Article by Jordan Killiard
Edited by Katie Tarrant
Host: Tommy Pearson
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
BAFTA‘s popular and long running Conversations with Screen Composers series, hosted by composer Tommy Pearson, has previously had such guests as Anne Dudley, Clint Mansell, James Horner, Michael Giacchino, George Fenton and Patrick Doyle. Following these illustrious predecessors, renowned composer John Powell sat down to chat about his life and career.
John Powell is, in my mind, one of the greatest film composers of this century. My own knowledge of Powell was non-existent until the start of the Bourne franchise in 2002. However, in the past 6 years, especially since having children, I’ve gained a great appreciation of Powell’s work for animation; the majority of which has been for DreamWorks animation studios.
It turns out Tommy Pearson and John Powell are old friends, which made the evening a wonderfully comfortable affair. Anyone who has ever seen an interview with John Powell will know he has a reputation for dry humour and tonight he certainly didn’t disappoint (I definitely can’t quote him much in print!)
John began by discussing the beginning of his career writing jingles, and jokingly recalled his first job writing an advert for the UK 2nd hand car advertiser Autotrader. He also mentioned his own younger memories of contemporary music (he wasn’t too keen) and listening to Patty Smith’s Because the Night and thinking it was like “the same stuff as Brahms”.
Powell attributed his move from jingles to films due to his knowledge of technology, which got him on the radar of a certain Hans Zimmer in the 1990s. Back then Zimmer was working in London, and one of the only composers to be making high quality “mock ups” of his work prior to recording. He needed a good programmer and, after working with John, he invited him over to L.A. to work at his studio Media Ventures.
It was at Media Ventures that Powell teamed together with Harry Gregson-Williams; a partnership that would run for several years, and include films such as Antz, Chicken Run, and Shrek. Animation has certainly been a theme for Powell, most famously with How to Train your Dragon (his first Oscar nomination), as well as Kung Fu Panda, Happy Feet, Rio, and many more. Powell discussed preferring to write joyful music and disliking the “violence for violence sake” in live action films.
Nowadays Powell is trying to cut back and work on only “one film a year”. Currently he is working on Ferdinand for 20th Century Fox; a story about a non-violent Spanish bull thrust into the bullfighting world. Powell talked about his process of going back and forth with ideas for the characters with the director and how every film is still a struggle, leaving him “never happy” with the result.
Interestingly, Powell describes himself as a “disabled” composer, referring to his dependency on technology to get the job done. Additionally, by being as technically savvy as he is, Powell feels he’s “filling an intellectual gap” as a modern composer.
Technology continues to be an obsession for Powell today, and he talked of the great amount of time he spends getting everything perfect in his studio. Even incorrectly named tracks distract him from the process of writing music (and he even has a toilet lock on his studio door to let people know he’s not to be disturbed!). He simply wants to eliminate all of the technical issues, so he can get on with the business of writing music.
The feeling you get from listening to John Powell discuss his career is that he’s reached a new point in his life. He’s working less on film now and spending an increasing amount of time on his concert work (Powell had a choral work premiered three days before this talk), though he doesn’t believe he’ll ever be accepted by the classical world.
The talk finished with the inevitable question of how to start out as a composer today. Powell’s simple answer – “be better and more interesting than everyone else”.
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The Sound Architect