Oscar-winning composer James Horner on Jim Cameron, ‘Avatar,’ and Michael Bay

Dec. 02, 2009 | 2:27 a.m.


Moviegoers will finally reach the moon called Pandora on Dec. 18 when writer-director James Cameron’s “Avatar” completes its long journey to the screen. The most expensive movie ever made will make history — but what will its legacy be? Today we continue our 30-day countdown with Part 2 of our interview with Oscar-winning composer James Horner. (You can read PART 1 right here)

James Horner conducting


GB: Do you think moviegoers will have a hard time wrapping their heads around the sci-fi elements of “Avatar”? Are you concerned that the film won’t be as accessible as, say, “Titanic,” which you worked on with James Cameron so memorably? 

JH: Within this movie, of course, importantly to me, there’s a love story. To me a love story works as a counter to all the fanboy stuff. Without it, the film is just an unbelievable visual treat and at the end of it you don’t have an emotional feeling or connection. You’ve seen epic gun battles you’ve never seen before but, in your heart, if you’re a 17-year-old girl, why would you ever go see that? My job — and it’s something I discuss with Jim all the time — is to make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart. When we lose a character, when somebody wins, when somebody loses, when someone disappears — at all times I’m keeping track, constantly, of what the heart is supposed to be feeling. That is my primary role. I have to color all the rest, and be on top of all the details and part of all the action and paint everything with my weird colors and weird orchestra and all that, but my primary job is knowing what the heart is feeling. It’s very important that this film — although far from being a romance — doesn’t lose sight of the love story in the middle.

GB: It’s interesting, too, that small moments become so key when a movie gets as big as this one. The machinery of the movie is so big that without successful small moments and human emotion, it could turn into a video game.

JH: Absolutely. Yes, that’s right. And, not to mention names, but if it was Michael Bay making this movie we wouldn’t be having this conversation. These things wouldn’t matter or they certainly wouldn’t matter as much. Jim knows the importance of it not just becoming mecha. Jim knows that a movie can become swamped in just unbelievable imagery and that it becomes hollow. Jim won’t allow that and my job is to make sure it doesn’t happen.

GB: Tell me about your working relationship with Cameron. Do you start from similar places or is it a collaboration that begins with opposing sensibilities?

JH: He and I get into tussles sometimes when I think something should be a little bit more human or heartfelt and he thinks it’s not necessary. I’ll write a cue two different ways just to cover myself. Sometimes he will use the drier way and then, a month later, he’ll swap out the cue for the version I proposed in the first place. It’s interesting. You can’t tell what the balance is until the whole thing comes together.

James cameron and james horner


GB: I would imagine that you want to be in front of the beat or behind it, emotionally speaking, and that in some sequences the emotion is obvious but that in other instances you need to signal something to bring the scene to its fullest impact.

JH: Exactly. That’s exactly right. And with a movie like this you don’t get the sense of it until it starts to accumulate. You see two hours of it strung together, you get a sense of the scale of the epic and scale of the relationships and the scale of the fanboyism versus the emotionalism of the film. That’s when you are able to make better decisions. That’s when you modify and reconsider things. .. there’s been a lot of fine-tuning in the last month, putting things back and adjusting things. It’s such a long film. No one can be perfect at this the first pass; there’s no hole-in-one with this sort of thing. This is a thing where certain things are easy but on the whole you need a couple of tries at it, both in editing and scoring. Some things work great right away and you know it’s perfect but a lot of it requires you to revisit.  

GB: Was there a particular segment of the film that was especially challenging or is the real labor this sharpening throughout that you’re describing?

JH: It’s more sharpening throughout. My instincts are pretty good. I’ve done quite a lot of films now. With this one, I know the story and I know Jim. At certain times, when Jim is telling me something and what he wants, I can project that four months from that moment we will be revisiting the matter with a different result.

GB: Does he find that charming or maddening?


JH: He finds that intriguing. The way we handle it is I will do it his way but then I will do a second version my way. I do it because I just have this feeling that, in the overall scheme of things, that if we run it the way he is asking me to run it, it will be fanboy style. The way he is working, though, he has to be so localized in the film so that each section is perfect locally. That’s the way you have to approach a film of this scale. When you think locally, you’re not thinking globally. My approach though is thinking globally — about the whole movie, not just sections — and watching things in the long run. So there are times when I know we will revisit these things. After the local problems are long solved then we come back to the conversation about the global emotion. We’ll be back to “What are Jake and Neytiri feeling now?” “What should the heart be feeling?” “What should an audience be feeling the next morning after Jake and Neytiri spend the night together?” Those are the kind of things that are difficult to tell at the time when you are solving local problems. And you can’t project for Jim. He’s very dogmatic. But you can find an answer and put it away and then show it to him four months later.

GB: It’s interesting, your job sounds more like sculpting than painting…

JH: It is. It is both, really. To me, writing and composing are much more like painting, about colors and brushes; I don’t use a computer when I write and I don’t use a piano. I’m at a desk writing and it’s very broad strokes and notes as colors on a palette. I think very abstractly when I’m writing. Then as the project moves on it becomes more like sculpting.

