High are the chances that a tune from John Powell has been, or still is, the music of an aspect of your life. Finishing a tough exam? Jason Bourne series’ main titles, or perhaps The Italian Job. Experiencing euphoria? How to Train Your Dragon’s Oscar-nominated flight theme. Getting out of drama? Thanks to social media, this cadence from Drumline. You get the idea, and hopefully the hint that our English composer’s name should be on our minds more often, especially when his contributions to cinematic scoring have titles like those named.
In July, Powell was nominated for his first Primetime Emmy Award, Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series or Special (Original Dramatic Score), for STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. Director Davis Guggenheim’s stirring and, at times, incredibly jovial AppleTV+ film about the Back to the Future star and activist’s interactions with fame and Parkinson’s is the first documentary project in Powell’s 30+ year career. It also guides him toward being an Emmy nominee for the first time.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with Powell to further explore his nomination for STILL, syncing up with Fox’s outlook, tips for scoring documentaries and a preview of his approach for Illumination’s Migration.
Nguyên Lê: I was wondering whether an Emmy is an item on your to-do or a welcoming surprise?
John Powell: Definitely the latter — it never sort of occurred to me that this would be eligible for the Emmys. And the Emmys are great because they have more than one score category [to award], so if I’d been up against some of the things in some of those other categories, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had a chance. But given that they’re so receptive to documentaries, I think it was a lucky, lucky moment for me.
NL: Your score for STILL seems to really adhere to the notion “Michael J. Fox’s film life is Michael J. Fox’s real life.” That has me wondering about two things. First, how close did you have to work with your music supervisor to sustain this effect?
JP: Well, Randy [Randall] Poster was the music supervisor, and he basically was the one who introduced me to Davis, who had been, I think, asking about me. And I was working on another film with Randy. But by the time I came on, a lot of the needle drops, all these other pieces of music, were set. Randy, Davis and [editor Michael Harte] had already sort of constructed the film with these moments, already knowing that they were gonna have them. I got to walk into something that was a little bit more solidified. And I knew, kind of, where my moments would be and where I wouldn’t need to worry — obviously the needle drops, but also, for instance, they’d already cut together very brilliantly the whole sequence with Back to the Future using Alan Silvestri’s music. That was already there! I was very glad not to have to do that!
But I had to worry about it in the sense that, you know, I couldn’t just ride roughshod over those moments. Since they were already set and they were working extremely well, you’re kind of backing yourself into some tight spaces at times.
NL: Now for the second: Your score here takes a gentler approach, but it still attempts to maximize a character many would minimize. Did you call upon your experience in animation scoring for STILL? At any point or at all?
JP: You know, I was asked to go and see Davis based on the fact that his daughter had suggested me. Seemed like a strange idea, but I think it came from a conversation where Davis was, “Who are the composers out there that write very joyful music?” And I think his daughter basically said, “There’s that score to How to Train Your Dragon” … I think he found that there was a lot of music I’d done where I would kind of dance through the movie. And that’s really what Michael does: He dances through life.
JP: And the fact he can’t dance quite as fast anymore, it doesn’t, in any way, diminishes the character he really is — a fast-moving, enjoying-his-life guy. And the story is that he runs — smack! — into this giant problem. And we sit there and watch how he figures his life and how he stops himself from falling apart. It’s a very optimistic story. So most of the film, I felt should be treated that way, and it came naturally to me as it were. The tough bits were obviously how do you deal with such serious subjects? How do you not overplay them and not over-sentimentalize those things?
I also didn’t feel that the story that Davis was trying to sell was. “Here’s a man who’s had everything and had it all taken away.” And all he did was find more meaning in his life, more value in his life and has enjoyed it even more, despite everything. You know, rising that high and then falling that low — that normally suggests somebody crashes. It’s not that he didn’t fall, but he has decided to take an approach to life I think we can all value. So trying to find music that represented that part of him, rather than the expected one, about the crash, the fall, the depression and all that? That’s not what we needed to get from the film. We needed the other story. We needed the hero we would love to think we could be. It was great to see somebody who actually did that.
