Harry Gregson-Williams Interview

EG: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to allow us to come here and talk with you.

HGW: Not a problem.

EG: Could you tell us a little about your background? What got you into composing films?

HGW: I have been studying music since I was three and playing it since I was four. I attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and after that, I went to Egypt and Africa teaching music to children. I had a short stint as an actor and it was soon after I started this that I realized that sitting around in a trailer all day waiting for my next part was not what I wanted out of life, so I turned to music. I wanted to try to do something with my music instead of other people's children.

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: I met Hans Zimmer about nine years ago while he was scoring "Crimson Tide" and he asked me to arrange the Chorus for the score. I accepted and after that, he said that I should make my own path in the film music scene since I had the chops for it. "If I can do it, you can Harry" he said. I did and the rest is history.

EG: Probably the best thing to happen to America in a long time!

HGW: [smiles] Thank you. It's my own American dream, really.

EG: How did you become the composer for MGS2 and MGS3?

HGW: That's an interesting story, actually. I was in my studio composing the score to a film, when I received a CD through the post that had some action bits from various movies I had done the scores to -- someone obviously did their homework and had researched my action music. There was a rather flattering letter attached to it and well, flattery will get you everywhere, so...

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: ...I thought, these guys really like me, so why not? The note said that they wanted me to compose the score to this videogame [MGS2] and that they didn't have the budget of a Hollywood feature film and they didn't even know if I would be interested in doing this -- But it was something different, so I accepted. It was a similar situation with MGS3. They contacted me and said that they were going to make another one and that they would like me to do the score to this one as well. I remember doing the press junket where I went touring around Europe with Hideo promoting the game [MGS2] and someone asked me if there was going to be another game and would I be interested in doing it if there was. I said, if it's set on another Oil Rig, then no -- but if it's set in the Amazon, I would consider it.

I might have influenced something, because here we are in the jungle!

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: Seriously though, I'm sure he had that in mind long before I said that. When we met to discuss the score to MGS3, they showed me some pictures of a jungle or rain forest; probably Borneo, you know, a rain-forest -- with shots of Hideo climbing around in the bushes.

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: They wanted to show me the scope of the setting; the colors and the saturation of the jungle -- the emotions and feeling of what the music should sound like. They told me how it was different to MGS2 and that Hideo wanted this "jungle flavor" to the music for MGS3.

EG: Do you feel that composing the score to a videogame is a very different undertaking from composing a film? Is it easier or harder to accomplish?

HGW: It's the same in terms of how I go about matching the sound and feel of the music to the scene -- but it's very different in terms of how exactly I do it. You see, with films, I have the scenes to go by visually, I can see them right in front of me and when I go to the premier of the film, I know exactly when and where my music will start, like when she turns her head here, the music will begin. You see?

But with these video games, I have to do it a bit differently. Hideo sends me e-mail's giving me certain scenarios, like "Ambient", "Action", or "Sneaky" all split into categories like this. I then have to compose music that fits into that mold. I have to write music that comes behind these characters. I provide these modules of music for them. For example, Snake might be up a tree and then there are some nasty fellows creeping up near him. Now, we can see that he's up this tree, but they can't. So imagine a music scenario like that ...okay! [smiles]

EG: [Laughter]

[at this time, the phone rings and Harry answers it.]

HGW: Just a moment guys, I have to take this.

EG: Okay.

HGW: Now then, where were we?

EG: Snake was up a tree.

HGW: [Laughter]

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: Right [smiles]. It's a bit difficult, as I can't see all this to score it as it happens. There might be action -- running hard, or full out action -- someone's chasing them, or an uneasy atmosphere -- followed by action, or action that suddenly comes to a stop. Hideo sent me these scenarios and I had to sort of, well make them. [smiles]

How my music is used in the game is beyond me. It's a leap of faith. I have to trust these guys to put the music into the game where it works and sometimes make me look better than I deserve.

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: The people playing the game are in control of the music, maybe. But if you want to know how it is physically, technically put into the game, like how these long-winded 3 minute "chugging along" types of music I wrote sort of morph into each other, I have no idea. Someone's doing that in Tokyo. When you play the game and everything is going just fine as you are chugging along, the music is happy, happy, happy. Then, someone pops up shooting a gun, so the music suddenly has to turn, hasn't it? After that, it's back to happy, happy, happy. I don't make any segways, I would have provided them with the happy, happy, happy music and then with alarming music, but it's up to them how all this music gets used in the game. Somehow, they have to put all that together. If you want to know how they actually make use of my music in the game, then you're talking to the wrong guy!

EG: Did you provide them with more or less music for MGS3, as compared to what you wrote for MGS2?

