Harry Gregson-Williams attended the Hollywood premiere of Mulan on March 7 and, as the composer candidly says, “it all went to crap from there.”
Within days, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, the live-action version of the Disney 1998 animated blockbuster was pulled from its original March 27 theatrical release date.
Now, nearly six months later, Mulan premieres on Disney Plus subscription streaming service today (Sept. 4) for an additional one-time payment of $29.99.
Based on a Chinese legend, Mulan tells the story of a teenage girl who surreptitiously takes the place of her injured father in the Chinese army. Mulan, armed with skills and a strong qi that make her a superior warrior to her fellow soldiers, pretends to be a man in order to continue to serve.
Unlike the animated feature, the re-make is not a musical, but Gregson-William’s score plays a vital role through the film, especially in the often mystical battle scenes.
Gregson-Williams, who has scored such diverse films as Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; Gone Baby Gone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Total Recall, previously worked with Mulan director Niki Caro on 2017’s The Zookeeper’s Wife.
Gregson-Williams talked to Billboard about capturing the spirit of a teenage Chinese girl in the score, the film’s delay, juggling fatherhood with scoring during the pandemic, co-writing the movie’s end-title song and why the original was temporarily forbidden in his home.
Billboard: The movie is incredibly vibrant from the scenes in Mulan’s colorful village to the expansive battle scenes. How do you feel about people first experiencing the film, and your score, on the small screen because of the pandemic?
Gregson-Williams: Hopefully they can enjoy it wherever they see it. It is a slightly extraordinary situation because we did mix the film for cinema. Obviously these things do come to TV, but we mixed it for the big screen, a blockbuster. The cinematography, the environments, are amazing that Niki shot. Certainly the cinematic experience is going to be a bit more beneficial, but I think everybody’s positive about looking forward to seeing it, whether it’s on a small scale or not…It doesn’t take away the pleasure it was to work on a film like that.
Had you and Niki developed a shorthand after working on The Zookeeper’s Wife?
No. We’d obviously grown used to each other and we’d started to form a working relationship, but the subject matter of The Zookeeper’s Wife and Mulan couldn’t be further apart. I don’t think she’d worked on a film like [Mulan] before, nor had I scored one, so we enjoyed the challenge and the deeper we got into Mulan, the more we developed a shorthand.
How long were you working on this?
It was quite a long voyage for both of us, but particularly for me as a composer. I’m normally brought on right at the end of the process, deep into post-production. That was certainly my experience on The Zookeeper’s Wife. But on Mulan I started writing music a couple of years before. Niki needed some pre-records and needed the music as she was shooting, particularly during one of the battle scenes that had some big ancient drums that the army would use. And then when she got back from shooting, it was a longer post-production period than most movies I’ve ever worked on. It was great. More time usually equals a better result.
You brought in authentic Chinese instrumentation, including string and wind instruments. How familiar were you with those or what kind of education process was this for you?
It was decided that we should try and be as authentic as possible.There’s no way I wasn’t going to use a big symphony orchestra and a big choir, but I was able to smatter across the top of that individual Chinese instruments, particularly an Erhu and Guzheng and many special Chinese woodwinds. We found incredible artists who contributed to the score. So it was fascinating for me to do my research to find out what these instruments could do, and then to find a way of integrating them into my score in a way that’s homogeneous. Typically, I do use electronics, but on this score, not very much. There was no need to do that.
You’ve said that if you were having trouble scoring a scene, you’d come back to Mulan’s virtues: loyal, brave and true. How did that help you?
These three virtues are really what drives Mulan through the story. “Mulan’s Theme,” when I first wrote it, I had to [make it] malleable [because she’s] quite vulnerable and unsure of herself at first. But I knew that by the time we got two-thirds of the way through that Mulan would be acting very heroically. This theme was going to have be very muscular. If I couldn’t make “Mulan’s Theme” very heroic, then it probably wasn’t the right one. I had to find ways to have something quite playful morph into something quite bold.
You co-wrote the end-title song, “Loyal, Brave, True” sung by Christina Aguilera, with Jamie Hartman, Rosi Golan and Billy Crabtree. How did that come about?
One day I was introduced to a bonafide songwriter, which I’m not at all, I’m a film composer. Jamie is a really nice guy, and a bit like me, an Englishman in L.A. He came to my studio. I was playing a cue that had “Mulan’s Theme” in it and he turned to me and said, “This could be a song… what you have there, we could use as a verse.” I said, “This will have to be speculative. No one has asked me for a song.” He involved two other people in his songwriting and we put our heads together and came up with the song. I put it in my back pocket and said, “I’ll play it for Niki at an opportune moment.” We were nowhere near finishing the film yet; it was still six months to go in post production and I had a lot of other music to write so it wasn’t a priority at the time. But we made this demo with Rosi, who has a beautiful voice.
At a meeting with Niki that had gone quite well where I’d played her some of the score, I played the song for her and she loved it. From there, we played it for Mitchell Leib, the president of music at Disney, [and] he [suggested] Christina Aguilera [who sang “Reflection” in the original, and remade that song for the new movie]. She said she’d love to sing it. So it was a very, very, very fortunate happening, really.
Speaking of the original, how daunting was it to take on a movie when the original score was written by the revered composer Jerry Goldsmith?
Oh yeah, it’s pretty daunting, but it’s a great privilege. I certainly wasn’t going to turn down this opportunity through fear. But I had that in the back of my mind all the time. I’ve got five kids, the oldest of which likes the first movie a lot. It came out around the time that she was little. The little ones were just excited that I was working on a movie that they could see. There were so many positives to working on this thing that I couldn’t say no, but, yes, it’s daunting. I love the original film, but I did ban it in my house. My little children were not allowed to watch the original film while I was scoring this.
How has the pandemic affected your work on your next film, Infinite, which reunites you with director Antoine Fuqua?
I’m still working on it. I was given the first cut of the movie pretty much as lockdown happened in March and everything went on hold for a little bit, but we’ll be finishing the film in the next month or two. It’s very exciting. It’s very different to Mulan, as you can imagine. Whereas there were very few electronics involved in the score for Mulan, there’s very little orchestra in the score for Infinite…I’m very fortunate to have a home studio so I was juggling three young children doing home schooling with whenever I was able to hop into my studio.
Otherwise, how has the pandemic affected you?
Everything’s taken longer. For instance, Infinite was supposed to be in theaters on Aug. 7. It would have already been finished. But things are speeding up and picking up again.