As important as film music can be, hiring the composer for the score is sometimes treated as an afterthought, with the composer starting to put their score together right at the very end. However for some directors, usually in the case of auteurs, they involve the composer from a much earlier stage. Often choosing the same composer for many, if not at all of their films, the director-composer relationship is far more collaborative as they push each other and push each other’s creative boundaries.
Film is ultimately an audio-visual experience, and making a film is a collaboration and the filmmaker should utilise all tools at their disposal, and this can often include the non-diegetic score. This continued collaboration between a director and the composer can produce a deep understanding of each other’s visions and ideas to produce music that is far more complementary to the film than the generic or overbearing score that accompanies many films these days.
I am of course in no way claiming this to be the best director-composer collaborations of all time, but simply the ten collaborations that have been most memorable in my own humble film viewing experience.
For this list, I am solely focussing on their collaborations as director and composer, and not the director taking the back seat and producing.
(Please note that facts and figures were to the best of my knowledge as of time of writing)
10. The Coen Brothers and Carter Burwell
Films together – 15
The Coen brothers have of course produced many exceptional, but also incredibly diverse, films in their career, and Carter Burwell’s music has played a huge part in bringing some of these eclectically varied genres to life with an ability to adapt and put together scores that only serve to enhance these films. Of course, the Coen’s films often use actual songs just as much as the score, but Carter Burwell is predominantly their go-to guy to call upon to fill in the gaps. Whether it be the icy-cold string arrangements of Fargo or the rustic sounds of True Grit, Burwell always delivers and just understands the unique style that the directors are going for in each one of these very different films.
9. Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann
Films together – 7
Bernard Hermann was of course very much a visionary pioneer of film music that was not afraid to break away from what was considered conventional, but his most famous scores are surely those to his films for the great Alfred Hitchcock. A very much collaborative working relationship, as Hitchcock reportedly allowed Hermann to see the production of the film, and Hitchcock’s decision on how a long scene would be often depended on the length of Hermann’s composition for that particular scene. One of the things Hermann insisted on having was an element of creative control of the tone of a scene as he simply did not trust the music taste of many directors, including Hitchcock. It was perhaps inevitable that these two would fall out in a big way, and that they did with Hitchcock refusing to use Hermann’s score for Torn Curtain and using the score of another composer. Whether they ever made peace with one another before Hermann’s death in 1975 is the subject of much debate.
8. Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer
Films together – 6 (with Nolan as director, and including the upcoming Dunkirk)
The ever-blossoming creative relationship between these two 21st century Hollywood giants has yielded some of the most memorable musical movie moments of the last decade. Of course, an honourable mention should go to the excellent David Julyan for his excellent scores on Nolan’s pre-Zimmer films (and The Prestige), but what Zimmer has created for Nolan’s films so far has always been nothing short of special. It is a deep collaborative process between the two which starts from the very beginning of the filmmaking process, and now it is impossible not to imagine a Christopher Nolan film without Hans Zimmer’s music. The distinctive music to The Dark Knight Trilogy (the first two films composed with James Newton Howard of course), Inception and Interstellar are now part of movie music folklore, and who knows what this relationship of two supreme creative minds will produce next.
7. David Cronenberg and Howard Shore
Films together – 15
Howard Shore is of course most well-known for his sublime scores to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but he has also composed the score to all but one of David Cronenberg’s films since 1979. In fact, when it was announced that Shore would compose the score to Rings it was met with surprise because his compositions before this were completely different (though I think it is fair to say that everyone who is a fan of film music is very glad he did). His versatility as a composer and ability to create dark and unsettling scores, but also stylistically varied scores perfectly complements the dark themes that Cronenberg’s films explore and only enhances the experience.
6. Steven Spielberg and John Williams
Films together – 21
One of the most famous of all director-composer partnerships; even those who take no interest in film music will instantly recognise many of William’s most famous scores, most of which were of course composed for Spielberg films. Williams has composed the score to all but two of Spielberg’s films and their relationship is very much a collaborative one with both heavily involved in the score’s initial conception, with Williams on several occasions apparently persuading Spielberg to agree to a score completely different as to what he originally had envisaged. Spielberg has of course brought us some of the most unforgettable moments in cinema history, and John Williams’ accompanying music is very much one of the reasons for these being so memorable.
5. Tim Burton and Danny Elfman
Films together – 16
This is the one time I will break my own rule and include a film where the director produced. However, though The Nightmare Before Christmas was not directed by Tim Burton, but it is called Tim Burtons A Nightmare Before Christmas for a reason, and that and so many other films have of course defined Tim Burton’s unique style. Though of course he has not scored every Burton film, Danny Elfman’s often quite moody, gothic scores with their dark strings and haunting choral arrangements complement Burton’s unique directorial vision perfectly, and who can forget the theme from the two Batman films!
4. Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell
Films together – 6
Some collaborations come from unexpected origins, and maybe a native of Brooklyn and a native of the West Midlands (and former front man of the band Pop Will Eat Itself) may seem like an unusual one, but together they have produced some of the most memorable visual and audio cinematic moments of the last decade or so. Darren Aronofsky’s films work on so many levels, and he is a director that utilises every creative variable at his disposal that cinema can offer, and Mansell’s scores are very much an intrinsic part of this.
3. Krzysztof Kieslowski and Zbigniew Preisner
Films together – 8 (counting the Dekalog TV series as one)
Directors and composers often have a collaborative relationship professionally where their collective talents come together to bounce around ideas, but the relationship between Kieslowski and Preisner was even more than that. After first meeting by chance, Kieslowski, Preisner and Kieslowski’s screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz began a process of deep collaboration that would involve Preisner composing the music while the script was still being written, while he would also be involved in the editing process. This certainly shows as Preisner’s beautiful, ethereal scores play such a huge role in the emotional engagement of Kieslowski’s haunting films. Though written initially with the intention of it being for a film directed by Kieslowski, Preisner’s haunting composition Requiem for my Friend was released as a personal and fitting tribute to this great director after Kieslowski’s premature death in 1996.
2. David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti
Films together – 7 (counting all series of Twin Peaks as one)
Some directors have a very unique vision and approach to making their films, and they most certainly do not come much more unique than David Lynch! Having a composer that also gets that vision is surely crucial, when talking to him about the music he wanted him to compose for Twin Peaks, Lynch told Badalamenti that he wanted it to be “dark and beautiful”. Well, Angelo Badalamenti’s scores in his collaborations with Lynch certainly takes this approach and only serves to complement’s Lynch’s unique stylistic and narrative approach. Twin Peaks was very much a collaborative relationship, and the music to this ground-breaking TV show played such a key role, and I am sure the music in the TV show’s long awaited return next year will be just as much of a key element.
1. Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone
Films together – 7
Ennio Morricone is of course up there as not only one of the best film music composers of the last 100 years, but best actual composers, and has undoubtedly put together some of the most memorable film themes and scores of all time. Some of his most memorable compositions have been in the scores he composed for the films directed by his former classmate. Leone had a unique visual style, and Morricone’s scores were an intrinsic part of this, and when we think of all time classics like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, The Bad and Once Upon A Time In America we think of the music as much as any other aspect of these films. Another relationship that was collaborative, for example in Once Upon a Time in the West Morricone composed the score to the film’s more emotional scenes before they filmed and this music was then played in the background when they filmed the actual scenes!
Well that is my own personal top ten, if anyone has any suggestions that I have missed please put them forward.