Rupert Gregson-Williams was born in 1966 in England and has been composing music for TV and Film since 1998 with over 36 films to date.
His incredible composition on Hotel Rwanda in 2004 earned him the European Film Composer award and his work on the more recent Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, earned him several nominations as well.
The bulk of his work to date has been done with Adam Sandler’s company, Happy Madison Productions (10 and counting), scoring familiar names such as Grown Ups 1 & 2, That’s My Boy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Most recently he composed the score for the incredible new release Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot. We recently spoke with Rupert about the current state of film composition, switching from comedy to drama and of course his amazing work on Wonder Woman.
Hello Rupert, thanks so much for doing this.
No problem Steve, my pleasure.
First of all, I just want to say really, really nice job with Wonder Woman. I thought it was big when it needed to big and subtle when it needed to be subtle. I’ve been listening to it quite a bit and feeling the emotion resurface, I’m a big fan of the film and I think your score has a lot to do with it. So congratulations, real nice job.
Thank you, thank you very much.
Start off with a technical question. As far as the syncing, how many frames late did you sync it? It seems the syncing was late to me. Not late as a negative, just off set with the timing. Is that right?
You mean I didn’t hit everything on the nose?
I mean with intent. Sometimes with scores they sync them early or late 3 or 4 frames. I’m wondering if that was the case with this score.
Patty and I sort of made the decision on this one, it wasn’t a conscious decision to frame anything late per say, certainly not to pre-empt anything. We kind of felt that actually applied to a lot of the score not to just certain cuts but actually the whole story where there was a lot of times it was needed. The more time we wait for Diana to become Wonder Woman we found that it was better story wise and that sort of then just applied to the way we hit things and dealt with it. So you’re right it slightly after the fact but not quite deliberately, we didn’t set out to do that, it just felt natural.
Perfect, I think it worked, too many times scores sync early and I agree it allows for growth and natural storytelling if it comes in a hair late. At what point did you enter production for Wonder Woman? Was it pre, during or post principal photography and do you have a preference?
I came in as Patty was finishing shooting, she was just getting towards the end, and she only had an early, not final cut. The earlier the better for me and if I can get a script while the story is in development then obviously I can be a part of that process. It’s a really enjoyable part of the whole business and filmmaking and also the relationship with the director can be established, especially if it’s with a new director you can establish story lines and shapes early on. When you get hired sometimes later on you’re playing catch-up and sometime you have to second guess what the director means because you haven’t got a long enough relationship.
In this case, Patty was so focused and she is such a focused and smart lady. She knew what she wanted from the film, she knows what colors and even down to what instruments she does and she doesn’t like so we had those conversations early on in our relationship. It didn’t matter that much that I didn’t come on that early because Patty is very good at communicating what she does and doesn’t like and what she wanted to achieve from the story.
It’s interesting that you say that about Patty, about liking certain instruments, because it sounded like to me that you really utilized all your sections…
I did actually, you’re right; she’s got a couple of things she wanted me to avoid but nothing spectacular, just we decided on a few colors that we wouldn’t use. We wouldn’t be pushing the ethnicity of Themyscira desperately because…
Just in the one track, the opening track hints at it a bit, it has a bit of an Amazonian feel to it…
It does, but I don’t push it too much anymore than I do the whole of the film. I would say there are a few different colors that come out in the score but we decided not to push it too much. You can see that it’s a wonderful place and a fanciful land; you don’t need to be told that.
No, you’re right. It sort of coincides with the narrative of the film as she leaves Theymscira behind it makes sense to leave that piece of the score behind as well.
There’s a definite theme throughout, there’s familiar notes and beats for sure but there isn’t a Leitmotif thing happening where there isn’t a particular bit written for each character that we hear a lot of in films these days. Was that intentional? There are connective tissues for sure but it seems each track seems to hold up individually and stand on their own in a strong way.
Well, there are a couple of themes that I did come back to. Diana’s heroic motif, which is a sort of ascending line and of course we have a couple of villains and they had a theme. Which was sort of represented by, there were two very bad people so I wrote two slithering lines that sort of meet in the middle. It wasn’t a conscious effort to do that but there were quite a lot of story points to cover and I had her heroic theme but I also had Hans (Zimmer) and Junkie XL (Tom Holkenberg) theme to use when she really gets to being Wonder Woman.
