Interview: Talking About the Music of ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ with Composer Simon Franglen

Composer Simon Franglen inherited scoring duties for James Cameron‘s Avatar: The Way of Water from composer James Horner, who tragically passed away in June 2015. Horner created a truly enveloping score for the world of Pandora and established what the world will sound like for its subsequent films, and Franglen wanted to use an important theme Horner wrote to align the sequel:

“There was one particular theme that we wanted to use as alignment: the “I See You” theme. That was important because it’s the Jake [Sam Worthington] and Neytiri [Zoe Saldaña] theme. I used 25-30 seconds of it in a queue called “Happiness is Simple” when it’s date night, and they fly together because that’s totally appropriate. That’s our call back to the first Avatar. I also used that theme whenever we see them acting in concert in some action cues where you’ll hear the same thing.

I also wanted to honor the sound and feel of Avatar. I had been responsible for the non-orchestral side of the first Avatar, which meant the glowing forest, and Pandora’s percussion and rhythmic side. James would do the more orchestral stuff. I brought that side for the sequel, but it needed to evolve. Jim [Cameron] wanted a more thematic score. In the first Avatar, the themes tended to be less specifically character driven. He wanted the idea of themes that were associated with characters and places. A very simple example is Quaritch [Stephen Lang] and the RDA. Jim said to me, “We need our own Imperial March. I want it to be brutal. I want it to be simple. I want it to be relentless. I don’t want it to be super sophisticated because they’re just coming in and crushing everything. And I want a theme that tells me that this enormous war machine is coming in and wiping out everything in its path.”

I wrote a more sophisticated Quaritch theme inside the bigger RDA theme. That will be an example of how we were using themes.”

Developing themes for the sequel was James Cameron’s “primary focus. In December 2017, he sent me all four scripts. Jim told me, “you need to know the journey.” I read 2, 3, 4, and 5. In the first paragraph of Avatar 2’s script, Neytiri sings the song chord as it was called then. I first wrote the song chord theme, which became the orchestral version of “Leaving Home” because it was the family theme.

Then we needed a theme for the Metkayina and their connection with water. That became “The Tulkun Return.” Payakan also has his theme, which is a subset of “The Tulkun Return” and has a similar structure, but that was done on purpose because I wrote “The Tulkun Return” and the Payakan theme off-script. I wrote a theme called “Skimming the Waves,” which had the opening of the Payakan theme and the main bit, which I rewrote for the movie. But I wrote that in 2018 and off-script because Payakan required something with a sort of balletic quality to him. The relationship between Lo’ak [Britain Dalton] and Payakan is like a boy and his dog. That’s the relationship, and that theme was used many times, including in the “Hunt for the Tulkun” part. All those themes were important to write first and had to come together before the movie was finished.”

Franglen believed that “the music has to act as a narrator” in the film’s most meditative sequences. “Jim said, “When you’re underwater, there’s no dialogue. The only thing that is going to drive the scene forward is the music and the swooshes of water. For instance, when the kids jump into the water the first time, you know, there is I wanted this sense of iridescence, with the light and everything else. But I also wanted the feel of sirens calling the characters into the water.

There is a tactile quality to voices, and I use them almost like mermaid singing to them underwater. On some of the longer cues, like the one that’s called “From Darkness to Light,” which is when the whole family swims from the bottom to the surface, it needed to have this long, elegiac flow. The music has to work against the visuals of what action. You don’t suddenly run through a forest or brace amazingly fast. You can’t do that underwater. So the music has to effectively have the pace of whatever’s going on. That was part of my approach.”

For the film’s end credits song, “Nothing is Lost (You Give Me Strength),” Franglen only had one name in mind: Abel Tesfaye, also known as The Weeknd.

“It’s The Weeknd or nobody. We contacted him, and he saw the film with Jon Landau in New York and loved it. When he came off tour, he and Swedish House Mafia put together a track for me with a draft lyric and draft melody. I rebuilt it with stuff to make it more in line with the film. I took the big drums from Avatar, I made the chord structure more in line with the “From Darkness to Light” structure. When you hear the voices in the background there is a connection back to the score because it was crucial to Jim that the song felt like it was connected, and it wasn’t stamped on the end credits. Sometimes, you see a movie, a song appears at the end and is tacked on with a great pop singer singing it, but doesn’t have a great emotional connection to the film. Abel was a great partner. We would always go back and forth together. Once I’d finished my version of the song, they would do some tweaks to their side of the production. In the end, we have a song that comes from Avatar and embodies the weekend. And it’s phenomenal.”

You can check out my full conversation with Simon below and see Avatar: The Way of Water in theatres now.

[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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