Composer Howard Shore Looked to 'Unwrap the Layers of the Story' in Tense 'Spotlight' Film

Howard Shore
Benjamin Ealovega

Howard Shore 

In Spotlight, reporters at The Boston Globe uncover a pedophile ring among Catholic priests that the local archdiocese has swept under the rug. That Tom McCarthy's procedural never sensationalizes the horrific scandal is one of the movie's strengths, as is its score by three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore

Instead of writing music for specific characters, Shore, who is known for his work with Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson and David Cronenberg, devised the score around themes and motifs that he and McCarthy discussed, such as the pressure of the church, investigative reporting, legacy journalism and the victims' pain and anguish. The result is a subtle piano-based musical thread that weaves its way through the movie, beautifully adding tension, but never deflecting from the dialogue.

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As he did for such films as Doubt, The Spider, Rosewater and Jimmy P, Shore kept the instrumentation minimal, using a 10-piece chamber orchestra that lends the score of Spotlight an intimate, haunting quality. Enhancing the Boston setting, he incorporated the fiddle and bodran to lightly evoke that city's Irish culture.

Shore, whose Spotlight score was nominated for a Critics' Choice Award last week, spoke to Billboard about his work on the film and the collaborative process between him and director McCarthy.

Spotlight never over-dramatizes the scandal. How did you make sure your instrumentation didn't either? 

My primary focus was on the piano. I felt the black-and-white quality connected well to the newsprint. There is a certain honesty to the instrument. I thought it would work well for a story based on the discovery of the truth.

What is the main challenge of scoring a procedural?

The challenge is building an arc to the narrative as the discovery of information progresses.

There are long passages here without any score, which underscored that this is a true story. How did you and Tom McCarthy decide when you needed music? 

Tom and I spent many hours discussing the spotting of the music. The reasons for its inclusion in certain scenes, why was it there and what it had to say.

What are the challenges of scoring a movie that has so little action and so much dialogue?

The challenge is finding the balance in the use of the score to set the investigative procedure in motion and then to heighten the energy as the case unfolds. The score is actually used in many places of the film without dialogue. The themes and motifs are used as a storytelling device for clarity and cohesion.

Which scene was the hardest to score?

The most difficult scenes to score were the directory investigative montage and the ending that connects the residence of one of the Spotlight team to the close vicinity of one of the accused priests. It was a pre-Internet investigation using a very tedious and rather old-fashioned type of approach. The method proved very difficult but it was successful and led to the major discovery that pushed the case wide open. It was a good example of legacy journalism.

How did the score change from when you first began to write to when you finished? 

When writing music for a film with this much detail, the work is always a journey. I'm working to unwrap the layers of the story and then fold them back in with clarity, to bring out the subtext of the story through the music.