HGW: What I provided them with is similar in terms of the amount of slow pieces that I wrote, the number of fast pieces I wrote and so on. I did the Lion's share of the thing. For this one, Hideo really likes the electric guitar sound, so there is a bit of that flowing around -- a bit more of that than the last one. Also orchestra, that sort of stuff.

EG: Do you have anything that we could hear from MGS3?

HGW: Sure. Hold on a sec.

[At this time, Harry calls a friend and says "Where's Metal Gear Solid, man? Yes, that old Donkey!" we all laugh and he then proceeds to locate some of his superb music for us to hear. He looks in his computer and pulls up the music heard in the MGS3 E3 2003 trailer -- only in it's natural state, with no sound effects, voice-overs or edits. Before the music starts, he says "I think I found something. This will probably end up being "Bridget Jones" or something." We all laugh. We sit and listen to it with him and it sounded absolutely incredible. His studio has the best sound set-up you could ever imagine, with speakers everywhere. It was like being a part of the music. We then hear the Tokyo Game Show MGS3 trailer music and then the MGS main theme with Harry playing it on a guitar, as heard near the end of the 2003 E3 trailer. Also of note is how cool it was to hear this with the composer listening to it with you. A truly memorable moment.]

EG: That was incredible. I noticed a few short segments that I haven't heard before. Those must be bits where the MGS3 team edited the music to fit the trailer. It sounded a bit different to hear it without any of the sound effects.

HGW: Yes, that' how it's done. I provide them with the music and they use it to suit their needs. Very complicated, really. Did you like it?

EG: Yes, very much!

HGW: [smiles]

EG: This room, is it set up this way for the acoustics? I noticed the shape of the room and the position of this couch and was wondering if it was set this way to maximize the acoustic element.

HGW: Yes, this room is set up this way to get the optimum sound from my music. That spot where you are sitting, that's the G-spot.

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: [Smiles] That's where Steven Spielberg or Jeffrey Katzenberg are gonna sit, to judge how my music sounds. These Directors and Producers sit here and they decide whether they are going to love it, or they're going to hate it -- and they're going to tell me about it. [Smiles]

EG: How did you get your music to the MGS3 team?

HGW: It was really a neat little process. I would upload my music to my FTP site and they would grab it off. Then, they would tell me about it. Things like "You have this "Sneaky" bit we love, but you have it on an action cue. Why don't you take it off and put it on another one." They really gave me great direction. Hideo really wanted the music to inspire his team. I was starting "Man On Fire" while finishing MGS3 and before that, I was finishing "Shrek 2."I worked on the score to MGS3 for about 8 or 9 months on and off, but if I had worked on it straight through, I could have scored MGS3 in about a month or so.

EG: As far as percussion goes, you are the best in the business. What drives you when it comes to the drum elements in your music?

HGW: Well, I enjoy programming it, but I do a lot of overdubs as well. That's my overdub room over there [motions behind him to a panel of sound-proof glass]. That piece you just heard has a lot of African percussion in it. I have 3 or 4 assistants working with me and we really go to town on each project we do. We tailor-make our drum sounds and drum loops so that it's special for each project. It's good fun. The technology is right where we want it to be able to do that.

EG: Have you ever played MGS2?

HGW: I'm not much of a video game kind of guy. I think the last video game I played was Pong.

EG: [Laughter]

HGW: The Metal Gear games are very complex. I had trouble getting through the credits!

EG: [Laughter] It was the same way for my girlfriend here. When we started dating, I showed her how to play "Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes" and she said the same thing, that it was very complex.

HGW: You've played the game? What's it like?

EG: Which one, MGS2 or MGS3?


EG: We played a short demo at E3 today. It was incredible. The show floor is so loud, that it was a little hard to hear the music; but what we could hear was amazing!

HGW: Thank you. [smiles] So people are playing it?

EG: Just a short demo. They are really enjoying it.

HGW: Is it finished? When does it come out?

EG: Almost. They are putting the finishing touches on it and making adjustments here and there. I think it releases this November.

HGW: Ahhh.

EG: I read somewhere that as far as composing your music is concerned, you prefer to conduct a live orchestra. Is your music for MGS3 done using a live orchestra or is it done here in your studio?

HGW: Yeah, yeah. I do love conducting an orchestra, but it really comes down to the budget. I can make it sound like a real orchestra, as you heard. It's more expensive to hire an entire orchestra and since I can make it sound like one -- why spend the extra money on one? Hopefully, it doesn't sound synthesized. The bits that are supposed to sound synthesized, are -- but anything orchestral, like the violins, trombones and stuff, you hear that, that should sound like the real McCoy.

EG: I always thought that the music from MGS2 and MGS3 was done using an orchestra until you said that -- it sounds that real!

