Interview with Rupert Gregson-Williams

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Just as the Amazons have remained hidden on their Zeus-blessed Paradise Island of Themyscira, composer Rupert-Gregson Williams has essentially remained one of the best-kept secrets in the insular town of Hollywood. Now, the impressively skilled residents of their respective worlds finally get their blockbuster coming-out party with “Wonder Woman,” as the Greek-molded goddess Princess Diana fiercely fights for peace and love to Williams’ heroic strains – an inherent optimism that finally blasts the dark, draining nihilism that’s defined DC films to bright smithereens.

But if Diana is properly travelling the cinematic world for the first time since her comic book creation by William Moulton Marston in 1941, her English-born muse has been out doing good works for nearly two decades. The brother of Harry Gregson-Williams (“Man on Fire,” “The Martian”) rose from “Urban Ghost Story” and “Virtual Sexuality” to impress with his own rousing orchestral sound. His music made you believe a farting kid could fly into space with “Thunderpants,” conveyed the genocide outside “Hotel Rwanda,” captured the backyard animated antics of “Over the Hedge” and has given any number of Adam Sandler pictures magical maturity with the likes of “Click” and “Bedtime Stories.”

It’s been a diligent climb through any number of comedies like “Blended” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” in recent years for Williams (including the smarter laughs of HBO’s “Veep”). Thankfully, Williams’ heroic talents were finally allowed to come roaring to the fore with his energetic work for the seriously underappreciated “The Legend of Tarzan.” Capturing the noble adventure of the iconic jungle lord, Williams’ cache was elevated significantly further as he grippingly played the incredible WW2 heroism of the real-life savior Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge,” before hearing the introspective feminine drive of Queen Elizabeth for Netflix’s “The Crown.” But nothing in Williams’ increasingly impressive arsenal of conveying heroism socks it to the audience like director Patty Jenkins’ smashingly great realization of “Wonder Woman.”

Bonded to his brother and the Hans Zimmer school by their use of propulsive samples alongside a traditional orchestra in a way that’s more newfangled than John Williams’ superhero-defining style, this particular Williams’ hears just as much valiant, sweepingly melodic conviction within Princess Diana. With ethnic instrumentation and bold, sword and shield clanging percussion capturing this Amazonian champion’s mystical birthright, the composer sends her out into the world and its Great War in the company of secret agent Steve Trevor, employing sympathy, humor and the heart-rending emotion of a sheltered woman seeing male-made carnage for the first time. It’s a sweepingly noble approach that’s pure comic book movie magic as Diana charges through the trenches in full costume as sweeping strings build to the thematic fierceness of Tina Guo’s rocking cello playing. There’s also no mistaking pure good and evil in the dastardly music of its gas-loving Huns and higher-powered villains, combat that reaches cosmically choral levels for its exhilarating musical climax, and truly moving aftermath. Bringing back every hero-making musical element that DC had forgotten, Rupert Gregson-Williams “Wonder Woman” resounds with epic girl power in a way that distinguishes the long-awaited arrival of Princess Diana as much as himself.

Did you and Harry become interested in music, and film scoring simultaneously? And in what way do you think your styles are similar, and dissimilar?

Harry and I both trained in performance as youngsters, and our love for film and film scoring came later. I think our styles differ sonically, but harmonically I think we may have one or two similar traits – we both were choristers at Cambridge. That training goes deep!

Were you familiar with the character of Wonder Woman before taking on this score?

I’d seen the TV show back in the day, and of course, Gal’s Wonder Woman really made an impressive mark in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” I had wondered, like many fans, why such an important figure in the D.C. Universe had not been explored before, but never dreamt I’d be taking her to the big screen for the first time.

Did the Wonder Woman music that was heard for the character’s first appearance in “Batman v Superman” influence your approach here?

The theme used in that film represents a Diana who is already a super hero, and confident in all things-warrior. In our origin movie, I needed to write a fresh theme and original music for the young Diana to represent her naivety. I composed for Diana knowing where the journey might end tonally. I enjoyed using cello playing of Tina Guo to show glimpses of what is to come!

Tell us about your collaboration with director Patty Jenkins, and what she was looking for the score to accomplish?

director Patty Jenkins & Rupert Gregson-Williams - photo by James Gillham/Sting Media

Patty is smart. She’s also got a great ear, and is a fan of film music. We worked closely on how to develop themes, especially the journey that Diana’s theme should take in her development from young girl to super hero. She really wanted a strong theme that represented the heart and strength of Diana. We spent a long time together simply talking Diana – her naïveté, her compassion , her strengths , before I wrote a note. We spent a lot of time with themes going back and forth until we found The One.

Before “Wonder Woman” you scored another highly enjoyable, period-set superhero with “Tarzan.” Do you see the characters as similar in that they’re noble warriors thrust into a weaponized world that they try to make sense of?

Yes, both characters have a naivety about them and their need to help the weak. Both draw on years of training or survival in sheltered paradise for their strength. Ultimately Wonder Woman was a journey of discovery for her powers, whereas Tarzan knew his strengths only too well.

Do you think your heroic music for the horrors of war in “Hacksaw Ridge” came into play here as well when it came to Wonder Woman taking on the WW1 trenches?

