And… four! After The Name of the Rose (1986), Enemy At The Gates (2001) and Black Gold (2011), Jean-Jacques Annaud and James Horner would with Wolf Totem sign their fourth collaboration. Asside from Ron Howard (6 films) ad Joe Johnston (also 4 films), the composer had never worked so much with the same director. This agreement finally transcended all those partnerships with whom he had closed three joint projects: Michael Apted, Walter Hill, Martin Campbell, Edward Zwick, Phil Alden Robinson, Mel Gibson, and James Cameron. This fourth collaboration was a strong indicator, proof that, despite a difficult first experience with The Name Of The Rose, the fates of these two artists were linked together, and they would make sublime the marriage of image and music.
During our meeting in 2011, Jean-Jacques Annaud told us he had always been in search of his musical alter-ego, the one with whom he could develop a collaboration over time, as had Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, or Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermman. Indeed, over the course of his career, the director had never managed to turn the corner past two collaborations with composers. He started with Pierre Bachelet on Black and White in Color (1976) and Hot Head (1979) and worked with Philippe Sarde for Quest for Fire (1981) and The Bear (1988) or with Gabried Yared for The Lover (1990) and The Wings of Courage (1995) …
"Music is like a frustration for the director because he cannot control it completely. This process of creating the film often requires the most effort with oneself. (…) I had difficulty getting along with all the musicians with whom I have worked. Just as with photography or editing, the music must be an element of the film with which the director plays and not the musician! Hence the conflict".
Indeed, there had been a conflict with James Horner in 1986 on The Name of the Rose, but the two artists were able to reconcile fifteen years later with Enemy at the Gates. Impossible not to draw parallels with the tensions experienced a few months earlier with James Cameron on Aliens, released the same year, which would subside a decade later on Titanic. The successive return of James Horner in the world of Jean-Jacques Annaud demonstrated how a separation ultimately can lead to an accomplished and enduring union.
As he told in 2011, Jean-Jacques Annaud had finally found his favorite composer. Certainly we are nowhere near the prolificness of the legendary collaborations mentioned above. Certainly the French director's filmography hasn’t the same material as that of Steven Spielberg, Sergio Leone and Alfred Hitchcock. But how could we not view and listen to the evolving works like Enemy at the Gates and Black Gold, showing us in every second a total symbiosis of the artistic visions of James Horner and Jean-Jacques Annaud, and inevitably come to look disproportionately forward to their new album? After the mysterious abbey, the ruins of Stalingrad and burning sand dunes, the call to journey to the plains of Mongolia had the flavor of an invitation impossible to refuse, and given the independent success of these two men, culminating in an event not to be missed.
The Name Of The Rose (1986)
A Franco-Italian-German thriller, adapted from a novel by the Italian Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose immerses us in the year 1327 in a Benedictine abbey, where monks are found dead under suspicious circumstances. William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), is accompanied by the young Adso (Christian Slater) while conducting the investigation.
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, instead of using Philippe Sarde, who had composed the soundtrack of his previous film (Quest for Fire), wanted an American composer to musically illustrate this European history. But a few weeks before the release of his film in Germany and the United States, the future director of Seven Years In Tibet still had no composer. He sent the script to the Gorfaine / Schwartz agency that had managed several of his previous composers but none came forward. So here he was forced to take the lead and to travel to Los Angeles. There he met James Horner, with whom he discussed at length on how to "give voice" to the film. The composer, who had recently recorded two symphonic scores with the London Symphony Orchestra (Aliens and An American Tail) wished to opt for an electronic orientation. Jean-Jacques Annaud, for his part, rather wished for the sound of an orchestra. First divergence.
Due to time constraints, the director wouldn’t convince James Horner to turn to a symphonic approach. The two men therefore set out on their synthesized experiment.
"The time, the pressure, prevented us from having a more intense relationship. We had to work urgently, and even if it stimulates creativity as was the case in The Name of the Rose, the human experience doesn’t fully flourish."
The creation of the soundtrack was in truth a difficult journey. James Horner sampled many old instruments and provided one by one for validation to Jean-Jacques Annaud. But once all the sounds were selected, the end result did not please the French director, thus creating misunderstanding with the composer and an increased tension. Over time, Jean-Jacques Annaud requested James Horner to ask nothing more of him. Communication breakdown.
"He started working in his corner and sent me the music which I could put or not in The Name of the Rose. I loved his music for my film but I disliked the man."