HGW: Good, good. [smiles]

EG: The other composer for MGS2 and MGS3, Norihiko Hibino -- do you work with him in any way?

HGW: I haven't met him, but I've heard of him. I saw his name in the credits of the last one [MGS2]. For MGS2, I wrote maybe an hour or so of music, but there was more that was needed. I guess he picked up the slack by adding his own music, I don't know. But being as I haven't been able to get through MGS2, I don't know. [Laughs]

As I said, I'm not a video game kind of guy -- but maybe I'll morph into one. Hopefully, all the music works as a whole.

EG: It does.

HGW: Good, I'm glad. [smiles].

EG: His music sounds like your music, because it's done in a similar style. You both have very distinctive styles, so there is a noticeable difference in that you can tell who composed what music -- but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. I suppose that this is the the Metal Gear sound, the music that you and he do together.

HGW: Yes.

EG: In the E3 2004 press pack, there is a flyer that comes with it that has quotes from you and other members of the MGS3 team. [Matt hands him one of the press kits] It says that you are going to restructure the sound of MGS. What did you mean by that statement?

HGW: I didn't want to do the same thing I did last time. That's what I meant when I made that comment in London. I had no idea they were going to set this new one in the jungle. I want to give players a fresh experience and to make it sound decidedly different from the last game. Hideo wanted it to sound like the Metal Gear sound. He didn't want me to go all "Jungley" with the score to MGS3, he wanted me to do something new but at the same time, keep the flavor of the MGS experience intact. Somehow, I had to give him that and find a fresh take on it myself. Otherwise, I might as well have stayed in bed, you know, why do it all again? [Laughs] This new game has a different score from the last one, but it still has that Metal Gear flavor.

EG: How has your experience of working with Metal Gear been?

HGW: I really like Hideo Kojima. He's a top man, isn't he? He really responds to my music and I really react well to his encouraging me down a certain path. He's on top of his game. He has an incredible mind for these things. I haven't spent much time with him, but he and I get on very well, although we have to go through an interpreter, since he doesn't speak English and I certainly don't speak Japanese.

EG: What was the first film that you composed the score to?

HGW: Ahhh! It was a little screwed-up thriller called "White Angel" that I'm happy to say you won't find in any video shop anywhere! It was my first one out of the gate and I don't consider it vintage me.

EG: What was your first Hollywood film?

HGW: My first Hollywood movie was a love story called "The Whole Wide World" with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger -- that's where I met her. I think it was her first movie as well. Anyway, after that I did "Armageddon" and "Enemy Of The State" and started down that path.

EG: Of the films you have done, which one is your favorite and why?

HGW: "Spy Game"

EG: That's one of our favorites as well.

HGW: I like the blend of techno and the big, epic sort of orchestral music. Also, the film was set in such a variety of places that gave me a real chance to do different things. There are parts of the film set in Beirut, then Germany, then back in America and then China. For this we went out and got all of these Chinese percussionists and it was really a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun to put this whole tapestry together. That same director that did "Enemy Of The State" and "Spy Game"did "Man On Fire", which I had a lot of fun on that one as well. That one is set exclusively in Mexico City.

EG: We are definitely going to see "Man On Fire!" As a film composer yourself, who is your favorite film composer?

HGW: Tom Newman, maybe?

EG: I thought that you were going to say...

HGW: Hans Zimmer?

EG: ...John Williams. Hans Zimmer? Do most people assume that you would say he was your favorite film composer?

HGW: Yeah, probably. I have the highest respect for Hans and I love his work. As for Tom Newman, there is something that he offers that people can only copy, really. They don't have it in them to be able to do that. He has a great ability with very lush strings which I admire. He is very talented.

EG: Do you think that composing the score to videogames is something that you would like to do again?

HGW: The great thing about movies is that they're are all different. "Bridget Jones" is kind of different from "Man On Fire", which is different from"Shrek 2", which is different from "The Replacement Killers" which is different from "Enemy Of The State." Each time out of the gate, everything is different. With Metal Gear, Hideo wanted a big orchestral sound, but I had to find something fresh to do with it. I like to do something different each time in my work, My music doesn't just come out of thin air -- I look at the picture here [Harry motions toward the video screen displaying a paused image from "Bridget Jones 2"] I can see what I am composing for and I know when I need to have the music come in.

EG: As a composer, what inspires you?

HGW: I'm inspired by other peoples work. Hideo's really on top of his game with this one. He really knows his stuff and I'm sure that people will enjoy his new game. I hope that everyone really likes the game and hopefully, they will enjoy the music as well.

EG: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview!

HGW: No problem guys.

-- Interview by Matthew McCarty for epicentergames.com, 21.05.2004

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