Right, glad you mentioned that. It’s absurd to think about how the “No Man’s Land” scene almost didn’t make it into the film; Patty had to fight to get it made. I feel every film has a real sweet spot, when every element of the film comes to together to achieve a high point if you will. This was that sequence for me. Even the part immediately after the “No Man’s Land” sequence when she gets into the village and the music switches to a more predatory theme when combined with the Zimmer/Junkie bits. That sequence to me hit a stride and a flow not often seen in movies. Did you just loop in Hans and Junkie’s bits or did you re-record those parts?
I re-recorded it, I used Tina (Guo), I used the same Cellist that’s probably why it sounds the same. I used Tina Guo on the electric cello and I probably used some of the same drummers just because Hans and I love the same percussionists. And probably recorded in the same place so it going got sound very similar. It sort of felt natural to use that theme. I insinuated it right from the first frame and then in various spots where Diana starts to discover her powers I placed rhythm or a little bit of electric cello just to suggest it but I don’t think it plays in concurrently until the moment you mentioned, in “No Man’s Land”.
It was skillfully used as it rang familiar but it makes total sense the way it’s used. The stuff that they (Zimmer/Junkie) wrote for her in Batman v Superman was great so it makes total sense to use it for her in that moment.
Yeah that was the moment where she feels nearly as confident as she does the whole of Batman v Superman.
Just to get away from Wonder Woman for a bit. You had great success with the Hotel Rwanda score and then you spent a lot of time with the Happy Madison Production team and did a lot for them and then immediately come back to Hacksaw Ridge. Going from Hotel Rwanda, to I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, then back to Hacksaw Ridge requires a certain amount of adaptability. Tone wise, how you able to go from very serious dramas, to light hearted comedies then back to very serious subject matter again?
Well, I couldn’t tell you what I feel most comfortable doing, having breadth is enjoyable and its something that keeps you wanting to wake up and be better every day. How it went was I did Hotel Rwanda and it was critically acclaimed, and the next film I did was Over the Hedge which is a Dreamworks animation film about a squirrel and a bunch of animals. That was a bit bizarre and not where I thought my career was going. Then after that I did a movie called Bee Movie which is about bees and that was really great bit of fun, I love doing animation. Working with Adam (Sandler) was and remains to be just great fun, he’s a great mate. I’d never do anything without him and I know he’d never do anything without me.
It’s lovely, the last year Tarzan, The Crown, Hacksaw Ridge and Wonder Woman all in the last year is quite a body of work and a lot of music actually. It’s great, it keeps the brain cells going for sure and nice to have some diversity for sure.
I see you’re heading back to animation with Everest, you’re working on that right now? Where are you at with that one?
It’s a bit off but I’m actually involved in that very early with that one, I can’t really talk about too much because music is an integral part of it so I’ve already had various meetings and got involved with it right from the start. I love it actually, animation is a great genre, it gives you all sorts of freedom. Like the people who are drawing, it’s just your imagination is the only thing that stops you. Everything can be larger than life. And this particular one has music at its heart, so yeah, I’m really looking forward to it.
Do you think that music can add to the emotional quality of the scene and is it possible to detract from it?
I thinks it easier to detract from the emotion of a scene than it is to add to it. It’s a good question because you know there are all sorts of scenes that will only work with music because they may refer to something earlier on in the movie or something within the character if he’s not saying anything so the music is another character in the scene. Also, if you’re not careful and you’re not skillful and your pushed in a certain direction you can kill a scene quite easy so I’d say using music can kill a scene easier than not having it for sure.
Do you think there’s a problem right now with typecasting composers?
I don’t know actually. If you’d asked me that question 5 years ago me personally I might have said yes and held my hand up. You know, in my own personal experience, we all have a bit of luck in our lives, David Yates trusting me with his Tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan, that was only recently, that helped just throw off the shackle of me being typecast. And then The Crown came after that and all the others we just mentioned. There’s certainly is a danger of being the comedy man or the action man it can be very difficult to suddenly reverse that and become something else and not to be taken seriously. So yes, you can’t choose where your work comes from and you can’t see the future so.
There’s a lot of recognizability in music, we all can recognize the classic John Williams scores and the rest. But I feel like Hans Zimmer in particular and all you guys, like you said, use a lot of the same musicians and recording spaces, I definitely think you have created a new sound the last few years. Probably started with Hans, 10 or so years back now?
Hans certainly has his own sound, there are various composers out there who are lucky enough to have their own sound but probably haven’t consciously thought about it, it’s just like an aura or a smell. They don’t know where it comes from and not everybody has that.
There’s a lot of recognition right now more than ever. Hans Zimmer just played Coachella and went very well and there’s a lot of recognition for you guys right now and there’s a lot of appreciation maybe now more than ever?
