British composer John Powell broke into the Hollywood scene in 1997 when he wrote the score for the blockbuster action film “Face/Off” starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Since then, Powell has gone on to write more than 50 movie compositions over the last 17 years, including “Shrek,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” and the first three film of the Jason Bourne trilogy. In 2010, Powell earned an Academy Award nomination for his work on “How to Train Your Dragon.” Last year, he returned to write the score for the critically-acclaimed follow-up, but found the process a lot different compared to previous gigs he’s taken when composing for a sequel (“How to Train Your Dragon 2” was the 10th sequel he’s worked on).
During an interview with me, Powell, 51, talked about how “Dragon 2” director Dean DeBlois wanted him to start from a clean slate with the second film and how it was helpful for him to get that creative freedom. He also spoke about why he’s decided to slow up a bit in Hollywood over the last couple of years and revealed some of the sneaky things he’s been able to get away with as a composer.
You revisited two movie franchises last year with “Rio 2” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” Is writing a score to a sequel easier because you have the original template you wrote sort of in place and have something to work from?
In the past it has been, but those two were a bit different. I only wanted to do “Rio 2” because I enjoyed working with everybody the first time. (Laughs) I’m sort of trying to avoid writing for films for a while and concentrating on writing other things for the concert space. But when [director] Carlos [Saldanha] asked me to do it again, I did it because I just loved the musicians and loved everybody involved. I’ve done a lot of sequels. Like for the [Jason] Bourne sequels, the third one (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), everyone said, “Well, we like the first two movies, so just do more of that.” In the case of “Dragon 2,” it was very different. Our very thoughtful director (Dean DeBlois) is the one that said, “Make sure you get a fresh start and have as much creative input as you would if it was a new franchise.” That saved me from the traps you can have with a sequel by not allowing anyone to campaign for any of the music from the first movie.
Is that unusual for a composer to get that kind of freedom? I would think the production would want to use a lot of the original score.
Yes. Normally, if the first movie was successful and they liked the music, you’re job for the second one is kind of done for you. I think [composer] Danny Elfman came up against the same thing in “Spider-Man 2” (2004). He wrote all this new music, but they wanted the same stuff from the first movie. In this case, my director basically protected me from that. So, as we reintroduced ourselves to the world of “Dragon,” every idea and theme is taken from the first movie and used in about the first seven minutes. When we meet our two heroes again – Hiccup and Toothless – what we did was use some of the music for the first movie, but it’s more refreshed. After the first seven minutes or so, it’s all new material for all the new scenes that follow this new story. I would only use music from the first film after that if it felt appropriate – some of the heroic themes for each of the characters at certain moments. But, really, most of the rest of the film is new material.
You mentioned that you wanted to take a break from writing film scores. What brought you to that decision?
(Laughs) I know this sounds strange, but one of the reasons was because my son was about to become a teenager. I thought, “You know, he really hasn’t seen that much of me.” I’ve been working on three or four films a year since he was born. I’m not going to get much more time with him. So, I decided to calm down for the last couple of years. He’s a teenager, so things are going to be complicated anyway. I thought I would need all my patience with him that I might’ve used for complicated directors and producers. (Laughs) That was part of the reason. Another reason was that I thought I was going to get stale. I didn’t want to write scores that might’ve been more interesting if I had more time to think. I did have a break after “Ice Age 4,” so in that time I had a chance to go back and study and re-equate myself with why I enjoy music. I definitely think “Dragon 2” was the beneficiary of that. There is stuff in “Dragon 2” that I probably wouldn’t have thought of if I didn’t have a chance to sort of re-ponder.
Yeah, it amazes me when I see a composer who is credited with four or five films in one year. In 2008, you actually came out with six film scores (“Jumper,” “Horton Hears a Who,” “Stop-Loss,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Hancock,” and “Bolt”). How does someone manage to keep up with all that work and make sure the music for each of those films doesn’t start running into each other?
You know, it’s partly about where you are in your career. I got to a point where I had a few hits and people really wanted me, so you get the opportunity to work on better and better films. I worked on “Happy Feet” for about four years prior to those movies, but while I worked on that, I was working on all these others films. Once you get into that groove, you’ve got your mind in a certain place to be creative and excited about every project and can put a lot of energy into it. I think “Dragon 2” is film No. 52 for me, so as you get older you want a chance to sort of rest a little longer. (Laughs) I think when you’re busy you’re sort of excited that you’re working on great films with interesting people, so you don’t have any problem with the fact you’re so busy. After a while though, it starts to sort of take a toll on your body.
I didn’t realize how physically demanding it was to write a score.
(Laughs) Well, it’s not like digging a ditch. It’s not like doing manual labor or being a doctor. You have to remember, this is a lot of fun to do. A lot of times, it is very easy to do. A lot of composers won’t tell you that, but it is.
Really? What do you mean?
Well, a lot of times they give you a temp score and they just want it to sound like the temp. That’s why so many scores in Hollywood sound so generic and derivative. You’re not allowed to be creative. One of the things I spent a lot of energy on was trying to sneak interesting things past everybody. I would try to think of things they hadn’t heard yet and probably didn’t want, but tried to figure out how to write it in a way that it would work for them. (Laughs) I find it exhausting to write because I don’t want to write what everybody else writes. I want every score to be different. I could probably churn [scores] out a lot easier if I was lax about it. When I’m working on a film, I’m on it nonstop for about three months and I’m thinking about it all the time. My wife has spent most of her life looking at these blank stares on my face.
So, what subliminal messages have you snuck into a score in the last 20 years that you haven’t told anyone about?
I do tend to throw fun stuff in when there is a choir singing. Ahs and oohs are fine, but sometimes if there is something that will work rhythmically and you want to put words to it, it gives it more bite. So, I like to play around a lot with Latin phrases. In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” there is a lot of Latin. There is some stuff in there about [director] Brett Ratner. So, I would have the choir sing something about how the director is sexy and the most gorgeous man in Hollywood.
Wait, so all of this stuff about Ratner is in Latin?
Oh, yes. It’s all in Latin so you would never really hear it. (Laughs) The great thing about Latin is that nobody really speaks it. Even if it’s in English and is sung by a choir, it’s hard to hear.
Anything sneaky in “Dragon 2?”
In “Dragon 2,” there is some stuff in Gaelic. My family comes from the north of Scotland, so my grandmother spoke Gaelic. When I was young, she would sing something called “mouth music” (puirt á beul), which are these sort of working songs. So, I found 17th century poems and had them translated into Gaelic. That’s what you hear, for instance, when Hiccup and his mother are flying around.
Because your original score for “How to Train Your Dragon” was so well received and earned you an Oscar nomination, did you feel pressure to recreate that success with this one?
It wasn’t so much me thinking, “Oh, I got an Oscar nomination for the first one, so I have to get another one.” It was really about [director] Dean. I really didn’t want to let Dean down. He is a wonderful man. Also, I had been working with [producer] Jeffrey Katzenberg for a long time – since DreamWorks was first formed. So, they really liked the first score. There is an audience that really liked the first score, too. So, the first thing you think is, “Well, I better not fuck this up.” (Laughs) Honestly, if they had turned back to me at the last minute and said, “You know, let’s just go back to the first score,” I would’ve done it if they really felt it would’ve supported the film in the best way. I just wanted to write new material and make it as successful for the movie as it possibly could be and for a listening audience as well.