Composer John Powell Talks HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 & His New Oratorio
In June 2014, moviegoers traveled to the village of Berk once again in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. The film’s composer, John Powell, recently won Best Score – Animated Film for the movie at 5th Annual Hollywood Music in Media Awards.
Powell has scored films including Antz, Chicken Run, Shrek, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and X-Men: The Last Stand and has frequently collaborated with directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, on films including the BOURNE trilogy, UNITED 93 and GREEN ZONE.
His infectious score for HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Powell has also lent his voice to the score of DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX, and ICE AGE 4: CONTINENTAL DRIFT. Most recently, audiences heard his music on the scores to RIO 2, directed by Carlos Saldanha, as well as the DRAGON 2 sequel.
With the latest adventures of Hiccup and Toothless released on DVD in November, we caught up with the composer to discuss his music on DRAGON, his break from film scoring and his oratorio called “The Prussian Requiem” to commemorate World War I, premiering in London in 2016.
WAMG: For those who follow what’s going on in the world of movies and film composers, you’ve been in the news a lot lately. You recently won Best Score – Animated Film for How To Train Your Dragon 2 at 5th Annual Hollywood Music in Media Awards. The sequel came out on DVD in November. You went to the Governors Awards ceremony.
John Powell: I seem to have been at everything recently, I must admit. Our producer, Bonnie Arnold, she’s been taking me to all these things. We went to the Britannia Awards – I think she just took me because I’m British – then the Governors Awards.
We went to the Hollywood Film Awards where we won Best Animation, which was great.
WAMG: What was it like to be there, because watching from home, it looked hilarious.
JP: It was great fun. I sat behind Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch and Harvey Weinstein. It was kind of like hanging out inside your TV, it was very odd.
WAMG: It was really funny when Jennifer Lopez got up on stage and called it “How To Drain Your Dragon.”
JP: We’ve called it all sorts of names, much worse than that. (laughs) Yeah, that was cool.
WAMG: DRAGON 2 is another fantastic score. You’ve really outdone yourself with the music and it’s a really sophisticated kind of soundtrack. Were you surprised initially on how well the first movie was received?
JP: Yes. I said this at the time – you try your best on every movie – whether it’s a good movie or a bad movie. I absolutely give it my all. And that one I absolutely gave my all to. The interesting thing, I worked for so long with Jeffrey Katzenberg, but I’d always been in collaboration with other composers – Hans (Zimmer) and Harry (Gregson-Williams) – and strangely enough this was the first one I had done on my own. So it was a slightly different environment I found myself in. I probably felt that I had to show Jeffrey that I can do it on my own, in case he thinks I can’t.
He’s never even suggested he didn’t have complete faith in me, but because I had always been there with somebody else, it would always be kind of a game we’d play about who can re-write a cue better than each other – whether it’s Hans/me or Harry/me – we’d constantly battle over these cues together with Jeffrey and really try and get something good.
On the first DRAGON, I thought I’ve got to make sure I get every cue right and the tunes as well. Often when you’re with Hans, and you’re working on tunes – he’s very good at tunes, he sorts out tunes easy – if you’ve got a problem with a tune or Jeffrey doesn’t like a tune, you just throw it to him. With HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, I had to get the tunes just right and it was a struggle. Often I spent quite a lot of time finalizing and getting the balance of the tunes as I wrote the cues. But with DRAGONS 2, obviously it was really a question of we had all the tunes from the original movie and Jeffrey liked those, but my director rather smartly had denied everybody the first movie’s soundtrack temped into this film – he just wouldn’t do it, he refused to do it.
There was lots of BATMAN BEGINS and all sorts of things (laughs). Until very near the end, there was no music from DRAGON 1. That made it harder for them as filmmakers and would have made their lives easier to have that initial relief that the score was going to work the same way. Until I really started writing it, they couldn’t relax and it gave me a chance to write a whole load of new material and a new way of working. I think it gave us a chance to mature the score as the film matured, as you say, make it a little more sophisticated, while hanging onto the same “heart” that it comes from.
