A memorable super hero often arrives like a bolt from the blue, the same can be said of a gifted composer, especially when riding the phenomenon of “Wonder Woman.” But when it comes to Tom Howe’s beautiful score for “Professor Marston,” we aren’t talking about musically embodying a potentially Sapphic, and likely one-man woman given the discretion of a PG-13 rating. For in this decidedly adult, if still tastefully restrained R-rated movie, non-prudish fans of Princess Diana will be likely surprised, and then aroused to find that she hails from the decidedly progressive mind of William Moulton Marston (aka comic book writer Charles Moulton), who turned his intelligent and erotic passion for a long-lasting ménage a trois into a kid-friendly, if bondage-heavy icon that’s stood the test of time. That the polyamorous relationship happened way before its time in the late 1930’s, to be hidden with the secrecy of Clark Kent, gives the score a feeling of erotic discovery, iconic creation and fear of being found out that makes for Howe’s standout soundtrack.
Directed by “D.E.B.S.’” Angela Robinson, “Professor Marston the Wonder Women” chronicles the shackles that come off between Marston (Luke Evans), his hyper-intelligent wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their student aid Olive (Bella Heathcote) who becomes far more to these inventors of the lie detector and the wielder of the truth-telling golden lasso. It’s a glowing hue of discovery that Howe at first conveys with playfully sparking, clip-clop percussion and lush strings. They weave a gossamer, yet strong emotional bond through memorable themes that define Marston’s ethos of dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. Indeed, where bondage has usually been portrayed as a dangerous, forbidden fruit in the movies, Howe’s score captures restraint with tenderness and desire, no more so than when Olive is transformed into a backlit vision of a super heroine to be. Awash in gorgeous rhythm, romance and then heartbreak in the face of an uncomprehending, hopelessly square world, Tom Howe’s score is indeed a thing of romantic wonder, no more so than when it might seem that super-strong symphonic themes might be going the way of the golden age of comic books.
A well-storied composer back in England with over seventy credits, Howe has gradually been creating his own breakout in Hollywood with additional music for such Rupert Gregson-Williams scores as “The Do-Over,” The Legend of Tarzan” and ironically “Wonder Woman.” But it’s the revelation of the real women who provided Marston with his inspiration that’s going to open up new solo pages for a composer who can capture delicate femininity with all the assurance of an Amazon.
Tell us about how you got into composing? And were you always drawn to melody?
Although I had a classical background, I initially pursued songwriting as a career. I supplemented this with composing music for adverts and jingles (and some teaching in schools). All of these disciplines are short form and require not only different stylistic approaches but also a strong hook and melody. I also sung as a chorister and later in a band so melody has always been king for me. I think that has filtered into my writing, or at least I hope it has.
You’ve done quite a lot of work on British television. What were your favorite shows to score, and why? How do you think it contributed to your work as a film composer?
I have been fortunate enough to score a lot of varied projects in the UK. The one that is probably best known is “The Great British Bake Off.” I had just finishing working, with director Andy Devonshire, on something else for the BBC when he called me and said, “You’re not going to want to do this but please can you help me out with some music for a baking show”. The show went on to become a global hit. No one knew it would be. It was just one of those things where the stars aligned. The music had to have a British sensibility about it and I had a great time doing it. Other things that I have loved being a part of are “Locked Up Abroad” and “Paranormal Witness”. These were both quite cinematic and the production wanted a “Hollywood” sound. Trying to sound like the latest Hollywood score on a small budget is a great thing to try and accomplish. I did so many different things ranging from classical to dubstep and I think that all helped on my journey to be a film composer. Getting used to tight deadlines helped too!
You have the distinction of scoring both Marston and his creation. Could you tell us about your additional composing on “Wonder Woman?” And did that lead directly to “Doctor Marston?”
I had written additional music for Rupert Gregson-Williams on several other projects when he called me about “Wonder Woman.” I had spoken to Angela around the same sort of time, but I knew that I would have time to work on “Wonder Woman” before I launched into “Marston.” Though working on “Wonder Woman” did not lead to “Marston,” it was interesting to see the character from different perspectives. I had no idea about her “real” origin.
Tell us about your collaboration with “Martson” director Angela Robinson.
Angela and I were introduced by a friend. We set up a skype call as she was on set at the time and about to start shooting, so we couldn’t initially meet face to face. I had read the script and loved it so we spoke about story arc and character and what she wanted the music to try and achieve. I went away and wrote a 15-minute suite of ideas based on our call and the script. Angela told me she listened to this on set everyday and the main “Marston” theme came from this. Once filming had finished Angela visited my studio often and I would write with her in the room so I could try and get things just how she wanted them and understand from her the nuances of the and scenes. She has a real energy and it was a great way to work. I was also able to try things out with instant approval, or not! These sessions together also bore the idea of spanking and bondage sounds for percussion.
How did you want to convey the sense of erotic discovery in Marston’s polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth and Olive, as well as how “forbidden” it was?
We didn’t want the music to accent the taboo of their relationship. Instead, Angela wanted the music to play to the heart of the film: A passionate, defiant, sometimes even naïve, love story.
