(Photo by Benjamin Ealovega)
From the poignantly realized rural Texas of Conan creator Robert E. Howard that comprised “The Whole Wide World” to the epic fantasy realms of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the unforgiving western territory of “Seraphim Falls,” English composer Harry Gregson-Williams has taken listeners into unique, and powerfully encompassing musical landscapes with a sense of invention. But perhaps no vast subject of of his is sung with the feeling of one man’s resourceful personality like “The Martian,” a film that marks Williams’ most surprisingly intimate teaming with stylist supreme Ridley Scott after his work on “Kingdom of Heaven” and contributions to “Prometheus” and “Exodus” – movies more about the gargantuan effects of history, aliens and God himself upon their often overwhelmed protagonists.
Yet as opposed to the vast space opera that “The Martian” could have been in its tale of lone astronaut “sciencing the shit” out of seemingly hopeless odds when inadvertently left for dead on the red planet, Gregson-Williams has crafted a truly personal, and pleasingly melodic score about resilience. Sure “The Martian’s” themes might offer grand strings, noble brass and a chorus in Mark Watney’s moments of high desperation. But for the most part, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for “The Martian” is about pluck and a sense of self-reflective wonder, as playful electronic beats complement Mark’s delivery to the camera about what it takes to survive in body and spirit, his seemingly impossible, solo quest uniting Earth itself in their hope to bring him home. Williams’ rhythmic suspense also makes Mark’s survival by no means assured, but it’s also an attitude that’s above all inspirational. His pro-active, rhythmically smart and mesmerizingly atmospheric score works in powerful tandem with Scott’s unassuming direction, a combination that will likely create many real-life scientists to come when the audiences listen to and experience “The Martian” – music and movie turning their eyes to the can-do spirit of space travel itself.
The thing that struck me most about your score for “The Martian” is that it’s not about a planet. It’s about a person.
Yes. In my initial talks with Ridley, he wanted “The Martian” to be a really personal, quite small story at heart, concerning one man’s quest for survival. And as the film grows more epic and more frantic, so would the score as I engaged the services of a large orchestra and a large choir. But at the beginning as we’re following Mark around, the score is “perky.” I wouldn’t call it “scientific” music, but music that’s not too broad or epic in any shape or form – but still quite positive to reflect his character. Mark’s a very optimistic guy in the face of all this stuff he’s going through. So it was necessary to make sure his theme had a very positive air to it. It needed to stay quite small to begin with to just be bubbling along as it accompanied his actions. And as Mark grows in both stature and bravery, so should the score to allow it to come on quite strongly for the end of the film.
In that way, after such gigantic “sci-fact” space operas like “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” it’s particularly nice to have a relatively small-scale score like “The Martian.”
I did engage large forces in the last couple of reels, which are quite tense and epic. But to begin with, it’s more about mystery and unraveling Mark’s situation, which is also what’s great about the writing of Drew Goddard, who did an amazing job. There’s something very cheeky about his script, almost Big Brother-esque. There was no veering off once the story’s goals were set. Mark’s left on Mars and he has to get off it, so it’s very clear what has to happen. It was a real pleasure writing the score for Ripley because I think he also felt that he had a strong script, and he got his first choice of actors in every part, all of whom worked very well down to the smallest parts.
Personally, I found “Gravity” and “interstellar” to be too intellectually lofty and stylized at the cost of telling a comprehensible story that respect, given what a great visual stylist Ridley Scott is, it’s surprisingly that a great deal of “The Martian’s” power comes from him telling the story in a completely straightforward and understandable fashion. How do you think that’s reflected in your music?
“The Martian” was such a joy to do because I’d never done anything quite like it, where the music didn’t need to be ostentatious to begin with. That’s because Mark’s a scientist who loves working out problems. So his thematic material is very melodic, which gives us a sense of positivity – sometimes on simple instrumentation like a piano, but accompanied by bubbling synthesizers, which I hope didn’t stick out too strongly. I considered ostinatos on strings and woodwinds for him at first, but they felt a little bit too much like Jerry Goldsmith’s approach in “Alien, “ which didn’t fit Mark’s character.
If there’s one score that “The Martian” reminded me of, then it would be Thomas Newman’s “Wall-E” especially given your own arrangements for that have a sense of wonder and hope for guy longing for human companionship.
I’m happy you think so, because I’m a big fan of Thomas Newman. I haven’t heard that score, but I can imagine what it sounds like. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in “The Martian,” but there’s quite a bit of monologue because Mark is always rattling off, until he finally gets in touch with mankind. A key area for me was how to play “us” looking on at him as it were. Everything Mark does becomes well-known and public knowledge. There’s a lot of warmth and good will that he feels through his limited communication, and one of the ways I was able to express that was literally through the human voices of a choir. I drew their text from “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius who was a Roman philosopher who lived before Christ. It creates music that is “holy” without being specifically religious as such. His text is concerned with the infinity of space and our place in the universe, which seemed appropriate.
“The Martian” will likely inspire people to follow science careers, especially as it accomplishes the nearly impossible movie trick of making science look fun.