NL: I reckon that had this documentary been animated, your score would still work…
JP: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, in a way, he’s one of the most animated characters I’ve ever worked on.
NL: We actually crossed a bit into my next question. How do you make sure that your score won’t be regarded as “manipulative”?
JP: I apply a sort of rule, which is that the first time I see a film I’ll watch it without any temp. I literally do try and come on as late into the process as I can, as it’s safe to do, so that the first time I’d watch the film, the film has found itself already. And when I watch it with no music, I’d get as honest a reaction from it as the audience will. The only difference is that they’ll have music, and I don’t. But that’s OK, because any music I hear in there will just distract me because I’m watching as a composer. Then the trick is not to write music that distracts anybody else! And to be, always, just slightly behind where I am as an audience member … I’m trying to match where I’m authentically as an audience member feeling things. And then also let it support what I felt the first time through, not manipulate or overreach into emotions I wouldn’t want doing.
And that’s all I can be. All the music I write is based on my own tastes, and the way I put it in the film is based on my own tastes in the sense of, “That’s how I felt about the film.” If I watch a film and it doesn’t work for me, and I have had these situations, I either have to back out or I have to say to the filmmaker, “Well, what do you wish that I’d felt because I didn’t feel it?” Then we can talk about pushing it harder there.
JP: And there are films where it feels OK to do that because it’s part of the language of that film. This film didn’t. It would just explode on me if I tried it, I could tell. It felt like if I put the wrong thing on it, it’d immediately cause a rash.
And I’m describing a film but I’m also describing a film that’s built around the character of Michael J. Fox. He’s not going to take anybody’s sympathies. He just wants to live life, and he wants you to know that he wants to live life. He doesn’t need your feelings of sorrow for him, he’s too busy getting on with his life. That continuum of optimism and hope is all the stuff that worked.
I also had all the help in the world from the director and the editor — from their reactions. I mean, that’s the truth of it: At a certain point, they became the audience members to what I was then working on. We all kind of take turns in being authentic listeners of the story and our reactions. I tried to hold onto, always, my reaction to the first time I saw the film. There’ve been a few films where I’ve been on so early I can’t tell what the story is.
JP: Happy Feet was very hard. When I started it, there was nothing. That was a difficult experience. But generally, I’m much more useful to filmmakers if they wait, and then we find that perfect moment when the film is coagulating correctly for them. And then they show it to me with no music, and I will basically get an honest reaction for them. You know, when it works, I don’t need music for it to tell me how wonderful a film is sometimes. STILL was one of the ones where when I watched it without music, it was profound already.
NL: Is there a little known fact or a misconception in need of correction about scoring documentaries that you would like to share?
JP: A little-known fact and misconception, in my mind, is that it’s going to be quite easy! It was very hard [laughs]. I mean it took me five months to do 39 minutes of music, which is not really tenable in my industry. I did a lot more tripping over than Michael J. Fox did on this one so…
NL: What can we expect from your next project, Migration?
JP: Well [laughs], let’s just say after having sort of controlled myself on STILL, I didn’t for this one. You’re going to hear me at my best and worst! I just let it rip.
The funny thing is, I’ll tell you, was that the filmmaker and I had a meeting. He wanted me to do the film, and everything went great, fine. Then while he was, I think, traveling from America back to France where he lives, he watched Don’t Worry Darling. He got to the end of the film, saw my name, immediately called the studio and said, “Have we… have we hired the wrong person for this?! Because, this guy— It’s never going to fit our film.” He had a point! [laughs]
I think what you’d see is definitely more me having fun. I went full on for the flying theme again, because I think it’s a wonderful thing that humans have always forever dreamed of. I enjoyed it immensely.
NL: Thank you so much for this chat, Mr. Powell. I hope one day to see you scoring a Vietnamese film.
JP: That would be another humbling experience!
John Powell is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series or Special (Original Dramatic Score) for STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which currently streaming on AppleTV+