How to Achieve a Musical Cohesion in Film Serial

Twilight Saga

  • SumrakIt all began with an unpretentious teenage movie Twilight directed by Catherine Hardwicke after the novel by Stephene Meyer. The film gained millions of fans (mostly teenagers, but also people, mostly women, of different age) all over the world. Rather unimportant movie, but… didn’t Star Wars begin similarly unpretentiously with similarly small budget and were similarly followed by the cult of many fans?
    In comparison with musical solutions of well known film serials such as Star Wars (with music composed by John Williams) or Lord of the Rings (with the complete score composed by Howard Shore), the musical solutions in Twilight Saga are unique. Namely, it was decided that in each of five films (Meyer wrote four books, but the last story is long and will be divided in two films) the most of the members of the crew will change, including director and composer. The idea could, theoretically, work, like in Harry Potter films, where first three sequels had music by John Williams. After his leaving the series, his successors used his musical themes and tried to connect the parts of the series by using the similar musical language (Williams’ successors were Patrick Doyle and Nicholas Hooper. Alexandre Desplat is announced as the composer of the last Harry Potter film and I suppose that he will do the same).

    But Twilight Saga is the case of its own. Each film in the serial has its own musical language. This is the consequence of the fact that one composer decided to ignore the other one; and this was, in the other hand, the chained reaction of one director’s incapability to make a truthful film adaptation of vividly written (and, in fact, thought as a film) book by Stephenie Meyer.

    Let’s start from the beginning.


    Sumrak (Twilight), red. Catherine HardwickeMusically, Twilight also looked unpretentiously. As a teenage film story about the love between seventeen year old Isabella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen of the same, frozen age (this is, then, a teenage movie with potential elements of melodrama, horror and fantasy genre), it offered bunch of songs for teenagers performed by bands like Muse, Paramore, Linkin Park, Mutemath, Blue Foundation, Iron & Wine and others (the list even contains the song composed and performed by the film’s star Robert Pattinson Never Think, which was used in the scene in restaurant in Port Angeles). Songs were used as usual, as in movies of the similar genre, but with periodical step outs (which are, I believe, Catherine Hardwicke’s credit; in fact, I believe that her decisions pushed film adaptations of Meyer’s novels additionally in the orbit of commercial success). Hardwicke used instrumental introductions or unobtrusive (mostly also instrumental) parts of the songs as the background music in some scenes, with the final goal to use the complete songs on the soundtrack and sell it to the millions of fans (this number was potential then, but now is real). Some songs are very important and are put side by side with the content of the scene – like Supermassive Black Hole by Muse which is impressively heard on the film’s soundtrack when vampire baseball game is played.

    Sumrak (Twilight), red. Catherine HardwickeTeenage viewers and commercialism (or selling the CD album to the fans) were not the only criteria in choosing the popular songs. Some of them, like Supermassive Black Hole, helped creating the feeling that the vampires – despite the fact that some of them are vegetarians – are dangerous species which a normal human being should avoid.

    Besides of that, there are acknowledgements. Namely, after the big success of the first book, in acknowledgements of the New Moon, and of the Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer thanked, among others, the Muse (and some other bands) whose songs she listened during writing the books and which served as an inspiration and helped her in the development of the story.

    The choice of Carter Burwell as the film score’s composer was another smart move by Catherine Hardwicke. Namely, Burwell is film composer of the second league (his best known film scores were written for Cohen brothers, though, and his best known score now, is, probably, Twilight). His music is on the half way between punk, rock and classical music which makes his style perfect for creating interrelationship between film score and used songs. While not (probably) thinking about sequels, fans and franchise, he also put the part of his soul in Twilight. Bella’s Lullaby (of which Stephenie Meyer wrote more than a few passages in her book, and which was played by Robert Pattinson alias Edward in the movie), was composed long before film, and Burwell composed it for his girlfriend with whom he eventually married, Christina Sciulli.