Yes, it’s an interesting comparison. Both Wonder Woman and Desmond Doss seek to help the vulnerable through their love of humans differ. Diana’s strength comes from a lifetime of training, and of course being the daughter of Zeus helps! With Desmond Doss I had to drill down into the spiritual heart of the man and where he got his strength.

Tell us about developing your Wonder Woman theme and how it fit this new retro-vision of the character?

Patty and I worked hard on the theme. We wanted to show strength and beauty and love. She is from a proud and brave race, descended from Gods. Diana is also naïve and humorous. Simple nut to crack! Really I wanted to have a theme that could be noble, romantic and ultimately heroic as the film moves through to its climax.

How did you want to convey a mystical, ancient land of Amazonians, and the tribal heritage that Wonder Woman carries with her along with their very physical emblems of their might and magic?

The Amazonians are fearless, and their land is timeless, so I had to be very confident with the theme for them. Their land feels less ethnic and more wondrous and magical to me, so I set about it with that in mind.

What attributes of Wonder Woman were important for you to capture?

I felt I had to capture strength, beauty and compassion. Because her nobility, charm and humor shine through so well with Gal Gadot’s performance too. I had plenty of opportunity in this movie to explore all these attributes.

How did you want to achieve a balance between musical femininity, and strength?

Diana’s melody is feminine, but always underpinned with percussion and propulsion. She learns of the darkness going on in the world, which drives her to want to want to save humanity. As long as her theme sung out, I could explore ever more bold ways of accompanying it.

Even during its most furious action scenes, did you want to go for an overaching, brass-driven sense of nobility for Wonder Woman’s mission?

No, as I play each action scene differently. In the movie she encounters danger at her most naive on the island of Themescyra, and in the man’s world she develops her powers and we see her at her most confident. I tried to develop the strength and powers of the theme to reflect her journey in the action scenes.

In most male superhero films, the “girl” is usually left to play second fiddle. But here the relationship is essentially reversed with Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. How did that dynamic play into your score?

They have a great chemistry together, which I hope is reflected in the score. Steve isn’t left behind in any way. He holds his own, but Diana keeps surprising him as she develops. The themes become stronger and more about Wonder Woman as the dangers grow and her awareness of her powers develops.

Tell us about your more villainous music here, especially given their mix of the Germanic, and warrior godhood?

I loved writing for General Ludendorff and Dr. Maru – the theme is a low ascending figure on the lowest woodwinds with a counter line slithering downwards – it says pure evil after the first three notes play. There’s real darkness there, so I didn’t need to play the Germanic side of Ludendorff. I felt he represented a broader and older evil on the earth.

You’ve also scored a member of real-life female royalty with “The Crown.” Can you see any musical comparisons with Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana?

No, though both are brave in their way. Elizabeth doesn’t show emotion in the way Diana does. Her strength is in restraint. Diana wears her heart on her sleeve. So Diana’s theme is both noble and overtly romantic and heroic. Elizabeth’s is noble, but emotionally restrained. That’s the English for you!

Though you scored some decidedly serious movies like “Hotel Rwanda,” comedies, especially those from Adam Sandler, have been a consistent of your career. Why do you think that relationship’s lasted so long, and do you think you bring a particular musical “weight” to his brand of comedy, most recently with “Sandy Wexler?”

I love working with Adam – We’ve lasted a long time because he makes me laugh. I sometimes make him cry and I try to make him laugh. He is one of the most loyal in the business and I admire him for that.

A lot of women campaigned to get this score, but you were the winner in this tournament. Do you think that a person’s sex should determine who gets a “women’s” picture as such, or do you think it should be left to the director and studio to determine who’s right for the job based on talent, regardless of their sex, given a film’s subject?

I don’t think Patty would have liked to hire someone based simply on their gender. Just as she is a director first, She is also a female director. I know she spent long time thinking about who would score her movie, and heard a lot of music from both female and male composers. When she made the decision, it was based on whom she thought would understand the character of Diana best. I hope she was right in choosing me, and I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity.

Photo by James Gillham/Sting Media

Like Harry, you’ve created a dynamic style that blends a strong, thematic orchestra with rhythm and samples. Would you say that’s the sound any composer needs to stay sonically current, especially when it comes to getting films like “Wonder Woman?”

I think it helps to feel comfortable with technology and current musical trends, not necessarily to follow them. One can’t help writing melodies, harmonies and rhythms that get you excited, so the best thing for me is to keep an open mind on what I hear and to make sure I play with new musical toys as they are developed with new technology.

Do you think that “Tarzan,” “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Wonder Woman” now truly show you’ve at long last “arrived” in A-level Hollywood? And what do you think will be the trick to staying in a place you’ve long deserved?

Well that’s kind of you. But once you feel you’ve arrived, you may as well flick to autopilot and put your slippers on and sit back. I will always feel fear at the beginning of a project – that’s how I’ll keep it fresh. It’s been a terrific and exciting year. I’m thankful and looking forward to the next year. Let’s hope I get half the amount of opportunities I’ve had this year.

Lasso the musically mighty truth of Rupert-Gregson Williams’ score for “Wonder Woman” on WaterTower Records HERE

Listen to Rupert Gregson-Williams’ scores for “Hacksaw Ridge” and “The Legend of Tarzan” HERE and HERE