Composer/Conductor John Williams

The legendary film composer talks about his illustrious career, and writing the music for the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

John Williams has composed the music and been music director for more than 100 films. With an astonishing 49 Oscar nominations, he is the Academy's most nominated living person. The New York native attended UCLA, served in the Air Force and studied at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Before earning the title of 'America's composer' by composing iconic films like Jaws, E.T.Superman, and Jurassic Park, he was a jazz pianist, wrote several classical concert pieces and conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra. He's also composed works for numerous big events, including the Olympics. He has the distinction of having composed the music for every single installment in the Star Wars franchise, including the latest, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with legendary film composer and conductor, John Williams. He not only composed the music for such iconic films as “Jaws”, “Superman”, “E.T.”, and “Indiana Jones”, but he’s written a score for every installment of the “Star Wars” saga, including the one opening this Friday called “The Force Awakens”. Be sure to join us tomorrow night for a talk with the director of the film, J. J. Abrams. But tonight, the genius behind the franchise’s iconic soundtrack.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with John Williams coming up right now.

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Tavis: I am honored, delighted, to welcome John Williams back to this program. The five-time Oscar winner and 17-time Grammy winner is the musical force behind classic films like “Jaws” and “Superman” and “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park” and the list goes on and on, far too many to mention tonight.

He also has the distinction of having written the scores for every single installment of the “Star Wars” franchise, including the one opening this Friday, the highly anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. Before we start our conversation with John Williams, a look at just a small sample of his iconic work.


Tavis: For all of this and so much more that we don’t even have time to mention tonight, the AFI, the American Film Institute, has just announced that John Williams will be its first composer to be the recipient of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in June of 2016, so congratulations, my friend.

John Williams: Thank you, Tavis, very much.

Tavis: I’m honored to have you back on this program.

Williams: Well, I’m happy to be here with you. I love being with you. I’ll come back as many times as you like [laugh].

Tavis: I love being with you. When you show up, magic happens. So I’m glad to have you here. I mentioned the AFI tribute that’s coming your way in just a few months into the new year, but the tributes are going to start a little early tonight. We’ll start a little early because on this program tomorrow night is your friend, J. J. Abrams.

Williams: Okay.

Tavis: J. J. was just here the other day. We recorded a conversation that’s going to air on this program tomorrow night, but I asked J. J. about what it was like to work with the iconic John Williams. So you’ll see the full interview tomorrow night.

Williams: Okay.

Tavis: But I want to play for you tonight what J. J. Abrams had to say about working with John Williams. Turn to that monitor right there and you’ll see J. J.

J. J. Abrams: Oh, I’m so happy that you’re bringing this up. First of all, when Kathy Kennedy first proposed this collaboration, among the things that were discussed was that John Williams–I asked her would he be–she’s, “Okay, he already wants to do it.”

So I came onboard knowing John Williams was going to continue scoring the “Star Wars” movie. It was one of the things I was looking forward to most throughout the entire experience, and there were so many moments of unreal joy in getting to work on this thing. Huge challenges at every turn.

It wasn’t just a cakewalk, but it was like John Williams was sort of the carrot at the end of the stick. Because it was at the end of production, at the end of post-production, I get to work with John Williams. So I sat down and had a meeting with him and I found out, first of all, that he could not literally, as you know, could not be lovelier. He is…

Tavis: Nicest guy in the world.

Abrams: Nicest guy, and the most honestly modest person I’ve ever met. When you look at the effect that he has had on cinema, every movie he’s done, watch almost any scene without the sound on and see what that scene does. It’s a very different experience, a profound effect. You can’t overstate the importance of his role in the movies he’s worked on and he doesn’t speak like a man who has accomplished anything.

He talks about his work in the most humble way. It is the most true and authentic and beautiful thing because it’s not false modesty. He’s not trying to make you–he is simply just this artist who just does this thing and claims almost no responsibility for it, and touches us. He writes music that is as moving and soulful and profound and important as any text, as any speech an actor could give.