WAMG: There are many new emotional elements to the story and score. You have the mother-son story and your lovely track “Flying With Mother“. How’d that track in particular come about.
JP: They had lots of material, nothing from the first film except a little bit in the front and they had a song by Jonsi written for that moment that you’re talking about and it was light for quite a long time until near the end. There was something about the structure of the film and having a song at that point, everybody kind of tuned out because it was a song, I suppose it may be felt a little bit less like you were you’re inside the scene.
Right at the last moment, I had to score that moment as well. I hadn’t expected that and it’s a tune I call “Lost and Found”. It starts when you see Valka being taken away – where Hiccup loses his mother as a baby. That tune starts there and it runs throughout the movie. I was really trying to make sure it worked when Hiccup and Toothless get back together after his hypnotic state with Drago.
Then I have to make this joyful moment with is mother and that was a real puzzle as I hadn’t expecting it to be joyful. It had been desgined to be honorable and heroic and tragic at some points. I never thought of it as being upbeat, so it took me awhile to get that tune to work there. I was pleased with it myself.
WAMG: Who said, “we need to get together with Jonsi for the end title song, Where No One Goes?”
JP: Jonsi is a very good friend of Dean’s (DeBlois), our director, and they’ve known each other for years now. Dean is a huge fan of the band Sigur Rós. When it came to the first movie and Jonsi gave us this song off his new album, “Stick and Stones,” I just liked it because it was so different. Not what you expect in an end title, because they can be awfully kind of sickly and sloshy. I was very pleased we went that direction.
When it came to this film, Dean said to me, “Would you like to work with Jonsi on some things for the movie?” Of course I said yes because I’ve always liked Sigur Rós and their music. So we got to write the song that the mother and father sing together and we got to work on the end song which is basically a remix of some of the material from the first movie for the Hiccup and Toothless flying tune. I gave Jonsi a load of new versions of that and he wrote a song around it. It feels like the DNA of the movie and Jonsi’s style for the end titles of DRAGON 1. We did a fully finished version of that for the end titles as well where we rolled into that through that last section as they’re wrapping up the movie.
WAMG: The drums really tie it all together.
JP: Yes, very much. The drummer is from Finland that Jonsi loves and lets him go wild. There’s all this crazy drumming going on. I just threw in some of the string licks and some of the melodies from the flying stuff. It sits well under dialogue that way as you hit the end title and we can go into the song proper as Jonsi comes in singing.
WAMG: The choral parts streamed throughout gives it this operatic feel.
JP: Right! I’ve always loved working with voices. Voices give you this instant humanity. You can write them nondescript and they’ll blend into the background like an orchestral color. But if you bring them forward, you can use them a little more aggressively within the orchestration style.
One of the ways to do that is to put words with it. There’s a few places where they are singing words. You were talking about the mother and child reunion as it were in the middle of the movie that has some words in Gaelic which is a Scottish language. I found some poems from the 17th century and I used some lines from those. That whole section is sung in Gaelic and allows the voices to use a little more rhythm once they’ve got words to hang onto.
It’s not unconnected that I’m working on an oratorio, so I probably wrote quite heavily for the choir as an experiment.
WAMG: If I can go back to one of your earlier works, CHICKEN RUN. The film and score are still lively and funny. How has writing for animation films changed for you over the years?
JP: I was brought up watching all sorts of animation – Disney, Warner Bros., Chuck Jones – Tom & Jerry. Then I became a teenager and I really loved “Ren & Stimpy” and “The Animaniacs”. My favorite is “Freakazoid!”. I’ve never been into Anime. I must admit that’s the only animation style I’ve not really liked – I don’t know why. Except for Miyazaki, he transcends the style. All this other animation that I was brought up on, it went in without me thinking about it. I get to Hollywood and I’m looking around for gigs and Hans introduces me to Jeffrey and we start working on PRINCE OF EGYPT. I just fell into animation and it happens that I really enjoy it! I love the artwork, I love the styles of animation that DreamWorks has done, that Blue Sky has done. I’m a huge fan of Pixar.
