Tea Time with Howard Shore

Howard Shore, “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Ed Wood,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Doubt.”

Howard Shore, “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Ed Wood,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Doubt.”

What do “The Fly,” “Big,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “That Thing You Do!”, “High Fidelity,” “The Departed” and David Lowery’s upcoming “Pete’s Dragon” have in common? They were all scored by three-time Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore, one of the most anticipated guests of honor at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. He’s a genius as well as a gracious soul, and he would prefer if you called him Howard rather than Mr. Shore.

Prior to his scheduled appearances in the Windy City, Howard found time to chat with me about his celebrated career, and his nuggets of wisdom are all worth savoring.

Your music fits the tone of each film like a glove. It never feels intrusive. How do you go about achieving that?

I discovered with films that if you have a good balance between all these areas of filmmaking—cinematography, editing, production design, directing, acting, music composition—it makes a really good film. I try to collaborate well with all of the filmmakers I work with, in the hope that this group effort with make something that goes beyond all of our individual work.

Had your early collaborations with David Cronenberg formed your approach to film composition?

Well, it did to a certain degree because I started with David. It was the first director-composer relationship that I had and that he had, so we kind of grew up making movies together. We tried a lot of different ways to tell stories. I’ve made 15 films with David over 30 years, and the thing about working with a director for so long is that you never look back. You’re always looking forward. You always find a new approach to a film, and it’s always fresh and interesting.

Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

I grew up loving your score for “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and how it reflects the spirit of Robin Williams’s performance. I’m particularly fond of the piece entitled “Tea Time with Mrs. Sellner.”

Thank you, it was actually a lot of fun making that film. Chris Columbus directed it and of course, Robin Williams was so inspiring to work with. In the case of the piece you mentioned, it was really inspired by Robin’s kinetic performance. When you saw that onscreen, it was almost like working with animation, in a sense. He was such a wonderful, vibrant film actor. As a composer, you’re influenced by the lighting and the editing and the cinematography, but you’re primarily influenced by the actors—how they move, how they talk, how they look, how their eyebrows move. All the teeny little details inspire you in the music.

Your score for “Ed Wood” certainly evokes the tone of Wood’s own films.

Yes, I loved working with Tim Burton, and the Ed Wood period of the late ‘50s was very vibrant. There was a lot going on musically in that era, and that extended to film music. It’s a wonderful kind of world to write in and to orchestrate. With Ed Wood’s imagery, you could never do anything wrong because he never did anything wrong. So Tim and I tried a lot of different things and just had a lot of fun with it.

Rather than open “Lord of the Rings” with a bang, a la “Star Wars,” you cast a haunting spell on the audience while grounding the score in an emotional reality. How do you go about opening an epic like that musically?

What you want to do is take the audience to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. You want to bring them there when the lights go down in the theater and have them enter this mythical, mystical world of 5,000 years ago. Musically, that’s the challenge. You must take the audience’s minds and imaginations into this world and once they’re comfortably there, then you can open up the story. Then you can tell the story in great detail and use themes and motifs to express all of the ideas inherent within it.

Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight.” Courtesy of CIFF.

I was struck by how your score for “Doubt” is in line with the film’s moral ambiguity, never instructing us on how to feel about the characters.

I saw that play on Broadway and I was very moved by it. It was quite a while afterwards that I met [playwright/director John Patrick] Shanley and started working on the film. I felt like I had a connection to the drama just as an audience member, and actually as a composer, that’s a good way to start, just viewing the subjects and having an emotional feeling about them. Music is so much an emotional language that you must have an inner driving force to create it for these subjects. It’s interesting that “Doubt” and “Spotlight” have some similarities. They are different films, but both share a certain ambiguity. “Spotlight” deals with complicity, and how societal ways have made us unaware of certain things that are happening in the world.

You’ve spoken about how you like to create your scores at particular locations that share an atmosphere similar to the era in which a given film is set. Where did you create the scores for period pieces like “The Aviator” and “Hugo”?

“Hugo” was recorded in London and in Paris. “The Aviator” was created in Leuven, Belgium, as a way to capture the sound of Hollywood in the early ’30s. There was a certain European sense to those early film scores because so many of the composers and musicians were immigrants from Europe. This was also a great period for music, and it came out of the silent film era. We had over 30 years of silent films, and they all had music. So there was already this tradition of music in film, and that went right into the dawn of sound, and that’s where “The Aviator” lives. It’s a fascinating world to explore, and of course, being guided by Martin Scorsese through that world is really interesting, because he’s showing you many things and making many connections to things that were happening during that period.

The interesting connection between “The Aviator” and “Hugo” is the cinema that was being made in both countries, America and France, and how music was used in films up to that point and during the ’30s. Doug Adams, who is doing the interview with me after the screening of “Hugo,” has written a book that has yet to be released, but he’s finished it, and it’s about silent film music. It’s really fascinating. He spent years working on it, and he’s done research all over the world about this period. No one has ever really done that research with film music before. It’s an amazing book.

Howard Shore will attend a screening of “Hugo” at 2:15pm and a special tribute event at 5:30pm on Sunday, October 18th, at the Chicago International Film Festival. His latest score can be heard in the festival’s closing night film, Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” screening at 7pm Thursday, October 29th.

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