Howard Shore at Tribeca Film Fest
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Thanks to Zed Leppelin & christin for the images!

Runner writes: I thought you might like to have this report on the Howard Shore panel, Music Fit for a King, part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. If you use it, please credit me as Runner.

I just spent a wonderful Saturday afternoon at the Tribeca Film Festival’s panel Music Fit for a King with the composer Howard Shore, hosted by Doug Adams. Although the event was billed as a discussion of the music for The Return of the King, it inevitably became a discussion of the music for all three movies. Doug Adams is currently writing a book on the music of the LOTR films, which will be available sometime in the next year or so as part of a boxed set of all the music from the extended editions of the films.

One of the first questions Doug Adams asked was why Peter Jackson chose Howard Shore. Howard thought that it was because of his film scores’ ‘dark beauty.’ He told many wonderful stories about working on the music and working with Peter Jackson. Here are just a few:

Howard had nothing but praise for Peter Jackson as a creative artist and project leader. He revealed that Peter told the people working on the movie only what they needed to know at any given time, and that was how he kept control over the project. In the battle of the Pelennor, for instance, Howard had to take it on faith when Peter told him that he had to write music for a line of twenty mumakil that would come charging at the Riders, when all that was on film was ‘just a bunch of people’! Howard confessed to a slightly ’empty’ feeling because he doesn’t have a LOTR movie to write for this year, but is looking forward to 2005, when he will return to New Zealand and almost the same creative team for King Kong. He felt quite at home in New Zealand, which in fact reminded him of parts of Canada (specifically Saskatchewan) he had seen in his years of touring with a rock group.

A typical score for a motion picture consists of about forty-five minutes of music, so that writing for each of the three movies was like writing the equivalent of music for three ordinary movies–and with the extended edition DVDs, writing a fourth. We were all overjoyed to hear that he finished writing the ROTK extended edition music in March–about forty-five minutes’ worth.

Howard said one of the most important purposes of the score was to clarify the story, especially for those who hadn’t read the book. The most practical way to help viewers keep twenty-two main characters and several major cultures straight over the course of three full-length movies was to approach the music in terms of themes that viewers would come to associate with different people or creatures, different places and different situations–and of course the Ring itself. When the time came to write for The Return of the King, nearly all the themes were familiar. He said that he approached finding the voices for the score similarly to how a director would cast actors. The soloists for FOTR were very folklike, suitable for the Shire. Those for TTT were slightly more classical, and by the time he got to ROTK, everyone wanted to be in it! He said it was wonderful to be able to ask people like the soprano Renée Fleming and the flutist James Galway to be in it–and even more wonderful that they said yes! (Renée Fleming, who sings in eight languages, now likes to boast that she sings in Elvish too!)

Howard said that the choral sections of the movie were important as a way to get Tolkien’s own words into the movie and mentioned the work of Philippa Boyens in writing most of the lyrics and of the Tolkien scholar David Salo in translating them. He also spoke of his enthusiasm in general for learning about different kinds of music and how writing for the movies (and especially for LOTR) gave him the opportunity to use instruments from all over the world.

It was interesting to learn that the first music Howard wrote was the Shire themes, which are still his favorites. He said he felt great sympathy to Frodo, since he too was embarking on a long and difficult quest! He had first read the book in the 1960s and spent the first few months of the project ‘reading and thinking’ until he was ready to say something about it–a wonderful insight into the creative process. The first music that was recorded was for the Mines of Moria sequence, and Peter Jackson set him a special challenge by inviting him to record the music in New Zealand. Howard said the New Zealanders have been observing the rest of the world for quite a long time and were now ready to make their statement on the world stage.

He also praised the ingenuity and optimism of New Zealanders, who he said would probably ‘take the stuff on this table’–two bottles of water and what looked like a small clock–and make a short-wave radio out of it! In typical fashion, the music was recorded in the Town Hall in Wellington, using mikes that had to be borrowed from all over town. This was similar to how the Pelennor scenes were filmed in that Peter Jackson simply phoned everyone who had horses to bring them on over. Quite a few of the Riders of Rohan were women!