Recorded in Munich, Germany, the end product mixes together music instrumentation both ancient and modern with a side of synthesizers and other instruments reminiscent of the Middle Ages: chimes, bells, a lute, a zither, a harp. The music gives the film an atmosphere that informs the film, depending on the scene, to be melancholic, haunting and terrifying. As evidence, the music was widely used by role playing enthusiasts in gatherings that needed the establishment of an oppressive and mysterious atmosphere.
For more details on this score we invite you to read our article: Link to the text of David Hocquet
Enemy At The Gates (2001)
As a war film, Enemy at the Gates depicts the clash between two snipers in the Battle of Stalingrad: the young Vassili Zaitsev's (Jude Law) published exploits give hope to the Soviet troops, resulting in Major König, Germany’s best sniper, to be specially dispatched to stop the actions of the new hero of the Red Army.
In the late 90s, when he would enter pre-production of Enemy at the Gates, Jean-Jacques Annaud would receive two signs: the first was when a television studio technician called him and said, "My brother says hello. This is James Horner". Jean-Jacques Annaud was touched by this first step initiated by the composer. Then the second sign was a call from the composer’s agent who explained to the French director that Horner had read the screenplay and wanted to meet him. Fifteen years after The Name of the Rose, the two artists would be reconciled.
The composer went to the film shoot in the former East Germany. And Jean-Jacques Annaud would be immediately fascinated by his interpretation of the scenario.
"He has become on this film the second creative partner after Alain Godard. For the first time in my life, I said to a composer: ‘You understand the film as well as me. Let us agree on the style and I’ll let you do it.’"
For his part, James Horner also maintained a vivid memory of his arrival on set.
"It has surpassed anything I imagined. The sheer magnitude of the stage has impressed me. There were cameras everywhere, extras were dirty and cold, this was no longer the cinema. Seeing this human tale before me I turned to a more sensitive score".
Neither man left and they spent two months together. They become very close collaborators. From this sojourn in Germany their friendship was born.
"Emotionally, he became one of my closest friends and Enemy at the Gates marked the beginning of a new era between him and me. From the conflict is born a confidence that I had with few people in the business. "
Recorded in late October 2000 at Abbey Road studio in London, the score is a monument in the career of James Horner. During the recording sessions, Jean-Jacques Annaud said:
"I'm flabbergasted. I mean I’m so happy..So happy with what I'm hearing. I've never been as happy as I should say almost on this movie, you know. It has been a very happy shoot. I was delighted with my actors, my set. It was a very positive experience so far but here it's another level of delight . This is what James is doing, as you've heard, he's using right now I think we have 160 musicians and choir in the room but there are lot of solos played with clarinet or with one balalaika alone in the quietness and even if we have 35 violins very often it sounds like the wind."
James Horner spoke of his music:
"I've avoided the sort of stereotypical big orchestral things on battle scenes. I've tended to write very quietly and elegiacally for the orchestra. I've used a chorus a lot which gives it Russian feeling but also gives it very spiritual and soulful feeling and I've written in sort of Russian idiom of harmonies and melodies, and melodies that are very, very simple folk-like melodies."
Black Gold takes place in the 30s during the discovery of oil in Arabia. We are witness to the rivalry between the two emirs, Nesib (Antonio Banderas) and Amar (Mark Strong), and the rise of Auda (Tahar Rahim), a young prince who will unite the tribes of the desert kingdom to take control of two kingdoms.
Just prior to Black Gold, Jean-Jacques Annaud directed two feature films where he collaborated with other composers that were likely imposed by producers: British composer Stephen Warbeck for Two Brothers, a Franco-British co-production, and the Spanish composer Javier Navarrete for Her Majesty Minor, a French-Spanish co-production.
For Black Gold, Tunisians producers gave him carte blanche as to the choice of composer. Naturally Jean-Jacques Annaud therefore went to Los Angeles to present film sequences to James Horner. The composer of Avatar was immediately seduced by this authentic style of cinema, without overbearing digital effects.
Jean-Jacques Annaud recounted:
"I went to see him in Los Angeles, I showed him some pictures on my computer and he told me the following: "Do you realize that no one makes films like that today?"
Marked by great flights of its theme and its dark and light variations, the score to Black Gold also reveals sublime moments of intimacy surrounding Dhafer Youssef's voice and piano. In addition, the presence of the young Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi and Indian English singer Susheela Raman brings an extra touch that completes the perfect balance between the Eastern and Western musical cultures.
