Now that La-La Land Records has released a behemoth four-disc set that pretty much closes the book on James Horner’s Titanic, we publish an interview given by the composer to Cinéphonia Magazine in 2005. Again, please remember that the original interview tapes have been lost and so for this English text we only had the French publication to go by. As always, we have tried to stay true to James Horner’s voice.
Cinéfonia Magazine: What do you remember today of the adventure that so profoundly impacted both the movie industry and film music ?
James Horner : It’s always nice to go back to what will always be one of the defining moments in my life. Whatever I do next, there will always be a before Titanic and an after. Never in my wildest dreams could I have thought that the movie would be so incredibly successful. It’s the most widely seen movie in history in almost 60 countries, France included ! In spite of the Internet and DVD’s and all, people flocked to cinemas like never before and Titanic will forever be my calling card. Apart from its success, I have fond memories of my reacquaintance with Jim Cameron after the debacle that was Aliens. In its wake, I didn’t get to do The Abyss, which I absolutely loved. And of course, I got to work with Céline Dion again, and with Sissel, who carried the score with her wonderful voice. From a human, an artistic and a financial point of view, Titanic has allowed me to hit a peak I never thought possible.
CF: How do you look at the score now ?
JH : Perhaps it would be better to ask someone else, because I don’t like to analyze scores I composed in the past. They feed my future work and that’s what counts for me. Of course, this one is an exception, because of what the music has become and because it’s the most-analyzed of my scores. On a personal level, the music still touches me and if I had to do it again now, the score would not sound very different. I might have included Sissel’s voice even more, but on the whole, I’m happy with it as a piece of music.
CF : Even though you were not exactly scratching the surface back then, did Titanic’s success not encourage you to further explore the use of ethnic instruments, which are such a big part of your oeuvre ?
JH : Actually, no ! Jim Cameron didn’t like the idea of Celtic instruments but that didn’t keep me from constructing the album around them and painting with their colors all through the movie. It’s all a matter of finding the right amount. I work with artists like Tony Hinnigan, Eric Rigler and Kazu Matsui. Their ethnic music adds immeasurably to my work. Even back when I was studying, I realized how important colors are to music, and as early as Brainstorm and Krull, I added ethnic touches to my music. There were major successes like Willow, Legends Of The Fall and Braveheart, but the list is far longer and will surely extend into the future, because there’s no end to how much can be done in that area.
CF : You used Sissel’s voice as a way to give absolution to lost souls, and it makes for a wonderfully characteristic color that turns Titanic into a score that is both fertile and unique to your oeuvre. Could you elaborate on that vocal color ? Does it have a kind of spiritual meaning to you ?
JH : Jim Cameron knew my music intimately. He loved what I did with Maggie Boyle in Legends Of The Fall and without knowing exactly where and how, he wanted for Titanic this « Enya-esque » vocal timbre, as he called it. On Aliens, we had huge differences of opinion, but this time, we saw eye to eye. To me, Sissel is Rose’s soul, her memory, her legacy… I made sure she was the voice of Kate Winslet even when she herself was not visible on screen, because I wanted her presence to be constant. During the opening credits, I wanted to conjure the image of an old Rose watching sepia footage of the Titanic leaving the port of Southampton. It’s nostalgic, touching and spiritual. Jim Cameron really liked that suggestion and the entire score ended up being built around this distinctive voice. As the movie evolved, so did Sissel’s vocal range, but it was always about the spiritual quality of the voice, evocative of Love with a capital L.
JH : Obviously, the voice follows the project. When the opportunity presents itself, I use that color, but never gratuitously. It has to have an artistic and even a spiritual meaning, like you said in one of your previous questions. In most of my scores, the human voice transcends the characters and the events and speaks of what it sees. That’s the jumping-off point for choices concerning color, depth and harmony. The only time it didn’t work out was Troy, where I wanted to apply Tanja Tzarovska’s « fire » to Achilles and Sissel’s « ice » to Hector and see where the combination would take me. Because of the punishing deadline, I had to stick to just one voice, even though on the whole, I managed to keep myself from having to sacrifice all my artistic intentions. I wanted to portray the characters and, to a certain extent, even adopt a position.
