Interview: Howard Shore on Scoring Pieces of a Woman, LOTR and 30 Years of Silence of the Lambs

Howard Shore during "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" scoring sessions. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega (c) New Line Cinema

Howard Shore, the prolific film composer behind the music heard in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (for which he earned three Academy Awards), Se7en, The Departed, comedies Big and Mrs. Doubtfire along with many other projects (to date he’s scored over 90 films since 1979’s The Brood for David Cronenberg) is one of the industry’s most respected, inventive and admired music writers. His latest project is the intimate Pieces of a Woman, adapted from a stage play by director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, and Ellen Burstyn. Pieces of a Woman tell the story of a woman named Martha Weiss (Kirby) piecing her life back together after the devastating, tragic loss of her child. Shore’s music for Martha’s journey is poignant, tender, and of course, emotional, as most splendid music is. Shore spoke to me about how he approached scoring such a delicate story, his collaborations with Cronenberg, Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese (who lent his name to Pieces of a Woman), David Fincher, and his Silence of the Lambs music still terrifying audiences 30 years later.

Jason: How many times do you watch a film before deciding where music should be placed? Does that vary from movie to movie?

Howard Shore: Well, placing the music in a film is called spotting, and usually that comes a little later in the process. That’s a meeting with the director and the composer discussing the use of music and film.

Jason: For the 25-minute single shot that the centerpiece of Pieces of a Woman, where do you decide which points music should be heard?

Howard Shore: The director, Kornél Mundruczó, is a very experienced theater and Opera director and film director in Europe. And he had very specific ideas about where music should be placed in the story, and the use of music. And for me, that’s an excellent collaboration. So we discussed it quite a bit. Sometimes we put music in, took it out; moved it around; took something from one scene; tried it in another. The piece is essentially a concerto for soloist and orchestra. The piano is predominantly featured as a concerto, soloist, and the oboe and the celesta.

Jason: It’s incredibly effective. It just breaks my heart every time I hear the piece titled “Motherhood,” that little piece where Martha (played by Kirby) is giving birth. If another director came to you with another scene like that and said, here’s a 25-minute one-shot scene, and I want you to score all of it, would you be up for that?

Howard Shore: Well, if that was what is required, but here Kornél was so specific about the use of using music, a bit in the beginning, sparingly. And then the piece results at the end of this sequence when the birth finally takes place. And the music is striking at that point, and it’s an optimistic, hope-filled peace. So it’s not following the action so much as maybe more commenting on the scene having its own voice.

Jason: For this film, you had a very pleasant collaborative process with writer Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó. Is this something you look for when accepting projects as opposed to when a director might say, ‘well, it’s Howard, he knows what he’s doing so I’m just going to leave him alone?’

Howard Shore: No, I like to collaborate. I mean, I’ve worked with some directors for a long time, like David Cronenberg. It’s a very intuitive process and we do the spotting session, but he pretty much leaves me on my own for quite a while. This is the first time I worked with Kornél.  We communicated regularly by zoom and Skype, and we were talking pretty fluently through the process. So I enjoyed that because he’s got a good ear for very musical things that I would send to him. He understood and he could comment; he was there right with me in a very positive way.

Howard Shore stands at a podium overlooking sheet music
Howard Shore stands at a podium overlooking sheet music. Image courtesy: Focus Features – Benjamin Ealovega

Jason: Your working relationship with directors such as Cronenberg and Martin Scorsese and David Fincher and especially Peter Jackson have been very collaborative partnerships. Has an initial idea or idea for a score or even themes changed during working with one of these directors or any director you’ve worked with?

Howard Shore: Yeah. Well, it does. Making films is a very fluid process. And until you’re putting together the final mix for the film, things are fluid. Especially in the digital age when changes to the picture are often made. Changes to the score. What you do is you try to follow the process and try to do your best work.

Jason: Do you prefer to read a script before seeing the cut of a movie? I believe you read several Cronenberg scripts first. Is there anywhere you’ve just seen the movie first, where you’ve just gone in completely fresh?

