Friday 18th Nov 2016
Film composer James Newton Howard invited the Pottermore Correspondent along to a recording session at Abbey Road Studios for the soundtrack of Fantastic Beasts. They spoke about action scenes, that pesky Niffler and Newt Scamander’s theme.
We’re at Abbey Road Studios – the most famous recording space in the world. Composer James Newton Howard is standing at a broad desk, saying things like ‘bassoon should really be mezzo forte’ and ‘trumpets at 33 are a little soft.’
Through a window, an orchestra of 97 musicians and one conductor are all poised, listening. James is elegant and assertive in his work, like he’s done this many times before. And that’s because he has.
James has worked on more than 120 films in his career and been nominated for eight Academy Awards. He composed music for The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, Water for Elephants, The Dark Knight, Blood Diamond, The Sixth Sense, My Girl and Pretty Woman.
The day I visit, he is working on a particularly finicky sequence in Fantastic Beasts. It features the Niffler – that marsupial-looking kleptomaniac who escapes from Newt Scamander’s case. In the scene, the Niffler is loose inside a bank as Newt tries to capture him. The music is delicate and light. James holds on to a wad of A5 sheet music and a pencil.
‘The Niffler was really difficult, quite honestly,’ he tells me, with an almost imperceptible eye roll. ‘I think I wrote 43 versions of the Niffler’s song over seven months. Sometimes it just takes that long to get it right. In the end the Niffler was quite a project but I really love him. I think he’s very cute. We finally got it right, but it really is a balance of keeping the magic, the slight tension and the comedy. You don’t want it to be too much one way or the other. It’s always a balancing act between things like pace, character point of view, action and humour.’
It’s also a balancing act for the Niffler – who has just run off with a coin bigger than his head. As he scampers about on screen, the orchestra get their instructions: ‘Lighter,’ James says, softly. ‘Lighter still,’ with a gentle scratch behind his ear.
‘When we have 97 musicians in a room, it can get very heavy – and the Niffler is very light. So I want the orchestra to be playing as though they are Niffler-size. They’re so wonderfully responsive, they’re like driving a Ferrari: if you turn that much, they really turn and if you take your foot off the gas, they really back off. So they are able to just bring things down to an intimate, smaller level and that’s how we really achieve the lightness of this sequence. Sometimes we leave half the string players out for a section to make it even lighter.’
The Niffler isn’t the only character with his own theme song. One of the most important things James did when he started working on the score for this film was sit down at his piano and plan out theme songs for the main characters.
‘Newt has two primary themes in my mind. He has his very Newt, slightly Charlie Chaplin-esque, absent-minded professor kind of bumbling around, where he’s got this warm and sweet kind of personality,’ James says. ‘And then when he gets into a situation where he needs to perform heroically, he has what we call the “Newt as a Hero” theme and that’s kind of the big, muscular hero theme – you know, thinking about Newt as Indiana Jones or Newt as some other heroic character because once that happens you see him transform from being a bumbling professor into this genius action hero.
‘He’s able to handle and manipulate these animals and he knows his world so confidently and he relates to them so totally and completely that you’re left to admire him very much for that. He’s a great character and there’s many facets to him – I just had to represent that in music.
‘Jacob has quite a lovely little tune. It’s more a lazy, bluesy 1920s quasi-jazzy kind of thing and that sounds pretty good. Of course there are other characters in the movie that have themes. The Erumpent has quite a fun theme and the Demiguise has some interesting music. They all have their little moments in the sun in the movie. I think it’s important to brand them a little bit and identify them with a musical identity.’
There are creatures with more menacing theme songs, too. There are dark, ominous scenes, battles, fights, escapes and tender moments. James has music for them all.
‘One thing you can expect in any J.K. Rowling story is that there’s going to be a lot of excitement and action so the basic idea is you’ve got to be able to write a good action sequence. I approached it very, very seriously. I just wrote it like I would write any human drama but I tried to give it a distinct sound. Because it is magical, after all.’