Interviews With Successful People: Harry Gregson-Williams – Composer

I was watching a film called The Equalizer and soon after, I started to listen to the soundtrack. I had appreciated the music while I was watching the film, but it was only upon listening to the soundtrack that I felt truly touched by it.

I began thinking about what it would be like to interview the composer of the film, Harry Gregson-Williams. This wasn’t the first time his music had had an impact on me, though; I had been following his work for quite some time prior to this, but it was only after listening to the soundtrack of The Equalizer that I became interested in interviewing him.

I was eventually able to get in touch with Gregson-Williams, the man who scored films such as Shrek, Kingdom Of Heaven (Ridley Scott), X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Spy Game (Tony Scott).


Harry Gregson-Williams is an award-winning film composer from Great Britain who began making his mark on the Hollywood film industry around the turn of the century. Born on December 13, 1961, in England, he began his career as a music teacher. He began working as a film composer in the early ’90s, his big break came when he was taken under the wings of Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer during the mid-’90s. He worked on the soundtracks of Zimmer-scored films including Crimson Tide (1995), Two Deaths (1995), Broken Arrow (1996), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), The Rock (1996), The Fan (1996), The Peacemaker (1997), The Borrowers (1997), and As Good as It Gets (1997). He proceeded to collaborate also with Trevor Rabin (Enemy of the State, 1998; Armageddon, 1998) and John Powell (Antz, 1998; Chicken Run, 2000; Shrek, 2001). Meanwhile, Gregson-Williams began taking the lead on the soundtracks of children’s films including The Tigger Movie (2000), Spy Kids (2001), and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) as well as action-adventure films including Phone Booth (2002), Spy Game (2002), and The Rundown (2003). By mid-decade, he was working on A-list films including Team America: World Police (2004), Shrek 2 (2004), Man on Fire (2004), Bridget Jones 2 (2004), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Gone Baby Gone (2007), and Shrek the Third (2007). In addition, he composed music for the video game series Metal Gear Solid (in collaboration with Hideo Kojima) and Call of Duty. Gregson-Williams has won ASCAP, Annie, BMI, Hollywood Film Festival, and Satellite awards and has been nominated for a range of others including BAFTA, Golden Globe and Grammy awards.


Q: How did your life begin?

A: It began in the sixties, but it changed pretty rapidly at the beginning of the seventies when my father sent me for an audition for the St. John’s Choir School in Cambridge. From that moment my life took a different turn. I was sent away to a boarding school that had been set up hundreds of years before. It accommodated a small amount of boys, a select few of whom were there to study music and to sing – to sing for their supper, basically. Most of us could read music better than we could read English, and it was a complete left-hand turn for me aged six or seven. I’ve never really looked back when it comes to music. The two things that I really enjoyed while I was there were music and sports, and those are two things I love to this very day.

Q: What kind of sports were you involved in?

A: Just cricket, football and rugby.

Q: What motivated you to become a composer?

A: That’s a little bit more difficult to explain. As I told you, I had been a music scholar since I was very young. There were various standards that I had to maintain. I went to music college and then went straight into teaching after that. I became quite vocational about that; I really loved to teach music and sports. Those were the two things I taught. It was actually a chance meeting with a composer called Hans Zimmer here in London, in about 1994, that led me to composing. I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles on his suggestion that I learn the craft of film composing.

Q: How do you prepare for an upcoming score?

A: The first step of scoring any movie is to really get to know what the film is all about and to try and get under the skin of the characters. Sometimes I will go along to the set as well. In the making of a movie there are three essential stages – pre-production, production and post-production, and it’s really post-production that I’m involved in. All the actors have been paid and gone home, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the film is done; various versions of the film could happen at that point, and the director is just shuffling the pack as it were, trying to find his movie.

