Film: Celluloid symphonies

James Horner has become the Mozart of movies, providing the scores for films from `Braveheart' to his latest, `Titanic'. Edward Seckerson charts the career of Hollywood's top scorer.

On TV monitors throughout Air Studios in Hampstead, North London, Zorro rides again. Silently. You half expect someone - maybe even the composer, James Horner - to buckle his swash and strike up some makeshift accompaniment on a studio upright. For old times' sake. But this is the look and sound of Hollywood 1997 where super-heroes ride in Super-Panavision or not at all, where Dolby Stereo and THX sound systems carry them and us to ever higher thresholds of pain.

So James Horner is well accustomed to thinking big, bigger, biggest. Sure, he can be nostalgic, reflective, intimate (Field of Dreams), he can be gritty (48 Hours), humorous (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), winsome (An American Tail), elusive (The Name of the Rose). But give him a big canvas and big characters, spirit him to 13th-century Scotland (Braveheart), the American Civil War (Glory), Desert Storm (Courage Under Fire) or outer space (Apollo 13 and Aliens), and he'll shake and stir us with the best of them.

Zorro gets the works, the full symphonic monty replete with mariachi trumpetings and the primitive strains of pining panpipes and wailing shakuhachi. Zorro rides to Horner's tune. The stunts in this key action sequence are as balletic as they are preposterous and just as precisely choreographed. So, too, the music: every look, every reflex, every well-tempered glint of steel, must be suspensefully fine-tuned to the last semi-quaver.

The orchestra members are duly headphoned and ready to roll. Horner, composer and conductor, has marked up the film to his own specifications. It's up to him to hit the spot for us. After each take, he and the director of the picture (Englishman Martin Campbell) make minor adjustments - a change of colour here, emphasis there: "When he shoots the fuse, that's where I really want urgent and threatening..." Horner is happy to oblige, trimming cues, tweaking the scoring, improvising those tiny changes which can make all the difference.

James Horner is that rare breed: a movie composer by vocation rather than by default. Meaning that being a movie composer was neither second best nor a means to an end for him; that writing screen gems rather than symphonies does not bring on feelings of inadequacy or unfulfilment, that he is not and never has been tormented by the notion that he "sold out" or, worse still, squandered his expensive training. Horner was born in Los Angeles but studied here at the Royal Academy. He always wanted to compose, but after an early and quite unexpected invitation from the American Film Institute to score a short film called The Drought, he wanted to compose for film - and only for film.

After two decades of doing so (he is still only 43), Horner is more convinced than ever that, far from merely supporting the drama, he can transform it, that this magical fusion of two very distinct art-forms is as creative in its way as anything he might fashion for the concert hall. Being part of a cinema audience, feeling the rush, the impact, the emotional pull that the right music in the right context always exerts, never ceases to amaze him. At best, he says, it's not manipulative, it's tactile in a way that really good dance music is tactile.

But there is a downside. What of the Hollywood philistines, who've always bought music by the yard and care only that it fits? Horner acknowledges their existence, of course, but asks if writing for film is so very different in that respect from a Mozart or a Haydn writing to order for the personal gratification of the rich? "There are always going to be those with their own agenda who think they own you and are entitled to insist that there are `too many notes'. For sure, it's not always easy to retain your integrity within the Hollywood `system'. There are those who know little and care less about creativity. To them, each movie, each score, is a property, a possession - and it's theirs alone. You know, you can even be accused of breaching your own copyright in Hollywood. It's not unheard of for a composer to be sued by a film company for having come up with the same solution to a problem in one film that they solved a year earlier in another!"

Which is why Horner chooses his films and his collaborators very carefully. Plenty of variety with people he has come to trust, people for whom a first-class film score amounts to immeasurably more than just so much aural grouting.

During his apprenticeship with the American Film Institute and later through his work on low-budget horror flicks with Roger Corman's New World Pictures, he became acquainted with a number of upcoming talents, among them Ron (Apollo 13) Howard and a young cameraman named James Cameron with whom he has just survived the most expensive movie ever made.

It was once suggested that it might be cheaper to lower the Atlantic than to raise the Titanic. You can almost hear the Hollywood moguls buying that one. But first they had to sink her. Again.

Unusually for Horner, he accepted Titanic, script and footage unseen. He knew James Cameron could pull off the spectacle, but what really excited him was going into the project knowing full well what a challenge the emotional core of the film would present for Cameron. And for himself. He resolved at an early stage to avoid at all costs the symphonic-period- piece-BBC-costume-drama kind of score. As ever, he began with a mood, a sound, a colour.

"If you can nail the colour - be it a synthesiser, a solo instrument, a voice, a chorus, or a symphony orchestra with flamenco - then you've solved 90 per cent of what the melody is going to do. Just three notes of that colour will say emotionally what you want it to say, and at this stage it doesn't matter what the notes are. It's about closing your eyes - imagining you're in a darkened movie theatre - and hearing what you feel..."

So Horner closed his eyes and heard the solitary sound of Uillean pipes. He heard a Celtic tune, a modal tune, he heard a lone female voice, and he heard the eerie wash of synthesiser.

But James Cameron had seen the "ghost ship" at the opening of his film in terms of iron and steel, rivets and armour plating. He wanted an ersatz "Mars" from The Planets. He wanted hard-edged, he wanted big. He didn't want to signal tragedy or loss so early in the film. Horner disagreed but eventually conceded.

Two days later, Cameron calls Horner over to his home. He has darkened up the picture: the ship is now barely visible gliding through the night. He has overlaid sepia images of people smiling and waving, original photographs of the Titanic leaving Southampton. He has mixed in different sound effects. And - to heart-stopping effect - he has reverted to Horner's original music cue: the Uillean pipes, the Celtic tune, the female voice. Cameron had simply needed time to recognise, to tap into Horner's musical soundscape for the movie. It wasn't overtly sad, this Celtic tune, but it was elegiac, and it was timeless, and the subtle use of synthesiser along with aquatic, light-catching tuned percussion would give the whole score an "imagined", recollective quality, right through to the wailing of the many voices (a startling mix of the electronic and the acoustic) "like a weird wind" as the stern of the great ship finally slips beneath the waves.

Titanic, says Horner, was a prime example of what the implicit trust between a director and his composer can achieve. In this instance, the composer took the initiative.

As you read this, Horner is probably at his desk deeply immersed in another of the 15-hour-day, three- to five-week schedules that he's come to thrive on. Titanic has gone down, Zorro has ridden once again, but, to borrow the title of my favourite Horner score, it's a field of dreams out there in Hollywood and, if you are a movie composer, you live in hope that each one will take you somewhere different. It had better - that's if you want to keep the lawyers off your back.

`Titanic' is released today.

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