I think so, I’m just looking back and when Titanic came out and everybody suddenly noticed that soundtrack.
Yes but I vividly remember at that time that people gave Celine Dion credit for writing that music and didn’t know who James Horner even was. I feel like there’s more name and brand recognition with your guys right now more than ever before and I suspect the internet and YouTube have a lot to do with that.
Yeah I think so for sure. The social media on Wonder Woman has been incredible and I’m sure that has helped people certainly hear of my name more than they may have done 10 years ago because of Twitter and Facebook and what have you. That gives people instant response to whether they like it or not and its been great on this movie I have to say.
The reaction to this movie (Wonder Woman) has been incredible and I really think it’s because all the pieces fell into place and all the people involved achieved career bests. Without mentioning names, do you think music has been skillfully or otherwise used to cover up weak directing or weak cinematography? From your unbiased position of course.
(laughs) Yes I’m sure, well you know for sure it can be but a film is a sum of all of It’s parts isn’t it. So there’s no real covering up, I mean If the story’s no good then the music is not going to cover it up completely is it.
Have you ever been involved with a director who’s considered an Auteur? Like a dictator like director who maybe had more say than you were uncomfortable with?
You know, every director has a different amount of involvement in different parts of the creative process. So some are very confident with music and know exactly what the want (Jenkins) and some really let you go and feel that you’re the reason they hired you. And that happens the more your successful, the more your known people tend to come to you for you and will let you go. To answer your question, no not really, I’m a fairly affable guy and so if I don’t think It’s harming the film I ‘ll do everything I can to please the director because they’re the boss. If obviously I thought the music was hurting the film I’d give him my honest opinion and drag my feet but I’m there to serve the film and serve the director. No, I never had that experience but as my ego grows to monumental sizes that may change (laughs).
It may now that you’re on the world stage like never before (laughs). Have you seen a final cut of Wonder Woman and what was your reaction the first time you saw it?
Yes, I saw a final cut the day it was printed and then I saw it at the premiere. It was fantastic and what was good about the premiere was than I hadn’t seen it for 4 or 5 few weeks so it was very refreshing. I really enjoyed it, quite a bit.
Do you see yourself getting back into this genre down the road? Have you had any conversations with anybody else about possible future super hero films?
I’ve had conversations yes, for sure. No, I love it, as we touched on earlier very lucky to be doing this job being in a room with a bunch of musicians and creative people and directors doing what we love. If I could do a superhero movie followed by an animation followed by a small drama, I mean how lucky to have that choice. Long may it continue.
What’s the future of music composition and recording look like to you? It still feels like there’s such a great love for traditional orchestrated recordings for soundtracks and it seems like superhero movies have a lot to do with that, who would’ve thought that. What’s the next big thing either from a technology standpoint or trend?
I don’t know the answer to that but I do think that what’s interesting about film scoring is that the type of people who do it now maybe are different from the type of people who did it when I first started out, who were mostly formally trained. What has made film scoring much more interesting over the last 20 or 30 years is that some great composers have brought a different imagination set to the table that haven’t had the parameters perhaps that others in the past have had. Not to denigrate past composers obviously those great composers of all time, like John WIlliams, but it has made it richer to have non-trained musicians enter the fray that’s all.
Certainly from a technology standpoint right? As generations enter the art they have a better understanding and comfortability with the technology and that I’m sure helps.
Yes, its vitally important to have an understanding as a composer to have that understanding of technology and keep abreast of it.
Just wanted to ask about your next film the Terminal before I let you go. Is that completed now?
It’s complete now, it’s in the bag, I have to fly somewhere to see a dub in about a month’s time.
And this is Vaughn’s (Stein) first feature as lead director?
Yes, and he’s very interesting. David Barron produced who’s a fabulous producer and a great cast with Mike Myers and Margot (Robbie).
It sounds great and I’ll look forward to it, also looking out for Everest. You’ve worked with Tim (Tim Johnson) before on…
Over the Hedge…
Yes, and your brother (Harry Gregson-Williams) as well correct?
Yes, he worked on Antz with him.
Great. Well, listen Rupert, can’t thank you enough for taking the time I know you’re very busy these days. So good luck in the future and I look forward to your next projects!
No problem, take care.
Well that’s it. He was very generous with his time and there’s more actually but I had to edit it down. His soundtracks are all great, I encourage you to check them out. Of course Wonder Woman is in theatres now so no better way to hear Rupert’s work then on the big screen!
Till next time…