And watching him do his work was a gift and I got to show him in half hour chunks this movie, which scared the hell out of me because I was showing John Williams scenes from “Star Wars” movies he hadn’t seen yet, which I could understand, that I directed.

And he would watch them and he would ask these questions and he would things like he’d say, “You know, in this moment here”–he calls everyone baby. You know, if he gets to know you at all, you’re Tavis, baby.

So he goes like, “J. J., baby, dare we use the imperial march in this moment?”, you know, like referencing one of his themes he’s done. I’m like, “You know, yes, John, I think we dare. [laugh]. We must dare because it’s one of the greatest ques ever.” He’s like, “Okay.” He’s almost like embarrassed to go back and almost revisit work he’s done, and he sat and watched at one of the playbacks.

He watched the movie and he told me afterwards that it was the first time he had ever watched a “Star Wars” movie from beginning to end all the way through. But he just hasn’t done that because he writes the music, he does his thing, and then he sort of moves on. I cannot thank the powers that be enough that I got to meet, let alone collaborate with, John Williams.

Tavis: I wanted to play that in its entirety. Again, that entire conversation with J. J. Abrams will be seen on this program tomorrow night, so it’s a great conversation with J. J. tomorrow. But I wanted you to see that because I wanted you, in advance of all these accolades that are going to come your way at this big AFI tribute, to see what J. J. Abrams thinks of you.

Williams: He’s way too generous. I can do another half an hour what I think about him. You probably know that. Your viewers do too. He’s just the greatest guy. He’s a fabulous, direct, honest, wonderful artist with a beautiful family, no affectations or fussing about him, and he’s a brilliant, brilliant filmmaker, as most people are learning more and more every day.

I’m happy to see him on a program like yours so people can see his face, hear his voice, hear the brilliant articulation that he has. He talks brilliantly in paragraphs and beautiful sentences, and they will learn to know home as we who are fortunate enough to work with him have come to know him.

Tavis: Well, the beauty in having J. J. on tonight, but having you on tonight is that, unlike J. J., you’ve been in every iteration of all seven of these adventures. What does it feel like on this seventh journey?

Williams: Well, it’s weird, Tavis, because the first one was 1977. I don’t know how many years ago. It was a long time, so I just tell people rather glibly I was 12 years old [laugh], so now I’m 50 or something like that.

Tavis: Yeah, I love it, I love it [laugh].

Williams: So, Tavis, one of the survivors, me and Larry Kasdan, one of the writers for the film goes way back. I’m sure you know Larry. So we are, along with Harrison Ford and Carrie, you know, are survivors from the original.

I may have told you this before, but doing the first film in 1977, I had no idea there was going to be a second one. I don’t think George Lucas certainly didn’t confide in me and others working on the film. I didn’t think there was another one coming and another one that kept coming. I’m not entirely sure if he knew after the first one that there was going to be another one.

You have to ask George about that because he’d been very–but he went on and wrote on this yellow pad, wrote the next film in longhand the way he’s done this, and what has happened is that we’re here talking 30-plus years later about something that has become phenomenal in a profound way, worldwide audiences maybe in the billions–I’m not even sure what it is–which transcends in some way the appeal of a film.

It is reaching some good and bad force and evil kind of mythological, almost reduction, if you’d like to say, of something that awakens something in our collective memories in some profound way. It looked to me like a children’s film that’s going to play Saturday afternoon, have a couple of good weeks in the theater, and be gone.

Tavis: Not exactly [laugh].

Williams: Not exactly, and for reasons that are difficult to analyze. Joseph Campbell tried to explain it to all of us after the fact and did a pretty good job. So I’m just happy to have been able to continue working on it and have the fun of adding to a glossary of musical themes picture after picture, which is I think something unique in film music history.

Tavis: That was beautifully put, so I want to pick up on that phrase, “adding to a glossary of musical themes”, wonderfully put. What’s the challenge of doing that, adding to that glossary of musical themes? Again, I understand that you didn’t know there was going to be a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh film.