How did you want to play both the gradual bonding, and character differences of Elizabeth and Olive?
Throughout the film, we really focus on the dynamic between Elizabeth and Olive. Initially the music highlights the tension between them, but as the film develops we realize that, unlike Professor Marston, Olive is able to make Elizabeth more of a submissive, even though she perceives herself as being in control. It was important for the music to guide us through the development of their relationship.
Your score has an interesting, almost metronome-sense of percussion. How do you think it embodies Marston, let alone his invention of the lie detector?
As a psychologist, Marston is naturally inquisitive and a thinker. The “metronome-sense of percussion” felt right to capture this mood. There are many moments in the film when he is thinking what he might do next or how something will play out.
What’s the challenge of having a protagonist, who’s a psychologist, yet has some particularly unorthodox personal approaches to sex and bondage, ones that people try to declare him a deviant with?
The challenge is treading the fine line where music captures Marston’s beliefs without superimposing an idea of what is right, wrong, taboo or normal.
There’s a lush sense of classical, thematic elegance to “Marston” that recalls the period. How do you want to capture that sense of a “period” score as such, while making it contemporarily vibrant?
It’s always a challenge with period dramas because, as you say, there needs to be something that gives it a fresh voice. In this case, I kept the orchestration fairly traditional but peppered in some unorthodox sounds, percussion-wise, to try and add a fresh approach. Some of the more percussive cues are actually recorded with sounds of spanking and bondage, with things like belts and whips.
There’s also a real charm, and non-judgmental attitude to the Marstons, let alone one that has a sense of fun. How did you want to play that “magical” approach?
I tried to have fun with the music and instrumentation. That was key to keeping the score light throughout the first half of the film, and then to juxtapose that with what happens later into the film.
Which character were you most drawn to?
Elizabeth. She seemed to go on this journey of being in control of everything and then ultimately giving that up for Olive.
There’s the cool, if anachronistic use of the Nina Simone “Feeling Good” when Marston, Olive and Ethel finally realize their passion. What do you think that unexpected song adds to the film, and how did you want your score to come in and out of it?
I think it plays a big role in the pacing of the film. As far as the score, we wanted to fade in and out of it using long reverb tails, almost to imply a shift into a dreamlike haze that lingers.
How did you want to score the sequence where Olive becomes the real-life embodiment of Wonder Woman?
It’s the final phase of her “transformation” both emotionally and physical. Even though she knows that Elizabeth doesn’t approve of her interest in “rope tie,” she gets in costume. I wanted the music to guide us through the transformation, some hesitation at first, a bit of Elizabeth’s initial reaction, and finally a downplayed grand reveal of Olive dressed as Wonder Woman. There was very little foley in this scene and after we get the grand reveal and having built to this moment I decided to go small. This felt right, as even though Olive is an amazing spectacle in her outfit, she is also very self-conscious about it at this stage.
Do you think it’s particularly hard for a male composer to capture the emotional idea of feminism, much in the way that Marstron drew on Elizabeth and Olive to empower Wonder Woman?
I think it’s a question of time, an open mind, and a deep desire to empathize with the characters on the screen. It is difficult, but as a composer part of my job is to try and develop a sensibility so that I can understand the characters I’m writing for. I was also lucky enough to have Angela to help guide me.
There’s also some fun big band music from the era in your score. Was it particularly fun putting jazz into a bit of the score?
Whenever there is an opportunity to write a cue that contradicts the rest of the score it’s always great fun. One of the things I studied was jazz, so I really enjoyed doing those cues.
How did you think the score changes as the Marstons are seriously buffeted by the morals of their neighbors, and society at large?
There is a very clear moment when their bubble is burst. It all spirals downhill from there and it was important for the music to drive home this abrupt shift. All of a sudden we go from an almost dreamlike state to “reality”. From this point onwards, the score drops all of the “plucky” and “playful” instruments and I introduce darker harmonies to add weight and density to the energy of the film, that was key to scenes like the one where Olive leaves.
On that note, given how emotional your score becomes, what do you think that “Marston” have to say about true love and all of its possibilities?
That we’re all deserving of it, and happiness. Who cares what people think?
Tell us about your upcoming score for “Charming.”
“Charming” comes out through Sony in the New Year. It is an animation fairytale score, so it’s very different to “Marston.” I was lucky to have Harry Gregson-Williams as the score producer. The score wasn’t a million miles from “Shrek” sonically (as both films have the same producer) so Harry’s input was valuable. I scored at Air Studios in England over a few days with a big orchestra and choir and just had a lot of fun doing it.
Given that “Professor Martson” is the movie that truly introduces you to Hollywood, what do you think they’ll take away from your music and your abilities?
I hope they enjoy the film and get a sense of how much I enjoyed scoring it, especially with how source music and non-score tracks weave into the fabric of the film to guide us through the decades and time period.
How do you think that “Wonder Woman” fans drawn to this film will react to “Professor Marston?”
I’m hoping that after the success of “Wonder Woman” that people are eager to dive into an origin story like no other.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman” opens on October 13th, with Tom Howe’s score available October 20th from Sony Classical Music HERE
Visit Tom Howe’s website HERE