Harry Gregson-Williams Interview: The Martian, Ridley Scott, Hans Zimmer

The composer behind The Martian talks to us about scoring Ridley Scott's sci-fi thriller, working with Hans Zimmer, and more...

Ridley Scott’s new film runs the gamut of emotion, and takes in a variety of landscapes and textures. The sci-fi thriller sweeps us from the hostile, storm-whipped surface of Mars to the blue skies of Earth, from the silence of a space ship travelling through space to the hubbub of Mission Control at NASA. Matt Damon’s astronaut protagonist Mark Watney, meanwhile, swerves from confusion to euphoria to blind panic as he battles to survive, alone, on the surface of the angry red planet.

British composer Harry Gregson-Williams created the similarly varied music for The Martian, with the tribulations of its hero underscored by Gregson-Williams’ mix of the soaring and the intimate. When we sat down to speak to the composer, he was still in the midst of recording the soundtrack at Abbey Road Studios. Here’s what Gregson-Williams had to say about working with Ridley Scott, his approach to composing, and how he got his start in the industry as an assistant to Hans Zimmer.

I take it you’ve had a busy day already!

Yeah, we have. We finished a little bit early in this session, which is unusually. But it’s a good sign.

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Right. Because you don’t have long until the film comes out, do you?

No, we haven’t. It’s kind of an accelerated schedule. But we’re getting it done. It’s exciting.

So at what point do you come aboard a movie of this scale?

Typically, I come aboard as the director’s putting together the first cut of the movie – so as the movie enters post-production. I’m no used to them while it’s shooting. I come in once all the actors have been paid and gone home. I went over to Ridley’s cutting room; I suppose he was about four weeks into his first cut of the movie.

He showed me the movie, which hasn’t changed much – he’s quick at getting the right cut together. He knows what he wants – it’s always handy working for a guy who knows what he wants. You’d be surprised because some directors don’t seem to know! [Laughs] But no, Ridley has a good, clear vision of what he wants. We talked about the sounds and textures and colours the music might provide, and what the emotional arc of the film is.

Do you know about the film?

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I’ve started reading the book, so yeah, I know the gist of it.

It’s really centered around Mark Watney, Matt Damon’s character. So my first port of call was to write some thematic material attached to him. It progresses and evolves through his journey through the movie. You know, he’s abandoned on Mars to begin with, and it’s very bleak. But his character’s full of optimism, quite humorous. You might think that somebody who’s alone on a planet might be kind of miserable, but he never lets it get him down.

The movie’s very much about him facing challenges. So for instance, the first challenge is to sort out how to feed himself for what may be years before anybody can come and find him. So he has to grow food. But how can he do that on a planet with no atmosphere? To do it he needs to make water from the materials he has there. All these obstacles he has in his way, he has to go all out to find solutions for.

So musically I’m tracking that. He has his ups and downs. There are moments where he fails, but he’s a guy who doesn’t get pushed back too easily. Musically, I had to track him and follow his arc until… I’m not sure how much I should give away, really.

So it’s the personality of the characters that inspires you.

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Absolutely. And as a composer, one gets stuck. It’s not like writing concert music, where it can exist without any other subtext. Especially when the acting’s as strong as it is, and the script is really strong. The story’s really good. And geographically, we have something to hang onto as well – it’s set on Mars for the most part. We intercut with Earth, but the representation of Mars in this movie is one of menace; it’s hostile. It’s not friendly. Freezing cold, barren, lonely for him. I had to translate those adjectives into musical nuances. That was my challenge was to convert that and play it for Ridley. He obviously has a vision for the film, and the music has to enhance that vision. So once we’re on the same page about thematic material and instrumentation, I sit down and write the cues and the score.

What’s your working relationship like with him?

Really good, actually. I’d say he’s straightforward because he knows what he wants, and he knows what he doesn’t like, musically. I suspect he’s the same with actors; they probably like working with him as well, because he’ll lay out his vision and let you work around that. He’ll bring you in and let you cut to the left or to the right. But really, he points you in the right direction, while also allowing you some creative freedom. He’s so experienced that he knows the way to go. But as you might know, I worked a lot for his brother [Tony Scott] in the late 1990s and 2000s, and sadly that came to an end. But my relationship with Ridley continued.

So when you’re sketching ideas out, what do you turn to? Your keyboard?

Yeah, that’s a really good description of what I do. Very much like a painting: one’s throwing paint at a canvas and seeing what’s appropriate, what sticks. I try to be inclusive with Ridley about that. That’s something I learned very early on from my mentor, Hans Zimmer. To be any use as a film composer, you really do have to be collaborative, and not sit on your high horse and think that your ideas are the best, necessarily. Sometimes they get pushed back – you have a musical idea that you really feel strongly about and the director doesn’t agree. That’s why with Ridley it’s a true collaboration. Also with his editors, they have a lot of ideas musically, as well. Pietro Scalia, he’s a film editor and very experienced with music, the use of music in film. So I had a strong team to get involved with.

Obviously, I haven’t heard it yet so I’m going in blind. But is it an orchestral approach you’re taking, or is it quite like Zimmer, with an electronic edge to it?

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It’s not like Zimmer, no. In some respects, it’s quite epic. It’s huge, it’s Mars to Earth and back again. But in other respects, it’s quite personal – it’s about one guy’s attempts to survive, and how he uses his own instincts and scientific knowledge and humour to get through. Instrumentally, I’m using a huge orchestra and a huge choir in some spots, and in other spots, very small ensembles and some electronics. By electronics, I don’t mean blazing guitars or anything that sounds like it would be more at home in a dance club. Not that sort of electronic. But there’s a lot of sound design within the music.

