Multi-BAFTA, Oscar and Grammy-nominated John Powell’s career has spanned over 24 years with 75 credits as composer. John has become the go-to writer for family animated films, famously scoring box office hits Shrek, Chicken Run, Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda, and Happy Feet as well as How to Train Your Dragon. John’s credits also include Mr and Mrs Smith, Hancock and The Bourne Trilogy.
What do you think the role of a composer in telling the story of a film?
I think the reason I was attracted to music was that it answered a lot of questions about how to talk about things that I didn’t know how to talk about in any other way. It was this kind of transcendental language. Then I started to notice music in films more, I just liked the connection between the two. When it was done properly and they aligned correctly, it seemed to enhance both things.
Then it becomes about: “how does storytelling work?” It took me years and years to even remotely understand how it worked – if I had any success initially it was just instinctual. George Miller described it as trying to keep everyone on the edge of a wave. If you push too hard, they go over the back of the wave and if you slow down too hard they fall down the front of it. Paul Greengrass has always just asked for someone to hold your hand to let you know it’s OK.
I’ve always seen it as my role to be the last person in the cinema to understand the story. I never push. I’m never ahead of the audience. But I should be understanding it, if not with them, just slightly behind them, so that I can then support what the story is.
John Williams has always said that he is a composer who happens to write for films. Is cinema the 20th and 21st-century version of the church, who commissioned Bach, and the state, who commissioned Mozart?
It would be if they made films with no images or dialogue. You have to remember that Bach wasn’t writing the B-Minor mass to accompany some chap talking over the top of it.
I like to think that it could be, it could be that way. And the best film music is. I think there are pieces that do transcend the art. I also do feel that for most film music, part of the requirement is to not say everything. I mean, John Williams is able to transcend the medium and it’s because he’s a really good tune writer.
The medium requires you to underwrite, which is why minimalism works well in film music and why there has been a big swell of minimalism over the last ten years. Obviously it started before that, but really everything is going minimalist. I love minimal music and I don’t have a problem with it – in fact that was my main ethos in the Bourne Identity was to try and do minimalist music. I was trying to be a composer as well as fit the film; I would be trying to construct pieces that would have an interior integrity.
It’s very easy to write music that is an impression of music that does the right thing for movies. I would say that 90% of film music is not music, itself, it’s doing an impression of music because it doesn’t have internal integrity to it. At least, none that I can find.
As a film composer, you end up bound to the film, but are you able to put yourself into the score?
You try and put yourself in everything, or at least I do. I’m sure it would be easier not to, but I’ve never really found much satisfaction in not doing that. I’ve always thought that if I’m going to write music, I might as well try and feel something. You can get involved in these things and you’ve no idea whether it’s a good or bad film… I remember on Gigli I realised that one of the things I needed to do was join the director in his madness. You can’t fight with it.
A famous director once said that the best films are when everyone working on it was trying to make the same film. I can’t tell you how many times people don’t. Seeing it from the inside, they’re often making different films. They might not realise it. When they work it’s because everyone has the same idea of what the film should be.
One way you’ve put your stamp on film music is that you don’t write for films you consider to be violent. Bourne is violent, but it isn’t him being violent in order to succeed.
Yeah, I have a problem with violent heroism. The hero who uses violence to achieve success, even if the success is seen as peace. I haven’t stuck to this very well, but I’m very lucky in that I have enough work and I can decide what to do. It wasn’t very deliberate, I was just always more attracted to things that didn’t solve problems with violence, they didn’t have the warrior. I don’t really like the idea of the warrior being the solution that is constantly indoctrinated into us.
And, truthfully, I probably am not great at writing dark music. That’s why I haven’t done any horror films.
As a result of this non-violent approach, you lean more towards family and animation. It also means that you create music that’s quite hopeful. Where do you draw your hope from?
I’ve always loved joyful music, in the sense that, Firebird is an incredibly joyful piece of music, Rite of Spring is as well. I think of the overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, which I think is one of the funniest pieces ever. Or, there’s so much Khatchaturian that I just find hysterically joyful, I almost cry from the pleasure of listening to it. I guess I’ve always been influenced by that. Schubert has got a lot of joy in his music.
It’s not that I don’t like sturm und drang, but there’s nothing quite like somebody showing this incredibly complex picture of joy and pleasure.
The invention of humanity, over this short amount of time we’ve been here, is extraordinary. It feels to me like if I’m going to spend my time doing this, if I’m lucky enough to be able to try and do it, I should really try and do something that can bring pleasure to people or something meaningful to them.