He’s maybe got three and a half hours of footage that needs to be cut down to ninety minutes or so. There are various scenes that perhaps he loves, that he’s trying to hang onto, but that ultimately won’t appear in the final film. There are some scenes that he will change around from the original way he shot it and he’s just trying to find out exactly what his film is. It’s at that point the composer comes in and works in tandem with the director’s process, and that, together with a flurry of visual effects and sound design is very much what happens during post-production.

It’s really the last three, possibly four months of the whole filmmaking process that the composer is involved in. The composer comes in during the editing process and starts writing music to individual scenes that have been preordained by the director. It’s a very collaborative process. I don’t think it’s like composers of old, who would sit in their candlelit window and when the muse struck, they would write a note. This is music to order, and it’s quite often an ‘I would like it by Monday morning please, or you’re out’ kind of situation.

This is music that is not just inspired by something a composer sees or thinks. Its whole purpose, the whole reason it’s created, is to support and to bring something to a particular film. Being a film composer is probably very different to being a concert composer, for example.

I have just finished a week’s recording at Abbey Road, and like with any studio recording, we take liberties. There are no rewards for grabbing a piece with one take, so we do multiple takes in different styles to see what works best. We can drop in here and there to cover a mistake, perhaps to split a note in the horn section, or an out of tune violin. So we get the best performance we possibly can.

Q: So is it easier in that sense?

A: I don’t think easier is the right word, but it is different. The purpose of a film composer is to help the director achieve his vision of the film. Music can add as much to a scene as another character can. It can alter the way that the audience perceives certain emotions, so it has to be used carefully and as I said, it’s a very collaborative process.

The film I’m composing for at the moment is The Martian. Once I’ve written the music for a scene, Ridley Scott will come into my studio and listen to what I’ve worked on, and he might say ‘I need a little bit more tension in the music here’, or ”I really like what you have done here ‘or ‘could you make it a little more romantic’, or a little bit more this, and little less that. He often talks in colours too, and will say that the tone of something is right, but that he’d like to feel a little bit more darkness. He is an artist first and foremost and was at art college himself. So he talks in colours, and it’s as if he’s painting a canvas. To be honest, he kind of is. If you look at his movies, they’re all really beautiful to look at. So he doesn’t necessarily have to talk to me in musical language to get his point across. I have worked with some directors who have a good knowledge of music, and some of them have played music themselves. Ridley doesn’t get as deep into the nitty gritty as some do, but he will certainly listen to a cue for a certain scene and react to it. That reaction can range from ‘I really don’t like this’ to ‘that’s fantastic, that’s beautiful. Let’s use that somewhere else’.

I think in order to be a successful film composer you really do have to leave your ego at the door and allow the director into your world, which maybe isn’t a world he necessarily understands very well. But he will understand his film well enough, so he knows what he’s trying to get from you. A good director will show you the direction he wants you to go in. Quite often you can go down a certain path with the intention of bringing some tension to the scene, for example, but could end up going the other way with the music. Instead, we might discover that actually, it works better to juxtapose the music with what’s going on on-screen. So we might make it more ethereal instead, and see what happens then, see how that affects the performance of the actors. It can be great fun.

Q: Do directors choose a composer based on their style of music?

A: Yes, I think style is why directors gravitate towards certain composers. And that’s where relationships are made, enduring relationships. I have been lucky enough to do a few movies with Ridley Scott and a number of movies with his brother, Tony Scott, as well. I have done a few movies with Ben Affleck and several movies with Joel Schumacher. After a while, when I’m working with the same director, a certain language gets developed in terms of the director being able to get what he wants from me. Hollywood is very much based on that; it is based on relationships and particularly fruitful relationships that are cultivated over a number of years and a number of films.

Q: How do you feel once you have finished scoring a film?