    Sumrak (Twilight), red. Catherine HardwickeBut Burwell is self-taught musician and each careful listening of his score shows obvious ignorance of the basic rules of the classical harmony. Bella’s Lullaby is musically interesting only because of numerous syncopations and intuitive rhythms (which are, by the way, characteristics of the popular music). Its melody is somehow unusual, twisted.
    On the other hand, this twisted melody, orchestrational emptiness and harmonic ignorance are perceived as just right for the musical expression of the twisted and dark atmosphere for the music of the parallel world, the one which is known to humans only from the stories and legends

    New Moon

    When it was announced that the second part of the Twilight Saga: New Moon will be directed by Chris Weitz, the growing colony of fans and parallel colony of skeptics didn’t know what to expect. Unlike Catherine Hardwicke, who was, in time of the shooting Twilight, rather new in the job, Wietz’s carrier was solid. He wasn’t the first rate director (he was known as the director of American Pie, About the Boy and The Golden Compass), but the producers (and the public) didn’t search for the first rate director. Still, Weitz’s direction of New Moon was much weaker than Hardwicke’s direction of Twilight.

    Sumrak saga: Mladi mjesec (The Twilight Saga: New Moon), red. Chris WeitzOn the other hand, Stephenie Meyer’s second story is much more complicated than the first one, since there is (again) little action and a lot of psychological troubling and emotional shocks. In Twilight Hardwicke took out maximum from the book which was written from Bella’s perspective. The director showed the parts of the story which Bella (and the reader) couldn’t see and implanted in the movie action scenes which the reader of the book could only guess (such as attacks of the James’ gang and final confrontation of Edward and James). Meyer’s New Moon offered, in terms of action, even less: the story was based on Bella’s desperate search for her own reason of being which was, in her mind, lost after Edward left her (for good, as it seemed in that phase of the story). But Weitz didn’t understand the book that way: he showed the viewers pathetic love story between two youngsters which was, during long and unwanted (but, concerning vampire, necessary) separation, interfered by the third – werewolf.

    Weitz’s misunderstanding of the story wasn’t the only film’s problem. It seems that he, among other things, neglected the first and foremost director’s task: work with the actors. While the actors’ performances in Twilight were smartly led, in New Moon they seemed disastrous: Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart were many times mentioned as the worst acting couple of the year. I suppose that they were left to themselves (it is known that Pattinson is, in fact, actor without any school and real experience, and that Stewart, although with some more experience, but still very young, didn’t have time to completely develop her talent). At the end, the final impression was that they just walked through the film and spoke their lines like robots, instead of giving the most emotive performances in their carriers. In fact, even they didn’t quite understand (as the most Twilight lovers) why Summit Entertainment decided to replace Hardwicke with Weitz – explanation that every film in Twilight Saga should be made as a separate production appeared somewhat later and it is still completely illogical in the context of the film serial (even though the serial was primary meant for teenagers).

    Mladi mjesecCould in this atmosphere, and with the whole bunch of mistakes made by director, music save the movie? Of course not. Alexandre Desplat has far richer carrier than Carter Burwell (his filmography includes fine scores such as Girl with a Pearl Earring, Birth, The Queen, Lust, Caution, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and others), but he is still only the film composer, not the miraclemaker. To make things worse, it seems that he, too, didn’t put all his efforts in the film and that he was more interested in composing the score for Wes Anderson’s animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox. In the interview for Film Score Monthly Online ( he said that he didn't even see Twilight and that he didn’t hear Burwell’s score. This was astonishing decision, since it was made by experienced film composer who ought to know that in parts of the film serial (especially the ones directed by different directors) the music works as one of the best cohesive elements. I don’t know how much director influenced the composer, but bad decisions continued to row at the visual and audio plan, as well.

