Talking to Howard Lucraft in 1998

“I’m always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” composer James Horner complained to me. “I’ve been nominated for so many Academy Awards and Golden Globes, but I have never won.” Well, things are definitely changing. A few days after our interview James garnered the Golden Globe award for his score to ‘Titanic’. And he is the favourite to win the Oscar in March.

James Cameron, director and screen writer of ‘Titanic’, definitely hired a titanic musician. I talked with James on the set of his latest movie, ‘Mask of Zorro’. He was conducting his score for 104 musicians. Hearing his music played to the picture at full volume, with no dialogue or sound effects, I could appreciate the emotional power of the writing—both with the stirring unison brass etc. in the exciting scenes contrasted with wistful melodies (sometimes on ethnic flute with classical guitar) for the poignant and tragic moments.

Long before ‘Titanic’ Homer has been acclaimed for his music to some of the most memorable films in the past two decades. To mention just a very few—‘Braveheart’, ‘Courage Under Fire’, ‘Apollo 13’, ‘Legends of the Fall’, and, of course, ‘Star Trek II’.

The very youthful–looking Homer is 44 going on 24. He was born in Los Angeles but spent his early years living in London. He admits to being “half English”. His schooling was in London, and he received his initial classical training at the Royal Academy of Music.

“I returned to California to get a teaching job and work on my doctorate,” he informed.

“I then abandoned becoming a classical musician and started in films. I didn’t really have any film composer influences or heroes. My heroes were in the classical field. I didn’t have any training in film technique. I sort of jumped in and learned the job. I lied my way at the beginning. Said I knew more than I did. I was too embarrassed to say that I didn’t know.”

James worked first on AFI films. “I did seven. There was no money. They could hardly pay the musicians. I was destitute. Then I fell in with people making ‘monster movies. That’s how I learned my craft.” He describes himself as a “throwback” because he uses streamers and punches etc. Rarely does he have click tracks and the rest. He does his own orchestration except on rare occasions, when he is frantic for time. He gets an average of four and a half weeks for a score (it’s much shorter now than years ago).

“Sometimes I get only two weeks or even a week and a half. I happen to be quite facile and fast,” he declared. “Even if I have eight weeks to do a score I finish it in four or even three and a half. I’m at it every minute. Sheer horsepower, staying up late. I jump right in and I’m at it every minute until it’s done.”

James doesn’t agonise and make constant changes. Yes, he admits to a little “fine tuning” but he never makes changes on the stand. He never says things like “trumpets will you try this instead.” Anent the music for ‘Titanic’ the director, James Cameron, said: “His [Horner’s] music breaks my heart, even though I’ve heard it a thousand times. It deftly leaps from intimacy to grandeur, from joy to heart-rending sadness across the full emotional spectrum of the film while maintaining a stylistic and thematic unity.” The soundtrack CD has been the fastest–selling album of a film score since ‘Star Wars’.There are four themes in ‘Titanic’.

Homer’s folkish melodies are Celtic. “Wistfully far away,” he pointed out. “Long–ago type melodies. It was a privilege to be on this movie. It’s something that you get to do only once or maybe twice in your lifetime. ” Cameron had a “hard to please reputation” and Horner could not get along with him too well when they worked together on ‘Aliens’. However, that has all changed completely. Said Homer: “I saw Jim every other day for four months. We talked about the music every other day. He loved my themes.” Horner advised that he does not have a synthesiser in his house. “Just a piano and a desk. When I first see a movie I just close my eyes and I extract for myself the mood. What colour? What instruments? If you had a paint brush, how would you paint this movie?” (Homer’s wife is an artist.) Incidentally, in deciding on the music to write James watched ‘Titanic’ for 36 hours over three days.

Music for the upcoming film ‘Mask of Zorro’, that James was conducting at the Sony Todd–A0 studios in Studio City here, runs about 2 hours 13 minutes, almost the whole length of the film. “I have to make it seem that the music does stop. Not wall-to-wall music. But a movie like this needs music, he informed. “Rather than do short, one and a half minute cues, I do six minute cues.” At the completion of his work on ‘Mask of Zorro’ James made a quick trip to England. He went to listen to a South American Ensemble there for possible use in his upcoming Disney movie ‘Mighty Joe Young’.

In between Homer has found time to compose several classical works. His Spectral Shimmers is performed by the Indianapolis Symphony.

As a leading Hollywood film composer James, today, is a top money-maker. However, he is obviously very sincere when he told me: “Money is secondary to me. I feel so very fortunate to do what I like. I don’t want to know what I make on a movie. I don’t want to mix commerce with art, even though it’s hard to do that when you have all the seductions of Hollywood.”

This article was first published in Crescendo & Jazz music, February, 1998

Copyright © 1998, Howard Lucraft. All Rights Reserved