James Cameron's tribute to composer James Horner: 'The orchestra loved him'

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James Horner, Oscar-Winning 'Titanic' Composer, Dies In Plane Crash

I was doing a lot of thinking about James when I heard the news and I checked online. The beginning and end of his filmography are films that he did, or would have done, with me. It's a curious bookend. We both started out on the same film in 1980, and his last listed films are the Avatar sequels, which he would have begun later this year.

We only worked together three times, and each time it was a decade apart — Aliens in the mid-eighties, Titanic in the mid-90s and Avatar in '08 and '09.

I met him on Battle Beyond the Stars, which was my first film getting a paycheck. I entered as a junior model builder and ended up three months later as production designer, which could only happen on a Roger Corman production. The score was absolutely the best thing about the film. It was a full-on orchestral score, not some rinky-dink synth score. After that I ran into him a few times and Gale Hurd and I, being Corman alums, watched him skyrocketing.

He was the obvious choice to do Aliens but we got off to a bad start. It was a time in his career when he was overbooking himself. He recorded the whole score in a day and a half in London and then he was gone. We wound up editing the score ourselves. He got an Academy Award nomination, so he thanked me afterwards but we both allowed that was not the best way to do things.

When I was doing Titanic, he had just done Apollo 13 and Braveheart. I thought, "I don't care what happened, I want to work with James." We had this very cautious meeting where we were falling all over ourselves to be polite. We laughed about it so much in subsequent years. But we developed a very transparent means of communication which made for a great working relationship. He totally committed himself to the movie. He blocked out his schedule and sat down and watched maybe 30 hours of raw dailies to absorb the feeling of the film.


I asked if he could write some melodies. I believe that a great score really consists of something you can whistle. If that melody gets embedded in your mind, it takes the score to a different level. I drove over to his house and he sat at the piano and said, "I see this as the main theme for the ship." He played it once through and I was crying. Then he played Rose's theme and I was crying again. They were so bittersweet and emotionally resonant. He hadn't orchestrated a thing and I knew it was going to be one of cinema's great scores. No matter how the movie turned out, and no one knew at that point — it could have been a dog — I knew it would be a great score. He thought he had done only five percent of the work but I knew he had cracked the heart and soul.

My one regret after that production — or the one I remember in this context — is that I didn't get to go to most of the orchestral scoring sessions. I made it to one. But the orchestra loved him. He always worked with a lot of the same players. Unlike most composers, he also conducted. He was classically trained. It was his room and they were sure to make something great. If I thought maybe there was something that wasn't supporting the picture, he could turn on a dime and make it work.

Avatar was in some ways the trickier film. It didn't lend itself to big, sweeping themes the way Titanic did. He did a lot of research with an ethnomusicologist to find different sounds. He did an awful lot of experimentation. The score is a bit richer than maybe people perceive. You start layering in all the sound design and some of the texture of the score gets lost in the mix. I wound up having to fight for the score, as you typically do. Composers always think the score should be more prominent.

A couple of months ago, in April, they did a night at the Royal Albert Hall where the orchestra did the entire Titanic score live to the movie. James was there to take his bows. [Producer] Jon Landau and I went to London just for the concert, and we had a kind of reunion. It was emotional and I'm glad that was my last personal memory of James. They had to subtitle the film because when the orchestra was playing, you couldn't hear the words. I thought, "This is how James would have imagined it."

Related: James Cameron, Suzy Amis Cameron unveil 'Solar Sun Flowers' project

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James Cameron's tribute to composer James Horner: 'The orchestra loved him'
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Madonna presents the Oscar to James Horner after he and his partner Will Jennings won in the Best Original Song Category for the song from the movie Titanic ' My Heart Will Go On' during the 70th Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium 23 March. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: ABBEY RD STUDIOS Photo of James HORNER, composer, with sheet music at mixing desk while working on score to Braveheart film (Photo by Phil Dent/Redferns)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: ABBEY RD STUDIOS Photo of James HORNER, composer, conducting orchestra in recording studio, working on score to Braveheart film (Photo by Phil Dent/Redferns)
LOS ANGELES - JUNE 9: Composer James Horner and actor Kevin Costner attend the 15th Anniversary DVD Release Celebration of 'Field of Dreams' on June 9, 2004 at West Hollywood Park, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: James Horner attends the world premiere of Titanic 3D at The Royal Albert Hall on March 27, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Composer James Horner arrives at the 'Titanic 3D' UK film premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, West London, Tuesday, March 27, 2012. The re-launch of the Titanic 3D version comes 15 years after the film was a huge box office hit. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 23: Composer James Horner holds his two Oscars for Best Original Song for 'My Heart Will Go On' and Best Dramatic Score for Titanic at the 70th Annual Academy Awards 23 March in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo credit should read HAL GARB/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Songwriters Will Jennings (R) and James Horner (L) pose with their Grammy for Song of the Year for the 'Titanic' movie theme song 'My Heart Will Go On' sung by Celine Dion at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles 24 February. (Electronic Image) AFP PHOTO Vince BUCCI/mn (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
DOHA, QATAR - OCTOBER 27: Composer James Horner attends day 3 of the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film Festival on October 27, 2011 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Doha Film Institute)
Jeff Goldblum, far left, and Faye Dunaway, far right, pose after presenting James Horner, second from left, and Will Jennings the award for Best Original Song for "My Heart Will Go On" at the 55th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 18, 1998. The song is from the motion picture "Titanic." (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 07: Composer James Horner arrives at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards held at Kodak Theatre on March 7, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
DOHA, QATAR - OCTOBER 25: Composer James Horner speaks during the 'Black Gold' press junket at the Press Centre during day 1 of the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film Festival on October 25, 2011 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Doha Film Institute)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Songwriters Will Jennings (R) and James Horner (L) pose with their Grammy for Song of the Year for the 'Titanic' movie theme song 'My Heart Will Go On' sung by Celine Dion at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles 24 February. (Electronic Image) AFP PHOTO Vince BUCCI/mn (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
James Horner The US Premiere of TROY at the Ziegfeld Theater, New York City. May 10, 2004 rtnSpellman/MediaPunch /IPX
Producer Michael London and James Horner during 'House of Sand and Fog' - New York Premiere - Arrivals at Chelsea West Theatre in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 16: Composer James Horner arrives at the premiere of The Missing at Loews Lincoln Square on November 16, 2003, in New York City. (Photo by Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images)
Sir Ben Kingsley and James Horner, composer during World Premiere of DreamWorks' 'House of Sand And Fog' at ArcLight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by Chris Polk/FilmMagic)
FILE - In this Feb. 24, 1999 file photo, composer James Horner, is shown at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Horner was nominated for an Oscar, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, for best original score for his work in the film, "Avatar." The 82nd Academy Awards will be presented on March 7. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
James Horner, who won two Oscars for Best Original Dramatic Score and Original Song for the movie "Titanic", arrives at the "Titanic" party in Beverly Hills, Calif., Tuesday, March 24, 1998. "Titanic" walked away with a record-tying 11 Oscars. (AP Photo/Gerard Burkhart)
James Horner during James Horner Scores 'The Legend of Zorro' - Recording Session - June 16, 2005 at Todd-AO Scoring in Studio City, United States. (Photo by Jun Sato/WireImage)
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