Yeah. Who would’ve thought that? Certainly not me! But that was a great stepping off point when it came to writing the first couple of minutes surrounding Mark’s quest to survive. He’s very positive and humorous about it as he’s making water. And that’s the pattern that emerges. He has various challenges, some of which he finds difficult to surmount. But eventually Mark wins, which was musically what I had to do. So it was decided early on that the music didn’t have to make too much of a statement in terms of where we were, but to be more concerned with Mark’s character. I wrote his theme in a way that would be easily recognized as being heroic and triumphant. It was also important at his low points not to push the music into sentimentality.
Did you try to do your own research into the movie to grasp all of the scientific concepts that are going on it?
No, but Ridley and I did talk quite a lot about the concept of “The Martian.” He described how he had come to realize how everything in the film could take place, and was concerned about the reality of that situation. Its plausibility was first worked out in Andy Weir’s book, and then by Ridley, whom I’d known was a stickler for detail through my work with him on “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Exodus.” However, the first couple of months of working on the score were quite disconcerting, because when I’d see a close up of Mark outside of his camp, he wasn’t necessarily wearing a visor! When I told Ridley, he laughed and said, “Well, you try bringing a camera in front of a visor! You’ll see the camera in it, so we’ll add the visor later.”
How did you want to play Mars itself?
As I was sitting around the cutting room with Ridley months and months ago, we were asking what Mars meant to us. Mars is the bringer of war. It’s Gustav Holst. But Mars really isn’t the villain in this movie, although there’s certainly a sense of danger that comes from being on the planet. We had to keep an edge to a lot of the music to remind the viewer that Mark was always an inch away from certain death if he stepped the wrong way. Yet it didn’t seem like Mars should be the monster of the movie, which allowed us to be more concerned with its majesty. So we had instruments like a huge gong that we played very softly with. A woody mallet gave you a vibration that was almost visceral in its feeling. We also had a Didgeridoo and a synthesizer to characterize the planet
Were you expecting all of the disco music to be on the soundtrack?
The disco music was always in the script. I don’t recall if it said, “Here plays an Abba song” or “Here plays a Donna Summer song.” But it made mention of 70s disco music. From that moment I started work on the movie, which was four or five weeks into production, there were songs already in the movie. And there were also scenes with songs that Ridley ultimately decided should use score instead. But whether it’s songs or score, I think Ridley has a special sensibility with music.
It must be a dream job to get a score where a guy is walking around red landscapes.
Absolutely. “The Martian” has been a dream job. I was excited about it from the moment I read the script to the last note that the orchestra played at Abbey Road Studios. When the writing’s this good, the acting so believable, and the editing so perfect, it’s a pleasure to compose a score for a movie like this. And I can’t say that every film I’ve ever worked on fits that description. “The Martian” was a great opportunity for music.
You also contributed the expansive score for the Disney Nature documentary for the documentary “Monkey Kingdom, where you music becomes the voice of these animals. It’s not usually the kind of score you get as well.
It definitely isn’t, so I was thrilled when Disney Nature asked me to score the film, especially as I have kids who’d be watching it as opposed to The Martian.” “Monkey Kingdom” was made by guys who were sitting around the forest for two or three years, trying to get these shots and create a story around them. I wrote a theme for the main monkey who’s named Maya. She has a lot of hardships because she’s born on the wrong side of the tracks as it were, and has to fight very hard to feed her family and to survive. Having the setting of Sri Lanka gave me a tremendous variety as a composer, especially when it came to playing ethnic music. It was also the only time that I can recollect where I got to write the temporary soundtrack as well, which allowed us to make judgment calls about where the music should go after our first audience previews. “The Monkey Kingdom” was a real highlight of my career.
You also got the score coming up for Catherine Hardwicke’s film “Miss You Already,” which has particularly strong female characters.
A lot of strong women worked on that film in front of and behind the camera. I came to be on “Miss You Already” by no accident. After I saw “Thirteen,” I wrote to Catherine telling her that I admired her work, and to ask on the off chance that she’d consider me for a movie in the future. And it just so happened that Catherine was in pre-production to do this film. We met, we liked each other and I got the job. “Miss You Already” is very English. But in fact Catherine’s not, even though it’s a love letter to London. We had a lot of fun doing it. She’s tough and very brilliant. I’ve been fortunate to have done three or four very different scores like this, “Monkey Kingdom” and “The Martian,” all of which have very little in common musically.
It seems like we can always count on you to do interesting, stylistic scores like them, or on movies like “Domino” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.”
Well, I’m very fortunate to have been asked to do them. “Domino” and “Pelham” were done for Tony Scott, which allowed me to meet his brother, and to resultantly work with Ridley. I don’t take that lightly. And I always try to do my best.
From what you’ve learned about science through “The Martian,” how long do you think you’d survive if you were inadvertently abandoned on that planet?
Not long. My aptitude for science isn’t as good as my aptitude for music!
“The Martian” is now playing in theaters worldwide, with Harry Gregson-Williams’ score available HERE. “Miss You Already” opens on November 6th, with its soundtrack available HERE, and visit Harry’s score for “The Monkey Kingdom HERE.