'Solo' Composer John Powell Talks Channeling Han & Working With John Williams

John Powell
Rob Latour/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

John Powell attends the film premiere for 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' on May 10, 2018 in Los Angeles.

John Powell knows exactly how Alden Ehrenreich feels right about now. Just like stepping into the unfillable boots inhabited by Han Solo is a nearly impossible task for any actor, picking up the baton wielded with laser-guided perfection for more than four decades by legendary Star Wars composer John Williams is a fools errand. But that didn't stop Oscar nominee Powell from digging in and finding his own celestial sounds for Solo: A Star Wars Story (opening tonight) a daunting, but also thrilling opportunity to put his unique stamp on the most beloved space saga in film history.

"Obviously, John's contribution to Star Wars is that he basically makes it work and that's an extraordinary thing to do from a dramaturgy part, but the tunes are also so good. So the fact that he's such a fine composer and that he can push the film along so beautifully is an extraordinary talent," Powell tells Billboard about his reverence for Williams as well as excitement about adding to the canon of iconic Star Wars music.

The 54-year-old English composer brings a formidable pedigree to the gig thanks to three decades of composing scores for dozens of animated and live action films from Chicken Run, Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon to the Bourne franchise, United 93 and X-Men: The Last Stand. And he needed all that skill to do something that is the equivalent of a musical jump to hyperspace: bringing the Solo audience forward into a world they already know -- a "pre-world" as he put it -- without making it feel like a rehash of the well-trod ground we've visited in four previous movies with the wisecracking swashbuckler.

"You're seeing Han Solo, a grumpy anti-hero trying to find his way and we know where he's going, we know when and how he's going to die, so this story is the things that led him to be the person we loved in [Episode IV] A New Hope," says Powell, whose obvious affection for the universe created by George Lucas is immediately apparent and unapologetically deep. This first glimpse of Solo's rougher, pre-Jedi, pre-The Force world is about another force, that of friendship, love, hope and destiny. That's why Powell used some of Williams' earlier score, as well as a few new pieces that interlock with his own work to hint at Solo's destiny, but also introduce us to this character we already know and love.

Rebecca Morellato
John Powell

Billboard spoke to Powell about scoring Solo and what it's like to land the gig of a lifetime.

The way you describe creating your own music to work alongside John Williams' to introduce us to a character we already know sounds like the equivalent of a musical Möbius strip: a task that endlessly folds in on itself. Was that daunting? 

Every tune is there for a reason. There are references to the destiny of Han as we know him, where he's going to go, so I would use the opening title music for that and the idea of the Millennium Falcon. But I also had to write tunes that didn't exist for his real friendship that we know will bloom with Chewie and why that will be a constant in his life and what is it about Chewie that he can rely on. We know he's going to fall in love with Leia later on, but what about this love interest in this film? Is that a true love or an illusion? And we have to hold onto this idea of freedom... he's trying to get free all the time, which matches the idea of the rebellion in the other films. So there's lot of parallels but things are different, so the music will hopefully be honorable to the Star Wars canon from John. And because John's been a part of it, it's got the DNA automatically, but I have my own abilities. One of my strengths is to not be able to do other people's music very well, so even if I tried I can't necessarily make it exactly the same.

But are there parts where we will recognize some of the classic cues?

In a few places I got to use the real material from certain scenes, but I did that because the scenes were so reminiscent to me of scenes from the original Star Wars that I always wanted to use that music because it echoed. And at that part much later in the film it felt as if we could afford to nurture the feeling you have when you're really beginning to love this character again, so I wanted to support that idea that we all know where we’re going and it was my job to make sure I held everybody's hand as we got to a particular part in the film and it felt right that we were remembering things from the future. If that makes any sense. It's a very interesting and tricky thing to do.

Given your background playing in rock bands is it safe to assume we might hear some more prominent, big drums and maybe more guitar that we have in the previous movies?

