emotions. It was pure. It wasn't descriptive of particular objects, cultures, or characters. Not all films need that type of process to explain them. The Lords of the Rings is arguably the most complex fantasy world that was ever created. To take that book and put it on screen it became logical to express clarity of storytelling through the music. Using that leitmotif system it could help explain the different between Rivendell and Lothlórien, or Rohan and other cultures of men. But not all films need that kind that. For instance Cronenberg's films have to do with ambiguity. They don't want to give the audience so much clarity. They let them bring their own ideas. Music can be used in very different ways and that's just one technique, really.
You began your career as a saxophonist in the band The Lighthouse. Could you come back on your experience on THE NAKED LUNCH working with Ornette Coleman?
I worked on Saturday Night Live and I booked Ornette and his band primetime on the show. That's where I met him - I think it was in 1976. When we started working on The Naked Lunch I knew Ornette had a connection to Burroughs because his albums from the late 50's came at the same time as the publication of The Naked Lunch. I called Ornette who was playing in Amsterdam and asked him about it. We met in London and he told me he wanted to do it. So we started working together on it. The score was written for the London Philharmonic orchestra and Ornette was a soloist. We did the recordings in a studio near Wembley.
How is it for you to conduct an orchestra? What kind of experience is it for you?
Well, conducting is the performance. That's the actual recording. When you're conducting, you're working with the orchestra. The performance is really important because that's what becomes part of the film. It's not just anonymous sound: it's people playing, the way it's recorded, the sound in the room. The conducting is the combination of all of those things, of all of the work. You're on the podium, you're bringing the sound to life, making all sorts of adjustments. When you record with live instruments, which I do a lot, where you put the podium, above you are three microphones - left, central, right - and that's what you're hearing. When you go to the cinema, equipped with dolby surround, you're hearing exactly what I'm hearing from the podium. You're in the centre of it all and you're creating that sound, right in that room.
Then what do you think of the new ways of consuming cinema, using phones and tiny screens?
I can't watch movies that way. I have to watch them in a dark room. I don't like the distraction; I like to be focused. I think it's a better experience. I work in a similar way: I can't see the film in the editing room or anywhere, I have to watch it projected the way I'm used to see a film. And then I can begin to work with it. I have to have that initial experience. If you go to a cinema to see a film you've never seen before, and you see it projected on a good screen with good sound and a quiet audience. If it's a good film, you feel something. You have an experience. And it's hard to catch that on a phone, on a TV or on a computer. That's what I'm going for. That's the greatness of cinema and I hope we'll never lose that.
Thanks to Ursula Pfander and to the team of Locarno Film Festival for making this interview possible.