You score them one film at a time, but when you get to the third or the fourth and you’re looking back and now you’re smart enough to know that there may be another going forward, musically, artistically, how does that impact how you keep that glossary growing?

Williams: Well, I would hope any composer with a writer would, if you’re adding something, that you can graft something onto the corpus of what you originally had and not have it be a foreign element, a foreign substance that won’t live with the other tissue, if I can put it that way.

A certain melodic style, a certain modality in the harmonies so that we recognize as being, if not “Star Wars” exactly, but heroic in some kind of cinematic way maybe is the way to put it, and a wonderful opportunity to do that. I mean, the Darth Vader theme was not in the first film. I had no idea it was going to happen and that we’d get to know Darth Vader in his costume.

So I have to say somewhere along in this conversation, Tavis, that I feel privileged, being lucky in the first place to have the assignment which Steven Spielberg was the one who said to George Lucas, “You ought to hire this guy.” I wasn’t exactly a kid even then. To be still around and be able to do this, I feel very, very lucky and very fortunate, I must say.

Tavis: They’ve been blessed to have you too, though.

Williams: Well, it’s been fun. You know, we had the greatest orchestra. I think I told you a few moments ago. We usually had done the scores with the London Symphony. We couldn’t go to London for the kind of time that J. J. needed, so we did it here with our studio orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel–your viewers will know him.

He’s the great genius conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I said, “Come down to the session one day.” He came down and I said to the orchestra from the podium once, “I feel a little bit tired this afternoon and I’ve engaged a young gentleman to come in and substitute for me for a couple of hours.”

Tavis: And it was Dudamel [laugh].

Williams: Yeah, it was Dudamel. I said, “When he gets to the podium, please be courteous to him. He’s a very talented young man.” The orchestra, of course, was so excited and I think played a little better for him than they did for me. They were all sitting up like this, you know [laugh]. So he’s become part of it, you know.

Tavis: So now Dudamel is part of “Star Wars”.

Williams: Yes, he is, in a way. He had his little son, Martin, there and they had a marvelous time. But I mention it because the fun of having the orchestra, you know, one of these kind of invitations you get from every visitor you have here, one of these days you’ll come and visit the session because they’re really fun. It’s a 90-piece symphony orchestra playing away and it’s like a dream.

Tavis: I will take you up on that one day.

Williams: Please do.

Tavis: I must tell you, though, I’ve been fortunate to be in some great photos, I think, in my career, but none greater than the one that sits in my office. I have a great photo of John Williams, Gustavo Dudamel and myself in that photo. We spent some time at the Academy one night talking about music scoring and film, and I was just honored to be there with you and Dudamel.

Williams: Oh, I have the picture and I treasure it also, truly. You know, he’s 35 years old. I even said to the orchestra, “The theme of ‘Star Wars’ is older than Gustavo.” [laugh]

Tavis: I hadn’t thought about that, but that is, yeah…

Williams: It’s true. It was written before he was born. Of course, he knew it very well. But we’ve had a marvelous time with these things.

Tavis: When J. J. is showing you–we heard that clip a moment ago. The audience now knows it. J. J. showed you the new film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, opening this Friday, as if you didn’t already know that. He showed it to you in half hour chunks, he basically said. I’m just trying to get inside, process your head. How do you score a film, how do you go to work when you’re seeing a project in half hour chunks?

Williams: Well, it’s difficult that way, Tavis, really, because I’ll tell you very quickly why. I would like to say, if I could write the finale first of the end and then extract things from the finale, so what you hear in the finale that’s mature is suggested in the first reel.

Tavis: If there’s a theme all the way…

Williams: The theme that becomes more of a theme, four notes in the first reel, six notes in the third reel, 12 notes…

Tavis: I got it.

Williams: Are you getting it?

Tavis: I’m following, yeah.

Williams: And finally, we get to the finale and you got all 24 notes and I know what that is. So it’s a process of building. With J. J., who’s brilliant because he will keep changing the picture, but he knows what he’s shot. We don’t know what he’s shot. He remembers, but I only know what he shows me.

