Composer Steven Price made a major impression in Hollywood earlier this year when he won the Academy Award for Best Score for only the third feature film of his career in “Gravity.” The film, which was directed by eventual Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón, stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as two astronauts who go adrift in space after their shuttle is destroyed. In Price’s next project, he writes the score for the WWII film “Fury.” Directed by David Ayer, the film follows a team of U.S. soldiers on a mission inside the confines of a Sherman tank behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany.
During our interview, Price and I talked about how a film like “Fury” was different from “Gravity” and what the process was for him to write a score set in what he calls a “hellish atmosphere.” We also talked about his Oscar win, what some of his favorite and least favorite sounds are, and why he recently pulled out of writing the score for the upcoming Marvel film “Ant-Man.”
Gravity was such a quiet film, which really brought your score to the forefront of everything taking place on screen. How different is something like “Fury” since we’re talking about a much louder war movie?
Right, it’s been a fascinating process. The thing with “Fury” is that it is a WWII film, but it has a different take on it. It’s a very visceral experience as a film. [Director] David Ayer has really gone for this authentic take on a war film. There are moments of great aggression and battles and a lot of action. But there is also a lot of emotion in the film. You’re really dealing with a family. You learn a lot about the [soldiers] and their relationships. So, there is a lot of action in the film, but there are also a lot of emotional and personal and human moments within the chaos. It’s been a very satisfying film to work on.
Do the additional sounds in a war film like this, for example explosions, help or hinder your score? How do you confront or even utilize those types of sounds?
I’ve been working on this film for a lot of months. The music and the sound design has evolved. We all worked together. It’s a sort of give and take. There are moments when you hear a lot of this wonderful sound design and then there are moments when the music can drive through those sequences on its own. The idea was that this is the first war where this kind of machinery had been used. The music itself moves forward in this sort of machine-like rhythm. It works along with the sound design while the orchestra carries more of the emotional side of things and connects with the human beings within the machines.
Were there any old tank movies you went back to revisit for research like Humphrey Bogart’s 1943 film “Sahara” or maybe even a more recent film like the 2009 Israeli film “Lebanon,” which I thought was amazing?
When I first got the call for this film, my first instinct was to go back and watch all these great war films and do some research, but as soon as I started reading what David was planning and talking to him, it became clear that he wanted to do this film in an honest and truthful kind of way. We started looking at ways we could make this film distinctive and make the music feel like it really came out of the story he wanted tell. So, I kind of purposefully kept away from other war films. I wanted to give this story a different kind of soundtrack.
I know every composer is different, so when did you actually start writing the score? Do you read a script first, or are you someone who wants to see a rough cut of the film first before you start writing?
On this one, it was about a year ago when I first read the script. Then I met David. They shot the film over here in England where I live, so I went on the set a couple of times, which is always an amazing treat because I spend most of my time in a tiny, dark room on my own trying to write music. So, I went on set and saw all this stuff being film and saw all the authenticity he was going for and heard David talking through a lot of ideas and concepts. So, I started fiddling around with ideas before I saw any sort of rough cut. But the bulk of my work started when they were in the cutting room and they would send me sequences. I started working on this back in March of this year.
A lot of times in the film industry, a director will use the same composer and build a strong professional relationship. One of my recent favorites is composer Cliff Martinez and the work he does with director Steven Soderbergh. I know you’ve worked with director Edgar Wright on a couple of occasions. Is that long-term relationship something you’d like to build with a director sometime in your career or would you rather work with different filmmakers?
I think it’s a great thing when you find a language you can both speak. It’s the greatest thing when you’re on the same page. Music is such a weird thing to talk about. When you do find people you can collaborate with and understand each others’ thought process, it can lead you to trying some exciting things. Like you said, I have worked with Edgar Wright a couple of times. It’s strange because you can get straight into experimenting on a project very early when you already know someone. There really isn’t a fear or the timid stuff that comes out at the beginning of the process. It’s always nice to start new kinds of relationships, but even when you revisit [directors], I think you can come up with new things each time and hopefully evolve what you do together.
After only four films as a composer, do you feel like you’re finding your own style? Is that something you want – for people to be able to listen to a score and know that it was written by Steven Price?
I wouldn’t mind that. I’m sure there are certain things I do or certain ways I put notes together. The greatest thing for me about the run of films I’m doing at the moment is that they’re all so different stylistically. For me, it’s been about getting rid of the template and trying new things. The first step for me with “Fury” was getting all these recordings of all these authentic WWII machines they got out of storage and exploring what kinds of noises they could make for me. This happened even before I started the thematic writing on this score. I was just trying to find sounds that fit into this hellish atmosphere the film creates.
