You worked with James Horner on the original Avatar movie, I think I remember you saying you did all the non-orchestral parts. When you discussed scoring The Way of Water was James Cameron very hands on concerning the music, and was it a given that some of the themes from the original score would be utilized in the movie?
Music is extremely important to Jim, he is hands-on with everything in a Jim Cameron film, that urge for perfection is part of what makes him who he is. We had very detailed conversations about how the score should feel, what we could improve on A1, how he wanted music to work against picture.
We always were going to bring leitmotifs from A1, this is the second in a canon of films, there has to be a canon of themes.
What size orchestra did you have for the project and where was it recorded?
We headed north of a 100 piece orchestra, Covid meant that we had to separate out the brass and percussion from the Strings and Winds, but it was good noise. I scored this at the Newman Stage, Fox Lot. This is the same stage we recorded A1, it feels like the home for Avatar.
Did you have to source specialist instruments and performers to create the unique sound on the score?
Oh yes! For the musicians: The legendary Tony Hinnigan and Pedro Eustache on woodwinds, Chuck Jonkey created unique custom percussion and tonal indigenous instruments for me. I did pressgang in my son, Luca, to play guitar and strung instruments, it seemed appropriate as Jim reused a piece of Luca singing when he was eight years old from the first score. The time machine that is Avatar!
The film was in production for a while, when did you start working on the music and had James Horner prepared anything for the movie?
I started working on the on-screen music in January 2018. James Horner died in 2015, he’d not written anything for the sequels.
It’s a richly thematic score, is it important to have themes for characters and for locations, I ask this because the trend seems to be to not write themes for movies these days. Your score incorporates the themes The Family, The Way of Water, Into the Water, and The Spirit tree which re-occur throughout the work which is just seamless and magical?
Jim specifically talked about wanting a more character-connected thematic score than A1; there are wonderful themes in A1 but they were used less in a manner connected to specific elements of the film. Jim wanted themes associated with characters and places that could be reused as Leitmotifs. You left out one theme – the RDA / Quaritch. Jim asked me for– “our version of the Imperial March’ – relentless, brutal”.
The Songcord is a track that I find fascinating, I understand that this was the first piece that you wrote for the movie, the vocal is beautiful, sung in Na’vi, who is the vocalist and was it difficult writing a song in a language that is exclusive to the movies?
Zoe Saldaña sings the vocal, it was sung live on set in front of 100 technicians – not pre-recorded. Writing in Na’Vi is second only to Klingon or Vogon as the antithesis of Italian as a perfect language for voice. There are lots of K’s, X’s , T’s –, but I found a way. I wrote the lyrics in English first for Jim to approve, then roughly translated them into Na’Vi. It has an advantage in the word order can be changed. I would adjust and refine each sentence to get it to sing correctly with approval from Paul Frommer who created the language.
The soundtrack was released on digital platforms then the expanded score version edition was released about a week later, how much music did you write for the movie and is it all now on a recording or is there more that maybe could be released later?
There’s about three hours of score in the final movie. I have another two hours of unused finished score that the normal process of edit changes and rewrites generated, so in total about five hours. The expanded score version is over 100 minutes, whether there are other releases is something for Disney to decide. I am staggered by the response; for a score album to get 50 million streams in the first three weeks is genuinely astonishing to me (and obviously The Weekend gets a gazillion more separately).
Do you take an active role in deciding what music will be released to represent the score?
Absolutely, but I have the restrictions that any composer has with any release in terms of how much and where things get released. That tends be a film company decision.
I was adamant that we would release the Atmos Mixes as we did them for the film and if you have a streaming company that supports it (Apple, Amazon, Tidal so far), you can listen to Simon Rhodes’ mixes as we hear them in the studio, in lossless Dolby Atmos.
The media are already saying that an Avatar 3, could be on the horizon, will you be working on this?
I’ve already started. I was recording material for A3 whilst doing A2. As long as I stay unfired, I’m signed up to do all the sequels.
What is next for you?
A beer. I did turn down something to start immediately as I do need to recharge, my last day off before January was in August. There are a number of films I have been offered, I have some time before I start A3 and I love to write music. I have a symphonic work that got shelved due to Covid and A2; I will probably start back on that when I remember where the new notes are in my fingers.
(QUESTION FROM MMI SUBSCRIBER):
Amongst your brilliant new themes you composed, you reference throughout the film, and very appropriately, James Horner’s motifs and themes from the original film. How did you decide which of his themes to use and where to spot them?
Jim and I had favourite leitmotifs from A1 that it made complete sense to use, both creatively and emotionally (James Horner was a close friend of both of us). The ‘I See You’ theme from A1 is something I would use for Jake and Neytiri specifically – that’s their love theme and I expanded its use to be part of action scenes when Jake and Neytiri act as a double team. Jim also liked the chords structure – that felt to him like something we could use for ‘flying’ – the short section with Kiri, Tsireya, Tuk on Ilu’s for example.
Jim really liked the idea of the 45” aftermath of the death of the Tulkun including a reference to ‘The Death of Hometree’ from A1, he thought that resonated. It’s a great cue and I was proud to be able to use it.