A decade after Enemy at the Gates, Black Gold proved that the union between the two artists was complete:
"I choose the topics with him, he plays the piano, then we record at Abbey Road, he consults me for each song, I sometimes ask for tempo changes, orchestration, we discuss he usually follows my instructions and he stays true to this mix. Could you ask for more? This film marks both a rare encounter with a man that I like to the highest degree, an extraordinary fusion between our artistic views and to the end a great collaboration."
An adaptation of a Chinese adventure novel, partly autobiographical by the writer Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem follows Chen Zhen, a young student from Beijing, who was sent to Inner Mongolia to educate a tribe of nomadic herders. He is quickly fascinated by the most feared and revered creature of the steppes: the wolf. He decides to capture a wolf cub to tame it. The situation becomes complicated when a regional representative of the central authority decides by all means to remove wolves in the region.
Following the pedigree established by Enemy at the Gates and Black and Gold, Wolf Totem is further proof that James Horner and Jean-Jacques Annaud were now living a rare idyllic collaboration. In exclusive comments gathered in February 2015 by Jean-Christophe Arlon after the premiere of the film in Nice, Jean-Jacques Annaud told us that this fourth collaboration with the Titanic composer sounded obvious:
"I have immediately thought that James was the man for the job because he is an incredibly sensitive man, and because we're friends, simply. Deep friends. I feel a real passion for this artist who is both an immense pianist and a great composer, who has a really incredible life and yes, he’s one of the men for whom I have great respect and friendship."
After watching the film, having spent two hours being completely overwhelmed by the extraordinary images captured in Mongolia by the director, an idea appeared with certainty: Wolf Totem is perhaps the most beautiful representative of artistic exchange between the two men. The latter had also been allowed to express himself in total freedom away from the typical format dominating industry blockbusters productions:
"We worked for two weeks with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road and Air Studios, with the best soloists of England, all in absolute freedom. Nobody interfered at any time."
It is long since the time since Jean-Jacques Annaud approached his meeting with the composer with the fear of being misunderstood, of losing control of his film. On Wolf Totem and as with each project with James Horner since Enemy at the Gates, the agreement was complete: the creative mind that must generate the music, its place in the scenes, its emotional role–on all these points there was no disagreement, friction or even negotiation. The creative process was vastly moved forward. In his schedule, Jean-Jacques Annaud had slated four days in Los Angeles to perform the spotting–sessions during which the director and the composer identify the location and the role of music in image. But this work would take only one day:
“He knew nothing of the story; he saw the film at night and the next morning, he made some comments very pleasant to hear and there, in this extraordinary friendship, we watched the film together. It was funny because we watched the movie and it was the same motion, it was like a wild beast [he mimes the gestures]: there we turned up the music, here the theme is brought in, there it comes down, here is the cut … It was crazy because I had not said anything. But we know each other so well, we understand each other so much that we never have any doubt, no delays… It happens in the second."
Finally as with Enemy at the Gates, where, by the admission of the French director himself, James Horner became a key element of the creative process during filming and post-production, the composer has had an influence on several choices related to the staging of Wolf Totem:
"He's a very sensitive man, I place absolute trust in him. He said for example: "You have two or three landscapes, it would do well to lengthen them a little because I'm going over the top with orchestra. And there you have two shots of wolves that are redundant. "At which point I said: "Wait, tell me more," and meet him, "No, no, do not change anything, do not budge." Such a collaboration is exceptional."
In 2013, for James Horner’s 60th birthday, we had hoped that he might combine his talent again with that of trusted men like Jean-Jacques Annaud, revealing again the highest degree of true communion between musical and cinematic art. And thus make us dream again …
In the year 2015, thanks to the film Wolf Totem being shown around the world, thanks to the duo Horner-Annaud–beautiful artists whose names have become synonymous with friendship–we have finally been brought to dream again. Our gratitude to these gentlemen is eternal.
Note: This article would not have been possible without the help of Jean-Christophe Arlon and two excellent interviews conducted by Didier Leprêtre, "Mais qui est la Rose?" (“But who is the Rose?”) and "Le seigneur des anneaux" (“The lord of the rings”) respectively published in 1998 in Dreams to Dream … s and 2001 in Dreams Magazine.