If you haven't seen 'Early Man' already, you really should go and see it, not only is it Nick Park's latest masterpiece but it has been beautifully and thrillingly charged by Harry Gregson-Williams's scoring wizardry. Born in Sussex, Harry now resides in Los Angeles and whilst you might think it's all golden sands, glamour and the luxurious life, Harry delivers the hardening truth... it's not, it's hard graft, the returns are worth it if you are dedicated to it.
Global Mainstream Arts managed to speak to the legend himself of whom has scored for the likes of Shrek, Antz, 'Spy Kids', 'Chicken Run' and various other big-hit films, not to mention networking with the Ridley brothers, Hans Zimmer and having his moment of potential glory snatched from him (winning an award and giving Bjork a peck).
Read how he got into composing, his groundbreaking achievement with DreamWorks, his latest scoring for 'Early Man' and interesting invitation to score for Metal Gear and Call Of Duty.
"(Early Man) is a bit of a David & Goliath story, that the little guy can win"
Hi Harry, what was it that made you take up music, in specific composing?
"Well it started with two different things for me, I took up music when I was probably around the age of 4. I'm one of five children and my dad and my mum were very keen that we all played instruments; my dad's dream was to live in some gamekeeper's cottage in West Sussex, where there wasn't any electricity and what we did for fun was play music and climb trees (not necessarily in that order altogether), so it was a magical upbringing really; my brothers and sisters we all play music.
When I was about 6 or 7 I was packed off to a specialist music boarding school in Cambridge... I guess I could read music better than I could words (English) by the time I was 6 or 7, so yeah music was always coursing through my veins and actually I went into teaching music but after that I had no idea what I was going to do because I wasn't going to be a world-leading pianist; I studied all sorts of music but I hadn't studied compositions (you might be forgiven for saying "you should have done" (laughs)). But I went into teaching, I thought I had such a brilliant music education myself and that I was really set to be able to pass that on onto kids; actually mainly sort of grubby-little boys (like I was), because I went to a boys school and I felt that I kind of knew what they wanted because it only seemed like yesterday that I was one of them.
But I did that for years and it was quite a lot later, I was in my early 30's I suppose when I met Hans Zimmer quite by chance in London one summer in 1994 (I think) and what he was doing just blew my mind. He has all these twinkling lights, samplers, synthesizers and he was creating these sound collages... I couldn't believe it, he could see I was really interested and we got on like a 'house on fire' (he came into London from Los Angeles, and went to the studio I was working at) and he said "come on why don't you try compositions, you should do a composition for a film", so yeah that's where my path really began. I pretty much dumped everything I had going back in London and got a one-way ticket (which you could do in those days pre-9/11) and kind of lived on a visa-waiver; where you could waive all your rights to actually be in the country, when I was supposed to be on holiday.
I wasn't eligible to work in Los Angeles, but back then if you came clean and presented yourself to the Authorities... they were going to find you and said 'well what's the point, you shouldn't be here', 'you should have a Visa' so I said 'OK, can I have one?' and so they gave me one and that led to a green card and actually many years later I had to give up my British citizenship to be there. It was an excellent situation back then, no idea what it is like now I'd imagine it's a lot tighter and more difficult, but back then you couldn't get a work visa unless you worked.
It was a weird situation, I went into and saw the authorities and said "I have been here on a holiday visa and I have to keep going in and out every 3 months". I could just drive down the 405 which is a free-way that goes to the south of Los Angeles down to a really nasty place called Tijuana which is on the border of Mexico. All these signs saying 'You are leaving the United States, be aware you are leaving the United States' and when you cross over it's a pretty nasty drug-ridden town, pick up a couple of sleeping pills, turn around and come back.
But regarding my music education I had at St.John's College, Cambridge, I was there from when I was 6 to 13 and that set me in good stead because I had such a solid musical education. I knew about harmonies, I had studied composition but in all of the years of my teaching I actually realized I had been composing all this time.
I learned so much from Hans in the early days, when I was his assistant and sitting in the room with him watching him battling it out with I don't know, Dreamworks Animation, Disney; he did 'The Lion King' and just being a fly on the wall being in a room where it was all going down, no one was really looking at me I was just the guy at the back of the room, but then at some stage I put myself up to the front of the room and see what happened; I guess after a couple of years I got some confidence and had to start at the bottom, I couldn't just start working on films, I mean I have been working on half his films with him, these were $100 million dollar films and were winning Oscar nominations and stuff, but I wasn't going to start at that level; I started doing films you probably have never heard of, little Indie films that paid just enough to be able to make them work and hire a couple of musicians, but there was no Abbey Studios one... I was saying to myself 'you better be ready when that opportunity comes, because it will come to you', but it's no good coming to you if you're not prepared to grab it and throttle it; lot of hard work, heartache, a lot of failure to begin with.