CF : You had colossal means at your disposal for Titanic. Is that what allowed you to develop and deepen your keen sense of experimentation in various areas, like the voice, the marriage of acoustic and electronic textures, music that has a timeless quality, or the Ligeti-like dissonance of Death Of Titanic ?
JH : Titanic presented two huge opportunities. One was the genius of Jim Cameron. I was incredibly fortunate to work on this project, and I’m sure many will envy me. Two: Jim being the perfectionist he is, he managed to keep the studios at bay and push the movie’s release back six months. Of course, I was one of the greatest beneficiaries of that delay. The themes and the textures were ready for a July 1997 release, but I reworked the score on a harmonic level in the three extra months. Half the score remained as I had composed and recorded it prior to the original release date, the other half was completely reworked and, to be honest, improved. Obviously, time is a great luxury, and I was able to finetune the score until almost the eve of the Christmas holidays opening date, even after the album had already hit the record stores ! The story of Titanic was one of those paradoxes and if what you’re saying is right, then it’s not about the means at my disposal but because of the time I had and the collaboration with Jim Cameron. Without those three extra months, the scope of the score would not have been as vast and the structure would be more binary. Rather than « experiment », I would prefer the notion of « combination », because that more than anything is what I was after, always under the veil of Sissel’s voice.
CF : Given its incredible success, isn’t Titanic part of what allowed you, as a contemporary film composer, to choose projects based on your musical tastes ?
JH : Oh absolutely, even though I had hoped those choices would come sooner and be easier. The financial success of Titanic meant I was now able to take risks. I didn’t have to hunt down the next blockbuster. I’d give up ten blockbusters for one Chumscrubber if it gave me the opportunity to enrich my musical voice. And that’s what I have been trying to do, even though there is still a rulebook I have to play with. Again, The Chumscrubber is a good case in point : since it was such a small movie, I found I could express myself freely, whereas in cases like last year’s Radio, the score’s contours were locked before I even wrote the first note of music. Titanic allowed me to pick pet projects like Iris or The Four Feathers, artistic challenges like The Legend Of Zorro, House of Sand and Fog and The New World, which is my next project. When I’m on a project like Flightplan, which does not necessarily appeal to my sensibilities, it’s up to me to find my own voice.
JH : It’s hard to answer that question because the breaking of a ship is like the destruction of an orchestra. No matter how I looked at it, I didn’t see how Death Of Titanic could be construed as anything else. I wanted a huge confrontation of sound masses : the orchestral sections, the modes, the harmonies. Then I wanted everything to break up, climax after climax. Sure, Ligeti gave me part of Death Of Titanic, as far as asymmetric rhythms and contrasts are concerned. We talked about them when we discussed Flightplan. Gyorgy Ligeti’s « recipes », for lack of a better word, in terms of orchestral contrast are still ingenious and incredibly effective, and when combined with this level of visual magnificence, the effect is eerily perfect. It’s truly a death scene in the noblest sense of the word.
CF : The first album’s phenomenal success led to Back To Titanic, which featured previously unreleased material and concert suites. Do you still not feel the urge to extend a score’s life beyond its film and original album incarnations, and to rework it for different purposes or venues?
JH : The suites were recorded at the request of Sony Classical, whereas I would have preferred a second album with previously unreleased cues and unused alternates – there’s more than two hours’ worth! Later, I wanted to rethink Titanic as a number of suites to be recorded at concerts, but then The Mask Of Zorro and Deep Impact came along. Steven Spielberg used his influence to get me to do both movies. I couldn’t choose just one, so I was suddenly very, very busy. In the end, everyone got what they wanted. I managed to write two suites that contained the gist of what I wanted my Titanic symphony to be, even though it ended up being only half as long as intended. As a result of that, I can live without the concerts happening. The Mask Of Zorro was a big success, both artistically and in terms of album sales, and Deep Impact was also a hit in the States.