Howard Shore: I do I like to read so I like to read the script. And I like to dream about it and get into the subtext of what the author is describing. I’ve done quite a few literary adaptions from novels and plays as well, so I like to go to the original source material and then to the screenplay. And then, to the visualization of the film, I like that process.

Jason: Has there ever been an instance where you intended to surprise an audience what they might expect to hear. For example, they always placed Dead Ringers in the horror section of Blockbuster video stores however the music reminded me more of Morricone’s style or something like Maurice Jarre was doing at the time. It’s not what one might expect for a horror/thriller.

Howard Shore: When I’m working on a film, I’m not making really conscious decisions about the production. I’m just going with my intuition, and the flow of the conversation with the director, and also how the film is made, and what it requires musically. So the answer to your question is music to me is an emotional language. I’m just reacting emotionally and creating music that I’m also interested in creating for that film whether it’s Dead Ringers and using the London Philharmonic or a movie like The Fly that was done in a very symphonic way. Sometimes when I look back I was changing the genre, I wasn’t always necessarily aware of it. You see that in Silence of the Lambs as well, that wasn’t exactly the way you would have scored that type of movie In the culture at the time. It was a little unusual. For a film like Se7en to be using a rather large orchestra and a lot of percussions, those scores are rather unique, I think for the period.

Jason: In Pieces of a Woman, losing a child is horrifying for this couple in the film yet you stayed away from horror sounding music, the piano is the individual’s inner voice, and It reminded me of your music for Big, which that and Se7en are my favorite scores of yours.

Howard Shore: Quite the contrasts (laughs).

Jason: The two couldn’t be more different, but they affect me equally, especially Big’s ending, which destroys me every time I hear it. Why is the piano your choice of instrument for these little intimate stories?

Howard Shore: Kornél wanted a classical approach to the score. And we even used a bit of my piano concerto called Ruin & Memory (which premiered at the 2010 Beijing Music Festival). I used a few fragments of that. And he knew that piece and liked it, and we went into that concerto mode where the piano is featured with the orchestra. Then the celesta with the oboe with the orchestra, and then the strings on their own. So this concerto style took on a very classical approach to scoring the film.

Jason: I read an interview of yours from 1996, where you commented you felt you had accomplished everything you could have in terms of film scoring, but then Crash came along that year, and then, a couple of years later, Lord of the Rings came your way and changed your life in ways you couldn’t foresee. How do you feel now post Lord of the Rings?

Howard Shore: Well, I’m happy with that period, that I could approach Tolkien’s work at a particular time in my life where I had the experience. And I had the conducting, orchestration, composing ideas I could use to create music on the podium, and how to orchestrate for Symphony Orchestra. So it really came at a great time in my life that I could express those ideas. I’m very happy that it worked out.

Jason: Were you offered every fantasy or action blockbuster under the sun right after this period?

Howard Shore: Well, it was an interesting period. Because even though I had been working on films for many years, probably 20 by the time of Fellowship of the Ring, there really wasn’t interest in things that I had done before that and suddenly there was a lot of interest in my work, before Lord of the Rings, and going forward there was a lot of interest to work with different filmmakers and I was very happy for that.

Jason: Do you think you might one day take a musical plunge into the Marvel cinematic universe?

Howard Shore: I would look at it if it was somebody who is interested in working with me, I would be open to it. Absolutely.

Jason: The title Pieces of a Woman puts me in mind of pieces or minor events in a person’s life, such as Martha’s. I understand you started out writing music for short pieces documenting parks and nature for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Would you do that type of thing again if it came your way?

Howard Shore: If it was of interest, musically. One of my reasons for going into film and working in film was to work with the technology and to work with different orchestras and in Chamber Orchestra. So I’m interested in music. If something comes to me, that’s of interest, musically, something I haven’t done before, or sparks a certain emotion in me or something I just have to do. Because I love what they created, then I’ll do it.

Jason: I also read that when you’re growing up in Toronto, and I’m interviewing you here from Newfoundland, which is equally cold —

Howard Shore: Yes, I have a good friend who lives in Newfoundland.

