Steven Price was only supposed to work on Gravity for three weeks.
The team brought him in for a quick fix. There was a screening approaching quickly and the film still didn’t have a score, so they asked Price — best known for his work as a music editor at that point — to come in. “I thought I was going to go in just to kind of help them throw things together,” he told EW. “And then I met Alfonso.”
Price and Cuarón started having conversations about the film and what the music could be. So, “not quite knowing what was going on,” Price laughed, he got to work. “It just spun out of control,” he said. All of a sudden a few weeks had gone by. Then a few more. It almost sounds right out of The Money Pit. And after about six weeks, Cuarón sat Price down and asked him if he wanted to come on board as a the film’s composer.
The answer, of course, was yes.
Now, Price is up for a Best Original Score Oscar against Academy vets like John Williams (five wins), Alexandre Desplat (six nominations), and Thomas Newman (12 nominations).
In addition to being a first-time nominee, on paper, Price looks like he’s basically a novice in the composer’s seat too. He’d only scored a handful of films before, including The World’s End and Attack the Block. But the U.K. native has been aiming for this opportunity since he was 21. “I’ve always wanted to be a composer, and it’s just taken me 16 years to work my way through the ranks, really,” he said. “It was tricky to get my foot in the door, so I’ve kind of done every other role in film. I’ve orchestrated for people, I’ve arranged, I’ve done additional music for things.” He even taught Cate Blanchett how to play guitar for Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, though he insists she didn’t really need his tutelage.
“In the mid-2000s I kind of accidentally became a music editor,” he said. His accidental foray into music editing was through the Lord of the Rings trilogy. After such a high-profile gig, the music editor offers started coming in more frequency. “If I wasn’t going to get the composing gigs at that point, I thought it was best to be in the room with people making decisions on these things and working with directors,” he said. “A lot of the music editing job is communication and working out what a director really wants the music to be.”
While many directors have a hard time grasping the music angle, Cuarón was not one of them. “Alfonso is very good with music and loves to talk about it,” he said. For Gravity, “he wanted to honor the idea that there’s no sound in space. The music developed this kind of dual role. It was going to follow Ryan’s (Sandra Bullock) emotional journey but it was also providing the atmosphere of the film, kind of swirling around you and carrying you weightlessly.”
As for inspirations, Price said he didn’t have time to even watch anything across the year he was working on the film. But he had an idea of what he wanted to do with it. “When I was growing up, I loved the films where you’d start them and the score might sound really odd at first and really different, and then by the time you finish you can’t imagine it being any other way. I wanted it to be incredibly distinctive because the film was so distinctive. The fact that it was so ambitious but also such an emotional story, we needed something that matched that.”
Price recorded instrumentals individually and mixed in the haunting vocals of Lisa Hannigan, which added a human, emotional element. “Alfonso used to talk about the tyranny of the center speaker,” he said. “Everything was designed to be very mobile. We wanted to use the whole theater and make it feel like you were up there in space. So to do that, the music became very layered and very textural. The whole thing was written to be in musical 3-D,” he said.
Normally, Price said, he’s incapable of putting his nitpicking tendencies aside. “I worry about technical details — did I mix the cello half a decibel too high? Things like that.” It wasn’t till he saw the film in Venice that everything really clicked. There’s a moment when Ryan Stone cries a single tear, and it floats across the screen as a reverse acoustic guitar plays in the background. Price had seen it a million times before, but now, in 3-D with all the F/X bells and whistles, it was just different and unlike anything he’d ever experienced. “All of a sudden all the elements just managed to unite to make this moment more than it ever was before. I was engrossed.”