What’s the secret to capturing the musical essence of the iconic Wonder Woman? Sean Wilson speaks to the new movie’s composer, Rupert Gregson-Williams, to find out…
Few comic book movies come freighted with as much as expectation as Wonder Woman. For one, it’s being positioned as the saviour of the DC Movie Universe, which until now has flagged with the bloated likes of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. It’s the first superhero movie fronted by a female character (played by Gal Gadot) since 2005’s Elektra and the first ever to be directed by a woman (Monster filmmaker Patty Jenkins).
Most importantly, it’s a movie that has to honour one of the most celebrated icons in the DC canon, performing a tricky balancing act between the humour of the 1970s Lynda Carter TV series and the sort of grandiose dramatic spectacle demanded by a multiplex audience.
By most accounts the movie is a triumph, and a great deal of that success can be credited to its thunderously exciting score by veteran composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (Hacksaw Ridge, The Crown). I was lucky to grab some minutes with Rupert to discuss the challenges of capturing Wonder Woman’s big screen debut in musical form.
So to take it back to the beginning, then. Before we get onto Wonder Woman, I wanted to ask what was the score that inspired you to become a film composer in the first place?
Interesting. It doesn’t reflect what my interest in score music is now, but 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first time I’d really noticed music in a movie. It’s intriguing of course because it’s not a score. It had long, long, long periods of silence interspersed with music, which piqued my interest.
And of course when I was a kid, all the early John Williams scores like Star Wars were really exciting. Those are the sort of scores you’d really look forward to. What’s the modern equivalent? Superhero scores, I guess! But in my day, I was always looking out for a John Williams score. They were always the ones that got me excited.
So you attended St John’s College in Cambridge to study music. Was it specifically film scoring that you were interested in pursuing at that stage in your life?
It was more performance, for me. I was aiming at being a performer, a tenor, and in my teens I think I rebelled against that a little and got into trouble at school. Normally that would be a terrible thing – I wouldn’t recommend it to my children – but in a way it helped me because I realised I just wasn’t good enough to be a performer. That’s why I was rebelling. I was constantly getting other people to perform the material I was writing.
I started off wanting to be in a rock band, and I was for a while, then my interest in film music developed throughout my teens. So I guess I turned my career path on its head and decided to write for performers better than myself!
In the early stages of your career you became part of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio, which famously mentors many young aspiring film composers. How did working for Hans help you define your own musical voice?
Well, I remember when I played him a few demos of mine. Hans has always been so generous with his time and I hope that’s something I’ve learned from him. I hope that’s why I try to find the time for young composers, because I learned so much from his generosity.
So I remember playing him this early demo and he turned around and said, “That’s great, really great, but I hear John Williams, Hans Zimmer, all sorts of composers but I don’t hear you. What is you?” And I thought, God, what is me? I was a bit frightened to show who I was because I looked up to all these great composers. And he really encouraged me to find my own voice, which for some people can take a lifetime. Hans and his fellow composers are very lucky because they have a signature sound that is very special.
For me, it’s something I’ll continue to learn during my lifetime, to find my sound. I’m not desperately looking for it but it’s something you grow with and become more confident in seeking out. Composers are like artists: you practice by emulating those you admire, and that’s fine, but the thing I’d encourage young composers to do is what Hans taught me, and that’s to locate your own voice.
Talking of expressing yourself, you wrote the score to the remarkably powerful Hotel Rwanda, which brought you a lot of international recognition. What lessons did you take away from that experience that you’ve utilised in subsequent film scores?
I think I arrived on that project immediately after working with [director] Brian Henson on something. My experiences with him had been really emotional and then Hotel Rwanda came along. I saw it at first without any music whatsoever and it was an astonishing experience, so moving. It came not too long after the genocide depicted as well, which made it all-the-more powerful.
That experience taught me to be real. It’s very easy when you’re scoring a film to sit down and use your brain to work out what would people like to hear, how should they perceive this character and so on. But to actually get a proper emotional feeling from the film and to be able to absorb that is very important. It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t happen very often. But if you’re moved by the storytelling, by the director or the writer, that really, really helps.
I guess if you can sit back and allow yourself to be moved by it before you move your pen, before you play a note, before you figure out what sounds you’re going to use – that will be the lesson I’ll take away from Hotel Rwanda. That said, I moved straight on from that to writing animated scores like Over the Hedge and using a different set of tools altogether. You learn to use different tools for different films.
Adaptability I imagine is one of the keys to the job?
