Let’s Get the Good Stuff Out: An Interview With James Newton Howard

Enamored with the power of storytelling, the Eight-time Academy Award nominee was pleased to write the score for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
James Newton Howard
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Composer James Newton Howard’s stunning career spans three decades in Hollywood and includes work on everything from big-name blockbuster franchises to Emmy-nominated television shows to Oscar-winning pictures — but one wouldn’t know it just by talking to him.

A quiet, humble man gifted with a fluency in music, Howard talks little of his actual accomplishments, preferring to discuss the deeper meanings behind his scores and how he goes about infusing emotion into them. Howard spoke with PopMatters about his composition for director David Yates’s highly anticipated, heavily hyped Harry Potter films spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He spoke candidly about the film and how his score enhances the experience of seeing it on the big screen, providing some eye-opening insights into Yates, his own process, and what he strove to accomplish with his latest work.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them shares its title with a 2001 textbook that J.K. Rowling wrote as a companion to her then-unfinished Harry Potter series. The small guide functioned as one of Harry Potter’s required schoolbooks and was “written” by Newt Scamander, an eccentric character viewers will soon be very intimately familiar with. The film will introduce Scamander and a colorful array of new personas and creatures that Howard hopes will connect viewers to the new story Rowling and Yates are striving to tell.

“There were two or three main human characters with their own identifications thematically,” he tells us, “but more importantly you have this array of beasts and incredible creatures that needed to be defined sonically, musically, however you want to say it. The challenge was rendering them in a way that was not human, that was different. That was the most elusive part. It’s where I spent the most time and the most effort.”

The Potter universe as an ever-expanding whole (now formally called “J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World”) is new territory for Howard, but he didn’t seem the least bit discouraged or distraught by the task at hand. Conversely, he expressed excitement and gratitude toward the project and everyone involved. However, that’s not to say the film didn’t present its own challenges for him. Howard mentioned the difficulty of creating a score that functions as part of both an established universe and a new, fresh story.

“Well, I really approached it primarily, if not completely, as a fresh new story,” Howard notes. “In terms of new themes that are introduced, you’ll see that John Williams’s theme plays over the Warner Bros. logo for about six seconds as kind of a bon-bon for people. The challenge was to continue the legacy, I think. For me, the biggest thing was writing memorable themes for the new characters so that ultimately people would have the same identification with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as they do with the Harry Potter films. That was probably the biggest thing. Like Harry Potter, this score is primarily orchestral with some electronics involved. With any movie at all the challenge lies in the storytelling.”

Yates, on the other hand, is a four-time director of the Harry Potter films with a profound understanding of J.K. Rowling’s universe and how all of its moving pieces should fit together. His involvement with the franchise stretches back to 2007, when he seized the reins from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire director Mike Newell and directed the last four films in the series, starting with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Of Yates’s vision, Howard notes how “He met with me very early on and I started writing just as they were wrapping shooting. I think the vision that he had involved a score that was able to be a lot of different things. Funny, charming, romantic, frightening, magical, all of that. We wanted it to have a new resonance but still have the same vocabulary. That was a hard thing. It was a big, complicated, multi-dimensional chess game, and we spent most of our time refining and rewriting together.”

Indeed, keeping the Harry Potter vocabulary will likely help hardcore fans and casual viewers (but mostly hardcore fans) stay on board with the direction Yates, Rowling, and company are so gleefully taking. After all, the franchise (because yes, while it is a “new” franchise, it’s still an extension of a pre-existing franchise) boasts a fanbase that stretches to almost every corner of the globe and is comprised of millions of people. Fans of Rowling’s work are known for being fiercely passionate about her Wizarding World and its themes, characters, and stories, but that doesn’t mean it would be smart or lucrative to abandon familiarity altogether.

In fact, the success of the entire Fantastic Beasts franchise (now confirmed to consist of five films) hinges on fans being able to exercise their ability to connect some very necessary dots, ones that will enrich and enhance their experience with Rowling’s world and its countless characters. People tend to gravitate toward what they know and reject or question what they don’t, even if, as Howard put it, “not everyone hears the music the same way you do.” He was quick to point out that no matter how tirelessly he worked to create a score that held unanimous appeal, everyone would experience his music differently. He said that he was “constantly surprised by people in general because of how differently they process my music.”

While Howard himself maintained that he was never skeptical of the project and its odd origins, he mentioned the importance of steeping the film in Harry Potter lore while still giving the story space to breathe and blossom on its own. Of course, this wouldn’t be an easy feat by any means, but he voiced his confidence in the creative team, particularly Yates and Rowling herself.

“He’s so, so good,” Howard beams. “He really knows how to tell a story with substance. He was always incredibly instructive and enthusiastic. He and J.K. Rowling are obviously heavily involved, so I was really excited. We had fun.”

After several minutes of thoughtful Harry Potter-related discussion, the topic shifted to his career and his clout, both of which are incredibly impressive and undeniably earned. With many achievement notches in his worn belt, he has cemented himself as an industry powerhouse who’s showing no signs of slowing down or burning out. He has worked with M. Night Shyamalan, Francis Lawrence, Christopher Nolan, and other such talents, but his humility remains intact.

Instead, he regarded his craft with a reverence that was both wise and indicative of someone with a great deal of gratitude for what, in his case, is his life’s work. Throughout the interview, Howard referred to music as “an elusive thing”. He would then clarify, adding, “Every film has a specific, identifiable tone that is to be discovered, and that’s still very challenging. Music can help uncover that tone that’s in the fabric of the movie. Sometimes it’s very plain to see, sometimes it’s not.”

Photo courtesy of
James Newton Howard

Howard’s comments, insights, and observations shed light on an industry that’s changing in many areas, including how its stories are made and told. However, if anything has stayed the same, it’s the stories themselves. The best storytellers, Howard included, recognize and respect the staying power of a solidly-told story. There’s a universality to storytelling that dictates everything from structure, flow, and how they affect audiences. Regardless of plot or characters, all good stories arrive at one beautiful end result: they move us.