John Williams eat your heart out! We spoke to rising star Tom Howe about his music for Wonder Woman, Charming and a little-known baking programme and here’s what he had to say…
‘I don’t like to jinx things,’ says Tom Howe, Britain’s rising star of Hollywood film composing, ‘I’ve got another movie which I’m really excited about but I’m not supposed to talk about it yet.’ He’s talking to The Film Blog from LA (we’re in, a significantly colder, Scotland) and contending with our passion for juicy film gossip. ‘I’ve written my themes and they’re all liked so far. It’s a studio film and it’s an animation and hopefully it will be well received.’ And that’s all we’re getting.
It is the nature of music scoring that very few cinemagoers will recognise the name: Tom Howe; yet, hundreds of millions around the world know his work and the vital role he plays in the production of film and television. With Wonder Woman, The Legend of Tarzan and, most recently, Early Man in his catalogue, however, his is a name known the big studios of Hollywood.
Born in the UK to musical parents, Howe’s passage to composing seems almost like fate: ‘I learnt the piano from the age of four or five, I took up the guitar at about nine or ten, I was doing music and school and studying but then I got into bands and did some touring and song writing as well.’
‘I found I was getting more calls for doing string arrangements than writing songs so I thought maybe that was something I was better at.’
It was a friend at ITV, then Carlton TV, who lured Tom into filmmaking, with a short-film programme called ‘Your Shout’. One thing led to another and it wasn’t long before he was writing music for documentaries and a little-known BBC show called The Great British Bake Off…
Tom may have moved to LA for the dough but his history in cake has helped sweeten a few deals: ‘It’s strangely popular! I’ve gone to meetings out here with people in studios and they go: ‘I love that show’. It was meant to be a little baking show on BBC Two and then suddenly it just caught light. That was something great to be involved with.’
Having won the hearts of Britain’s armchair population with his cheery Bake Off theme – ‘At the time a lot of shows, like MasterChef, were dark and full-on so I made a conscious decision to make it upbeat and positive.’ – Tom next caught the eye of composing brothers Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams. Each with their own major offerings, the pair have propelled him into the limelight.
‘I’d met Harry Gregson-Williams in England when he was over and then I met him again when I was out here,’ says Tom, ‘He’s been great. He’s a good friend of mine and he’s obviously done a hundred plus films so he knows a lot about what he’s doing. I did a couple of things on films he was working on, just helped out, and then we did a couple of co-writes together on short films. That was really helpful because it was almost like you’re getting a direct relationship with the director but it hasn’t got the same pressure as with a studio movie. Then I worked for his brother as well, Rupert, again helping out on some movies, getting a bit of experience. Harry in particular has been very helpful.’
Under the brothers’ guidance, Tom has made his aural mark on some of the biggest films of recent years, including – in an odd twist – both Wonder Woman and Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman of last year. Two films, he notes, with more overlap than meets the eye: ‘The director on Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins, and Angela Robinson, who directed Professor Marston, they know each other and the same person – Howard Parr – was music supervisor in both projects so when I was talking to him on Professor Marston, he was also talking to Patty on a regular basis about how she was getting on in Wonder Woman. It was a strange Wonder Woman year for me.’
Whereas the barnstorming DC film is credited to Rupert Gregson-Williams, with Tom on additional music, Professor Marston saw him step out alone.
Of the experience, he says: ‘A lot of the time of films you come right in at the end so they have a picture that you can watch and get a feel for the tone of the movie but, in the case of Professor Marston, I actually did get sent the scripts ahead of time. There’s a moment in the film when they go to a sorority and there’s a sorority song, they needed somebody to right that before they actually filmed because they had to sing it on set. I spoke to the director on the phone and that was the first thing I wrote: a song for a women’s sorority in the 1920s.
‘I knew that it wasn’t going to be a film with massive wide-screen moments, it was small-scale compared to Wonder Woman. I knew I was going to have a smaller string section, I wasn’t going to use brass because I didn’t want that to overpower the sound and I was going to use delicate percussion, woodwinds and piano. I decided that before I put anything down on paper.’
The final result was a work covered in his thumbprints: ‘I did the piano, a lot of the percussion and the guitars and things and I used some muted guitar strums to make percussive sound, along with tapping inside the piano.’
Whilst Tom has that ‘exciting’ mystery project currently on his mind, the next work you’ll hear from him on the big screen will be Charming, the new animation from the makers of Shrek. In spite of its confusing release – Tom thinks it’s coming in April/May, director Ross Venokur says: ‘this year’ – the film promises a delightfully traditional score to accompany catchy songs from the likes of Sia, Demi Lovato and Avril Lavigne, all of whom voice characters in the film.
‘It’s been very well done and it’s got some great songs in it,’ says Tom. ‘I was trying to find a melody for [titular character, Prince Charming] and his true love. I needed a tune in each case that could be the counter line of the other one so I could sneak in moments of her tune under his and vice versa, then at the end try and bring them together in one big piece.
There were a lot of discussions early on in that about the palette and what we were going to do but, in the end, it was decided that the score was fairy tale and so the sound world of the movie is very much in that traditional orchestra.’
According to Venokur, Tom Howe has aced it: ‘I absolutely love it. It’s romantic and beautiful and epic and playful and it gets stuck in your head and it gets you right in the heart. I will be shocked if Tom’s name does not end up in the pantheon of great Hollywood composers.’