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Top Five Most Iconic Director-Composer Duos

Updated on June 11, 2019
Angel Jennings profile image

Angel has had a passion for film scores since her mom accidentally bought her the LOTR: The Two Towers film score CD instead of the DVD.

We all know just how incredibly powerful and moving film music can be. It tugs at our heartstrings and brings us to tears during the most emotional parts of movies. Film composers have a special kind of talent—they bond with a director, understand their vision, and become the instrument through which that director's vision is projected to the world (musically, that is). Sometimes, that relationship becomes everything—a profound connection that occurs only when two artists completely understand each other. Can you imagine a world where someone other than Danny Elfman composed Tim Burton movies? I don't think so.

These symbiotic relationships become deeper and deeper, and they begin to transcend the typical limits of artistic collaboration. Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock disagreed on the direction for what ended up being their final collaboration, and neither achieved the same level of success after they split ways. So, what role does a composer play in a director's life and vice versa? Let's take a look at five of the most iconic director-composer collaborations in the history filmmaking to find out.

The Top Five Director-Composer Collaborations of All Time

  1. Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann: Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)
  2. James Cameron and James Horner: Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009)
  3. M. Night Shyamalan and James Newton Howard: The Sixth Sense (1999), The Village (2004)
  4. Tim Burton and Danny Elfman: Batman (1989), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
  5. Steven Spielberg and John Williams: Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981), Schindler's List (1993)

1. Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

No list of director-composer duos would be complete without this pair. It's hard to forget the terrifying strings of Psycho or the creepy, electronically rendered bird noises that made up The Birds' score. Together, Hitchcock and Herrmann created seven feature films.

Hitchcock gave Herrmann an unusual amount of artistic license; he would invite Herrmann to filming sessions and ask for his input—arguably, part of Hitchcock's commercial success and legacy came from the creative use of music in his films.

Herrmann also insisted on always having the final say on the music. This turned out well in some situations; for example, Hitchcock apparently didn't initially want music during the infamous shower stabbing scene in Psycho. Luckily, Herrmann pushed for the shrieking violins in that scene, thereby cementing that film and scene's monumental role in both horror films and film music in general.

The two squabbled over the score for Torn Curtain (1966)—Hitchcock wanted a more modern, pop-influenced score while Herrmann wanted to stick to the classic, instrumental style that had always brought them success. This was also the first time that Herrmann had felt Hitchcock stepping on his toes, artistically speaking. He'd never before felt Hitchcock restricting his artistic freedom, and in the end, Hitchcock discarded Herrmann's score, deciding that he didn't need Herrmann's input to be a success.

It is unclear as to whether the two men ever reconciled, but they certainly never worked together again, and neither ever reached the same level of success they had achieved during their professional collaboration.

Hitchcock-Herrmann Duo's Best-Known Films

  • Vertigo (1958)
  • Psycho (1960)
  • The Birds (1963)

The use of music in film is completely unknown territory. The most sensitive directors can be completely ignorant about the use of music, while an inferior director can have a great instinct for it—largely because film music has a certain mystical quality. The camera can only do so much; the actors and the direction can only do so much. But the music can tell you what people are thinking and feeling—that is the real function of music.

— Bernard Herrmann (1973 Q&A session)

2. James Cameron and James Horner

Cameron and Horner first worked together on Aliens (1986), but then they didn't work together again until Titanic (1997), over a decade later. Cameron has described their relationship during the production of Aliens as "rocky," but clearly, they were meant to be reunited.

While these two didn't collaborate on nearly as many films as the other director-composer duos mentioned in this article, Horner won an Oscar for Titanic, which also won Best Picture, and he was nominated for Avatar (the film itself was nominated for Best Picture as well, although neither won). Titanic remains one of the top-selling film scores of all time more than 20 years after its release.

James Horner's tragic death ended the unstoppable force that was these two James' combined magic. Horner was set to compose the next three Avatar films before his sudden death in 2015 in a single-fatality plane crash at the age of 61. Who knows what other fantastic artistic collaborations this power duo could have produced were it not for Horner's untimely demise?

Cameron described Horner as a "sensitive guy" with a depth of emotion and sensitivity that contributed to his musical talents. He fondly remembers tearing up hearing Horner play the first strains of Titanic's theme on the piano for him—it was then that he knew it would be a fantastic score.

Cameron-Horner Duo's Best-Known Films

  • Aliens (1986)
  • Titanic (1997)
  • Avatar (2009)

I have not allowed myself to even think in terms of how this is going to be damaging to my movies, because there’s a selfish aspect of that. I will miss the collaboration. I will miss the fun. I will miss the creation. I had a note on my desk: “Contact JH to start a percussion experiment.”

— James Cameron in a 2017 interview by Tim Greiving on Cameron's relationship with James Horner

3. M. Night Shyamalan and James Newton Howard

Shyamalan and Newton Howard first collaborated on The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's 1999 smash hit. Newton Howard's thrilling score created the perfect atmosphere for the film—a combination of terrifyingly jarring strings (vaguely reminiscent of Psycho) when dead people are around and eerie silence to build anticipation and dread in the audience—it was unsettling, to say the least.

But Newton Howard's musical genius didn't stop there. Signs (2002) was another intense thriller with a frighteningly brilliant score. Newton Howard used a combination of trumpeting brass and frantic violin that made the movie something it wouldn't have otherwise been without his phenomenal influence.