Hopefully you'll see that that's a useful tool to achieve what we wanted to achieve and it's a mixture of everything you'd expect in the music from a Star Wars film and sometimes things you wouldn't. I hope you'll never notice the music as being different for the sake of being different. It is different because there's a purpose to it, or it's the same because there's a purpose to it. I hope it keeps the story flowing. One of the things John Williams has done so elegantly in these films is once you get on that wave he never lets you off it. The music is always flowing forward. It doesn't push you so fast that you fall off the back of it and it doesn't slow down too much that you dip into the sea. You just always stay in the fun part of the wave just before the crest. If we can keep you moving that way so that you're just in the film and in the characters then the music, no matter what it's doing, will support that. If it needs to be more aggressive, more rock and roll than you're used to in a Star Wars film then it is. And if it needs to be this reminiscence therapy because you're seeing and feeling these memories then it does that as well. I worked very hard to support every part of the film as to the nature of these characters and the fact that we were going to get to know them better later on but at the moment we're just meeting them and we see a different side of them and they're a little bit rawer and a little bit rougher.

What an interesting challenge for you as a composer. On the one hand you're stepping into the most beloved music film history, on the other you have this challenge of introducing us to characters we already know through music, which is such an integral part of this series. What is that first day in the studio like when you drop into this universe? Do you sit at your keyboard and wonder, "what have I gotten myself into?" Or are you raring to put your stamp on it?

The answer is "yes" to both those possibilities. I went from them having to knock on the door of the toilet and persuading me to come out to really reveling in it. There were moments that are such great fun because I would be going from things I'd written straight into things John had written in 1978 and back out again and seeing it all work, I hope. Right at the very beginning when they called me they said, "John is going to come on and write the theme for Han." And that was the clincher for me. I'm sure for some composers that would be an inhibitor. But for me that was the reason I did it because I realized that if I have his DNA in this I don't just have the DNA from the past, I have the DNA from the present as well and I can help us get to the DNA of the future.

There's that Möbius strip again! So, I have to ask, was John kind of like your Jedi master?

Yes. Having John come in and see his take on the movie and talk to him... it's basically like having Yoda. I was a Padawan. But yes, hugely stressful, but the filmmakers were wonderful, including Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord], who hired me at the beginning and unfortunately I didn't really get to work with [the pair were replaced several months into shooting.] And then [director] Ron [Howard] and walks in and he was absolutely wonderful and [Lucasfilm President] Kathleen [Kennedy] was fantastic [because] ultimately they were just so good at letting me get out of my own way. They gave me the confidence... and John Williams. We did this demo of of his theme and some cues he did at the beginning of the year and they were so wonderful and so perfect. I was first just so knocked over by, "how the hell am I going to do this?" And then when he spoke to me after the sessions he said, "you can't treat this as religious iconography that must not be touched. It's a living, breathing thing and I cannot wait to see what you do with it." 

Given your age and profession, has this music always been there for you?

Star Wars has always been part of the language that I've always used. All of the music I've heard in my life... I've heard such a lot of Star Wars, I'm sure I've been ripping him off in every film at some point! So why not just relax and carry on?

Once you've gotten this blessing from the musical don, was there an effort then to get your hands dirty and find a way to definitively put your stamp on it?

No. I didn't feel that. As I said, I have a bad memory, so even if I was trying to do it I wouldn't get there very accurately. I always felt it was going to turn out differently because of my own mistaken memory. I just took it as the level of quality and energy and flow that John has always created in the movies... I must work harder to create that. If I create that using my own instincts and style, which, as I said, is very influenced by it anyway, it will be its own thing. But maybe not too far away form what people would expect. It's basically a filigree lattice work of themes, some new ones by John, some old ones by John and about six other ones by me all in and out of each other as needed. Hopefully you recognize the themes you need to recognize and you enjoy and hear the themes develop that are new to you -- whether they're John's or mine -- and it will have a flow to it all the way through.

Check out the movie's trailer (which does not feature Powell's music):