So we did the first two or three reels and, because of this process, I had to go back and rework some of it as we went through. But I have to tell you that I’m one of writers that you’ll meet that really does not mind rewrites.

I mean, I don’t know what writer Hemingway had. Writing is a lot of rewriting. You make your pros, you look at it next week, you can improve it every time you look at it, you know, if you get a little objectivity given away from it.

So it took us longer to score the film. We started in June and now you and I are talking at the end of the year sporadically. But I really think in the end I have to think it gave me an opportunity to work some things and maybe do a better job, because in the film business, everything is compressed, you know, because of budgets.

You got to do this in six weeks or eight weeks, 10 weeks, and you may need 12 to do it the way you want to do it or have a chance to. So it worked very much in my favor and we kept coming back. The orchestra was so happy. J. J. is a dream. He talks about my being modest, but I think we can turn it around on him.

Tavis: Yeah, he’s a great guy.

Williams: He really is a spectacular guy.

Tavis: Since none of us watching this program tonight, at least, most of us at least, haven’t seen the film as yet, I’m going to ask a question, but I’m in the dark asking this. What is there in this film that J. J. has done that’s different from the other stuff that gave you something musically to play with? Does that make sense? I don’t know. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know what I’m asking.

Williams: No, it makes total sense. I’ll get quickly to it, but I just have to say that George Lucas has given us something like Charles Dickens. You know, he invented Yoda, he invented Darth Vader, the characters that are part of the culture worldwide, a colossal achievement just in writing terms. “May the force be with you”, any writer would kill for that.

Tavis: Exactly.

Williams: J. J. has taken the film–we talked about grafting on in the glossary of works and so on. It’s “Star Wars”. It is “Star Wars”. It is George Lucas. But J. J. is one of the writers of the film along with Larry Kasden, another gentleman I’ll get in a second. It’s witty, it’s young.

The two principals, Daisy and John, are fabulous and they’re both in their early 20s, something like this. I don’t think they’re experienced, but they are incredible. I don’t want to be doing a commercial for the film, but they’re going to fall in love with these kids. They really did a fabulous, fabulous job.

So J. J. has brought, I can say, youth to it, wit to it, energy to it, a freshness to it in his casting and his writing that I think people will immediately recognize as being–borrow the word again–an energy to revitalizing this thing the way that he’s done. I mean, I maybe sound like I’m quite in love with it. People will see it and make their own judgment. You know, it’s what it is. It’s an entertainment film.

Tavis: But how does that youth and how does that energy–because we are meeting new characters here–so how does that youth, how does that energy, the direction that J. J.’s taken the story, open up opportunities for you musically to give us a score that is what?

Williams: And the seventh one. I mean, first of all, there are themes for the new characters, for Daisy’s character. I think J. J. referred to this as a Resistance. The Resistance is the radical group that wants to bring the Jedi back to power. There’s a hopefully strong march theme that is new to them.

So it’s a lot of new material interspersed with one of the original themes, the Force theme, which I won’t attempt to sing, but the people will recognize. Princess Leia’s is in because Carrie comes back as Princess Leia, having grown in years, and Harrison’s character of Han has.

So one thing that J. J. was right in your interview with him about, it is when I had to quote myself from 30 years ago [laugh], I felt a little uncomfortable. It seemed a little…

Tavis: I love the way you described that. When you said, “Dare we?” It’s like, “We dare. Yes, we dare.” [laugh].

Williams: Do we really want to do it? “Oh, you have to do it. When you see Princess Leia, you got to play her theme.” So I said, “Oh, dear, who was that guy that wrote the theme? I don’t even know who wrote that theme. I’ve shred all that skin.”

But it’s right. I think the familiarity and the friendliness, if you like, of the thematic identification with the characters is the right thing to do. I mean, it’s not something I think you do in contemporary movies very much. You wouldn’t do that in the style of the contemporary. It’s more like opera in a sense.

This character comes and he’s got a theme and this one–but it started that way for whatever reason, I don’t know, with George Lucas. It just seemed to be the right approach, so I’ve just continued doing that and the characters have new themes.

