‘News of the World’: How James Newton Howard Composed a ‘Broken’ Score for a Fragile Western


When composer James Newton Howard (“Raya and the Last Dragon”) first met with Paul Greengrass on the set of “News of the World” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the director already knew what kind of music he wanted: A broken score for a broken country. It was the perfect complement for the this post-Civil War western about healing and unification between news reader Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) and 10-year-old orphan Johanna (Helena Zengel), who endure a four-month journey together across the harsh, northern Texas plains.

“We talked about a broken consort — a central core collection of musicians playing in an ideal way more than literally,” said Howard, a nine-time Oscar nominee (seven for score). “But it was the idea of feeling uncertain, fragile, roughly hewn, and then surrounding that with orchestral music. And the way I tried to achieve that was by using more ancient instruments: cello d’amore and viola da gambas, instruments that, in my mind, have a more fragile sound to them, less expression. You had to draw the bow across the string rather than dig into the string. And it gave us almost that droning quality in much of the music.”

Howard additionally channeled the Celtic musical origins of the time and place to create a folksy sound with mandolin and banjos. It served as another form of unification tied to the central theme that’s so relevant today in this divisive time.

“It may have been simple music but simple is hard to do,” he added. Howard even picked up a Kiowa chant (Johanna was kidnapped and raised by Kiowas before she was orphaned) that was used in the distance like a sound effect. “I was leery of ladling on too much Native American or super Western sounds,” Howard continued. “I think it would’ve been wrong not to have some of those flavors in the score because there’s an expectation, and it does stick to the geography so magnificently.”


“News of the World”

Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures

But Howard fixated on the opening theme for Hanks’ ex-Confederate Kidd, who’s trying to exorcise his pain and suffering as a sort of traveling angel. At first, he thought he had it figured out and even had Greengrass’ approval, but, after an initial screening, the composer realized that he was on the wrong track. “It was too sweet. It told you things about this character that you shouldn’t know yet and, if that was who he was, the rest of the movie just wasn’t gonna work,” he said.

“So the more I watched the movie, the more it felt like a sermon and the idea of a solemnity and almost sacred quality to these settings seemed more appropriate to the score,” he added. “I started to mess around with a piano gospel idea. What was hard was where to put that theme. It doesn’t come in until more than halfway through the movie when he’s riding in the wagon with Johanna and they’re having that wonderful, platonic love fest with each other.”

Howard went with a “strained loneliness” for the Wichita Falls setup before encountering Johanna. “I just felt his pain when he’s watching the depressing scene with the freighter and being threatened by that crowd and he’s in that hotel room by himself and he looks at a picture of his wife,” he said. “I thought that when I wrote it, it would turn into a theme, but it never did.”

In terms of a theme for Johanna, Howard composed something more meditative in keeping with her sense of mystery. For instance, after Kidd wakes up in panic when she’s not there, he finds her staring off into space. “What is she staring at? What is she thinking of? What is she remembering?,” Howard wondered. “I think it would’ve been hard to express that in a traditional tune, so I treated her more in an ambient [way].”

The most demanding sequence to compose was the film’s action set piece, in which Kidd and Johanna fight off three attackers intent on kidnapping and trafficking her. It’s a turning point that ties them closer together for the rest of the story. But, while Howard steered clear of a traditional horn artillery sound by sampling bass harmonicas and scratchy guitars, he still had a tough time with the rhythm and structure. It wasn’t until Greengrass told him to listen more closely to the temp track that it finally came together.

“I realized that there were subtleties of where it would change and go to a higher register and where the rhythm would stop,” he said. “Once I became a better listener, I became a better composer. But I’ve been saying that for 30 years.”

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