John Powell interview: scoring Bourne, Hans Zimmer, Face/Off and more

Composer John Powell chats to us about scoring Jason Bourne, working with John Woo, his upcoming work and more.

Few contemporary film composers have made an impact quite like John Powell. From animation to drama to his immediately influential, propulsive Bourne soundtracks, Powell’s energetic, emotional and heartfelt blend of symphony orchestra, electronics and percussion make him a singular voice.

Ahead of his BAFTA Screen Talks event at the Royal Albert Hall on 10th July, we were delighted to catch up with John to discuss his remarkable career and the secret to a truly great film score.

So 10 years after I saw The Bourne Ultimatum on the big screen and being electrified by your score I’m sat here talking to you, which is a real privilege. I wondered was there a particular film score that inspired you to become a film composer?

I’ve asked myself this many times and I’ve been asked it many times. My relationship with cinema is not very cinematic. I grew up in a little town in England that didn’t have much of a cinema. I remember seeing one film there as a kid, which was The Jungle Book. But there were a few films that no doubt crept their way in, despite the fact I didn’t watch them in a ‘proper’ setting. I never saw the first Star Wars movies in the cinema.

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It was more about TV so I was always watching war films, would you believe. One of my favourites was The Great Escape and I remember that being very intriguing. It’s not just the main theme, which was intended as a parody of Bridge On The River Kwai. It’s also the other stuff that’s heavily influenced by the Schillinger Method that was on the curriculum at Berklee. The interesting, American harmonic stuff, like the bike chase for instance when Steve McQueen jumps the fence. That octatonic stuff. I did really enjoy that early 20th century American style like Aaron Copland. It’s classically sophisticated but there’s a lot of force to it.

Around that time I also saw West Side Story, which is not film scoring but I often confused both Elmer and Leonard Bernstein up. I remember watching West Side Story and thinking, that’s how music in film should work. That’s probably caused me a lot of grief over the years. Because in that instance, the music is the story. It’s operatic.

But when it came to, say, The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape I learned that the music is but an integral part of the storytelling experience. I also used to watch a lot of cartoons like Tom And Jerry, Scooby Doo and stuff. I was brought up watching Tom And Jerry short films that would change from atonal to Latin American to rumba to Cuban for comic effect.

It was very confusing! And also at the time I was more interested in classical music. Pour all that into a big pot, cook it and stir it and that’s probably what my scores are.

Your arrival in Hollywood coincided with the rise of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio – then known as Media Ventures. You got a foot in the door there so how did that come about?

Well Hans used to work at the same music production company that I did in London, writing music for Air Edel. He’d left by the time I started working there but he still had contacts.

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They took me on as one of 20 composers and within a couple of years at the agency I’d become this kid who spent all his money on gear. There were composers who were very good at composing advertising music but I was probably the kid who turned up with more tech than anybody else! I was using the tech in a way that others weren’t necessarily bothering with. So when Hans came back and reached out for help on a project, my name came up because I was the kid that had lots of samplers.

So the first time I met him was at Air Edel. He liked me and he gave me more sounds and samplers to help him try and do it. I ended up helping this other composer who was ghost writing for him. We presented a demo, which nowadays is completely normal but back then no-one was doing it besides Hans. So once I took away information from that experience, I flourished.

So I am very much a child of that technique, of demoing everything to the nth degree. It gives me control over the way I like to construct things. There are huge limitations and you have to fight against falling into lots of traps but I don’t think I’d have a career if I hadn’t been able to adapt those techniques that Hans pioneered.

From there you went on to score Face/Off for John Woo, which was an enormous project. Did anything from that inform your later experiences writing film music?

That was a gig that came into Media Ventures and they wanted Hans. They didn’t want anyone else, they wanted Hans. He had worked with John on Broken Arrow so he really wanted him to do it, but Hans couldn’t. I’d been working with Hans at the time and he liked me and he gave them a guarantee, saying let this kid write some themes. So I did for about two weeks based on a whole load of footage and on a Friday afternoon I played the music to the editor, the producers and John himself.

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I played them these demos and the editor was questioning whether or not Hans had written the tunes. He hadn’t, although he had given me a lot of advice along the way. And they agreed to let me do it with Hans producing. That was a technique that he learned, I believe, from Stanley Myers, this idea to just let these kids try and compose something. He’s a very good teacher. He’d have been a great teacher had he not gone into scoring.

So I learned so much from that. And in the process of scoring the rest of the film, obviously he was involved in making sure I didn’t fuck it up! I learned a lot technically, I learned a lot emotionally. I also learned that I was there filling in for him, that I shouldn’t try and step too far outside his genre. They wanted that Media Ventures sound so within that organisation, when you’re getting those gigs you’re asking: do they want you or do they want Hans? In the early days it was like, we want Hans but can’t get him, so let’s get someone who sounds like him.