The Village (2004) was another musical masterpiece that earned Howard an Oscar nod. Newton Howard returned to the lonely, heartbreaking, and haunting solo violin (artfully performed by Hillary Hahn). This time, the violin captures the romantic yet solemn atmosphere of the film. Once again, Shyamalan and Newton Howard were on the same artistic wavelength.

Who's to say that without Newton Howard's music, Shyamalan's films would have received the same accolades? While it is generally agreed upon that the quality of Shyamalan's films has steadily decreased since The Sixth Sense, Newton Howard has continued to compose the music for his films, while also receiving accolades for separate projects (such as The Hunger Games). Newton Howard appears to be capable of achieving commercial success without Shyamalan, but does that go both ways?

Rumors have surfaced on online forums about a possible artistic rift between the pair after Newton Howard didn't return to score Unbreakable's 2019 sequel, Glass. Some believe that the two may have disagreed on the musical style for the score of Shyamalan's 2013 film After Earth, thus causing a rift between them. After Earth received an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Shyamalan-Newton Howard Duo's Best-Known Films

  • The Sixth Sense (1999)
  • Unbreakable (2000)
  • Signs (2002)
  • The Village (2004)
  • Lady in the Water (2006)

4. Tim Burton and Danny Elfman

One simply cannot imagine the dark world of Tim Burton's stunning films without the magical music of Danny Elfman. The Nightmare Before Christmas (for which Elfman provided the singing vocals of lead character Jack Skellington) was a Grammy-nominated instant childhood classic that some might say was the peak of the duo's artistic union.

In the 1970s, Elfman was known for his involvement with the eccentric band Oingo Boingo. He says he was majorly influenced by music from the 1920s and '30s, as well as avant-garde and minimalist compositions from the likes of Erik Satie and Philip Glass. When Tim Burton approached him to score Pee-wee's Big Adventure in the mid-'80s, it was his first (and breakthrough) film gig.

Burton and Elfman then hit the ground running and both had a chance to stretch their artistic legs. In Beetlejuice, Elfman masterfully tied together the creepy and the comedic in a wild and zany carnivalesque atmosphere; in the Grammy-winning Batman score, he perfectly captures Burton's gothic rendering of Bruce Wayne, truly encapsulating Batman as a character and providing musical inspiration for the decades of superhero movies to follow in its wake.

Burton and Elfman then moved on to another instant classic, Edward Scissorhands, which for Elfman again presented the intriguing artistic challenge of combining quirk; comedy; and dark, beautiful, and romantic energy. He, of course, rose to the occasion beautifully.

Burton has cited his and Elfman's similarities in interviews—growing up, they had similar interests and both lived in suburbs of L.A.—but he also says he doesn't really understand how their relationship works; however, there's no question that it absolutely does work.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was the culmination of this wacky duo's artistic collaboration—Danny Elfman was involved from the beginning of the project and sang the iconic role of Jack Skellington. Elfman says that he's never felt artistically stunted by Burton—in the end, they always find the right place and arrive together.

Burton-Elfman Duo's Best-Known Films

  • Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)
  • Beetlejuice (1988)
  • Batman (1989)
  • Edward Scissorhands (1990)
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
  • Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The thing that I like most about working with Tim is that all of his responses to my music are visceral. He either feels it or he doesn’t. But he’s never going to hit me with ‘logic.’ If there’s one thing that’s a music destroyer, it’s logic: too thought-out, too intellectual, about what it should or shouldn’t be doing.

— Danny Elfman in a 2016 Variety interview

5. Steven Spielberg and John Williams

Last, but of course, not least, is Steven Spielberg and John Williams. The pair met in the early '70s when Spielberg was just 25 years old. The young director approached Williams, who'd already received an Oscar for his work on Fiddler on the Roof, and asked him to compose the music for The Sugarland Express, his first feature film. Thus began the duo's meteoric rise to fame, which took flight with Spielberg's second film (and Williams' second Oscar), Jaws.

Both Spielberg and Williams are unquestionably talented without the other's artistry, but would they have achieved the same level of success if they'd never met? Their relationship has become seamless—Williams is the glove that fits perfectly on Spielberg's outstretched hand.

As far as their artistic technique goes, Williams says he prefers to wait until the film is well into production and nearly finished before beginning to compose the music. He offers themes to Spielberg, then reads his body language and adapts his music in response to the director's reactions. Meanwhile, Spielberg keeps Williams in mind while shooting his films, such as giving him lots of open shots for which he composes beautiful, operatic music.

The only complaint reviewers of Williams' scores seem to have is that his work sounds to start a bit "familiar," which is to be expected of the world's most iconic, well-known, and prolific film score composer (who is in his late 80s at the time of this writing). While Williams probably won't live for the rest of Spielberg's career, there is no doubt that his legacy, and that of their fruitful creative partnership, will live on forever.

Spielberg-Williams Duo's Best-Known Films

  • Jaws (1975)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  • Jurassic Park (1993)
  • Schindler's List (1993)
  • Munich (2005)

If one conclusion can be drawn from examining these dynamic artistic relationships, it is that when a director finds a composer they really like and work well with, they should continue to hire that composer. There's no doubt that symbiotic relationships between directors and composers produce brilliant, elegantly crafted work. And it seems that when the relationship breaks down between composer and director, the quality of the future endeavors of both suffers.

What's your favorite director-composer duo?

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