I was around at the time when DreamWorks was formed (by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen) and one of the first animation films they set about doing was a computer-generated animation; which was the first one of it's kind, was a movie called 'Antz' and I guess this was probably around 3 years after I arrived in L.A..
Hans entered the room and told me that Jeffrey Katzenberg wants me to do this movie 'Antz' featuring Woody Allen and Sharon Stone, it's going to be amazing it's all done by computers... so I said 'only for you Hans'... he replied with 'nah nah nah I'm not going to do it, you can do it' so I was like 'oh, ah Ok'. So 'Antz' led to 'Chicken Run' which led me to Aardman, and 'Chicken Run' led me to 'Shrek' and I don't know maybe a decade of Shrek, four feature films, various TV specials; a Halloween one called 'Scared Shrekless', a Christmas one called 'Shrek The Halls' (laughs), a theme park ride based on Shrek underneath the London Eye.
I had a decade of non-stop work on Shrek, which led me on to do 'Flushed Away', lots of other movies and simultaneously I was fortunate enough to meet the Scott brothers... so rather than being typecast as an animation guy, having met Tony Scott (Ridley's younger brother) through Hans, he asked me to do this movie with Will Smith and Gene Hackman called 'Enemy Of The State', and from there I did 'Spy Game', 'The Hire', 'Domino', 'Déjà Vu', then I did 'The Taking of Pelham 123' and then it went on and on, I did all of Tony's films from 1996 till the year he died; sadly took his own life about four years ago.
People ask me 'how do you make a dent in Hollywood?', it's all about relationships... you meet one person and do a good job for them, they''ll probably want you to do another job and they'll probably have a friend who asks 'who did that?'. It's a complete fallacy when people think of Hollywood personnel sunning themselves by the swimming pool, this is not true, the people who are doing well are busting their asses, really working hard at it.
I was so lucky that I got to do 'Chicken Run' and I had such a great experience, not only with Nick Park but the whole team there, Peter Lord (Nick Park's partner), we got on so well and from that I asked to do 'Flushed Away', which led to 'Arthur Christmas' and then 'Early Man'. I was quite busy finishing another film at the time of being asked about 'Early Man', a Warner Bros. film coming out this Summer called 'The Meg' (starring Jason Statham) and I was a bit nervous about whether I could pull it off because the timing was quite short and I suggested to them that a young composer I've tried to champion, a mate of mine who has only been over here for 3 years and he is a good composer, his name is Tom Howe.
They asked who he was, they had to google him (I've been living under a rock, no idea what's going on British TV), he has the theme tune to only the most popular English cooking programme called 'The Great British Bake Off'. They agreed to that and we'd split the work so I'd write the theme tune and I'd make sure that Tom stayed on the straight and narrow and we got through it. We went over in October, November last year, spent a week at Abbey Road which was a great thrill for him and recorded a symphony orchestra, multiple strange instruments, quirky colourful instrumentations to go with the quirky, colourful characters on screen and a big choir, and yeah that's it."
Naturally composers watch the film production to gather ideas for the score, however did you take any inspiration from Nick Park's other works, e.g. Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run?
"No not really, because when I already started 'Chicken Run', the producer said 'look, listen, we've got these clay chickens on screen for 90 minutes, what we have to do is forget that and score the characters on-screen, put away the fact that they are clay chickens, think of this movie as more of an animation and the music should attract that emotional journey', looking at 'Early Man' and the first character, it already told me what I needed to know, it's about this pre-historic tribe of people led by Dug; Dug is our main character and a slight anti-hero, in that he lives with too much confidence in his actions to begin with so musically we needed to give him an emotional arch that where the film starts he is just a regular joke inside the tribe, but by the end when the film finishes he's stepped up and built some courage and his dreams have come true; win a soccer match, win a football match that allows him to keep the ground the tribe occupy at the beginning of the film."
It's not just film that you've scored music for, what is it like to be involved in the Metal Gear Solid and Call Of Duty gaming franchise?
"Well, I have five children and well my eldest son is now 17 and started playing video games a few years ago I suppose, he was like 'come on dad when the hell are you going to do one [score a game]', I mean way back in the mid 90's I received a curious letter from Hideo Kojima, the creative force behind the Metal Gear games; did not know what it was at the time, they were going to do a follow-up called 'Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake' and was asking if i could consider scoring for the game. But you know, flattery will get you anywhere and (laughs) he said that he 'listened to some of my film scores and he wanted his game to sound like that, I want it to sound cinematic'.
