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‘Wolverine’ Composer’s ‘A-Ha’ Moment

Harry Gregson-Williams on scoring blockbusters and the ”slow burn.“

In the world of film scoring, Harry Gregson-Williams is one of a handful of A-list composers sought after by studios and directors for a variety of projects ranging from animation (the “Shrek” films), drama (“Gone Baby Gone”) and blockbuster action films like the upcoming “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” He talked with Eric Estrin about a moviehouse epiphany, his mentor Hans Zimmer and the need to be realistic in assessing his own career.



I’d been involved in music all my life, but it was only sitting in a movie theater in London, watching “The Shawshank Redemption,” that I thought, "My God, this would be really cool to give this a go."


Tommy Newman did the music for “Shawshank” — pretty straightforward, echo-y piano stuff. But it had a big emotional impact, and it inspired me to have a look at an area of music which I’d never really considered before.

At the time, I was working in a recording studio in London for a composer. Then in the spring of 1995 I met Hans Zimmer. The reason I was introduced to him was that our mutual friend knew he was looking for someone to work for him on a specific film score, “Crimson Tide,” and to organize the choir elements.


We met, and I told him I could definitely do what he was asking for. He asked if I would work for him pretty much straightaway, so I moved to the States, without any concrete notion of what was going to happen next.


Gradually, from making the tea to orchestrating a few cues to arranging a few tracks to creating music, I got to doing my own thing, and one thing led to another.

I think it worked so well because I was coming at music from one place, and he was coming at it from another. I had a very full-on classical music education starting age four- or five-years-old, and Hans doesn’t take any formal music lessons; it’s all intuitive.


At a certain point I had to take a step back. Hans was working on huge blockbuster movies. These were his movies, although I might have been contributing in some shape or form, but it was necessary for me to be realistic. No one was going to hand me a huge Disney film or a huge Fox film — that wasn’t going to happen. I was going to have to go through the paces like everybody else.


t was a bit of a slow burn. Writing music for a little film called “The Borrowers” was a huge thing for me early on in my career. It was a modestly budgeted film but what was needed and what was expected made for quite a symphonic score. It allowed me to write for a full orchestra.


Another movie around that time was “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” which also had a great opportunity for a composer, as it was set almost entirely in Greenland.


These were rare and wonderful opportunities that popped up in the first few years for me. I had to go all out to try and secure these jobs. That involved making a CD show reel, making a tape, sending it out, trying to get an agent, being refused, trying again, getting a ray of hope, getting an opportunity and then grabbing it with both hands and not letting go.