I was surprised to hear that Howard wrote a great deal of the music away from the movie. He gave the example of the Rohan theme as we hear it when Theoden, healed by Gandalf, takes up his sword again. The music was written as a free-standing orchestral statement of the Rohan theme and then was fitted into the scene. Another fascinating insight into the creative–and collaborative–process came when Howard mentioned that he and Peter and Fran and Philippa would decide together which musical themes would be heard in which scenes, and that their goal was always to clarify the story for the viewers.

Howard recounted the famous story (on the Internet) of how Peter Jackson got to play in the orchestra. In The Two Towers, when Aragorn looks up and Edoras and sees Eowyn, then looks away, then back and she’s gone, the soft gong sound was Peter’s contribution. Peter returned the favor by telling Howard that he was going to be in the movie somewhere. Howard didn’t think about it much until he got a phone call telling him to be at the makeup department at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. He told us to look out for his appearance as a guard in Rohan in the extended edition of ROTK!

After the main discussion, Howard took questions from the audience. He gave wonderfully articulate and interesting answers. One person noted that many of Howard’s previous movies were horror pictures (The Fly, Silence of the Lambs, and so on). He laughed and noted that Peter Jackson had a similar background! After the session was over, he graciously signed autographs for those of us who crowded onto the stage.

All in all, a terrific treat!


Zed Leppelin

I just got back from the Tribeca Film Festival, where Howard Shore did a 90-minute panel entitled “Music Fit for a King.” Wow, my first encounter with a LOTR movie person and my first Ringer report all on the same day! Here goes (it’s long, so please edit as you see fit):

I arrived at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Theater 2, at 320pm. It’s a pretty small theater that seats probably 250. I nervously settled into a seat in the fourth row. The air was abuzz as the Fellowship soundtrack played quietly above us and the empty stage lay expectantly before us. “It’s Moria. The Balrog is coming up,” the lady next to me exclaimed to her friend. I cocked an ear; she was right. She then proceeded to explain that the beacons music for ROTK has different chord progressions on the CD and in the film. I was tempted to roll my eyes but was also jealous that she knew more than me. After what seemed like a very long ten minutes, the lights dimmed, and the organizer of the panel series appeared to introduce the man himself. Too bad the microphone didn’t work. The audience, starting to get giddy, laughed with them as they looked for which cord or plug had gone amiss. At last, she introduced . . . (drum roll) . . . Howard Shore! And there he was, sitting about 25 feet away from me, as real as you and me. I found myself periodically just staring at him in disbelief thinking, all that music came out of this man’s head!

The moderator was Doug Adams, a Chicago-based musician and writer who is 3/4 of the way through writing the book, The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films, which chronicles the creation of the score we so love. Mr. Adams started to introduce Howard Shore, and Howard Shore generously introduced Mr. Adams right back. He noted that Mr. Adams’s book may come out with the box set! Ah, another thing to look forward to.

Onto the meat of the panel. I didn’t write everything down, so forgive me if the details seem a little random, and I can only write so fast between awe-filled staring at Howard, so forgive any inaccuracies.

Howard Shore just finished recording ROTK EE in March, which brings his total to 3 years 9 months (June or July, 2000 to March, 2004), during which time he worked fairly constantly on the score while finding time to score a few other films during the process. PJ apparently chose him on the basis of his work on Dark Beauty as well as The Fly and Silence of the Lambs. Howard describes PJ/Fran (and New Zealanders in general) as observing the rest of the world, absorbing the cultures of the world, and waiting. As he says, “It’s really this little island on the opposite corner of the world. Next stop Antarctica.” (laughter)

In response to a question on approaching Tolkien: “At first the density and complexity of the books was daunting, but then it became a gift. It has all these layers and reveals itself to you as you work on it, and keeps revealing itself to you, so that I still find it very exciting.”