Because we had all the tech, sounds and master tapes telling us not to do this but do that instead, it would guide us towards sounding like him. That then becomes an economic question because you could then turn around and say, no, I’m not going to do that. I have my own voice and I will make it work. If it does work, great. Otherwise, there’s a good chance I’ll get fired for doing that. So when it’s your first gig you decide to fall in line somewhat, although I would say that Face/Off had some of my own voice in it.

At the same time I was aware I was being hired for particular kind of sound. Today I wouldn’t be hired for an animated film on the basis of an atonal score. It wouldn’t be what they need. You’re hired to do music that will do the job. The Bourne Identity was me reacting and doing the opposite of everything I was required to do when I was at Media Ventures.

With Bourne everything sounds like the opposite of how I would have done it there. Doug Liman hired me not even knowing I’d been connected with Hans. He heard a demo that he liked, then he brought me in and I did some demos for him. He liked them and just from the conversations I had I knew he wanted something different. It was a time in my life when I was ready to sound like nothing that was expected of me.

On that score Carter Burwell was originally hired but didn’t give the filmmakers what they wanted. You then came in and revolutionised the tone of the music.

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Well it’s easy to look back and say that’s what happened but you’ve got to remember that at the time, Doug was looking to make a movie that was anti-Bond. So it was a problematic film and then they brought in Carter. I mean I love his music but I think the score he created for them didn’t push the tone in the way that Doug needed. I think in a wider sense they were also trying to figure out the overall tone of the movie.

A year passed between the end of principal photography and Carter getting involved, and then me writing the score. There was a whole load of reshoots happening, and whether Carter wanted to do another score or simply didn’t have time is another matter entirely. I just got a lucky break. So I came in with a desire to figure out something new for myself, which coincided with what Doug needed. So it was lucky for me.

One of my favourites of your early scores is Endurance, which is a beautiful work. How much of a challenge is it to emphasise emotion in music without becoming too overwrought?

That’s a tough one. I came onto Endurance before I did Face/Off. It was produced by Terrence Malick and I didn’t know him or the film. He and Hans were going to do both Endurance and The Thin Red Line together. But Hans was caught up with other things and invited me into a meeting with Terry for Endurance. So he comes in and he doesn’t know me and he’s the most wonderfully poetic person. He treats you as an artist.

So I went away very excited, worked solidly over the weekend and wrote what was practically half of the score. So I came in on Monday for a meeting with Terry and Hans came up to me and said, “Please tell me you’ve written some shit, because I haven’t!” [laughs] He hadn’t written anything! Then I watched Hans listen to the stuff I’d written for the first time and he did the most amazing piece of salesmanship on it. He tap danced like Fred Astaire. And Terry was very happy. So we went on to score half the film then they went away to shoot more footage of the final race that was being shot that summer. Then after Face/Off, I came back and finished it off.

Overwroughtness is always hard. One thing I regretted was there was a piece of temp in there at the end from a classical composer. At a certain point Terry had that temped in for the final race. You know Hans worked so hard on The Thin Red Line to get rid of all the temps. I believe there was only one piece left in the entire film. But Terry was a very important part of my education in terms of how films can work. Just me knowing that here was somebody who didn’t want the usual schmaltz. He wasn’t interested in what Hollywood usually produced for such films.

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At that point I was coming out of college studying composition and I was interested in lots of different types of music, although not necessarily film music. I kind of fell into film. I went into advertising because it paid the bills then I went into a lot of other stuff. Musical stuff for art installations, theatre and other things. Film music kind of got lost in there. I was much more interested in composition and record production as well. I then came into a film scenario where the first person I got to work with was so open. That led me to believe there was a chance of always being less Hollywood. There were other ways for me to create that kind of emotional context.

Animation is a genre to which you’ve returned many times. In the late 90s and early 2000s you had a remarkable run of them whilst paired with Harry Gregson-Williams: Antz, Chicken Run and Shrek. What was it about that collaboration that clicked?

The first time I met Harry he was helping Hans on the score for The Prince Of Egypt. I was doing a lot of song production work on that. I didn’t do much of the score – I think I tried and fucked it up a bit. So Hans just kept me on the songs. [laughs] But I think Jeffrey Katzenburg had got to know both Harry and I whilst working on that film and he liked us. When it came to Antz he wanted Hans, but he couldn’t do it. I think Hans suggested some other, non-Media Ventures people. I think it was Craig Armstrong and Marius de Vries. He felt they were really cool because they’d done some amazing scores like Romeo & Juliet. But Jeffrey said, well what about John and Harry?