What were some of the unique things you did to create those sounds?
We did all kinds of things. The first sound in the film is this ethereal jingling, which basically arises from the dog tags of all the soldiers. We got a bag full of those and played them like percussion. There’s a lot of that sort of work in the film. What sounds like an ethereal high note that you can’t quite put your finger on might be the sound of shell being dropped in a tank. So, there were a lot of sounds in the film that were derived by these real noises. When we were doing the orchestral parts of the film, we got loads of this artillery and weaponry and we played them like instruments. That sort of became part of the rhythm track for this film – this metal-on-metal, aggressive sound.
How do you feel composition in the film industry has changed over the last few years with more and more modern-day rock ‘n’ roll musicians like Trent Reznor, Johnny Greenwood and Cliff Martinez coming into the fray? Do you ever get inspired by anything that is maybe seen as less conventional as a composer?
I think it’s always been there, really, no matter who is doing it and what their background is. There’s always been wonderful music where people are responding really well to the film where the composer isn’t necessarily coming from a traditional background. I don’t necessarily think that is something that has just happened in the last few years. I remember listening to things like that when I was growing up like Jerry Goldsmith’s  “Planet of the Apes” score. The score sounded like it came from a different planet.
Now, I’m being facetious when I ask this next question, but when you won your Oscar earlier this year, you beat out some heavy hitters in the industry. You beat Thomas Newman who’s been nominated 12 times and never won an Oscar; Alexander Desplat who’s been nominated six times and never won; And John Williams, who has been nominated 49 times and won five Oscars, but hasn’t won since 1994 for “Schindler’s List.” When your name was called, do you think they were all thinking, “Who does this kid think he is?”
(Laughs) I have no idea. I think that week spending time with all of them was amazing. Those people are my heroes. They were very welcoming and very kind to me through the entire process. The biggest moment for me is when they opened the envelope and I was sitting next to John Williams and he shook my hand when they called my name. That was one of the things I remember most.
What did you talk to John Williams about since you were sitting next to him for the entire ceremony?
Most of the time we were just trying to work out when our category was going to be. We were trying to time our nerves to it. It was a very surreal thing for me. I never dreamed I would be in that situation. I was an amazing experience.
What are your favorite and least favorite sounds to hear in everyday life? What sounds are smooth and calming and which ones grate on your nerves?
I’m lucky in terms of the ones I enjoy. I’ve got young kids. They are four and six years old. They’re at that lovely stage where instead of waking me up in the morning, they play together. There’s nothing better than hearing them chatting away about their day. That’s becoming my favorite sound. And I guess [my least favorite sound] would be other peoples’ music that I don’t like playing when I’m trying to do other things – playing music loudly in their gardens.
Since you have kids, do you have a lot of Disney songs suck in your head during the day?
All the Disney stuff! When “Frozen” first came out, that was on every single day. Now, when we go to the cinema they wonder why they can’t sing along with the songs like they do at home. I have to say, “We have to use our inside voice.” It’s always an interesting time at the cinema with them.
Earlier this year, director Edgar Wright said you would be writing the score for the film “Ant-Man,” which of course is no longer the case now that Edgar pulled out of the project. I know you have a strong relationship with Edgar like we talked about before. From your perspective, why did you decide to leave the project?
From my perspective, Edgar had invited me on to do that project and we had a lot of exciting chats about what we were going to do with it. I was very excited to do it with him. We spent a long time talking about it. When he decided to leave the project, it really didn’t feel right to take those ideas and put them to someone else’s vision. The only thing to do in those sorts of situations is to move aside and let the new team do what they’re going to do. It was a shame because I think we had some exciting ideas. But these things happen, so I’m sure whatever comes out of it will be for the best.
So, if Edgar came to you with a new project, are you at the point where you would automatically say yes to him because of the relationship you have, or would you need to know more about the material before signing on?
With someone like Edgar, if the phone rings, you’re always excited. Whatever he does, you know it’s going to be an exciting film and a very well-made film. He’s a great director. I’ve been very lucky with the directors I’ve worked with. I’m looking forward to whatever comes next. If Edgar wants me along for the ride, then I’d be happy to do so.
So far, you’ve written scores for two very different alien invasion films (“Attack the Block” and “The World’s End”), one for a film set in space (“Gravity”) and now one for a film set in WWII (“Fury”). Is there a setting or theme you have in the back of your mind that you’d like to write something for?
Really, it’s anything I haven’t done yet. I want to do something I haven’t battled yet. That excites me a lot. I have no idea what is going to come up next, which is part of the fun of doing this for a living. I hope whatever comes next I’m going to have to scratch my head and be a bit confused before seeing what comes out the other side.