Jason: I read you visited music libraries in Toronto where you discovered music by Akira Kurosawa’s composer Tōru Takemitsu and Fellini’s main composer Nino Rota. John Williams actually did the same thing when he was here, stationed in the Air Force during the early 50s. I actually just live minutes away from where he recorded his first-ever score. It was this little building downtown. He was influenced by local provincial melodies that fishermen used to sing, and he found those in the library. Did discovering Takemitsu and Rota impact you and inspire you similarly?

Howard Shore: It did. I was able to discover the entire world in music when I went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston to study composition and that also opened up the world to me of what was possible in music and I could study artists as different as Bach or Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus. It was a fabulous time, and I never stopped studying once I left Berklee. I continued by taking and studying scores. The library had recordings from all over the world, so it was a fabulous time to discover artists that were inspirations from different parts of the world; Takemitsu, Nino Rota, Georges Delerue, and Bernard Herrman. Those composers were always of interest.

Jason: I’m a huge Rota fan. I think Satyricon is actually one of his unique yet not really discussed works, but if you really listen to it, it’s just quite remarkable.

Howard Shore: Yeah. I’m a huge fan.

Jason: I recently listened to your expanded Sliver disc, which came out recently, and it’s such a cool score. Do the specialty soundtrack labels come to you, or do you approach them when there’s interest in a title being re-released?

Howard Shore: That was Dan Goldwasser. He produced it. I have known him for quite a while and he approached me with it. We’ve done on our label Howe Records, quite a few archival releases. But he wanted to do Sliver, and I thought he put together a beautiful presentation of my work on it and Chris Young’s work on it. I was very happy with it.

Jason: It’s a really cool score. So this month is actually the 30th anniversary of The Silence of the Lambs

Howard Shore: 30 years, that’s incredible.

Jason: — That movie’s impact has not faded one bit. It’s still terrifying audiences. How gratifying is it to you you’re part of something where its appreciation just keeps growing?

Howard Shore: Well, it’s interesting, that film, Silence of the Lambs. It came out on Valentine’s Day. That’s right. It was in February and it played throughout the year, and it just picked up momentum from one month to the next. And then it went to the Oscars the March of the following year, 1992, and one won those five top Oscars. So the momentum of it just kept building and it continues. The film is so beautifully made. We were all together at the 25th anniversary and Jonathan Demme was there as well. And so it was wonderful to be with everybody that one evening in New York, to celebrate it. Jonathan’s work is so brilliant in that film and we all were just inspired by the film and what he had created. Great director. I think we did some of our best work on it.

Howard Shore sitting inside Abbey Road recording studios during the Eastern Promises scoring sessions in 2007
Howard Shore during the Eastern Promises recording sessions in Abbey Road Studios. Image courtesy: Focus Features – Benjamin Ealovega

Jason: Oh, without question. Finally, Pieces of a Woman debuted on Netflix within a year where typically it would have opened on movie screens. Where do you see the film industry headed? Do you think we can get back to regular movie-going at some point soon?

Howard Shore: I absolutely think we will get back to regular movie-going once we continue with the vaccinations. We just need to get through the next six months. It’s going to be better for people to be together. But I think it will continue and these things will work side by side. You’ll still have streaming, but it’ll be in a way where the experience of going into movie theaters, which we all love and miss will continue. It must.

Jason: Okay, that’s all I have. Is there anything else you’d like to like to say or add?

Howard Shore: No, no, I think you’ve done it.

Jason: It was a genuine pleasure to speak to you. I’ve been a fan pretty much all my life and admirer. Your music has gotten me through some hard moments in my life, and it’s gotten me through the best moments of my life. And like I said, Big just makes me cry every time I listen to it. I don’t know how award season is going to work this year, but I hope you’re recognized for your lovely, lovely work for Pieces of a Woman.

Howard Shore: Thank you so much. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m glad that the music resonated with you and it was emotional. Happy to hear that.

Jason: Thank you so much.

Howard Shore: All right. Take care.

Music From The Netflix Film Pieces of a Woman by Howard Shore is available from Decca Records on Amazon and other streaming services.

Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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