So we got called in and we did some demos and DreamWorks liked it, so we were pushed together by Jeffrey, really. We’re both very different people, different styles of thought, different egos. It was very interesting working with Harry because Hans would pit us against each other, somewhat. Hans would call me into Harry’s room and I’d hear something really fucking good. I’d then leave thinking, Christ I really need to up my game. We worked hard with each other but against each other as well. That made Chicken Run work very well, as well.

The irony is that I left England because I couldn’t get into film, and I never thought I’d get to work on a Nick Park Aardman project. I’d always loved his films and also the music in them so when I found out we would be doing Chicken Run, I was very surprised. We both worked very hard on that.

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Regarding animated scores, I’ve always thought it must be hard to write music that’s humorous without being overly intrusive. Would you agree it’s a tricky balancing act between being funny and sincere?

Oh yeah. I’m currently sat here on the new one, Ferdinand, literally trying to figure that one out. I used to joke with directors about what Stalling number they wanted – as in how Carl Stalling should the music be, how crazy and so on. You can be right at the top, which I definitely did on some of the Ice Ages – silly music that I hope worked. At the other end of the scale, I’m very admiring of Thomas Newman’s Finding Nemo, because it doesn’t do that so much. It’s so elegant. So it’s a question of, do you bring charm to the scene and allow everyone to relax, or do you push the comedy and ensure it’s as funny as it can possibly be? Every scene in every film I do, I fight with that all the time.

I don’t know what the answer is. I know that I watch certain films and feel that the music is way over the top and irritating. What I call over-modulated. One of the things that happens in animation is the temp score is put in very early on before the film’s really made. They cut together the storyboards using the temp music. That can be three years before the film comes out. They’ll be editing the storyboards and it’ll have just rough voices on it by temp actors, staff wandering past, the director possibly. Slowly they will then start to record the voices and the movie will go into production.

But in the beginning they’re really just working with these story reels that are edited together. It’s very difficult to make such a film work and they want to watch the whole film to try and assess it in its roughest form, so they can tell if the story’s going in the right direction. And there’s temp music in there three years before you start that’s often way over the top, to try and help the crew understand what’s going on in the drawings. But once the official voice actors come on board you don’t need the music to hit that hard, especially the sort of music that I hate that thrusts emotion right down your throat. It’s irritating if something is forced on you. If it isn’t naturally funny, and the music is trying to be funny, then people sense that. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of going both ways sometimes – either too much or too little.

Two of the ones you got absolutely right were your How To Dragon Your Dragon scores, which are both magnificent. The first one netted you an Oscar nomination so I wondered if that was a watershed moment for you?

Well, I think I’d come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t doing ‘Oscar’ films. The kind of films I like doing aren’t really the ones that attract that kind of attention. I’ve always wanted to write for films that in 50 years people will still be watching. So that question about the Oscar is hard. You can drive your career towards those films and seek them out, and I’ve been guilty of that on occasion. I’ve instantly regretted it because it’s boring and dull. I’ve tried to write for films that I enjoy writing for, in order so that I can write music that I enjoy as well. It just happens that Dragon was already a really beautiful film without me.

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You know you can write a pretty shitty score for an Oscar film. If you look at the history of the Oscars, it bears that out. However you can say it may be shitty music but it’s right for the movie. I do have a problem writing shitty music. It’s sometimes hard to compose music for the film if what’s needed is to write something dull. I’ve always felt I’ve needed to write something that has musical integrity.

The first Dragon was the first film I’d ever done for DreamWorks without anybody else. Before I’d always done them in collaboration with Hans, or Harry, or somebody else. I was showing I was a big boy. [laughs] A really good film gives you everything to go on. I remember the first time I watched Shrek thinking, well there’s not much to do, it’s all there.

It’s important the industry judges these things each year and tries to encourage art in cinema but generally I don’t like it when people are pretentious about it. My favourite films are not arty films. I’ve never managed to stay awake through Citizen Kane, but you can’t tell me that Babe isn’t one of the greatest films of all time, or Moonstruck. [laughs] I’m really not a cinephile. I’ve always loved certain types of films and no-one will shake me of that because of what they do to me emotionally. I sat through three and a half hours of Kurosawa’s Ran but I don’t necessarily have a huge knowledge of cinema.

I guess I love films that work for me and the intellectual workings of certain films just isn’t that intruging to me.

My favourite film composer, Jerry Goldsmith, said the orchestra should always be at the heart of the ensemble. Given your scores feature a dynamic mixture of orchestra, percussion and electronics, do you agree with that?

