Composer James Newton Howard Discusses Scoring a Certain Film About Fantastic Beasts (and Much More) in 1920s New York


Fervor has been growing over Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, especially now that everyone seems fully aware that this is not at all just an adaptation of a charity glossary book of fantastic beasts. The excitement began at the prospect of getting to see a fleshed out version of the same Harry Potter wizarding world in a totally different period: flapper HP. That excitement extended to getting to glimpse the wizarding world as it exists in a very different place — an ocean away from the solely British-set original novels and films, in New York City.

Then there were was the prospect, from the first trailers, that this was not only a beast-chase, but also a form of political allegory. It appears that Rowling is taking a deep dive into the governing forces in both the wizarding and muggle (no-maj, in America) worlds, reflecting xenophobia in both American and British politics today. And lastly, in recent talks, and in the final trailer, there’s been open discussion about the presence of Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard of yore (and also Dumbledore’s ex-lover?) making a cameo (perhaps in the form of Johnny Depp?) in this film, and of the Fantastic Beasts franchise — which will now stretch to four films — being about his rise to power.

If you recall the earlier Harry Potter films, the sense of wonder and darkness they’ve engendered is determined largely by the score — an element that’s indispensable to the world building of high-budget fantasy films. Even Chris Columbus’ treacly first two films still feel memorable. in large part because of the twinkling vivaciousness of John Williams’ score. When I think of those two films, there isn’t a certain image that comes to mind, but rather the comfortingly mischievous theme that so perfectly captured the draw of the Harry Potter world for children.

For Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, composer James Newton Howard is taking on the role of scoring the wonders and horrors of this new era of the wizarding world. I spoke with Howard — an eight-time Academy Award nominee, who’s scored just about all of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, The Hunger Games series, The Dark Knight (with Hans Zimmer), Michael Clayton, Nightcrawler, Pretty Woman, and nearly 150 (yeah) others, and who’ll be touring many of those scores next year — about how the hell one goes about composing for a film about magical governments, nifflers, bowtruckles, demiguises, and prohibition era New York.

I noticed some of John Williams’ original motifs from the first Harry Potter films [in your score]. How much did the studio want you to adhere to Williams’ work — or even just the HP films in general — tonally?

I had a tremendous amount of freedom. In the end, Williams’ “Hedwig” theme is in the movie for about 12 seconds, over the Warner Bros logo in the beginning to brand the movie, to let you know what world you’re in. The challenge was to go from those seconds of his theme into something brand new. It reappears in the movie two other times for about five seconds, just to honor John, or as a witticism. I think you’d define the style in terms of attempting to be a sophisticated orchestral score, quite detailed, a fair amount of electronics involved, nonetheless, but predominantly orchestral, and thematic. They’re all new themes for the various characters. That was my big goal — and my big fear! To try and maintain the legacy of those great themes John Williams wrote.

You spoke to the New York Times about striking a first person perspective for Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler. That idea reminded me of the first Harry Potter film, and how the character of Harry Potter is an audience surrogate, because he’s being introduced to the wonders and darkness of this world, just as the audience is. It seems like [Eddie Redmayne’s character] Newt Scamander is already totally entrenched in the wizarding world, but he’s in a new city (as is the audience; we’ve never seen wizarding New York). Did you approach this from a first person perspective?

I never consciously thought about a first person perspective anywhere in my life near as much as I did on Nightcrawler. That was very much a directive from Dan Gilroy. I thought it was great, but it was a direction I never would have taken intuitively to that extent had Dan not been insisting on it. So many of these things evolve and just happen when you’re working on a movie. It’s always so important to be clear about whose perspective you’re with. Certainly when Newt arrives, obviously this takes place in New York, which is slightly overwhelming and completely unknowable to him in the beginning. There are a couple of aspects of his character that are really important to play up: one is a bumbling, brilliant, Chaplin-esque character, but who can perform quite heroically when called upon, and some of the things that happen in the movie require that he does perform somewhat heroically in terms of dealing with some of the “fantastic beasts” and some of the darker powers that are working against him.