Yes, it’s part of the fun and also the challenge.
Your brother Harry is another prominent film composer. I wondered do you swap notes or do you keep your ideas concealed from each other?
[laughs] Well, we certainly share emotional notes about the scores we’re currently working on. Not all scores are easy to write and it’s nice to have that support. There’s no-one in the world who I could empathise with more, or vice versa. You know, we’re brothers, we’re in the same game and we do the same thing. It’s easier to understand the joy and the pain.
So yeah, we don’t compare musical notes but we certainly support each other during the stage we’re at with our own respective movies.
So onto Wonder Woman, then. This is not only the first DC Extended Universe Movie to focus on a woman but to be directed by one as well, Patty Jenkins. How did the history of the character and her unique qualities inform your approach to the music?
Well, the story of Diana Prince is that she’s naive and not a woman of the world when we first meet her. She lives in a beautiful, sheltered island paradise with no real knowledge of the outside world, whilst also training to be an unconquerable warrior.
So there’s a lot of naiveté to her and yet also that sense of discovery, too. It’s all about the journey for her in this initial film, because she learns there is conflict raging in the outside world and she believes she can stop it. So my writing of her theme really grew with her, the creation of a character from a little girl through to a young woman who is able to fight really well but doesn’t really understand the true powers she possesses. Then by the end she is a fully formed superhero. So there is a journey in the thematic writing that mirrors the character.
Talking of the character’s thematic material, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL established some of that in Batman v Superman. Have you incorporated any of that into the score for this film?
You’ll have to watch the film to find out! As I just said, in this movie we create a character, it’s an origin story. And that theme written by Hans and Junkie, fantastic as it is, is very specific. It’s quite warlike and well-developed in its superhero confidence. As this is an origin story, we won’t be using it at the beginning of the film. There is a journey by which we can get there, but it’s a long journey before she becomes that very confident warrior. That’s how I can answer that question.
Superhero scores by their nature are famous for being blusterous and masculine as they more often than not deal with male characters. How does Wonder Woman as a character allow for more nuance in your orchestral writing?
Yes, I think she needed and deserved a melody. And it’s a compassionate melody because she has a great understanding of justice, but she also has love and wisdom. And that’s all part of her strength.
So musically I felt it was rich ground for writing themes. She isn’t just a brutal warrior, nor does she simply jump an awfully long way. She has a lot of emotional depth to her, and that was always very important to Patty and I when we worked together. The purpose of the story is to recognise that Diana has this emotional depth. Her understanding of the human race grows throughout the film. She’s a princess with the heart of a human, she’s compassionate and stands for wisdom and justice. It’s fertile ground for a composer, for sure.
How involved was Patty Jenkins in the development of the music? Does she get involved on a technical level about its construction or was it a more general conversation about the tone of the character?
We didn’t get into technical discussions but we did spend a lot of time chatting about the character. First of all, Patty is really smart, and she’s got a great ear for music. We hadn’t worked together before and she was understandably protective about how we were going to deal with Diana’s character, in a musical sense. Musically, it was important to understand Wonder Woman’s development across the narrative.
Like I said she’s got a great ear and we talked colours of music that she liked. Really it was all about heart and story, where we’re going with the story. We’d talk every day and not just about the score. She’d often talk about something she’d discovered about the character’s development.
I set up a studio very close to her cutting room so I could call Patty up and ask her to come over and listen to something I’d put together. We’d then work on it together for a while, she’d drop out and come back later, so we benefited from that close proximity. We got on very well, she’s a lot of fun and terribly smart. I managed to keep up with her!
Not only have you scored Wonder Woman recently but you also scored Netflix hit, The Crown, which is another narrative dealing with a strong, self-possessed female character. Do you think there’s been a sea-change in terms of how filmmakers and audiences approach strong women characters?
That’s a good question [pauses]. Not necessarily. As it happens, Wonder Woman has been a long time in the making and whether she’s arrived now as part of a sea change is up for question. But yeah, this past year for me with both Wonder Woman and Queen Elizabeth… Both are very strong characters. I suppose the key question is who’s going to be unleashed next upon the world – Batgirl?
You’d better ask Patty that question as she’s better at answering it than I am.
Sorry – the easy question was left until last! Rupert, thanks very much. I can’t wait to hear the score on album and in context.
My pleasure. Looking forward to what you think of it!
Sean Wilson is a journalist, writer and soundtrack enthusiast and can be found on Twitter @Seano22.