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I don’t think so. I mean, I love Jerry Goldsmith’s music as well but you have to understand that he came from this incredible tradition straight out of Ravel and Debussy and he understood compositional integrity and orchestration in an extraordinary way. He could manipulate his writing for film. He had such a magnificent understanding of storytelling.

I’ve seen a lot of films that I’ve loved that haven’t used the orchestra. I can get the same feeling out of the first Atlantic album by Aretha Franklin. That’s as much a work of art as Beethoven’s Fifth. I can’t see the difference. Different types of music can create the same feeling. That feeling of transcendence.

If you think of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas for instance – that’s just one slide guitar. And I also loved Brokeback Mountain by Gustavo Santaolalla. So there are lot of different ways of doing it. We’re in a post-modern era where you have to appropriate the right level of taste and also think about what something could sound like in 15 years. Could something sound incredibly dated? And that’s the danger.

If you think of films from the eighties, now you think, oh god, that must be 1983. Yet it’s very hard to tell what year many of John Williams’ scores were composed in. He always uses an orchestra because it’s timeless. That’s one of the beautiful things about using an orchestra. You really can be timeless but you also might be missing an opportunity to speak with different musical language.

I was intrigued by an interview you gave back in 2014 when you seemed to indicate a level of regret at the amount of violent, frenetic action music Hollywood turns out. How much of a challenge is it to seek out projects that have that humane input?

Well… [pauses] Look, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had lots of work and don’t need to worry about money ever again. I was in two minds about Face/Off as to whether it was too violent. I don’t like the glorification of the warrior, this idea that the solution is the strongest man fighting against everyone else. Heroism comes in all sorts of forms. Being the best fighter is just one them.

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One of the dangerous things you can do is make violence acceptable. However for instance I don’t have a problem with Tarantino films – I have a problem with things like the TV series, The A-Team where people spray bullets at each other. If The A-Team had shown the actual results of such carnage, it would have been horrific.

It’s interesting, this indoctrination that continues to happen in Hollywood. Without screenwriters, none of us would have any work, I should say that first. The second thing that screenwriters need to realise is they need to find some new fucking tricks. It’s not fair that every time you need to move the story forward, you torture somebody. But everybody does it. It’s like an expositional technique. Such laziness. So much violence gets into these stories because of formula. Wonder Woman‘s out now and I haven’t seen it yet but I hope that she comes out, rather than kicking everybody’s ass, showing compassion and treating people with logic and reason and empathy.

Having seen it, that’s exactly what does happen. That’s one of the best things about the movie.

Well, that’s good! We need more of those kinds of films!

One final question and this moves beyond film music into other styles of music you’ve composed. You’ve written several very acclaimed concert works including your oratorio A Prussian Requiem and The Prize Is Still Mine. Have these been a turning point for you in terms of not being pegged merely as a film composer, as someone whose musical voice extends beyond the screen?

I don’t know yet because there’s the ‘Choral Works’ CD that hasn’t been released yet and there’s only been one performance of A Prussian Requiem. I’ve always been a composer, I just got sidetracked into writing music for Hollywood. Writing music is something I get joy from doing and I want to keep doing it. It’s been interesting writing music away from the requirements of other people’s stories.

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A Prussian Requiem is my own personal pursuit of what happened in the First World War, about what can happen between people that fucks up the whole 20th century. Ultimately it all boiled down to one jealous, narcissistic man. It stemmed from a book I read that itself was derived from an apocryphal story about Kennedy reading The Guns Of August, a famous historical book that details the summer leading into the First World War.

Did this book make Kennedy think laterally about how to steer around such terrible moments? And if that’s the kind of thing you can try and illuminate in musical form, then it’s worth doing. The Prize Is Still Mine is really a question about slavery in Africa and how it came to America. It’s a strange crashing together of musical styles that I love, orchestra and Gospel. I’ve always loved Gospel music. It ended up sounding like Gospel music by Vaughan Williams.

Another piece of mine is having its world premiere on 7th July at Milton Court in London. Eric Whitacre asked me to write something for one of his concerts. It’s the final choral piece of the puzzle on the album, Requiem Addendum, a reflection on my experiences writing A Prussian Requiem that ended up being a requiem for my wife. A Prussian Requiem was performed in March 2016 and finished two hours before she died. So the last piece is a much shorter piece that acts as a commentary on the experience and my feelings on the bizarre nature of doing that.

All three will all be released together on one album at the end of the year. So if that works for people I’ll keep writing. I’ll try and figure out a way to write it that’s interesting to people or not. I’m lucky enough to be able to do it so I think I should keep trying.

Please do! John Powell, thank you very much.

John Powell will appear in the BAFTA Conversations with Screen Composers series at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday. The date has now sold out, but for other upcoming film events at the Hall, go here.

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