There are such great animators around at the moment – it’s a real Golden Age. I’ve really loved working with all these people. I’ve loved the way they tell stories. In a way, I love them more than live action because often it’s not so obsessed with a warrior and fighting and violence, I mean I’ve done my fair share of that. I’d like to see if I can bring something into the world that’s more about beauty or joy.
WAMG: One of your other scores is DRUMLINE. The drums seems to be prevalent in many of your films. Do you tend to gravitate to a heavy percussive sound in general?
JP: I’m not sure I do it deliberately. With everyone’s style, if you look at how people sound – why is it I sound the way I sound, why does Hans sound the way he sounds, why does John Williams sound the way he does? Over our lives, you experience lots of different types of music and it’s during those moments – and it doesn’t matter if you’re 3 or 30 – you’re struck by some special piece of music or one sound in a piece of music that it becomes what I call a fetish and you just love it so much. The trumpet solo from AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, from the sexy kind of dance in that. That trumpet sound to me is perfection. It’s a moment when one trumpet is playing a tune, admittedly by Gershwin, a genius, but the playing of it as well expresses every longing any human being has ever felt. It was the deepest and most earthly lustful sound I’d ever heard.
For my whole life, if I have a trumpet line, I’m forever obsessing about how close to that sound I can get. You don’t do it in the front of your brain, you do it in the back of your brain. In the ten thousand moments in my life, up until now that I’ve loved obsessively just as a listener and they’re all in there and they’re all trying to get out all the time. That’s what’s constantly within the sound of anything I’m trying to do.
As far as percussion, when I was at music college, I remember being introduced to the room where they had record players and a collection of World Music and I’d never heard any World Music before. I’m in there listening to the drummers of Burundi and lots and lots of West African drumming, and Tibetan Music and all of it was eye opening. I was in college studying music composition and Brahms and Beethoven, but to have this access to all this World Music, which at the time was hard to find and I didn’t have the money to have big record collection, was remarkable. What I had amassed up to that point was only Classical records and suddenly here was a thousand records that I would have never bought on my own and I’m sifting through and l listening to these amazing things.
That particular fetish started then. (laughs) The strange thing, when it came to DRUMLINE, I was offered it because the director liked something I’d already done. For me being British, and it was quite a while ago when I did it, a marching band was not something that you would ever think of as the pinnacle of musical achievement. The marching band is something you would try to avoid. I didn’t realize there is this incredible tradition, so the director and Fox said, “No, no, we’re going to send you a DVD” and it was all these Southern bands. I couldn’t believe it, they were funky as hell! This was not my expectation and I didn’t know any of this world at all.
Getting this DVD and hearing this stuff, I was completely surprised. I said yes immediately. I met with the director (Marc Lawrence) and we started work on it. It opened my eyes to another source of really interesting drumming styles and percussion styles that I’d never have gotten to otherwise. That was a really lucky moment and that style has definitely been filtering into my scoring every year since. It was a seminal moment for me as far as percussion goes. Any appearance of my disapproval of that style of music was completely blown apart once I saw this.
One of the things I had to do a lot of was matching the percussion players. Every time you’re seeing people playing the big bass drum, they sound great if you’ve got fifty of them playing out on the field – you can’t get that bottom end from them. Every time you see it and it sounds nice and rich and warm, that’s me with a 808 drum kit. We went back in to make sure it really kicked and there are all sorts of fun tricks we had to do to make sure it sounded really good. There’s a little bit of the Earth, Wind and Fire horns going on whenever you hear the hero band and they stayed as funky as the band in the film – they just added a little tuning perfection that allowed us to push it up a little more.
A lot of the drum battles, between the drummers, were rerecorded with a very famous drummer who was the only one who could watch them and listen to them and then recreate what they were doing so we could get the sound better sometimes. There were little tricks but the drumming you see is as it was. We kind of gave it that Hollywood thing.
WAMG: Sounds like you really enjoy going between the two genres.
