Alumni Spotlight: Latest Star Wars Composer John PowellThu 24 May 2018
During a Hollywood career that has spanned over two decades Oscar-nominated British film composer John Powell has composed the music for over 50 films (including How to Train Your Dragon and The Bourne Series), has worked with everyone from Harry Gregson-Williams to Hans Zimmer, and has just been awarded the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers’ highest honour: the Henry Mancini Award.
Understandably I was a little nervous sitting in a quiet Greenwich office as I waited for the Skype call to connect to LA so I could interview the Trinity Laban alumnus.
Before speaking to John, I’d discovered an interesting quote from Lukas Kendall of independent label Film Score Monthly. Kendall’s advice to aspiring composers was this: “If you really want to be a film composer, you have to divorce yourself from your 12-year-old dream to score the next Star Wars movie.”
Yet, John Powell is the composer of the latest Star Wars film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, released in cinemas 24th May.
Ironically, having read some of John’s previous interviews e.g. denofgeek.com, it doesn’t seem like the 12-year-old Powell was dreaming of scoring a Star Wars film, or even scoring a film at all. He admits to being a classical music snob who ‘fell’ into film composition.
On our transatlantic Skype call that concluded my work day but began his, John explains that it was around the age of seven that he got into music. And as he continues I realise that he wasn’t quite as removed from a career in film composition as earlier interviews had portrayed.
‘Music,’ he tells me, ‘was a story that explained the universe more than any word or text I’d ever heard, spoken, or read. It was a language I saw in multiple dimensions.’ It seems that it was music’s storytelling ability that attracted young John to the art form, but it is his recognition and mastery of this that has enabled him to compose for film so adeptly.
I ask Powell what the best day and the worst day of any project is. He quips, ‘the best is when you get the gig; the worst is when you’re fired’. A rather black and white answer, but I did ask a rather obtuse question. Luckily, he humours me, responding more seriously, ‘the best days are when you’re writing and it works, before it even gets to anyone else. The worst are when it doesn’t work for anyone else and you don’t know why, and you’re stressed and running out of time.’
John warns that, to be a successful film composer, you need many other skills beyond writing good music. Mainly inter-personal ones.
‘I got going in this business because of other people who helped me like Maggie Rodford at Air Edel and Hans Zimmer. I was doing well but then started to mess it up, getting too big for my boots. I thought people would take notice of me because I had a few hits under my belt. I changed agents and she was really good for me. She coached me in the additional language required of my job – what people need from me. You should be working with everyone else to make it the film everyone wants it to be.
‘I’ve realised that film makers find music a hard thing to deal with. They have so much knowledge but in terms of music they hit this wall, they don’t know how to talk about it. Tarantino is an example, he’s scared of composers. But filmmakers shouldn’t have to have an in-depth understanding of musicology, a composer needs to bring those tools for them.’
It makes sense. After all, film making is a collaborative process, and one that clearly requires exceptional diplomacy and the ability not to take criticism personally. I joke that the key to a successful career is to not tell people where to stick it. ‘That,’ he agrees, ‘and about a hundred other little things. You invest every inch of your being into every second of the score, and when someone says “this is rubbish” you must hear a more constructive version of that and take criticism as improvement rather than personally. I’d be fired from every movie if I didn’t change things all the time.’
I tell him that he seems remarkably Zen in his approach and the way he talks about his work. ‘It’s because I’m not working, if you’d asked me 6 weeks ago when we were finishing Solo…’ he trails off indicating that even the dreamiest of projects has its ups and downs.
And now to the crux of it, what was it like to compose the new Star Wars film score – a movie set to be the summer’s biggest blockbuster?
‘It was a Paradoxical experience: wonderful, fun, incredibly stressful, and difficult. I must admit that I never thought I would be doing it, it wasn’t something I really had my heart set on at all – like Kendall said, you should never grow up thinking that you want to score the next Star Wars. But obviously I have a huge love of the music as the quality is so good.’
In another comment piece Lukas Kendall re-affirmed that “the sooner you embrace the realities, [instead of] the romantic notion of what it would be like to be John Williams the sooner you can start to achieve your goals.”
Not only has John Powell inherited the Star Wars legacy, but he also got to work with the original composer Williams on scoring the new film. This was the most attractive aspect of the project for Powell. ‘It was like getting to hang with Yoda,’ he tells me, his voice enlivened with the sound of respectful excitement. ‘He’s a very energetic, kind, humble composer who just happens to be 86 now.’
As much as working with a musical legend must be a draw, it’s also quite a responsibility. John Williams is synonymous with Star Wars and he has been put on a pedestal by so many, venerated as the pinnacle of film composition achievement. Surely Powell felt the pressure of this mantle when it came to working on Solo?
‘I think I would have been more stressed at the idea if he wasn’t involved,’ muses Powell. ‘Walking into a franchise with the highest quality of music without any guidance – you have no chance of pleasing people – so this was a much better way of doing it. I got to see how John [Williams] works, see it through his eyes, to see what he gets from the film.
‘It was an extraordinary process of looking at what I already do, what I don’t do, what he does that I’m missing and see the differences. John Williams just has a knack for things beyond most peoples’ abilities. Apart from being a great musician he’s also a great story teller, politician, orchestrator, has incredible ears, and writes tunes like a hit song writer. All of these things go together, and I got see a little bit of that. He set us on a path that then made sense for me and so I built out from his tune and constructed everything else we needed for the movie.’
Unlike scoring for a stand-alone film, Powell had to make his musical language fit not only with the narrative but also with a well-known sound-world. This, he explains, was the slightly inhibiting part. ‘I was being very referential. I was nervous about stepping outside the language. In the end it was John [Williams] himself who pushed me towards making it my own.’
John talks of his role as an interpreter of sorts, ‘that’s why we get paid lots of money – to be a translator of an untranslatable language. As a composer your skill-set is based on the organisation of sound, and your first responsibility is to the story. You say, “What can I make in musical terms that can help?”.’
John Powell loves what he does and has enjoyed an incredible career. I ask him, having reflected on the path that got him here, whether he’d have any advice for his seventeen-year-old self.
‘I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently – although I wish I’d done it quicker, I should’ve practised more, studied harmony more. But I’m very lucky, I’ve enjoyed the bits I’ve enjoyed and felt the pain of the bits that were painful and it’s added up to something good.’
As for the future, ‘I want to keep making music, but whether still in film… I’d love to do more experimental things than I’m known for, to work on a more unusual project.’
Powell would also like to see more female composers in the film industry and has engaged in a wider conversation questioning gender representation within the sector. ‘I’ve wondered why so few women have ended up in this profession and it seems it might be a lack of role models. Looking at it from the outside it’s dominated by white men in glasses.’
He wants to encourage a more diverse selection of individuals to pursue film composition. ‘You can do Star Wars,’ he stresses, ‘you can do something more interesting that’s not been done, there’s no end to what you can do.’
Before we say our goodbyes, I confess to John my guilty secret that I’ve never actually seen a Star Wars film. After a surprised pause he suggests that Solo would be a good place to start. ‘It’s a good heist movie set in space’, he assures. And I hear it has a pretty good score.
Written by Robyn Donnelly
Main image credit: Kaya Savas