Now back then film composers weren't really doing video games, there were a whole different set of composers knocking out video games; I think I was one of the first film composers to score for a game to give it a cinematic feeling and done this by treating it like a film. I couldn't have messed up too badly as he asked me to do the subsequent Metal Gear releases (3, 4, 5, etc) and along the way, the Activision people called me up to see if I would do 'Call Of Duty'; but it was around that time I realized I didn't have a lot of interest in scoring for games and I told them that, that I think you've got the wrong guy and wasn't sure that I could do 'Call Of Duty' as much as I admire it.
So they suggested splitting it up and letting me do a lot of the multiplayer stuff and a lot of the music that will be heard in the game that's very important to some of the cut scenes, that isn't going to be accompanied by any gunfire or anything like that and we'll get someone else to cover all the other stuff, so I agreed that was perfect, because to do a video game you're looking down the barrel; there's a lot of music involved, maybe like two-film score's worth of music, I didn't really have the time or the inclination to do that with 'Call of Duty', but they were imaginative enough to say 'OK let's try to balance it by giving you 30-40 minutes worth of music and the bits we really care about sounding cinematic and have someone else look after the rest of it'.
Whenever you're nominated for a BAFTA, Golden Globe or Grammy, do you get anxious at all?
"Oh no, you can tell because I didn't win a Golden Globe, I didn't win a Grammy and I didn't win a BAFTA, but of course it's nice to be nominated and go along to the party and of course you're going to hope that you're going to win, but look the year I was nominated for a Golden Globe, John Williams was nominated for two Golden Globes, you know in my category the name John Williams was there twice! (laughs) Now if you're up against him once, I don't think you're going to win but if you've got him twice in your bloody category... yeah I went that evening thinking 'You know what? I'm just going to have a glass of wine, I'm not going to have to make a speech yeah?' (laughs). But it's definitely one of the best parties I know of. The Oscars apparently you sit in a cinema-type of situation, you know it's long... the Golden Globes though are a dinner party and you can table hop with everybody in-between awards and stuff... that was fun.
The Grammy's? Again, I think I was nominated for 'The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe' and that year John Williams won it for whatever he won the Grammy for (I can't remember the film). But those things are very fun and don't mean much, but if the party's good then everyone is happy"
Oh and I was nominated for a BAFTA for 'Shrek' and they very kindly flew me back to London from Los Angeles, put me in some posh hotel... when I used to live in London I'd never go to a place like that; I couldn't afford walking into The Dorchester or somewhere like that. So I was like great me and my wife can make a night of it and then it turns out that the person presenting the awards for the Best Score is Bjork; who I happened to have a massive crush on back then, massive crush and loved her music, so I was like 'Oh come on, I've got to win this, I've GOT to win this' so I can go up on stage and give her a peck, but no I can't remember who won that year, somebody else, but that was fun too"
Regarding 'Early Man', who would your favourite character be? Are there any morals to the story?
"Probably Dug, you know with the shaggy hair and goofy teeth. He gets up and does something good with his life, unlike some of his lazy, dumb tribe mates who do nothing to help the situation, nah he's a worker and finds a way to get where he needs to go.
Well the end of the film where the soccer / football match is, it's between the riff-raff of some ancient tribe, who haven't got any skills, any backing and haven't got any chance really, and a very, very classy, snooty, well-funded, well-dressed, well-groomed team and you'll have to see who wins (the riff-raff do). So maybe it's a bit of a David & Goliath story, that the little guy can win"
What has the reception for the soundtrack been like? How long did it take to score?
"Very well, and the four bands and songs included were received well although I didn't have anything really to do with that, I mean Nick Park sent his choices across for that and I helped him come to a decision on which songs worked best.
Well we would come together almost everyday to discuss what we were doing with certain characters, what score to put to them and probably spent about half the time than you'd normally would like. We probably had about 10 weeks, we'd be more comfortable if we had 3-4 months but we didn't have that"
What scores are you working on currently and what future scores will you be working on, or hope to, that you can reveal? Are there any thanks / greetings you wish to send out?
"I have been asked to do a huge animation, not an animation, a horror which is coming out in August called 'The Meg' which is a Jason Statham movie, a big action movie which was great fun to do. I'm working on 'Penguin' at the moment and there's a big Disney project which although I have been hired, formally hired, however for contractual reasons I am unable to mention it. A bit ridiculous but there you go, 'top secret'... what's the secret? I think people make these things overblown, when you know who the hair / make-up artist is or the gaffer, 'work for hire'.... but it's not 'The Lion King' (laughs)... as much as I'd loved to have scored that one... but as you know Disney are doing a whole host of live-action films that are adapted from their cartoon equivalents... I can tell you it's one of those. But yeah work out which character from Disney it is (laughs).
Well thanks to whomever is reading this, I could say hello to my mum (laughs), she's down in Chichester, probably freezing like the rest of you, my sister and brothers whom are scattered across the UK, that's about it and if Nick Park is reading this... 'this was fun, let's do it again sometime! 'Early Man: 2'... 'Late Man'.