Howard Shore on Scoring ‘Spotlight’ and Working with Tom McCarthy

     December 28, 2015


Composer Howard Shore captures the tragedy and triumph of director Tom McCarthy’s riveting drama, Spotlight, about the true story of investigative journalists on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team whose tenacious reporting uncovered a massive sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. The film features outstanding performances by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, and others. In a distinguished career, Shore has enjoyed longstanding creative collaborations with acclaimed filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, David Cronenberg, and Peter Jackson. For McCarthy, the three-time Oscar winner conceived the score as a chamber piece for a 10-piece orchestra with the piano serving as the featured instrument.

In an exclusive interview with Collider, Shore talked about crafting the sound to help realize McCarthy’s vision for the film, how the importance of the story and the strong script by McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer drew him to the project, why he considers the piano an elegant instrument that complemented the black and white quality of the newspaper in the search for truth, why he chose to focus on the themes of the script rather than on the characters, one of his most memorable moments working on Spotlight, his reaction to the film’s Oscar buzz, his latest collaboration with classical guitarist Miloš, and the best advice he ever received about being a composer.

Check it all out in the interview below:

How did this project first come about?

HOWARD SHORE: It was just an interest from Tom and then we started discussions on the themes of the film.

Can you talk about your collaborative process with Tom in crafting the sound and helping him realize his vision for the film?


Image via Benjamin Ealovega

SHORE: We started work on the themes of the film, which were pressure of the church, city on the hill, investigative reporting, and very importantly, deference and complicity. We also talked about the idea of legacy journalism, because the story is set in 2000, 2001, a time that wasn’t using the internet. It was a different period in terms of research. Then, we talked about the children, the victims, and the tragic consequences of the story.

Then, I wrote pieces of music. I composed pieces based on those themes. I wrote themes and motifs based on those ideas away from the film, more based on the story and the screenplay. I like to work that way. Then, once the film was close to an edit, I started to do what I call scoring the film where I take pieces of these compositions and start to write them into the film, to score the film, if you will.

What inspired you to focus on the themes of the script and events in the narrative and the overall story arc rather than on the characters’ point of view?

SHORE: Thematically, the narrative was so strong that you didn’t need to work on the characters as you wanted to create these pieces of music that really dealt with the more broader aspects of the story and the more crucial aspects of the investigation. And I think that’s why we chose to use the music in that way in the film.

You used piano and electric keyboards, harp, percussion, fiddle, accordion, electric bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and French horns for your 10-piece orchestra, with the piano serving as the main voice. Why was that the right choice?

SHORE: The piano is very elegant. I also think it’s a very truthful instrument. It’s a movie about the search for the truth, and I thought the black and white quality of the piano related to the black and white quality of the newspaper. I liked that. Also, the relationship of the piano was so infinite to tell a story like this. I mean, music is essentially the emotional language, but the piano I could use in ways that didn’t stress the emotion of it too strongly, in ways that I could gauge the level of the amount of emotion I could write. I could use that in writing for the piano. The piano is really the featured instrument of a 10-piece chamber orchestra. The construction is the harmonic language. The counterpoint, as I mentioned, was all set in the themes and the motifs. Then, these performances are created to place the score into the film with each scene having its own little world really of the ensemble and created by the ensemble.

Did the choice of instruments vary depending on the context of a scene?

SHORE: Yes, definitely. In scoring the film, I would work out with the 10-piece group that I was working with how best to use the thematic language to work as a theme to various different approaches in terms of how the music was used depending on the theme itself.

When you’re scoring an ensemble drama like this, how do you balance the energy of the action we’re seeing on the screen with the humanity of the characters and the story they’re trying to tell?

SHORE: That’s a good question. I’m not really sure I have a definite answer for that. I have kind of an intuitive feeling as a composer as to what would be appropriate for those groups and how to feature certain paths in a certain way, whether there was dialogue in a scene, or whether there was no dialogue and music was telling the story at that point. There were varying techniques used to tell that story.

What scene or situation in this film was the most fun or challenging for you to create some music for?