A: Relieved, extremely relieved. I don’t find it gets any easier, that’s for sure. But I didn’t get into it for ease of operation! The journey one has to travel to get to the finishing post is very stimulating. I would say I’m two thirds of the way through the score for The Martian. I’ve written all the music I have to write and I’ve had Ridley approve all the music minute by minute. There is quite a lot of minutes of music in this score, perhaps seventy-five or eighty minutes of music, so that’s a lot of music for him to listen to and to make comments about, and for me to make changes to, for him to then ultimately approve. Having done all that, I’ll then move to the orchestral situation, which is what we have just finished doing this week. All the music has been played and now we’re about to enter the stage in which I mix the music, so I’ll have the oboe at a certain level, or the French horn at a certain level, and I’ll have to make a final decision on how it will be heard in the film. From there, I’ll be delivering the music to the dub stage, which is where the director will be. That will be about ten days from now, so that’s my deadline for complete delivery. At that stage, the dubbing mix will sit on a big mixing desk in something resembling a cinema, and Ridley will bring together the final music elements, the final dialogue elements, the final sound effects, and it’ll all be glued together and that’s what you will see in the cinema. So we are kind of in the back straight, as it were.

Q: You worked with Hans Zimmer on the film Crimson Tide in 1995. What kind of impact did that have on your life?

A: Being introduced to Hans Zimmer was a fabulous opportunity for me, simply because he was in need of someone to do a job that I was able to do. I hadn’t had any experience as a film composer at the time, and he had decided that he wanted to use a lot of vocals in his score for Crimson Tide. It’s about a Russian Sub, and he wanted to use male Russian voices. He had contacted a mutual friend of ours, and asked him to help find someone to help him with the choral aspects. Being an ex-chorister, it wasn’t that much of a stretch and our friendship was made there, and it was from that experience that he asked if I wanted to come out and apprentice with him in Los Angeles. I didn’t hesitate. People often ask “is it just luck & being in the right place at the right time?” and I think there is an element of that, but at the time my opportunity arrived unexpectedly I had already spent four or five years learning my trade as a studio musician. I was just starting off as a composer and I was ready for any chance that might come along. I was ready to grab it and run with it.

Q: It’s like they say – luck is where preparation meets opportunity. The first film you scored was White Angel. Tell us about that experience?

A: That was a while back, and it was a film that was directed by my girlfriend’s cousin. I didn’t really have any competition getting that gig – not quite like today, when I’m up against hundreds of other experienced composers.

The director didn’t have any idea what she was going to do with music, or even how she was going to afford to do it. I told her that she didn’t have to pay me, that I’d do it for her. And that was it. It was a great one to start with for me because there wasn’t very much pressure and I was able to experiment.

Q: Who were the most supportive people in your life at the beginning of your career?

A: Before I met Hans Zimmer, I was apprenticing with a very good English composer called Richard Harvey. He was a very busy composer. He had a cricket team that was very good and a recording studio in Chelsea that was also very good. We became friends very quickly.

I began to see the possibilities that were open to me if I could pursue this and learn the trade well. He was a really good example to me and early on I was just trying to emulate him. He played cricket on Sundays, hit the pub, and was basically living the life that I thought would be a lot of fun, so I wanted to emulate that.

Q: What has kept you going when you have experienced setbacks?

A: A desire to be successful and not to fail at something I became passionate about! I think as a child I was taught quite a lot of discipline. I don’t mean that someone was standing over me making me do anything, but a lot was expected of me, and it was expected that I do things really well and try really hard at them. I think that that grounding, which was basically the ethos at St. John’s College Cambridge back in the day, was instilled into us. We knew that nothing was going to come without any effort. Later in life that has translated into ‘no pain, no gain’, quite simply.

Q: Where does your drive and passion come from?

A: Probably my father. He had a similar attitude towards life.

Q: Do you believe in a higher power?

A: No.

Q: Where does your inspiration come from?