    So: while Burwell with his simple (and almost banal), but functional score, which was successively complemented by songs in Twilight, created rather dark atmosphere, Desplat (like director Weitz) concentrated on romance and love story in New Moon. He chose musical language of the 19th century, and he created richly orchestrated score with the beautiful main theme. In comparison to Desplat’s score, Burwell’s, from the musical scholars’ point of view, metaphorically looks like an ugly street cat compared with the beautiful Persian (the same result you get when you compare two motion picture score albums: Burwell’s contains short musical numbers, and is, therefore, hard to listen, unlike Desplat’s which can be listened as a logical whole, almost like a symphonic poem).

    Mladi mjesecBut – despite all this, especially the fact that Desplat’s score sounds technically and artistically more skillful, by ignoring Burwell’s themes and musical language, Desplat completely destroyed achieved musical atmosphere in the Twilight. The score lost its contact with the first film, and also lost contact with the songs (which are still, sporadically, used in the film in order to – and that became the obligatory part of merchandising of the serial – sell film music twice, by publishing two CDs: one containing the score and the other one containing the songs). This moved story from the terrain of real and possible (on which Meyer tried to keep her books) to the terrain of fantastic and, quite often, too pathetic (for example, in the scene where Jacob tried to kiss Bella but was interrupted by telephone call, music so obviously anticipates his intention that, while the viewer becomes too conscious of music, the effect – of romance or/and surprise – is completely lost).

    It also became clear that Desplat’s musical sensibilities are exclusively lyrical and that it is almost impossible for him to compose for action scenes. In the end, his action cues are always static and passive, no matter what he does. So – instead to help the story and the action (like Bella’s run through the crowded streets of Italian town in order to save beloved Edward) – they additionally slow down the story and make it (in the movie) additionally dull and uninteresting.

    As I said, there is no composer who can save the movie and create something what doesn’t exist. In Desplat’s case, the mistake was that he didn’t use at least the part of the previous musical atmosphere (he could, for example, improved Burwell’s musical thoughts). I suppose that his decisions would be different if he was differently led. On the trace of the new and different Desplat’s score for New Moon is grotesque valse for the Volturi which shows that his musical thoughts could go in more inventive, and in the context of the film series, more acceptable direction. But he didn’t compose like this, and the final result is the feeling that between Twilight and New Moon exist big (audio and visual) gap which no one will be able to fill up any more.


    Sumrak saga: Pomrčina (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), red. David SladeSince the director’s (and the composer’s) approach to New Moon was weak and underestimated the story, the third sequence of Twilight Saga could, in the phase before its premiere, achieve similar expectations only with completely uncritical (read: teenage) audience, while others cooled off. Still, there was a hanging curiosity how will the new director, David Slade, succeed (or not) to adopt the Stephenie Meyer’s novel Eclipse. Expectations were far smaller than in the case of New Moon, and it seems that there even wasn’t too big campaign of commercial announcements and trailers.

    But Slade’s work was, on the other hand, excellent: instead of too pathetic love-triangle-story (and he could, because of the existing Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle insist on that), he made an action movie in which, like in Hardwicke’s sequel; a film viewer could see far more than a book reader. In his film, vampires really look like un-human, undead phantoms; Edward’s capability of mind reading has an important role and is, for the first time in the serial, represented convincingly; and the members of his family, the Cullens, aren’t only a background for shooting film’s commercial photographs, but become (through Rosalie’s and Jasper’s history) – if you can say that – vampires in flesh and blood.

    Director’s decisions were also obvious in acting (I don’t say that acting was magnificent, but it was convincing enough for the type of the movie) and in logical plan of the scenes (with the excellent beginning with making of Riley). Because of that, Melissa Rosenberg achieved again the status of very good screenwriter, the status she lost with New Moon, were hers unmotivated and boring dialogues (although taken directly from the book) were heavily criticized. Slade’s decisions also resulted in general very dark look of the film. With all that, Eclipse gained back the interest for film adaptations of Twilight Saga.

