Composer James Newton Howard On Penning ‘News Of The World’s “Broken” Western Score & Returning To Disney Animation With ‘Raya And The Last Dragon’

Matt Grobar
·13 min read

With News of the World, composer James Newton Howard returned to the Western genre for the first time in many years. In concert with director Paul Greengrass, he’d craft a more somber, inward-looking score than is often heard in the genre—“broken” music for a broken nation.

The Universal Pictures title centers on Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Civil War veteran who travels across the U.S. to share the day’s news with small-town folks. While in Texas, the lonesome character encounters a 10-year-old girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel), who had been abducted at a young age by the Kiowa tribe, and looks to return her to her family.

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In conversation with Deadline, Howard breaks down the range of instruments in his score that coalesced into something “uniquely special-sounding.” The eight-time Oscar nominee also touches on the highlights of his first collaboration with Greengrass, and the exciting projects he has coming up, including the Disney animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon (which is scheduled for release on March 5) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 3.

DEADLINE: Prior to News, you’d worked on such acclaimed Westerns as Hidalgo and Wyatt Earp. Why is this a genre you like working within?

JAMES NEWTON HOWARD: I would think [for] any film composer—certainly me, my generation—the most exciting thing is to get a gigantic canvas, like a big Western that’s almost like a David Lean movie, or just a big story with great images and phenomenal performances. This movie had all of that stuff in it. Even though the score is rather quiet through most of it, it does have moments where it flexes its muscle a little bit toward the end. It was just a sheer pleasure to work on, and that would probably be my number one genre of what I love to do most, is just a big, outdoor adventure.

DEADLINE: What kind of sound did Paul Greengrass have in mind for his latest film? What did you discuss with him, early on?

HOWARD: The real deal in the beginning was, how do we express musically who this character is, who Jefferson Kidd is? He’s a wounded individual; he’s definitely an outsider. Even though he goes from town to town, reading the news, you really get the feeling that he’s a loner. He takes off by himself after each job, and carries with him some unknown wound or grief.

So, it was very important, even in the very first scene, which I wrote more than 20 times, just to get it to the point where Paul felt we were portraying somebody as being solitary, as opposed to tragic. Because there’s a big difference. It’s an important nuance because I think people would respond differently to something if you just made it seem overtly sad.

Just overall, what we talked about at the beginning [was], he portrayed this country that was really in tatters. Obviously, post-Civil War, pretty much everything was broken. The country was broken, people didn’t have any money, and he said, “How do we express that musically? How do we do that with a big orchestra? What sounds broken?”

So, we came upon an idea of having the centerpiece of the orchestra being a seven- or eight-piece group of musicians. We called it our “broken consort,” and we gave them ancient instruments to play. Viola da gambas and cello d’amores, and gut-string fiddles, they just have a little bit of a more roughly hewn edge to them, and a lot of the score is just that group, along with different sounds that I created. Then, as the score gets bigger, as the story unfolds, you start to surround it more with a big, traditional orchestra that we recorded remotely in London. But we really tried to keep that feeling of brokenness all the way through the movie.

DEADLINE: When in the filmmaking process did you launch into your work?

HOWARD: I’m always anxious to start as early as possible. I’m quite happy to start before shooting begins, just based off a script and the conversation. I always get inspired by that. Some of it, I think, is fear-based because you get nervous. You don’t have a cupboard you can reach in and grab a can of good themes to take out. So, I tend to get right to work.

I visited Paul in November of ’19 in New Mexico. I still haven’t seen him face to face, because he went off to London, and I’m here [in LA]. But we went through a months-long demo-making process, where I would make demos, send them to him and [editor] Billy Goldenberg. Paul would get on the phone, or we would get on some form of Zoom type thing, and we’d talk about the score.

Then, when the pandemic hit, everybody shut down for a couple of months. The cutting room shut down, my studio shut down, and I think it gave everybody unexpectedly some time to really consider and re-energize. And I feel like when I came back from those two months is when I really wrote the best. I finished off the score in close collaboration with Paul, but we really did good work together, and recorded it in June.

DEADLINE: How do you feel, in retrospect, about the process of remote scoring? Did anything positive come out of this unexpected scenario imposed upon you by the pandemic?

HOWARD: I don’t think that it was any kind of a compromise, sonically, at all, but I certainly would have expected it to be, and I will give the credit to that to the brilliant engineering that occurred. It was less than ideal. I mean, I love being on the stage with my musicians. I feel like they’re a family both here in Los Angeles, and in London—that I know them all very well—and we were able to communicate extremely well.

Everybody was socially distanced, but for those big, big pieces of music, we could only have 40 people in the room. So, where we needed to, we would do the performance twice—in a different session, of course. Because otherwise, you pay a huge amount of money. But you would do it again, and then we would have both performances playing, and then it sounds, of course, like twice as many people were in the room.

That’s nothing that remarkable. That kind of thing happens all the time. But I think any time that a paucity of resources requires you to think about a different way of doing things, always, good things come about. I think for one, we just were so appreciative of the opportunity to work, period. Because for a while, it was like, “My gosh, I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to work again, or have musicians in a big room.” And I think we all felt that it’s a very precious thing. The vibe was really strong and really positive.

DEADLINE: Tell us more about the ancient instruments featured in your score. My understanding is that you needed to bring specialists in to play them because they’re so difficult to tune.

