Simon Franglen interview: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ composer
“I hope James is looking down on me and he approves of what I’ve done,” confesses Simon Franglen, referring to the late composer James Horner. The pair collaborated on the first “Avatar” film, but Franglen has assumed scoring duties for “Avatar: The Way of Water” after Horner’s passing in 2015. The opening segment of the sequel beautifully honors Horner’s original themes, but as the movie transitions to its seaside destination, he charts a new path with his music. One steeped in indigenous music and traditions, which bring the new location and Na’vi tribe to life. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
When James Cameron shared the scripts for his intended “Avatar” sequels with Franglen, the composer was struck by a few words on page one: “Neytiri sings The Songchord.” This original song would become a core ingredient for his score. “The Songchord was an essential part of this movie. It’s this idea that the Na’vi can sing their family history,” the composer explains. In Na’vi culture, it represents the idea that one can sing the entirety of an ancestor’s life. “The Way of Water” begins with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who sang the tune live on set) creating The Songchord of her newborn child. Franglen imbued the music with a mother’s love, but also notes that it “has an ancient quality. A traditional thing that everyone knows.” The elements of familial bonds and deep rooted culture spoke to the themes found in the rest of the script. “That gave me a core for the score,” he reveals, “This family theme.”
The composer notes that every concept introduced by members of the creative team (dubbed “The Culture Club” in order to ensure proper world building) had to be thoroughly researched and related back to practices on Earth. For instance, Franglen explains that The Songchord is based on “this idea of taking a spark, and the spark becomes the dawn. And you carry the light throughout your life until the sunset.” It’s a concept which can be found in First Nations people all across our globe. This effort is also apparent in the music which accompanies the ocean-based Metkayina tribe. The harder, staccato compositions for the forest dwellers give way to something he describes as “softer, more Polynesian, more Mongolian. Longer notes and textures.”
When it comes to the many underwater sequences, Franglen explains: “I have to sometimes be the narrator on this film.” There’s no dialogue underwater, yet the ocean floor is home to a slew of important emotional beats in the story.
One of his favorite such moments is a musical cue he refers to as “the first swim,” where the kids leap into the ocean for the first time. “It was just glorious!” he remarks, remembering his first time watching the sequence. Franglen had the idea to incorporate a concept of sirens calling the young Na’vi into the water, so there is an additional vocal texture to the music in this moment. When the kids are finally submerged in this new aquatic world, there’s a ”feeling that they are suddenly surrounded by this stunning beauty.” The composer manipulated tiny bell trees in order to create a glistening, shimmering texture in the score to embody the magic of the water. “Sometimes you need something to help you with that emotional flow,” explains Franglen, “The score is the thing that does this at some points.”