As he reminisced on the working on the project: “I have an empty feeling this year because we aren’t working on another Lord of the Rings movie. [Quiet laughter from the crowd. Believe us, Mr. Shore, we feel your pain!] I want to call all of my people.”

On the role of the score: “They wanted clarity. In a movie with 22 main characters and all these cultures, music was a way to express the clarity of the different cultures, so the audience could understand the difference between Rohan and Gondor and the difference between Rivendell and Lothlorien.”

On the working relationship. It took a while to build up the trust and relationship. PJ doesn’t give anyone the whole plan, but rather gives out information as needed. He likes to hold the cards tight. For example, the first part Howard scored was Moria. He described the process as “very linear, step-by-step. As the fellowship went through Moria, Peter was holding the lantern, and the composer was following behind him.” The process got easier as they went, “Now we have this intuitive understanding between us. I had to understand Peter and Fran and the intellect and heart they put into it all, and understand their gestures.” Howard adds that he composed the Shire and Fellowship themes before embarking on scoring actual parts of the movie. In fact, he spent 4-5 months reading and thinking, with Philippa teaching him about the languages and Nordic and Icelandic myths before feeling confident enough to put it all aside and compose.

Apparently the Moria segment was played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Howard describes it as a matter of pride, that since New Zealand has this fine orchestra, they should record the score in New Zealand. Howard likens New Zealand to Canada, his own homeland. They are both near large cultures (Australia and U.S.), they’re both commonwealths, and they were both begun as agricultural states. He says that the first time he arrived in Wellington, he felt immediately at home: “Ah, this is Saskatchewan.” He likens NZ to midwest Canada, where he toured for 4 years in a band a many years ago. He believes that the similarities between Canada and New Zealand are the reason it was possible for him to be the only person working on the production who was not in New Zealand. He wonders whether PJ, Fran, and Philippa ever realized this added element.

Howard was very complimentary to New Zealanders. He says that Viggo says (we giggle giddily that someone in the same room as us mentions Viggo so casually) that because it is so remote, they have to rely on each other. Howard calls them ingenious, then says it again. “For example, Shelob is a spider Peter met at age 8 under his parents’s porch. These people could take what’s on this table [he gestures to two water bottles and a clock] and make a shortwave radio! They brought out borrowed microphones from home for the recording session. It was the same with horses. They just called up everyone they knew and said, ‘Bring your horse.’ And they’d all come and ride through a field somewhere.” On WETA: “A lot of the buildings were rented. They went from one computer at the end of Frighteners to having one of the biggest supercomputers in the world . . . . You walk in through this auto body shop and go upstairs to the 2nd floor, and you’re in this room filled with technology, soundproof, with wall-to-wall computers.”

On ROTK as the culmination of the trilogy: “When we looked, we could see it was the best one. But no one would look. It was just Peter and me. We couldn’t get anyone to come to the screenings. They were afraid to come. They’d say they were busy doing Fellowship, and then they were busy working on Two Towers and didn’t want to get distracted. So Peter and I would look. We had to see where we were going.”

On PJ: “We worked gesture by gesture, phrase by phrase, motif by motif. But Peter knew the whole thing. It was all in his head . . . . Like the Mumakil scene where Theoden and his men think that they’ve won and then they look up and see these twenty elephants coming at them. . . . Peter would hold these things in his head and hope there would be time to make it.” Mr. Adams ask how, then, would Howard compose when all he had to work with was a field and some men on it. “Peter would tell me about it. He’d act it out.”

On visits to NZ: “I worked a lot in New Zealand. I’d rent a house, and Peter and Fran would have a house down the street, and Philippa would be next door to them. They were really cottages actually, at the inlet of the sea. I’d see whales and porpoises. It was really wonderful.”

And on that lovely note, I’m overdue for a date with my books. Part 2 will follow.