A: A number of different places really. I’m inspired by my children on a daily basis. I have five children, three quiet small children, so that’s a lot of children, and that motivates me to stay healthy and to try and be around for them when they’re older. It motivates me to not be too selfish with my choices, and to think of what they might need from me. But what inspires me? My wife, and my life in general. I know that I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunities that have come my way, so I’m not just going to waste them all, or behave in an ungrateful way. I’m quite keen to do as much as I can to put stuff back into the system, and that works quite well as a composer, because if you asked me how to start out as a composer in this day and age – well, you probably start out with a couple of cheap synthesizers in your bedroom, which is what I did, and if you’re lucky you might meet a brilliant and inspiring film composer who needs some assistance and that’s how it happened for me.

I’m a busy film composer now, and I have 2 assistants, so what goes around comes around. There is a kind of path through, that you can probably see. Hans Zimmer has had many people come through his ‘stable’, if you like, and some have gone on to be very successful. I take that quite seriously. As I said, I have had a few assistants myself who’ve come in not knowing too much about film scoring specifically and have gone away, hopefully, with a really good grounding in composing for film. They were able to go away from the experience and make a living. It’s a cyclical thing and it’s quite noticeable, and that’s a known, proven way of going about it. I’m sure in the olden days you would apprentice – perhaps a carpenter would learn his trade with someone who knew the ropes and then branch out and get his own business, his own shop, but first hang been given the tools to do it. I think that’s basically what we all aim for in this industry.

Q: What are the most important elements of achieving success?

A: Not taking yourself too seriously, working hard, keeping a clear head on your shoulders, and not being carried away with early success. I think that’s really important, but that’s not to say early success is not important as we all need encouragement – we need to know that we are gaining on it, as it were. So I think that I’m mindful of that as I progress in my career, particularly with the young people who come and work for me. It’s good to hand out compliments occasionally, it’s good to make people feel that success is not out of their grasp and that they are, perhaps, beginning to be successful.

I don’t know what it would have been like to move over to Los Angeles, as I did in 1995, and then win an Oscar in my first year there. I’m sure that has happened to the odd person, I’m sure that’s what happened to Hans. His first movie was Rain Man, and he got an Oscar nomination for it. But he’s got a good strong German head on his shoulders; I think a lot of people would have probably lost their way at that point. Hopefully, for most people, there is a path for them to follow, along which they might get a little encouragement and a little taste of success, and that’s what helps you go on and on and to keep trying.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: All of the above; try to stay healthy, keep it real. I live in Los Angeles and my wife and five children are all American, and the way I try to keep them all in touch with my reality is to bring them back to London occasionally. About three years ago I decided not to score any movies for a year, and I came back to England and taught music and sports in school again, as I had done as a very young man. I wanted to show them that I wasn’t necessarily just a Hollywood film composer who worked on movies all day and night, that I hadn’t always been that person, and that I could lead a simpler life. We all had a really terrific time. I came back with my batteries recharged. We got back a couple of years ago, so not too long ago. I think this is my fifth score since I got back from the sabbatical. I did The Equalizer, and I did the Call of Duty game. I did a beautiful documentary for Disney Nature called Monkey Kingdom, and now this, The Martian. Oh and I worked for many months for Michael Mann on his film Blackhat, but that didn’t pan out as I’d hoped, actually.

Q: So that’s what keeps you grounded? Going back to your roots?

A: Yes, I think so. As I told you, I thought perhaps my vocation was going to be teaching when I first came out of music school. I really loved it and that hasn’t really altered, although my focus has altered somewhat I suppose.

Q: I suppose there are certain aspects of teaching that are still useful in composing, but they’re just expressed in different ways.

A: Yeah, that’s true actually. That’s how I feel about it.

Prolific writer, thought leader and coach, Oliver JR Cooper hails from the United Kingdom. His insightful commentary and analysis covers all aspects of human transformation; love, partnership, self-love, and inner awareness. With over eight hundred in-depth articles highlighting human psychology and behavior, Oliver offers hope along with his sound advice. Current projects include “A Dialogue With The Heart” and “Communication Made Easy.”