Simon Franglen, a Grammy-winning and Golden Globe-nominated composer, doesn’t back away from a challenge.
His decades-long career in the music and film scoring industry provided plenty of unique and revolutionary composition opportunities. His resume boasts some of the biggest names in the recording industry including film composers John Barry, Howard Shore, Thomas Newman, and Alan Silvestri as well as record industry titans David Foster, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Madonna among many, many others. However, it’s his 10-plus year collaboration with Oscar-winner James Horner that brought his most significant and emotional challenge to date.
While in London during the summer of 2015, Horner started work scoring director Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the classic Western The Magnificent Seven, which holds the opening night slot tonight at the 2o16 Toronto Film Festival. Shortly after his work began, a freak accident took the life of the celebrated composer. Franglen not only lost an invaluable collaborative relationship but also a close friendship. Imagine the call when Fuqua reached out and asked him to pick up where Horner left off.
“I’d spoken to [Horner] the day before he died. We’d been working on themes for the film a week before, and he was an incredibly close friend of mine,” Franglen said. “We wanted to give Antoine the chance to hear the themes that James had written. We didn’t want them to disappear into the ether.”
That drive to preserve James Horner’s final work spurred Franglen and team to assemble a suite of the music and hire an orchestra to demo the themes for Antoine Fuqua. After hand-delivering the results to Fuqua, Franglen accepted Fuqua and MGM’s request to personally finish Horner’s work despite the risk of having never previously composed a full film score. He wasn’t overly concerned, though. A lifetime dedicated to music tends to prepare you for moments such as this.
Nine months later, Franglen and team evolved Horner’s themes into a brilliant score that stands on its own as an engaging and singularly unique production. The score also honors the memories of James Horner and Elmer Bernstein whose original The Magnificent Seven score is considered one of the great film scores. Remembering the legacy of James Horner by fully realizing his original themes became an obsession for Franglen and team.
“The orchestra knew and loved James, and they played their hearts out. You can hear it in every note,” Franglen said. “At the end of this, all I’m proud of is the fact that we did our friend proud.”
On his niche beginnings
Franglen began working in the music industry under English record producer Trevor Horn. After relocating to Los Angeles, personal connections brought him into the team of David Foster as a session player and programmer. Franglen’s ability to blend a programming skill set with an innate musical ability made him a highly sought-after commodity.
“At the time that I did this, there weren’t people like that. There were either keyboard players who were amazing pianists, or there were sort of techno nerds,” Franglen said. “That was a place where I quickly got a reputation within the record industry and that evolved into working with film people.”
Franglen’s success began with Oscar-winner John Barry (Dances with Wolves) and then spread quickly through a slew of other Oscar winners. These partnerships eventually brought Franglen a Record of the Year Grammy for Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Franglen also received a Golden Globe nomination for “I See You,” the theme from Avatar.
“Everybody has their own style. When I’m composing, I have my own style too,” Franglen said. “When you’re working for them, you’re trying to channel their style and how they feel about the music and the film. Ultimately, everybody is serving the needs of the director.”
On partnering with Antoine Fuqua
The Magnificent Seven debuts under the shadow of the classic original film, but director Fuqua focused on incorporating his own style and modern influences for the remake. Franglen worked in a near-symbiotic partnership with Fuqua to realize his vision.
“I have nothing but respect for Antoine. He has a spectacularly good sense of music and how it can help his film,” Franglen said. “He’s also very bold in his decisions, and he’ll seize on things as we’re working to inform the overall output midstream. He’s just got taste, and that’s hard to get because it comes from listening to music and understanding how it works against the score.”
Franglen recalls a specific choice in the score where he used hand claps as a rhythm in a particular queue. Fuqua immediately recognized that the selection worked well with the material and grabbed onto it. As a result, these hand claps are a critical component of a theme that runs throughout the score. Rather than working in isolation, Franglen organically evolved his score through this partnership. Theirs was a relationship that follows in the footsteps of the great cinematic collaborations between composer and director. Think Herrmann and Hitchcock. Williams and Spielberg. Even Horner and Cameron. Franglen’s first experience scoring a film puts him in great company.
The resulting score balances the need for a contemporary score with that of a score that must represent the 19th century. Electronica elements, something of a hallmark for Franglen, were avoided at all costs. Instead, the orchestra relied on unusual guitars or other instruments played in unusual ways to organically deliver the desired effect. These effects layered over call-backs to Elmer Bernstein’s original theme to help achieve a vast, near 1950s-era CinemaScope feel.
“I wanted to record the orchestra all at once. There’s an 80-piece orchestra all playing together and that gives you the sort of CinemaScope sound that you don’t get when you use smaller sections or when you split everybody up so that the strings and the brass are recorded separately,” Franglen said. “We wanted that big Western feel. For everything we did to make it a contemporary score, it was also important to make sure you remembered this was a cowboy movie. This was the West.”
On taking Malick’s Voyage of Time
Franglen’s collaboration with Antoine Fuqua isn’t his only major work to appear on a 2016 fall film festival circuit. He also worked with legendary director Terrence Malick on his new documentary Voyage of Time. The film, which premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival earlier this week, boasts astonishing visuals as it attempts no less than a documentation of our very existence. It’s a project that exists as only Terrence Malick could envision it.
“As with most Malick films, I am there with a number of composers… And I’m pleased to be in their company,” Franglen said. “It is unbelievable. It’s art as film, and that’s the only way I can describe it. The images are so spectacular, so awe-inspiring, that it gives a new direction to the way you can record images on film.”
Based on early feedback from Malick, Franglen created long passages of music that are more avant-garde in nature. Rather than basing his inspiration on images from an in-progress film, he often worked only from vague notions of sounds or textures that appealed to Malick. The overall output, according to Franglen, combines the unique experience of a planetarium coupled with “walking through an art gallery based on the history of the universe.”
“It’s unique. I don’t think there’s ever been a film like it, and I don’t think there ever will be another film like it,” Franglen said.
The film stands with The Magnificent Seven as perfect examples of the great range of music that Simon Franglen brings to cinema. His emergence as a major film composer is one of the more pleasant cinematic surprises of 2016. A magnificent year, indeed.
The Magnificent Seven premieres tonight at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival and opens wide September 23. You can hear an excerpt of Simon Franglen’s score below.