“They’re Already Here”: John Williams and ‘War of the Worlds’

Soundtrack record producer Mike Matessino discussing his restoration work on John Williams’s thrilling score for the sci-fi classic directed by Steven Spielberg in 2005

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden

Audio-only version available:

Podbean | Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | TuneIn | Stitcher

In the words of director Steven Spielberg, 2005 turned out to be “a red-letter year” for his friend and close artistic partner John Williams. In the span of 12 months, the composer tackled four major film projects, while also remaining very active as guest conductor in Boston, Los Angeles and other major American cities. 2005 saw Williams first writing and recording the score for the then-final episode of the Star Wars saga written and directed by George Lucas, Revenge of the Sith, i.e. the long-awaited closing chapter of the prequel trilogy. Immediately right after completing work on Lucas’s film, the composer started on another massive production: Steven Spielberg’s big-budget adaptation of the sci-fi classic novel by H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. The project marked his 22nd collaboration with the esteemed director and was also one of the summer’s major blockbusters, with Tom Cruise in the leading role and a huge marketing campaign to build momentum. Despite the huge financial considerations, the film turned out to be a very unique and perhaps even personal project for the director, who took the opportunity to craft a grim moral tale disguised as an action-packed sci-fi drama. Produced a few years after the tragedy of 9/11, Spielberg’s take on War of the Worlds contains imagery and set-pieces strongly reminiscent of that collective traumatic event, giving the whole movie an almost bleak tone. David Koepp’s lean script takes some narrative departures from the original novel, but retaining its deep core values as a cautionary tale, giving Spielberg ample opportunity to build tense nail-biting sequences and putting the characters of Ray Ferrier (convincigly portrayed by Tom Cruise) and his two kids at the heart of the drama as the emblem of the everyday person living through a traumatic experience.

The menacing alien Tripod emerges from the bowels of the earth in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds © 2005 Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks SKG / Amblin Entertainment

Given all this context, the movie presented a unique challenge for composer John Williams. The score was written and recorded in a relatively short amount of time–Williams started scoring locked sequences in late February 2005, before a final edit was completed, with scoring sessions scheduled between late April and early May of the same year. The quick turnaround certainly wasn’t an unusual situation for the composer, but it’s likely that the speedy schedule influenced at least in part the creative approach of both director and composer. The music accompanies the drama with Williams’ usual skillfull dramatic sensibility, giving the film’s action sequences its necessary propulsive energy, but at the same time avoiding any kind of leeway to conventional scoring. Instead the music enhances the dark, grim tone of the film through violent Herrmann-esque orchestral colors (12 horns, 2 tubas, 5 trombones, 2 sets of timpani playing antiphonally in the bigger cues), unstable harmonic language and an overall tone of fragilty and uncertainty. Even the few lyrical oasis as heard in some sequences are characterized by anguished string writing and unresolved harmonic tension. The score represented a sort of departure for Spielberg and Williams in the sense that, perhaps for the first time, the duo avoided almost completely a theme-driven approach (even though there are some thematic threads going on in the score), but instead chose to accompany the experiences the characters live through and their overall feelings of fear, despair, but also their renewed sense of bonding.

Dakota Fanning and Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds © 2005 Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks SKG / Amblin Entertainment

The score was released on a generous 60-minute album by Decca Records at the time of the film’s release, containing the bulk of Williams’ compositions and the main set-pieces, but it was creatively assembled and rearranged to offer a more linear listening experience. The new remastered edition released by soundtrack specialty label Intrada Records has been meticolously restored and produced by Mike Matessino, who worked from the original audio elements to rebuild from scratch the mixes and all the performance edits. The new release is spreaded on two CDs–Disc 1 presents the complete 80-minutes film score with all the cues in chronological order as they appear in the film (including unreleased and extended material), while Disc 2 offers the remastered original soundtrack album, plus a slew of alternate cues that reveal Williams’ meticolous creative process for the film.

In this new conversation with The Legacy of John Williams, Mike Matessino offers his deep thoughts about how this new release of War of the Worlds came about, how the perception on the film and some of its most controversial aspects changed throughout the years and became even more relevant in today’s world, the role of the music within the film and how the new edition was meticolously assembled and produced.

Dakota Fanning in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds © 2005 Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks SKG / Amblin Entertainment

Special Thanks to Mike Matessino and Tim Burden, and to Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson at Intrada Records

War of the Worlds – Expanded and Remastered 2-CD Edition available for purchase at http://store.intrada.com/s.nl?it=A&id=12263