Throughout his illustrious career, composer James Newton Howard has scored more than 100 films and picked up an Emmy, Grammy, and 9 Oscar nominations along the way. Ahead of the 93rd Academy Awards — where Newton is nominated for his News of the World score — the acclaimed composer walked EW through some of his most memorable nominated scores.
Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures
News of the World (2020)
The score to this Tom Hanks-starring Western is decidedly understated, and that was very much by design, Howard says. "[The film] was kind of an atypical Western, in a lot of ways, because for a large part of the movie it's quiet. We have Tom Hanks' character who is kind of an outsider and a lonely guy wandering around reading news to people, and his life connects with this little girl who's equally lost. And they're both trying to find a way to connect with a world that is completely falling apart," he says. "I had to use probably more restraint in this movie than just about any other kind of big movie I've worked on. There are moments where it kind of flexes its muscle for a little bit, but most of the time, it's a very quiet story about two lost people who come together."
As for inspiration, Howard says he didn't look to any other Westerns per se, because he felt that would have been anachronistic given that films themselves didn't exist in the post-Civil War era, when News of the World takes place. "I think I thought more about what American folk music would have been like, Americana music during the middle 1800s. A lot of that was based on Celtic music that had come from Scotland and England and Ireland. So I thought about that harmonically," he says.
The Fugitive (1993)
When asked what comes to mind when he thinks of his time working on this Harrison Ford-starring action film, Howard says simply, "Fear and terror." "I really felt to some extent inadequately prepared for The Fugitive. It was really the first big, giant action movie that I did. I was just very insecure for most of the time I was working on it, but you just kind of go a day at a time living that terrible self-doubt modality, which is part of any creative process, I think," he admits. Ultimately, though, he says the film turned out great and he's grateful for the experience. "Andy Davis made a great movie. He believed in me and hired me early in my action movie career, and that movie was a big struggle for me, but it worked out," Howard says.
My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)
When it comes to Julia Roberts, Howard has an odd connection. "For some strange reason, I think I've done nine Julia Roberts movies. I don't know exactly why. I guess Pretty Woman was the first one I did, and then maybe people associated me with Julia Roberts, which was fine, because you could do worse," he explains with a laugh. My Best Friend's Wedding was in fact the fourth film of hers he scored at the time, preceded by Pretty Woman, Flatliners, and Dying Young. "This was yet another Julia Roberts movie, but I met [director] P.J. Hogan and it was such a smart and fun movie to work on. I thought it was an exceptionally good romantic comedy," he says. "It was just an opportunity to write a couple of pretty themes and do a really sophisticated comedy, but it was really fun. I have nothing but positive, fun memories."
The Village (2004)
The score to this M. Night Shyamalan thriller was almost very different. In fact, Howard says he completely scrapped his original score for the film. "I always demo all my cues. So we demoed the whole score, and [Shyamalan] was here in L.A. with me, and we were watching the movie, and after we watched it, we kind of looked at each other and thought, 'I think I wrote the wrong score,'" he recalls. "I thought we're missing the emotional core. This is a romantic movie — this girl just wants to save the life of this person that she loves. I think that's what the movie was about." So, he pivoted and "reinvented the score" by making it a violin score, and he called in acclaimed violinist Hilary Hahn to do the honors. "I wanted to get Hilary Hahn to play it because she's a woman, and I thought it was really a woman's story. And she just came and killed it, and just elevated my score to another level," he says.
Michael Clayton (2007)
Despite it being one of his "favorite movies I've ever worked on," Howard says he was surprised that he was nominated for his work on the film. "I never imagined I would be nominated for that score, because it was primarily electronic, which is a really different kind of score for me," he says. The composer likens it to his work on News of the World in that it was "also an exercise in restraint." "A lot of it, if you just listen to the score, it's extremely subtle and low-key, it kind of puts you to sleep sometimes," he admits. "But, in the movie, I think it allowed his story to really unfold in a good way."
Howard was concerned about the score he envisioned for this film about three Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. "First of all, I wanted to have a violin, and so I got Josh Bell to play the violin, fully cognizant of the fact that John Williams wrote one of the greatest scores on earth, Schindler's List, with solo violin," he says. Ultimately, he decided he couldn't worry about potential comparisons. "I had to just say, well, forget it. I'm just gonna do it anyway, because I think I can do it in a way that won't feel like I'm stealing from Schindler's List." For starters, he says, it's a "very different kind of movie," and the violin was just too perfect not to use. "It just felt like the violin was the core of the soul of these brothers, and it just seemed like I had to do it. So I did it, and it worked out. It was a really wonderful experience."
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