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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: 'The Equalizer' Composer Harry Gregson-Williams Talks Scoring New Denzel Washington Action Movie & Making Music For Film, TV And Video Games

by Jon Niles   Sep 29, 2014 11:24 AM EDT

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Harry Gregson-Williams is easily one of the most influential and sought after composers for film, TV, and video games. His music is as recognizable as the projects themselves, adding that needed layer of orchestration that helps tell the stories for which he's composing. His latest project, director Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington, just hit theaters this week and Harry couldn't be more excited to have been involved in the thriller.

In an exclusive interview with Music Times, the busy composer took some time to talk about The Equalizer, working with Antoine and Denzel once again in his career, and how he's handled his career creating music for film, TV and video games over the years. The award-winning Gregson-Williams shares his advice for those trying to break into the industry and explains that it takes courage and ambition to make it.
  

How did you get involved in The Equalizer? 

Back in 1997 I was transitioning from assisting Hans Zimmer into my own career really and I don't know how I got the gig, to do The Replacement Killers, which was really my first action film. And I think it was one of Antoine's first films as well. So we were in it together, then went off and made a lot of movies individually and now we're both back!

A couple of years ago I took a sabbatical - I took a step back from the entertainment business and sort of "recharge my batteries" and refocus really. I went back to my native England to do some teaching in a school where I learned all of my music in, and spent a year teaching kids music and sport; the two things I'm any good at and that I love.

So when I got back to L.A. to pick up the shattered remains of my career as a film composer [laughing], I got a call immediately from my agent saying that Antoine wanted to work with me. I didn't hesitate; I jumped at the chance. We had a great time doing The Equalizer and he's asked me to do his next film, which I'm just about to start, called Southpaw with Jake Gyllenhaal.

It's great to be back with Antoine. He's a really good director with a lot of trust in music and the power of music.

  

What was it like working on this project? How much creative freedom did you have with The Equalizer? 

Antoine, like many directors, has the trust to let a composer go and test the waters. The beginning of the project is always interesting and nerve wracking for a composer - from my point of view. The slate is clean. The pallet is yet to be determined. What is determined is the movie in a rough-cut form and [Denzel's] character was really solid. It was quite clear that Antoine wanted me to sort of have the score steeped in realism.

Early on, Denzel said, "Any fight scenes, any action I'm involved in I want it to be something I can do myself." Not because he's a superhero or that he wants to make stuntmen redundant, but because "I want the character to be do things that I can do so that he's steeped in some sort of realism."

Although, as you'll see in the movie, the action is very stylized. Often the camera would slow down incredibly to make it a slightly unbelievable suspension of a moment. But when he jumps into action, it's all Denzel doing it.

So he didn't want the music to add anything superficial, supernatural to the talent to that this guy has. Antoine wanted to showcase the emotion of the character, too, because he's quite mysterious.

  
You've worked on a number of films that are very different from this new project (the Shrek films), but also very similar (action films like Total Recall). How would you compare your approaches to your past works to that of your work on The Equalizer?

For instance, for The Chronicles of Narnia films, one of the first things I had to do was create a sound and a theme for the geography, the actual place, Narnia. The Equalizer was all based in Boston, there was no need really to make anything particular to Boston. The approach was to clear facets of his character. One is quite subdued and gentle or sensitive and introspective. Another is muscular, vengeful and clinical. So musically I could reflect those two things.

To portray the more gentle side of the loner, I wrote a gentle, quiet, lonely piano theme, which is accompanied by strings and gentle guitars. But then thematically that moves pretty swiftly into heavy pounding drums and electric guitars. That was kind of convenient musically because I could paint that picture.

The first scene I really scored was when Denzel's character tracks down the mobsters that are hurting Chloe Moretz's character back to their "lair." The music is tense, but it's gentle as he approaches. He sort of pleads with them to stop and even offers them money. They refuse and he jumps into action, disposing of these guys as only The Equalizer can do {[laughs].

I played it for Antoine, he loved the theme, but told me he wanted the theme to be even more extreme. To have the gentle moments even more gentle so when the aggressive moments came they were more of a surprise and more contrasting.

 

What was the first instrument you learned how to play and what would you say is your favorite instrument to write for, play?

I learned music since I was probably four. By the time I was seven I was shipped off to a boarding school, which was a specialist music school. So where some people would have an hour and a half of biology, an hour and a half of math, etc ... my day was centered around music. Learning to read, to write, and sing music. I had all of the other lessons to get through high school, but they were very much secondary. So I could read music probably before I could read words at the age of 7.

My brothers and sisters all played musical instruments. My sister played the clarinet and I would play along with her. I played many instruments, but my main instrument was the piano - and I sang. Now it doesn't really apply in a movie like The Equalizer where I didn't use woodwinds at all, but on a movie like Shrek or countless other scores that I've done - often when I'm orchestrating a passage that may be sensitive, romantic, or has got some deep feeling in it- there will be a clarinet somewhere. And that probably goes back to my childhood and just making music with my brothers and sisters.

Nowadays I'm primarily a keyboard player. I have a lot of electronic equipment in my studio in order for me to make the demos that I make. Like all symphonic composers in the world I have a sampled orchestra. I have all the sounds at my fingertips.

 

Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into your industry?

I can only really speak from my own experience, which was one of great fortune! I bumped into one of the coolest, busiest, most generous film composers there is. His name's Hans Zimmer. It was the spring of 1995, in London. I was living there and he was over recording Crimson Tide and he wanted his score to be chorally based but he didn't know too much about choral music. He had the compositional ideas of what he wanted the choir to do but he wasn't quite sure how to get the choir to do it. Someone introduced him to me saying, "Harry knows all about that stuff. He was a little choir boy once [Laughs], and I think you guys would get on well." And we did! We got on really well and I organized the choirs for him on Crimson Tide.

A few months later when he was back in L.A., he called me and said, "Why don't you just get a one-way ticket. I can tell you want to have a go at this. You should give it a go." I headed that advice! I dropped everything, got on a plane and started to assist him. I'll always be eternally grateful for the start that he gave me.

So my advice to young people is find a cool, busy - because who wants to be an assistant to somebody who only scores one film every year - composer. If you could assist a composer who's working all of the time, you'll see him in action. If a crumb falls from his table you'll be there ready to catch it and it'll be an opportunity.

Do you have any projects you're working on now or will be working on in the near future?

I'm doing a project for Disney Nature called Monkey Kingdom - so think March of the Penguins but monkeys! I've never done anything like that. I have very young children and whenever they come into the back of my studio when I'm working on something like The Equalizer it's deeply inappropriate. So this seemed like a great opportunity that my kids could share in the joy of it because it's really beautiful. So I'm about to embark on that, which will take me quite a while and I also have Southpaw right around the corner.

 

For more information on Harry Gregson-Williams and his work, visit his official Facebook page!

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