Image via Open Road

SHORE: Some of the period stuff was challenging in the sense that there’s a scene in the middle of the film where the reporters are looking at clippings from the newspaper, and they’re on microfiche, which is a type of technology that we don’t know anymore and we don’t really use. I’m not sure. It might still be in use. But again, this was a film where the research was done away from the internet. It wasn’t using computers in that way. It had a kind of analog aspect to the investigation. I think matching that musically and that time period, that was a bit of work and research to just find the exact right tone for those scenes.

Is there a day or two you’ll always remember from working on Spotlight?

SHORE: There’s a scene at the end where Robby, the character played by Michael Keaton, is back in the Spotlight office at the end of the film, and he turns and the camera goes close on him, and he doesn’t say anything, but the music makes a shift. The shift is just matching the expression on his face that he has accomplished what he set out to do, and the phones are ringing, and the interest is there. The story is in the paper, and he got the story out in the way that he wanted. It’s not triumphant by any means, because the movie ends on somewhat of a tragic note by listing all of the countries in the world where this type of abuse was going on. But I think that look on his face is that small glimmer of hope that maybe he could help invoke a change in the world.

A lot goes into the sound design of a film. I’m wondering if there were other film departments that you collaborated with while you were working on this?

SHORE: Well you do, of course. I mean, the art of making films is a collaborative art. As a composer, you’re always working with the cinematographer because he’s so much the heart of the world they’ve created on film. The lighting affects you. The actors definitely have a great effect on you in their movements, and the way they speak, and the tone of their voice. Then, there’s the costume design, the editing, the direction. Everything plays a part. And what you’re trying to do is to match all of those different areas of the film with the composition so that it becomes a whole. It becomes a piece. And hopefully, it becomes greater than the parts.

What’s the hardest part of your job and what’s the most rewarding?

SHORE: I don’t know that there’s necessarily a hard part. There are trials to doing good work, and it is hard work. It really is constantly hard work. But there are moments of light and there are glimmers of hope in that something will be created that resonates. With a film like Spotlight, the great moment was the acceptance of it by such a wide audience, and that it resonated with the audience, and the story was told truthfully with a lot of heart. That gave us joy and hope that we can tell this story in a way that it would be accepted by such a wide group of people.

How would you compare the way you collaborated with Tom McCarthy to your approach with other directors that you’ve worked with?


Image via Open Road Films

SHORE: The techniques of different directors are very different, and people have different ways of expressing ideas in film. I’m happiest when working with a director as I would be if I were an actor. I’m wanting to provide a really good performance. I bring my research and my work to it, and I hope for a really good collaboration with the director, and hopefully to improve my work and therefore improve the film.

How has your process changed throughout your career?

SHORE: The technology certainly changes. I think, in terms of making films, that’s been the biggest change. But many things stay the same. I mean, there’s still stories to be told. There are scripts that give you a good guide and insight into the film. Staging, direction, editing. I mean, there are many things that have stayed consistent. But the biggest change, of course, is technology, the way it’s used, the way films are shot, the format that they’re shot in, and the way films, of course, are edited. It’s very different than it was in the past.

How do you decide what you want to do and why was this film something that you chose to do?

SHORE: The story was very strong and the script is fantastic. It’s Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, both of whom give such an incredible screenplay to the story. And, it was a story that was really worth telling. When you have something like that, you want to be a part of it, and you want to be able to tell that story with as much truth and as much heart as you can.

What’s your reaction to the Oscar buzz your score for Spotlight is generating?


Image via Open Road Films

SHORE: I’m absolutely delighted that people are interested in the film, and people are going to the film, and as I say, it seems to be resonating with audiences quite a bit.

When did you first decide that you wanted to become a composer?

SHORE: I’ve been writing music since I was 9. I took harmony and counterpoint classes when I was studying the clarinet. So, I’ve been writing for an awfully long time. It just became part of everyday life.

What are you working on next?

SHORE: I’m writing a concerto for a classical guitar and orchestra for the artist Miloš (Karadaglic).

Aren’t you also working with David Lowery on Pete’s Dragon which is in post and with Robert Sigl on The Spider which is in pre-production?

SHORE: There are always films being made, but I’m mostly just talking about Spotlight today.

What’s the best advice you ever got about being a composer?

SHORE: (Laughs) Keep the pencil moving.

Spotlight is now in theaters.


Image via Open Road Films

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