GB: It’s interesting to consider the fact that this is Jim Cameron’s first feature film since “Titanic.” It’s been a dozen years since we’ve had a Cameron movie premiere and that’s a surprising thing — even to distanced observers like me. Is it surprising for you as well?

JH: Yeah, it is. He had other projects, I know, but it is surprising. He was thinking about this movie for quite a while and getting it staged and ready to go took four or five years. It is interesting but then if you think about it, it would have been really difficult, no matter how much bravura one has, to jump right from “Titanic” into another massive project. I suppose he could have done something like a small love story but Jim’s not like that. He wanted to top the previous output. And that took some time.

— Geoff Boucher



6a00d8341c630a53ef0120a6752427970c 200wi Oscar winning composer James Horner on Jim Cameron, Avatar, and Michael Bay

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PHOTOS: Top, James Horner. Bottom, James Cameron and James Horner at work on “Avatar” Credit for both: Fox


14 Responses to Oscar-winning composer James Horner on Jim Cameron, ‘Avatar,’ and Michael Bay

  1. Brendan Sinnott says:

    Excellent interview, I really can't wait to hear his score

  2. Bryan B. says:

    I liked Horner's juxtaposing the work he does as a composer with the art a painter creates: "notes as colors on a palette" is a vivid description of the process.
    Glad Cameron found someone who can feel the mood of a scene in the same way he does.

  3. Michael Bay says:

    Oh the irony. Does Mr. Horner not know that Fox and Mr. Cameron are selling the final trailer of Avatar off the music from my film, The Island? If Mr. Horner's music was so right for "the soul" of the Avatar film, it would for sure be in the final trailer.
    Michael Bay

  4. Zeke Uribe says:

    Good interview, wish it was longer! I managed to snag the running times of the individual songs, and after some simple addition I calculated the length of the full OST at 1:18:52, or almost 80 minutes. Hopefully we'll get a release someday of additional or alternate songs Horner composed. From what I've already heard in the samples, we are definitely in for a treat!

  5. Kristina says:

    Mr. Bay, I just watched the trailer for The Island and the music has a similar theme, but certainly doesn't sound like the same song. Just sayin. Maybe I can't tell becuase the music portion on your trailer only lasts a few seconds?

  6. A Rose says:

    It's music from the film itself (The Island) not music from The Island's trailer.

  7. Shaun O. says:

    So. I used to be a big Horner fan, but honestly, I couldn't even bring myself to read this interview and yet, felt compelled to use this as a chance to vent:
    Horner has become a hack. But the worst part is that he doesn't even try to steal from other people. He just regurgitates and cannibalizes his own prior work… and he's been guilty of it for years. When I first began to notice (in the late 80's), I kind of wrote it off. I'd say, "well, the director of the film probably 'temped' in one of his previous scores and then asked him to give him a facsimile," but as the years went on, it just kept happening. Cues would sound so similar. Later, he seemed to lift entire chunks of his previous scores! He re-write or rather, rearrange enough to make it different and then basically do as little original work as possible.
    A few of you might think, "maybe it just sounds the same," "maybe he just uses certain instruments in a specific or similar way," but no. I assure you. The man steals from himself! There are cues from a film like "48 Hours," that he completely lifted and re-used in "Clear and Preset Danger." There're tracks from "Thunderheart" completely re-purposed. It happens over and over again. And I've already heard the same thing being done in "Avatar."
    It's sad, because the guy had talent. "Sneakers," "Field of Dreams," "Willow" and even "Braveheart" are fantastic scores! Really beautiful stuff. And pieces of "Legends of the Fall" are absolutely heartbreaking – even when separated from the film… but for me, in a world where wildly prolific composers like Zimmer, Powell, Newton Howard and (for the love of God, Williams after 60 years!) can still create wholly original works, Horner is… a hack.

  8. Jeremy says:

    "My Name Is Lincoln" was the only really good track from The Island soundtrack. The movie itself was okay, too.
    Mr. Bay's films tend to have a lot of kinetic energy in his films, which makes well for stunning visuals. But very seldom do his films achieve a real emotional connection between the audience and the characters in his movies.
    I'm looking forward to Avatar. I've literally had dreams about it since half a year ago. One dream was on the scoring stage, another dream was in the film itself, several others were too abstract to explain. This movie will be hated as much as it is loved. Many viewers will try to pick up on Cameron's and Horner's formulaic approaches to making film and music. So what? I'm looking forward to every aspect of this movie….

  9. Jake says:

    shaun-o has a man crush on james horner….just sayin'…

  10. Robert says:

    I hope he throws in some of his standards.

  11. Jennie says:

    What it so important with a love story ? Why can´t Mr Horner write music for films without a love story ?

  12. Kingpun says:

    And if John Williams had done the Avatar score, I might actually remember a note or two from it. People in glass houses shouldn't cast stones, Jimmy.

  13. RJB says:

    @ShaunO, if Horner's music sound like some of his own previous work, then that's his signature. Think for example of the best book authors out there, past and present. They have a certain writing style thats their own stamp. And if you have a fav author then you know why you read that author. It's the style.
    Having said that, the Titanic and Braveheart scores were far more memorable than that of Avatar.

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