HOWARD: Well, London or Europe is probably where more of those specialists do play viola da gamba and old cellos. There are ancient music orchestras probably more in Europe than there are here. I’m not going to swear to that; I could be wrong. But I’ve worked with that sound a lot before in different ways. It’s a very versatile sound. Some people think that it’s actually a warmer sound. I personally find it to be a little harsher and edgier, especially when you double it up and have two people with the same instrument, playing the same notes, which oftentimes can give you a little bit of a pitch problem.

But these musicians were so brilliant. I have to give the credit to them because when I gave them the music, it’s just notes on paper, and they really turned it into something that I think is uniquely special-sounding.

DEADLINE: You also brought electronic elements into your music. What kind of role did they play?

HOWARD: You know, electronics are part of the accepted palette now, I think, of any composer. The electronics were primarily in the quieter sections of the movie, just filling out the ambient quality. I used it a lot for Johanna because in the very beginning, she was quite mysterious, this kind of wilding. Paul would shoot her off in the distance, just staring, and it was like she was in another dimension. And what was she thinking about? Was she recalling the horror of her childhood? Was she missing her people? She’d been orphaned twice. She was a very mysterious presence, and I found that sometimes the electronics really helped support that better than perhaps a more traditional-sounding group would have. But as a result, I didn’t write a theme especially for her. The main theme really applies to the Jefferson Kidd character.

DEADLINE: Were there other big challenges in bringing your score to fruition?

HOWARD: I think any time you work with a new director, initially, I’m always nervous. I feel like it’s a first date, and I don’t want to say something stupid. My first date with Paul, I wanted it to be a total success. So, I actually arrived in Santa Fe with a theme that I’d written without seeing the movie. We all thought he loved the theme, and I loved it too, and then unfortunately, when we got the film and I put it up against the main title, it didn’t work at all. It was too sweet; it tells you too much about the character.

So, I think that part of this is a process of getting to know each other and trusting each other. Paul was extremely instructive about what he liked and didn’t like, and at the same time, I felt, really open-minded. It was a different kind of movie than he normally does, and consequently, it was a different kind of score than he usually has in his movies. So, there was a lot of time and back-and-forth, but we got to great place, and I think he would say the same thing.

DEADLINE: Was the hillside shoot-out Kidd finds himself in one of the most challenging sequences to score?

HOWARD: Oh, absolutely. When I saw the first cut, that shoot-out was 16 minutes long and it completely freaked me out, quite honestly, because I knew that that was going to be, in a way, the physical centerpiece of the movie. The whole thing was put together so magnificently, and I didn’t want to write the same old thing again.

I didn’t want to write a chase cue, or something that you could use just the same in a car chase. So, I spent three weeks really working on the first, I don’t know, eight minutes of that chase, really trying to develop and create my own samples. Some of them are sounds of me breathing hard that I turned into rhythm. There’s bass harmonicas, weird synthesizers, all kinds of stuff.

If you listen to it by itself, it sounds broken, in the same kind of language that we’d been using throughout a lot of the movie, but it did propel the thing along. Then, of course, after the initial chase is over, it becomes just a cat-and-mouse game. Maybe 20% of the [music in the] sequence, Paul ends up taking out because we didn’t need it. Sometimes, silence plays better than anything else, and I think he did a really good job of editing that.

But that was the hardest part. Paul is so amazing with action, and when you have two great actors like Tom and Helena, you really don’t want to screw it up, quite frankly. It’s easy to do.

DEADLINE: What did you take away from your collaboration with Greengrass? It sounds like he pushed you outside of your comfort zone in a number of respects.

HOWARD: He did. At one point, I was overwriting in one area and he kept saying, “I just feel like it’s too much. You’re not trusting the actors.” He said, “I have a very clear idea about what I want to do here. There’s going to be times during this movie where I’m going to ask you to write so little, you’re going to feel like you’re not writing anything at all.” The fact is that that is not so easy to do, when you’ve done 140 movies like me, and I’m dying to get out there and charge full steam ahead, and write all this music for a Western. So, I had to really pull it back, and I think restraint is the name of the game in that score, for the most part. I think that people have found, and I’m quite satisfied with the idea that I did pull back in a lot of places—and that credit goes to Paul because he was really very helpful, in helping me shape the structure of the piece.

DEADLINE: What’s next for you?

HOWARD: Right this very second, I’ve been working on a couple of things. I’m doing an album for Sony Masterworks in the fall, so I’ve been practicing the piano. But I’ll be just getting ready to start Fantastic Beasts 3, I hope, in March. I know that David Yates has finished shooting, and I’m chomping at the bit to get going, so I hope he’ll give me some movie soon. But that’s the next one I’ll be doing, and that will take me through a good part of the year.

DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your experience scoring Raya and the Last Dragon?

HOWARD: [It was] super fun. You know, I think I did three Disney animated movies—Dinosaur, Atlantis and Treasure Planet—and none of them probably did that well. So, I wasn’t asked back for a long time. But I really love working in animation, and we had just a fantastic time.

I think in animation, the great thing about it—and somebody else said this, not me—is that as a composer, you can do anything you want. You can really write the craziest, most fun, silly, exciting music that you can think of, and collaborating with these filmmakers, [including] Don Hall, was just so great. You feel like you’re sitting around a real round table. I don’t feel like a composer, off in an ivory tower. You really feel part of a team, and I had a blast.

I think the movie is great, and I think the score is very different for me. It’s at least 50% electronics, with lots of exotic sounds in there, and I think it’s really fun.

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