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Oscar-Winning Composer Howard Shore Talks Scoring LOTR, 'Naked Lunch' And More

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 21, 2015 8:23PM

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A glance at Howard Shore's remarkable résumé shows not only his contributions to many of the more impactful films of the last 40 years (The Fly, The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Hugo and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to name just a few), but also how highly he is regarded by some of the most distinctive directors working today.

He's scored six features for Martin Scorsese, six for Peter Jackson, three for David Fincher, two for Jonathan Demme and, in the key collaboration of his career, 15 for fellow Canadian David Cronenberg. Tim Burton, James Gray and Robert Benton are just a few of the other notables who have relied on Shore's music to help complete their creative visions.

He owns three Academy Awards for The Lord of the Rings films and his long list of honors grew last weekend with a Career Achievement Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. But the prestige has not dimmed Shore's willingness to venture to all corners of the movie world. He can go from working for French art house favorite Arnaud Desplechin to scoring an entry in the swoony teen Twilight franchise.

Mr. Shore spoke with Chicagoist shortly after his CIFF tribute and reflected on his creative process and partnerships, including the long relationship with Cronenberg that began with 1979's The Brood. That connection, however, dates back before the director ever released a film commercially.

"I had never worked with a director with that kind of auteur sensibility—I'd only done one film before that," Shore said. "But I had kind of been studying Cronenberg's work for many years. He's a few years older than me and I knew him in Toronto, and I would go to underground film festivals in that period—late '60s and early '70s.

"I knew a lot of his 8mm and 16mm films and I was really quite interested in his work. It wasn't until, I think, after maybe 8 to 10 years of viewing his films that I actually got up the courage to ask him if I could work on one of his films. And he said 'OK.' And we've now done more than 30 years of work [together] and 15 features."

With the exception of The Dead Zone, Shore has scored all of the director's feature films since then. While The Fly is undoubtedly the most widely seen of their collaborations, 1991's Naked Lunch (inspired by the landmark William S. Burroughs book) might be their boldest. Shore worked with free jazz legend Ornette Coleman on that score, fusing Coleman's improvisational virtuosity with his own musical personality seamlessly. Coleman passed away last June at the age of 85.

"Oh, Ornette was a dear friend and we miss him dearly. I had met Ornette in 1976 when I was working on Saturday Night Live," Shore recalled of his years as the original Musical Director for SNL. "Occasionally I had a chance to do bookings on the show...and I asked Ornette if he would do it, and he did.

"And we kept up a kind of conversation over the years, and then when I started on Naked Lunch, I recalled a piece that he had recorded in Morocco in the Rif mountains with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It was called 'Midnight Sunrise.' I played that recording for Cronenberg. And it was bebop jazz—but Ornette playing with a Moroccan orchestra—and Cronenberg thought it sounded like the Interzone national anthem. I was trying to find a connection between New York and Tangier and that music led us right to Ornette."

"Ornette knew Burroughs and he loved the project and he wanted to be involved. So we started working together. He was very easy to work with. We both had a good understanding of how I approached it [the material].

"I basically put Ornette in the orchestra and had him play live with the London Philharmonic...I slowed all the tempos down a lot, and then we had Ornette playing in double or triple time to capture that bebop style. So he worked with the tonalities and he played with the orchestra the way he would have played with a jazz group."

Naked Lunch shares with several other Shore scores a noticeably global influence. The allure of foreign films and their music took hold of him early.

"Growing up in Toronto, I had access to a music library run by the city. As a kid, I would go in there and take out recordings from all over the world. And they had a good film music collection, so I was listening to Toru Takemitsu's music from Japan and Nino Rota's from Italy, Georges Delerue's from France, and I was listening to [Bernard] Herrmann, of course, from America.

"I was always interested in how different countries and different composers from different parts of the world approached music."

If the composer's work for Cronenberg is frequently ominous and unsettling, Shore proved quickly he could master brighter musical terrain, scoring Penny Marshall's blockbuster 1988 comedy, Big.

"My background was repertory theater, so it was very natural for me to go from comedies to dramas to various different genres," he explained.

"Big is a very Hollywood, Alfred Newman type of score. And I thought, this was a chance to do something like that. You know, The Fly was a big symphonic score recorded with the London Philharmonic and After Hours was an all-electronic score [created with] no microphones. They were really different sensibilities."

Those breakthrough years of the '80s led to a growing recognition that made him constantly in demand. As prolific as he is, however, it's striking how many of his credits are for filmmakers of consistent quality and an original vision. Shore attributes his success working with these directors to one essential trait.

"With the good directors, 'trust' is really the word. They have that inherent quality of choosing the artists they are going to work with, and [with composers] it's the same as they work with actors. It's just good casting. In my experience, working with directors of that caliber, I was really left to my own work.

"I do all the same research an actor would, and when I arrive to work on a film, I've done all my homework and now I'm ready to present my ideas."

One of Shore's three Oscars was for Best Original Song: "Into the West" from 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (an honor shared with Fran Walsh and Annie Lennox, who sang the song). But even when not directly involved with a song included in a movie he works on, Shore strives to maintain a consistency among all musical elements. A prime example is how his score for Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993) matched the elegiac qualities of Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" and Neil Young's "Philadelphia."

"In the case where there are [another artist's] songs placed in the film by the director, I try to embrace the sensibility of that and bring that out in the score. Because to the audience, they're not thinking 'Oh, that's the song and that's the score.' They're just there for the experience. They want to be in that world and trust that you're expressing that world as realistically, with as much heart and soul as you can. So whether it's Bruce Springsteen or a Shore score or Neil Young...whatever it is, it's expressing the ideas. So I'm always conscious of making it feel of a piece."

Asked what his most challenging work was and to name the favorite of his own scores, Shore found his way back to Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

"Working with the Tolkien books, because it's considered a classic of the 20th century, you felt a real responsibility to create something that was truthful and honest," he explained. "And with all the millions of people who have read those books who were now out to see the films, you wanted to really create something they would love and embrace...I think that was a lot of pressure.

"I would have to say the Rings scores were really a culmination of everything I had learned about movies and music. So on a broad level, those were my favorites. But I loved working with Ornette and Naked Lunch is certainly one of my favorites. And Ed Wood...I loved working with Tim Burton and I loved the sensibility of that whole world."

Shore's music will be heard by mass movie audiences again in just a couple of weeks when Spotlight (considered an early Best Picture contender) opens. The CIFF honor is well deserved, but it's clear Howard Shore's career achievements are still very much in progress.