Fantastic Beasts Composer James Newton Howard on His Personal Favorite Scores

Plus, how he put his own musical stamp on the Harry Potter universe


    lights-camera-music-finalEver wonder which movies inspire your favorite bands or how filmmakers work with artists to compile your favorite soundtracks? Sound to Screen is a regular feature that explores where film and music intersect. This month, James Newton Howard picks some of the most notable scores of his career and discusses his work in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, out this Friday.

    Even if James Newton Howard wasn’t a film composer, you’d still find discussions of his work on this site. Before he got into film, Howard was a session musician with Elton John, playing keyboards and synthesizers on several albums and arranging the strings on songs like “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. Howard credits his time in the rock world for giving him a leg up when creating his own film scores.

    “Touring with Elton was really where I learned how to combine,” he says. “I enjoyed learning how to combine electronics and orchestral music.”


    He has since perfected that sonic contrast, composing the music for more than 100 films in a little over three decades. Since his latest, the Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, hits theaters this week, we asked him to pick the scores that are most important to him, in addition to discussing his work on Beasts.

    That’s not an easy task when considering the scope of Howard’s career. Rather than go the safe route by choosing only blockbusters, he included several smaller projects in his list, making it clear that he values different gigs for different reasons.

    Head Office (1985)

    James Newton Howard: I was pretty damn successful as a session musician and a record producer, and then somebody offered me a movie. I turned it down because I thought I just had no idea how to write for one. I didn’t know how to write under pressure in that amount of time. I didn’t know how to synchronize the music. But then I did it, and that was a movie called Head Office, which was a funny, little comedy. I absolutely loved it, and lo and behold, I was actually kind of good at it. I wanted to do it more, and I was very fortunate that I was offered more and more opportunities. I’ve been doing it since. It’s definitely the thing that I do best.

    Grand Canyon (1991)


    It was the beginning of one of my favorite relationships, which was with [director] Larry Kasdan. We’ve been best friends since. I love writing music about LA, and that was really important to me at the time. It was a movie about unpredictability. It wasn’t a huge hit by any means, but it meant a lot to me personally.

    The Prince of Tides (1991)

    The Prince of Tides was my first Oscar nomination, so that was a big one. It’s kind of a film score from another era. You really can’t do a film score like that anymore. It would just be deemed way too sentimental and slushy. But it was right for the time.

    Did you think the score sounded out of time even in the ’90s, or did you not have that realization until later?


    I think all of my orchestral scores sound like they’re a little bit from another era. They’re melodic. They’re unabashedly emotional, maybe even sentimental. But that’s where I live. I’m a melody man. I can change and go into dark electronics, but left to my own devices … That movie wore its heart on its sleeve, and that was the right score for it.

    The Fugitive (1993)

    The Fugitive really kicked my ass. When I was hired for it, I was terrified. I had made the mistake of putting up some Jerry Goldsmith cues against some of the scenes. And they were so incredible that I just wanted to shoot myself and quit. But I didn’t. I kept at it. I sort of deemed that score a quasi-failure when I did it. It was so hard to record because I’d written it for the strings in such an awkward way — the chase part.

    They’re so memorable, though — almost atonal and driving.

    When it got nominated, I was completely shocked. I just didn’t think it was worthy of a nomination, but that’s often what happens. It worked, and the movie was so good. It makes everybody look better.

    The Sixth Sense (1999)


    That was a game-changer in that it was my first movie with M. Night Shyamalan. My relationship with him really changed the way I write. He was very, very disciplined and made me disciplined about what our choices were going to be in that score, in terms of theme and instrumentation. It was distilling it [all] down to singularity, a singular idea. That’s what I’ve tried to do with all his movies. It really did change the way I compose music.

    Would you call the score minimalist?

    Absolutely. After the movie came out, it got several nominations, and music was not one of them. So Shyamalan called me up and said in a very annoying way — I’ve told him this is annoying; we’re very good friends — “The reason you didn’t get nominated is because the score didn’t have a life of its own, a singularity.”

    After that moment, I started writing music for him while he was storyboarding and before he was shooting. I would send him five different pieces for Unbreakable, for instance, and he would respond to what he liked and what he didn’t like. What he did like — I would just focus on that one idea as much as I could. That really reached its peak in Signs, which is just a three-note motif.

    King Kong (2005)


    I had to write that whole score in five weeks, which was really terrible. It was a replacement score for Howard Shore. They came to me at the very last minute, and I recorded almost four hours of music. There are two hours and 50 minutes of music in the movie. I was a younger man then. I couldn’t do that now.

    Was it a challenge to write music for a gorilla in a way that was relatable to audiences?

    I tended to treat him very human. There are a lot of human sensibilities emanating from him. You tear up at the end, watching this digitally created beast so stoically defend the girl and die.

    That’s a real old-fashioned score, for sure, except in a couple of places where there are electronics. But I’d say unequivocally that I was influenced — and I didn’t do it intentionally — by Max Steiner’s incredible score from the original film. I watched that a thousand times when I was a kid. I think that first descending theme I wrote for when King Kong first appears was reminiscent of Max Steiner. I didn’t even understand how reminiscent it was until later. It’s not a rip-off, but it’s definitely in the same world.

    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)


    Working with David Yates was totally different than anything I’d ever done before. It was very collaborative and went on for a long period of time. I was writing for that movie for six or seven months. David would often steer me in a direction that, when I first would hear the idea, I would say, “That’s not going to work.” But then I would try it and find that it very often did work. It took me down a different path and a successful path.

    How much were the previous scores of the Harry Potter universe — specifically the theme created by John Williams for the first film — an influence? Did you have to use any of his score?

    I certainly had to pay attention to it. It’s an iconic theme, and this is a spin-off. It’s a prequel. It’s not a Harry Potter movie, but it is in the wizarding world, as they say; the J.K. Rowling world. We ended up using the Hedwig theme just a tiny, tiny bit. We used it over the Warner Bros. logo, and we used it over two other spots in the movie that are only about three or four seconds long. They’re kind of a musical bonbons for people. It’s us just tipping our hat to it. But all in all, they’re entirely new themes for an entirely new franchise.


    When trying to capture these imaginary beasts with music, did you have to turn to any unconventional methods? 

    Everything under the sun has been done at this point. It’s really about how one combines elements that makes a score unique and have a signature — just finding sounds and orchestrations and feelings that would really describe these crazy creatures. I did quite a bit of sampling, which I always do for every score. There’s one very dark creature, and I spent quite a bit of time establishing a sound design for that creature that’s part of the theme.