I know it’s standard for composers to work on films mostly in post-production; speaking of Redmayne’s Chaplin-esque qualities in the film, how much of the score was determined not only by the characters, but by particular actors’ energies in the footage of their performances? Was there a specific actor whose vibe was the most fun to work in tandem with?

The most challenging thing, actually, was to give some of the beasts their own voice and their own identity. They’re obviously very unusual entities. And with human beings — even if they’re wizard human beings — there’s a commonality of characteristics you can use to describe them musically. Most of those are based on thematic ideas and orchestrated in a way that gives each one of them an identity. But it was really the beasts that were the most fun, because each one has such a strange and specific identity, yet you have to stay within the vocabulary of the score. You can’t all of a sudden go totally electronica on it! David Yates let me know early on that one of the deals about working on the score was that he would want to have the composer come on very, very early to participate, as he put it, in the architecture of the movie. I started writing themes and suites on this movie back in November of last year, and then worked very closely with him for five or six months.

Was the beast’s physicality determined by the score then?

I would like to think so! They’re so brilliant; the visual effects are so great, and the story is so cohesive; I probably just enhanced the idea. There was one case in particular where I felt that maybe I really helped bring the thing to life. It was an interesting conversation between David and I about one of these beasts who — I won’t reveal which — can be quite frightening, but in the end, we decided to take quite a romantic approach to it. And it was really charming and funny and revealed the real essence of the creature.

The first Harry Potter movies took place in a very different era. How did you decide how much of the 1920s you wanted to bring into the score?

I didn’t want to overdo it. My first concern is storytelling; if that’s embracing 1920s genre and making the music reflect that, so be it, but in many cases it was a more traditional classic movie score. But for Newt’s theme I was thinking more about a Salvation Army band. I kept trying to write themes I thought would stick with Newt, and the more I thought about it, [I decided on using] a Salvation Army band in the ’20s — kind of clumsy, very earthbound. Those origins are more in the 20s — but it’s more societal than temporal, maybe.

How much did the Americanness of this film in a world which is so fundamentally British play into the score?

[David Yates and I] didn’t talk about that. But I can hear my Americanisms in the score. Those are unavoidable influences. If you listen to the “In the Case” cue, there are certainly some areas that are Copeland-esque. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

From the previews, it looks like the ills that are going on here (especially if Grindelwald plays more of a cameo in this film) are political and bureaucratic? So I was wondering how you created a sense of foreboding perhaps without as clear-cut or omnipresent of a villain.

There’s more specificity to the villain than you think. When you see the movie you’ll see it’s not just bureaucratic; there might be a difficult creature out there, actually, who’s run rampant and who everybody’s having a problem with. That is the one where it’s the most sound-design-y, where the score became a more ambient thing because of the nature of the creature. It was more of an amorphous, hard to pin-down idea. The way the character interacts with people is very complicated and dark. I wanted to give it something very distinctive from the rest of the score.

You’ve done a lot of fantasy scores — from The Hunger Games to King Kong to all of your collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan. Do you find as much pleasure in soundscaping movies about the banalities of life sans creatures?

Most movies aren’t very good, let’s face it. So you’re dealing with the banal quite a bit. I write for the movie, and I don’t cerebrate as much as you might think. So much is intuitive, so much is about immersion in the movie. I have to fall in love with some element even of a bad movie. I have to find something to love and believe in, otherwise it’s absolute torture. It’s easy in movies like the Hunger Games, because you have Jennifer Lawrence. There’s no problem writing anything for that movie. I imagine I put myself in the place of some of these characters. I pretend that I’m a hero or a victim when I’m writing a movie. Fantasy movies are the best musical opportunities around these days. I’ve done a bunch of fairy tales, Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent. People criticize remaking those things, but from a composer’s perspective, those are spectacular — you have a big budget for two hours of huge ballads.

Fantastic Beasts hits theaters November 18, as will Howard’s soundtrack.