It can be quite small and chamber-y, with a small ensemble, and in other parts the cinematography’s very epic and awesome, and I’ve used a large choir for that. There are some interesting percussion instruments; at the very, very opening of the film, there are some incredible shots as the Sun comes around the edge of Mars. You see this planet in all this glory. I used this huge gong sound played very, very quietly, which has these reverberations and this slight menace to it. It makes you feel the majesty of what you’re seeing. Once you’ve heard that, you then realized that we’re surrounding you with a large orchestra as well.

The music’s quiet spacious, too – there aren’t lots of little notes, if that makes any sense. It’s quite open, like the environment. 

Is there much room for serendipity? A colleague of mine told me the other day, for example, that when James Horner came up with the music for Aliens, there was an action cue, one of the most famous in the film, and I think he came up with it on the day.

Welll, lucky him! [Laughs] He’d have probably been shown the door otherwise. One does run the risk of leaving things too late. But that’s why starting early is the smart move, so that not every idea you have doesn’t necessarily make it into the film. You know, perhaps whole scenes are dropped from the final cut. We don’t know they exist, but the director shoots them anyhow. Sometimes you see them as a process of getting to where you need to get to.

But I start very simply at the piano in my studio, and start with melody and harmony. Once I feel I have my fingers under that, then I’ll start to arrange things, try things orchestrally or electronically to see what happens. There’s certainly some give and take until one finds the language.

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What are the specific pressures of writing for film like, compared to TV and videogames, which you’ve also been involved with?

Well, I can tell you specifically on this film, that it’s a hugely important film for Fox. It has a large budget, with one of the most important directors in the world. So from my perspective, it couldn’t be more important. There’s a lot of anxiety, and a lot expected. But that’s all the fun of the chase. It means a lot of sleepless nights. It means giving yourself over to a project with the exception of everything. That’s not for all people. I’m sure there are some composers who enjoy doing a TV series, which comes to them on a Thursday and they finish it by a week on Friday for delivery on Monday. Then perhaps they’ll start again and start again on the next episode. I don’t know, I haven’t had too much experience on that. But certainly as a film composer, it’s full on. Once one’s on board, it’s massively full on until the job’s done.

For me, coming back to Abbey Road is a great thrill. I’ve done a lot of scores here, but it’s not so long ago since I was making the tea here, which was back in 1994 if I remember rightly. It’s pretty thrilling for me. Also, the orchestra, some of them are contemporaries of mine- they just didn’t try doing what I’m doing and I didn’t try to do what they’re doing. They’re awesome musicians, so it’s really pleasurable to come back. It’s not like it’s my choice, where the music part of the film had to be done, but I’ve done many scores and obviously the musicians are brilliant there too. But I don’t have quite so much history with them as I do these guys here. So it’s great fun, although it’s 20 years since I got a one-way ticket to LA.

That was for Crimson Tide, wasn’t it?

It was just after that, yeah. I actually helped Hans [Zimmer] with that score when he was over here at Abbey Road. So that was with Ridley’s brother. Little did I know I’d actually do a score for Tony or Ridley, or anybody at that point. It was just a dream. 

How important was that grounding, because you started off as an assistant?

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Yeah, it was really important. I’m often asked, how do you get started as a film composer? My answer’s always the same, because it’s based on my own experience. I was fortunate enough to meet Hans Zimmer, who had a need for an apprentice, if you like, who had a classical background, a good musical education. He was coming at things from a band – he was in The Buggles, wasn’t he? Whereas I was a chorister at Cambridge. I came at things from a completely different direction. That was very healthy, actually, because there was a lot I could learn from him. It would have been out of my experience. But I was his assistant, I was a fly on the wall – well, a little bit more than a fly on the wall. I maybe got to write a couple of cues or whatever.

Eventually I crawled out of the shadow of the Zimmer – which is no small thing, I can tell you. The fuhrer, the emperor, casts a large shadow! But looking back, that paved the way for me to have the confidence to go for it. That’s the best way anybody can start, by finding a cool, very generous, busy, good composer – and try to be his assistant. I wasn’t trying to find the answer, but I did – we had a mutual friend who introduced us, because Zimmer needed, on Crimson Tide, to wedge some choral writing into his score – which he wasn’t very sure about. He’d come from the band thing, so he wasn’t very choral literate, even though Hans wasn’t frightened of trying things. That’s why my friend hooked me up with him – he said, “A friend of mine knows all about choirs. He’s just starting out as a composer. Maybe he could help.”

It was a perfect fit just for that film. After that, I worked on a few films with Hans and then started on my own little projects, making my own way.

What happens when a director doesn’t know what they want? When they don’t have a specific vision?

It’s very important. It’s a bloody nightmare when they don’t. You’d be surprised. It’s not just the composer flailing around trying to find the right notes – I’m sure the actors would say the same thing, and the lighting guy and the editor and everybody. But it’s like having a small army; if you have someone strong up front leading you… that’s not to say that Ridley or any other director doesn’t put his own stamp on things, and put his own personality on it. But these things can have so many heads, with producers and Hollywood studios involved. There are a lot of people who will have varying opinions over the way things should be. But if a director is experienced and is a visionary, like Ridley, then you all have something to work towards.

Harry Gregson-Williams, thank you very much.

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