CF : How did Titanic change you as a composer ?
JH : My bank manager likes me a whole lot more (laughs). I’m now completely independent financially and more than ever before, I can offer a total James Horner « package deal ». When I’m hired, I get paid a certain fee, and the people who pay me can use the success of Titanic to help sell the album and advertise the movie. They also pay my entire crew, who help me in creating my music. I’m the one who brings them all together. All of this leads to a degree of artistic freedom I have never enjoyed before in my life. I am now the sole producer of my music and my recordings, and I make sure my collaborators get their due. We’re all really close because we all have a vested interest in my music. On both small-scale projects such as The Chumscrubber and big-budget outings like The Legend Of Zorro, we enjoy the same peace of mind and we share the same passion, working with budgets that allow us to be professional and yet also take artistic risks.
CF : Perhaps you will never again compose a score as successful as Titanic. Looking back, what do you think made it so successful ?
JH : The movie was a triumph and people went to see it several times. This also means that my score was « listened to » more often than a regular score. Titanic required so much concentration and audiences were flooded by the sounds of the score. I got a lot of reactions from people telling me that right after watching the movie, they went out and bought the album. I wanted the album to translate into music the story told by the movie, even though most of the cues heard in the movie weren’t on it. I wanted the listener to understand what I was trying to say, and I also wanted to stay true to my own intentions. In this respect, I added Celtic instruments because I knew it would make the listening experience that much more poignant. Of course, My Heart Will Go On, sung so beautifully by Céline Dion, was a big help right out of the gate, but then the music took off on the wings of the movie’s success and thanks to the word-of-mouth generated by the album. Again, the response was incredible: audiences connected to all of the score’s elements, the romance, the passion, the tragedy, the life and death of it. Everything I worked so hard on was on the disc : Sissel’s mystical voice, the sweeping electronics of the Southampton section, the Celtic textures, the orchestral portions, the violence of Death Of Titanic and right at the end of the story, the hope that brings everything together. All these elements probably go a long way towards explaining the album’s success, but most of all, I think it touched people’s hearts and that’s the greatest reward. Titanic sold 25 million copies, Back To Titanic 13 million, My Heart Will Go On 23 million, like the singles such as Rose. That’s 80 million hearts beating. I can only hope it’s because of the sincerity of the score.
CF : After Titanic, Jim Cameron withdrew from traditional movie making and jumped into a series of documentaries. Are you still in touch with him ? Do you think the two of you will ever be working together again ?
JH : We talk from time to time and as a Hollywood expatriate, he has managed quite a bit more than I have. He’s doing what he wants, when he wants it and how he wants it. I’m teasing him now and then about coming back to the movies but none of the projects he has shown an interest in have seen the light of day. He’s not making light of a possible comeback and he’s absolutely right. I’d rather he waited a couple of years and stormed the scene with something really good. At any rate, he’s utterly impervious to the siren call of fame and money.
CF : How did you contribute to the DVD release of Titanic?
JH : Those commentary tracks are a very difficult affair! I don’t particularly like giving interviews, even less when I have to remain superficial, but it’s part of the game. With you guys, I can allow myself to be very elaborate about my music and you’re the only ones with whom I share my music so intimately. Jim Cameron asked me to do an audio commentary for the film and there I was, watching a screen and talking into a microphone. I just didn’t have anything to say, because I had to make up my own questions and my own answers. In the end, I think they kept very little, if anything at all, that’s how bad I think I was. I’ll see once I get the DVD, but I prefer the routine of your questions (laughs).
JH : « Titanic was eight years ago, don’t wait another eight years. Céline and I are waiting ! » (laughs)
Source: Titanic: Our Heart Will Go On by Didier Leprêtre and Jean-Christophe Arlon,. Cinéfonia Magazine 2005.
Photo credits: © Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount
Special thanks to Didier Leprêtre, Kjell Neckebroeck, Javier Burgos, John Andrews and Nick Martin
Translation by Kjell Neckebroeck.