Part of the award-winning team behind the movie (reviewed here), is composer Harry Gregson-Williams, the man behind unforgettable soundtracks like Enemy of the State, Kingdom of Heaven and Prometheus.
We were fortunate enough to not only speak to Gregson-Williams at the iconic Abbey Road Studios , but also see him at work composing original music for The Martian.
“It’s going to be really good, and it’s great to be working with Ridley [Scott] again. My association with the Scott’s is something i’m really grateful for, I obviously worked a lot with his brother Tony too.”
Harry worked on many projects with Tony, who passed away in 2012.
“They are prolific! You turn around and they would have made another movie. They have been a huge part of my career. Without them I would have been cast as doing children’s cartoons, they’ve given me this whole other track. It’s taken in things like bounty hunters in Domino and Crusaders in Kingdom of Heaven. I’ve done things like the Shrek franchise, so it has been really fruitful to have this too.”
We were speaking in one of the rooms overlooking the huge studios at Abbey Road. So was it Harry’s first time at the famous venue and who’s idea was it to record there?
“It’s not my first time, and it wasn’t my idea. You’d have to ask the Fox executives about that I guess. People often thing it’s because I now live in L.A. and want to come home to visit my family, and that is part of it, but also tax rebates.”
“Of course, it has a special sort of aura too. I’ve been really fortunate to do 20 or 30 scores here. It is extra special. Abbey Road has a special sound to it. Their microphone connections is unbelievable. It never ceases to surprise me from when I strike up the first beat here. The Beatles recorded in studio two. The way I work with Ridley, and others too, is that I start with composing a bit on piano and then I share it with the director. It usually doesn’t end up on piano, but we start up on that sort of language for the theme. For Mark Watney’s theme it is something heroic. He is very optimistic so my theme for that reflect that. We then take that and access samples so that Ridley Scott can hear it before we even get here. Maybe John Williams and Steven Spielberg work like that, the rest of us mortals have to prove we are up to it.”
“First and foremost, Ridley is an artist. He still paints today as a hobby. If you think of the words to describe art like tone and colour we can translate that into music.”
See below for an extended Q&A with Gregson-Williams.
The Martian began life as a popular self-published blog before being turned into a best-selling book. Is the process of working from that source material and different to working from a script?
Actually, people keep telling me I should read the book. The first thing I got was the script. Of course I wanted to do it. It was intelligent with good dialogue. The first meeting with a composer and director is called a spotting session, and we don’t have the final cut but we have some scenes to work from. We have to get going. With something like this, there is almost 80 minutes of music and he has to approve every second of it. He has to be happy with it. That is the life of a composer. It is usually about that amount for a movie with the Scott Brothers. The first one I did with Ben Affleck was only 25 minutes of music. Then it was twice that for The Town, his second one. The Scott’s love their music.
Music is used in a variety of ways. It this film we use it in a couple of unexpected ways. There is was I compose and then Matt Damon’s character is left alone on Mars, but he has possessions left by the other astronauts and finds Commander Lewis’s (Jessica Chastain) laptop. To his disgust, it has 70’s music on it, in order to deal with the loneliness issues he has he plays some of it and we can hear it throughout the film. There are some cool moments with that.
Do you think now that there is a common-ground between you and Ridley, having worked together so many times before?
If I think of the films i’ve done with Ridley they are so widely different. 12th Century Crusaders in Kingdom of heaven meant that it wasn’t at all appropriate to use anything electronic. I don’t have my hands tied at all on something like this. We have a hybrid score with the majesty of a big choir with other scenes that don’t need to be symphonic. Organic sounds but some made electronically. There are no rules here. In Kingdom of Heaven there better not be someone playing electric guitar for people to believe it.
A lot of those instruments we used for that, weren’t even invented in that era, so we are dealing with movies here.
The choir you mentioned, why were they used and was is easy to find a group like that?
When I was thinking about what sort of tapestry I wanted, I new with Watney stuck on Mars that the people on Earth who new he was still alive would be willing him to survive and make it back. There is a lot of good feeling and the choir is the humanity. They are like a Greek chorus in a play, and commentating on it. The language they use is Latin, but not religious at all. I found some words from a Roman philosopher. Some of it intentionally feels like a requiem. The scene when they leave Watney and take off believing he is dead, that was with the choir.
Is it sometimes a fight with your own ego if a director doesn’t want or like a particular piece?
No. You have to be a collaborator if you want to be a film composer. You have to understand that you are like the lighting guy or the editor. We are in a team together. When you start out, you aren’t sure but you realise you need music to order and music to work with the film. It’s not designed to be heard away from the film, although of course, sometimes you an do that. It is all about supporting the picture and bringing a voice to it.
There are some bleak moments here, and I can channel that and make it bleak. Or I can juxtapose that, with the music you are telling an additional story.
When Ridley is here with you, as he does often attend some recording sessions, what level of input does he have?
He leaves me to it. He won’t make musical comments, but he has learnt the music already with the demo. He has been in and out listening to cues. He has had times to comment, so it is not a surprise.
I’m sure in the old days it would have been pen and paper, so if the director didn’t read music then it would have heard it for the first time here. That must have been very different. One is now required to have a mini-studio. Ridley made me change course in a major way in one scene when Matt Damon is crossing Mars. I had my theme playing there, which worked, but the instrumentation was quite thin with solo instruments but Ridley asked why not play it with hundreds of French horns and violins. We tried it and we both really liked it. It was the pinnacle of the score.
Now when i’m recording it, he won’t have any changes. He’s a guy who knows what he wants. That is all one really wants from a director.
When searching for your name online, we see a lot of people with different pictures over your music. The piece ‘Smiling’ in particular, how does it feel for you to see that?
It is so peculiar that that particular piece is being viewed and used so many more times than probably any other. It’s actually a small scene from Man on Fire, the Tony Scott film, in a scene where Denzel [Washington] is trying to make a little girl smile. She is really sad and he is trying to make her smile. She eventually bursts into a huge smile. It’s a tiny 90 second cue from the film and I don’t know how it got picked up. It is film music which is descriptive. Sometimes one just hits the mark.
With a piece like that, or even on The Martian, is it a challenge to find the balance between something epic and something intimate?
Ridley is there for that. He is my safety net. He will tell me if i’m going to far in one direction. We both tried on this to different themes. The first piece you hear on The Martian is this huge Nepalese gong which I found and played really softly. It can’t be too loud. It has an incredible power to it. It keeps the planet dangerous to him, not evil, but can kill him just like that.
What is your definition of the perfect film music?
I don’t think i’ve ever written it. I have heard it before though. There is a composer downstairs here right now doing the music for the next Bond film, Spectre. His name is Thomas Newman. One of my favourite composers and one of his scores is my favourite. The Shawshank Redemption.
The Martian is released nationwide on September 30