They may be rare now, but Westerns were once like the superhero movies of today: they were big, they were popular, and they were everywhere. They were also famous for their film scores, which included some of the greatest of all time. There was Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Alfred Newman’s How the West Was Won, Dimitri Tiomkin’s High Noon and Red River, and Jerome Moross’ The Big Country, to name a few. Then there was Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven.
When it was announced that director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) would remake John Sturges’ legendary Western (itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai), the question that immediately came to mind for film music buffs was, “Who could possibly fill Elmer Bernstein’s shoes?” One Oscar-winner stepped up: James Horner (Apollo 13, Braveheart, Titanic) — but before Horner could complete the project, he was tragically killed when a plane he was flying crashed on June 22, 2015.
That left the challenging job to Horner’s frequent right-hand man, Simon Franglen, who found himself in the unenviable position of now having to create not only his first ever full film score, but one that could live up to Horner, Bernstein, and the legacy of the Westerns.
Honoring James Horner
Simon Franglen is no stranger to music. He is an immensely talented artist who has won a Grammy and been nominated for a Golden Globe. He’s worked with Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. He’s been part of some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, including Titanic, Avatar, and Skyfall. He’s collaborated with some of the world’s best film composers, including Howard Shore, John Barry, and Alan Silvestri. But until 2015, when he lost his friend and frequent collaborator, he’d never composed a film score by himself.
Before his death, Horner had been working in London with Franglen on themes for The Magnificent Seven that he wanted to present to director Antoine Fuqua to figure out where to take the rest of the movie’s music. In the weeks after Horner’s death, Franglen decided to help complete work on Horner’s themes for the director. “I started talking to the rest of James’ musical family,” he says. He told them, “I’d like to finish suite-ing music so that we can at least give these to Antoine and say, ‘Here’s a gift from James. These are the themes that he wanted for your film.'” He recorded the music with an orchestra and then flew it to the director in Louisiana.
That gift ended up leading to Fuqua and MGM asking Franglen to complete the score for The Magnificent Seven. It was a bittersweet proposition (“I shouldn’t be writing this, James Horner should be here,” he thought), but he accepted. And he did so with a major goal: “I wanted to finish it for James, but I also wanted to make sure that Antoine had his film score,” he says. “This wasn’t meant to be a mausoleum. James would never have wanted that. James wanted film scores to fit the movies they were written for.” Franglen would honor Horner by giving Fuqua — and The Magnificent Seven — the score it deserved and needed.
Scoring a Modern Western
The task of creating a score for a Western was a rare opportunity. “I may never get a chance to do a cowboy film ever again. These are rare beasts now, and you have to grab them,” says Franglen. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t intimidating — especially given the genre’s musical legacy. “There are such incredible scores out there that you are fighting against.”
Instead of running from that, however, he and Fuqua embraced it – especially when it came to integrating themes into the work. “Antoine, in particular, wanted to make sure that we remembered we were still doing a Western, and that allows you to use thematic material,” says Franglen. Which isn’t to say the composer didn’t want to make the score contemporary (notably with some modern rhythmic elements), but he wanted to be sure to tap into how old Western scores channeled their vast vistas. “Those great western scores connect as much with the land as they do with the characters,” he says. So, he made sure the music was “organic” by working in the sounds of guitars, percussion, and handclaps, to mirror the landscapes.
He also wanted to capture the characters’ journey — from killers to heroes — with music. “You go from the slightly more gritty and rhythmic sorts of music, and gradually build to those big cinematic moments with 80 people playing together to have that epic feel,” Franglen says. It’s all geared toward a singular purpose: “I’m trying to tell you the emotional story of the film, because the score, at its best, doesn’t play the top layer — it plays how we feel underneath, and that’s what the music should do.”
That’s also something he feels has been lost somewhat from modern film scores. “The idea of a film score being a dialogue, and being an emotional connection with the audience, often gets lost in the wish to make everything as loud as possible,” he says. He admits that’s partly because films of yore had less effects — both visual and sound — so music had more room to breathe. But he also thinks films have abandoned the vibrancy of themes in favor of what he calls “chugging synths.” “It’s really easy for the directors to like what they hear because it’s like salt and sugar,” Franglen says. “They hype the flavor, but ultimately they’re bad for you and not particularly satisfying afterward.”
A Score Never Belongs to the Composer
The Magnificent Seven may have been his first solo score, but Franglen has worked with enough directors and composers to know creating a satisfying score isn’t as easy as some might think. “This is about as hard as it gets in terms of music, and I’ve done a lot of different music in a lot of different styles,” he says. A big reason for that: “Your music is not wrapped in cotton wool. It’s part of an evolving beast that is the film, and when you’ve written that beautiful line and they cut out two seconds, and suddenly your line is turned into spaghetti in front of you — that’s part and parcel of the process.”
That’s where great composers distinguish themselves, he says, with their ability to take that now disassembled music and assemble it seamlessly back into the movie. They have that ability because they understand a film score isn’t really theirs. “Film composers have to write for the director and for the film and to give the film what it requires,” Franglen says. “You’re there to translate their vision of the film.”
Franglen re-experienced that himself when he worked with Terrence Malick on his upcoming documentary, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. One day he got a call from Richard Bernstein, the music editor for the film, and was told “Terry” wanted to talk to him. When he spoke to Malick, the director didn’t give him any footage — he just told him what his vision was and wanted him to just compose. “He had some very specific ideas about how cadences, music, and tones should be in this film,” Franglen says. “Then he asked me to write these long, evolving pieces of music – some string, some brass, some with winds, some with voices.” The composer wrote 30 of them, which he then submitted to Bernstein and Malick, who cut them in. Then — still without any imagery — he’d get back notes for tweaks he had to make. He just had to trust in the vision of his director.
It won’t be the last time he does so, either. Now that he’s a full-fledged film composer, Franglen can’t imagine he’ll stop anytime soon. “There’s more work coming up,” he says. “I hope to be talking to you in the future for other films for many years to come.”