    Sumrak saga: Pomrčina (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), red. David SladeBut what, in the context of totally broken cohesion of film scores, could film composer Howard Shore do? Everybody knows about his compositional force in another, much more powerful film serial, Lord of the Rings, but what could he really do after Desplat ignored the main rules of composing for the serial? In the moments of announcements of Eclipse and it’s crew, it seemed that there isn’t a composer who could solve the problem of complete lack of musical cohesion between the first and the second part of the serial. It seems that directors had easier job: they had the same protagonists and always the same best-selling books to follow. But what could musician do in the third score when the first two were so different? To write another, completely different score?

    First of all, Shore didn’t ignore the first two scores. He took from the second score classical approach with the thick musical knowledge – the thing common to himself and Desplat. But he didn’t’ insist on rich orchestral score with the sweeping musical themes like composer of New Moon did: he rather withdrew the music in the deep orchestral registers (yet he began his carrier in the horror genre!) and he allowed the music to take over only in action scenes (for example, at the beginning of the epic battle between vampires from Seattle and vampires from Forks). Unlike Desplat, Shore knew how to approach the action and reinforce it with music. But this didn’t make lyrical parts weaker. The most problematic part of the score – the connection between Bella’s Lullaby by Carter Burwell from Twilight and main/love theme by Alexandre Desplat from New Moon – was solved with a wise move: Shore wrote a piano melody which had simplicity comparable to simplicity of Burwell’s musical language, and which had sounding acceptable to the first and the second composer (in his broad-sounding love theme, besides the orchestra, Desplat also used piano).

    Sumrak saga: Pomrčina (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), red. David SladeIn this manner, Shore formed Bella’s, but also Jacob’s theme. Concerning latter, he tried, as he said in interview with Doug Adams for Film Socre Monthly Online (; Vol. 15, No. 6, June 2010/Revamp, interview by Doug Adams) to present Jacob as the tragic hero. By doing this, he once again showed that he deserves respect by audience and critics; respect which should even be bigger than the one he achieved by composing for Lord of the Rings. Namely, although he knew that Eclipse is only a teenage film which certainly won’t be remembered in history as especially important, he studied everything – not only the previous films, but also Meyer’s books. He analyzed them searching what he is going to give in the score. It is not coincidence that David Slade’s acknowledgments at the CD’s cover were seized to reach the sky (usually these acknowledgements are routinely written but this one seems really honest).

    Shore also avoided gap between songs (which, lead by songs performed by Muse, became unavoidable and, in fact, the only bonding element in Saga until now) and his score. It is interesting and, in fact, among film composers rare, his opinion that he “doesn’t like the war between the songs and the score”, because he thinks that viewers-listeners for whom he writes must not be aware of musical boundaries or musical genetics (, Vol. 15, No. 6, June 2010/Revamp, interview by Doug Adams).

    Like he once worked with Enya, Emiliana Torrini and Annie Lenox, in Twilight Saga: Eclipse Shore worked with Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw of band Metric. They created together the song All Yours which can be heard in the end credit, and which became theme of relationship between Edward Cullen and Isabella Swan in the film score (Compromise/ Bella’s Theme). And there is more. Shore didn’t only work with the members of the band, but he also used and connected instruments of classical symphony orchestra with instruments of rock bands and popular songs. In his conversation with Doug Adams he discovered that he used electric bass instead of six contrabasses and vice versa; that he used guitar in classical and in rock manner; and, of course, there is his employment of piano solo which didn’t only connect songs and score, but connected three movies in the logical whole.

    All in all, Howard Shore did impossible: to completely unconnected and foreign elements he added third element by which he not only connected the first and the second part, but – without intervening in them – made them singularly far more listenable and logical than they were before the appearance of his score. By doing this, he prepared the terrain to the composer of Breaking Dawn. There is only the question if this (for now unknown) composer will know how to use the advantage offered by Shore and will he succeed to write a quality score which will be logical in the serial. We shall see.

    © Irena Paulus,, 29 July 2010

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