Tavis: It’s one thing for us to try to put into our own words what we think of the life and legacy, thankfully ongoing, of one John Williams. But where “Star Wars” specifically is concerned, how do you situate that in your corpus, in your body of work? How do you situate “Star Wars” seven films in?

Williams: Well, the “Star Wars” films, seven of them–I don’t know how many films I’ve done, Tavis, maybe 100, I don’t know. A lot of them not very memorable and so on, as we all have done. It’s probably the most popular music that I’ve done.

People will ask me what’s your favorite score and this and that. I’ve done concertos and symphonies and other things that are some good, some not so good. Some are played and many are rightfully forgotten. But I think we’re all the same in this sense that you look at your work or listen to your work and it’s children.

You have three children. You love them and they’re beautiful, but you wish this could have been better here andmaybe as parents, we don’t want to reflect that to the children. But the sense is whatever we do, it can always be better.

Tavis: Always, always.

Williams: Always be better. So I’m a composer of music and I look at Mozart and I look at Beethoven and Bach, the greatest organizers of sound that we’ve ever had, and you need to be humble when the shoulders that we stand on are so great. In every endeavor that we do, broadcast…

Tavis: To your point, you’ve done stuff that obviously is the soundtrack of our lives. We just played just a sampling of your work, but you hear certain music themes, certain movie themes, and it’s John Williams. I mean, you literally are for many of us in this room and watching, movie-wise, you are the soundtrack of our lives.

So much of your stuff is obviously well-known, to your point. Some stuff, maybe not as well-known. But how do you know? Is there something inside of you? How do you know when you get it right? Do you know when you get it right?

Williams: Very, very rarely. You hope that you’ve gotten 90% of it or as close to it as you can. But at least with me, and I think with most writers of any kind, you really don’t say “Eureka! This is it!” It’s work on this, come the next week and reshape it and do it–like honing away at it.

I’m not so brilliant that I can sit down and write a melody or a theme or a whole scene or a whole work as Mozart might have done. We’re told, you know, dashing it off like a letter and the grammar’s perfect. Writing music is very, very hard work and for orchestra particularly. So it’s a labor-intensive thing. I have to be in a room alone all the time because that’s the life that it is.

Tavis: It’s hard work and it’s lonely work.

Williams: It’s hard work, it’s lonely work, it’s labor-intensive. I still use a pencil and paper. I don’t have a computer.

Tavis: You’re old school.

Williams: Old school. I’ve been so busy, fortunately, that I haven’t been able to go back and retool. When I was studying music, there were no computers. We didn’t have it.

Tavis: Are you one of those composers or just artists who has a hard time letting go or, when it’s time to let it go, you readily give it up?

Williams: Time to let it go, I let it go. J. J. said, I think, in his interview–I don’t know if your public will hear it–that I have not looked at the “Star Wars” films and that’s absolutely true. When I’m finished with a film, I’ve been living with it, we’ve been dubbing it, recording to it, and so on. You walk out of the studio and, “Ah, it’s finished.”

Now I don’t have an impulse to go to the theater and look at it. Maybe some people find that weird, or listen to recordings of my music very, very rarely. I’m not particularly proud of that, I have to say, but it’s also part of the fact that I finished “Star Wars” now and I’m already working on Spielberg’s new film and I don’t want to listen to music or see films because I want to get…

Tavis: I get that, I get that. You’re a genius and I’m always honored to have you on this program.

Williams: Thank you so much.

Tavis: As I mentioned, AFI is going to honor John Williams, the first composer to receive the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in the summer, June, to be exact, of 2016. So maybe I’ll have that as another excuse to get him back on the programhint, hintso we can continue this conversation.

For now, though, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrives this week at a theater near you, as if you didn’t know that. So you’re going to hear the fine work of John Williams all over the score in just a few days or hours from now. John Williams, I love you and I’m honored to have you on.

Williams: And to you. Same back to you.

Tavis: Thank you, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 17, 2015 at 1:46 pm