JP: I seem to have gotten out of live-action recently. Partly because I was getting bored with the music I was being asked to write for. They tended to be trying to get the music to be less and less. One film I was doing where I’m asked to come up with a three note tune and the director asked me if I really needed all three. At that point, I wondered if I really want to do this.
Again, you tend to get stuck into action films, they tend to be violent, they were getting pernicious. I didn’t feel as if I was doing myself or the world any good. I found I was enjoying writing for all these animation films. It’s very hard work and more notes, but you get to write more tuneful music, more joyful music.
WAMG: Will you do DRAGON 3 before your oratorio that you’re working on?
JP: Well yes. The idea is that 2017 now is DRAGON 3 and I’ll definitely do that one. Between now and then, I’ve got the oratorio in London in the spring of 2016. We’ll record it at the end of next summer.
WAMG: So you’re still working on it.
JP: Yes. Absolutely.
WAMG: Will you score KUNG FU PANDA 3?
JP: I don’t know about that one. I doubt that very much. There are plenty of people who can do that.
WAMG: IMDB has you listed on ZOOTOPIA.
JP: Ah no. But if it’s a sequel to ZOOLANDER, I’ll definitely do that! (Laughs)
WAMG: Your oratorio – if you had to compare it to classical, traditional composers, will it sound like Handel or Bach?
JP: That’s a very good question. Does it sound like me in Hollywood or does it sound like me before? Before I came to Hollywood, I was a little bit more radical sounding so I’m not really sure yet. One of the things that I’m fascinated by at the moment is polyphony, so I’m studying more polyphony and I think I’m trying to make it sound more polyphonic than one would expect these days. I’m trying to see if I can do something interesting with that idea now – maybe refresh it. It hasn’t been used an awful lot.
The piece itself is a story driven by a man who took a moment in history and stood between the chance of peace and the chance of war. His own pride made us go to World War I and basically destroyed the 20th century. Everything bad that is still happening, you can trace to this one moment in history at the end of July in 1914. The Kaiser had the option to negotiate with France and/or Russia so that he wasn’t fighting on all fronts. If he had only fought on one front, the whole first war may have been very different. Maybe it wouldn’t have become a world war with so many Allies being brought in. It may have become a war but not a war that setup the whole of the 20th century’s downfall in a way. It may have not led to the second world war, the rise of Hitler, the rise of Communism, it goes on and on and on. There’s a whole political view I have of the 20th century.
It’s what we’re still dealing with based on the futility of this moment of a man with hubris and pride. He worked on the Schlieffen plan for ten years and he came from a hugely famous Prussian military family, he had a lot to live up to and there was no way he was going to let them negotiate peace at that moment before the war started. He wanted his place in history and he wasn’t going let any of it stop him. At that moment when all the negotiations could happen, he was persuaded that it was never going to work.
The final name of the oratorio is called “The Prussian Requiem” because Prussia, where he came from and was part of Germany, was basically wiped off the map at the end of the first world war. It had such a political hold over Germany the Allies decided this is where all the problems were coming from, so they got rid of it as a place and it became just Germany. Prussia was a country until 1918, so we call it “The Prussian Requiem”. It’s a requiem for the 20th century, for the people that died and I’ve wanted to write about it for a long time.
The main thing is that I wanted to make sure I had the time to make it right and that we had the right choir and the right orchestra playing it, which is the Philharmonia Orchestra – one of the most exquisite in the world. We’re doing it at the Royal Festival Hall as part of their season and I’m very pleased when it’s going to happen. We’re recording it next year.
I’m also hoping with the orchestra to try and record an album of suites of film music. I’m going to reinterpret some of the music I’ve done from films – some quite radically. There are moments in some of the pieces that are like suites and you just want to end them differently to finish the musical idea, tie them all up as well as add a few fun things that people haven’t heard before. Probably eight movies, eight suites that we can perform live with orchestras around the world and make an album of it. It will come out at Christmas next year.
The How to Train Your Dragon 2 soundtrack is available on Relativity Records.