Six Questions With Film Soundtrack Composer Paul Mills | Nashville Public Radio

Six Questions With Film Soundtrack Composer Paul Mills

Oct 9, 2019

Get to know Spring Hill-based composer Paul Mills with these six questions.

More: Visit the Six Questions archive to meet other Nashville musicians.

Paul Mills has three decades of experience in movie soundtracks, with 15 titles and an ASCAP Screen Music Award from 2016. Before working on films Mills applied his classical training to production work on Nashville's Music Row, working with groups like The Imperials and Newsong. He was also the co-creator of the highly successful update of Handel's Messiah, which toured under the title Young Messiah.

Mills wrote the soundtrack to the Sony Pictures release Overcomer, which is currently playing. The soundtrack released last week. Mills took time to tell us about his journey to film.

Did you always know you wanted to be a composer? Or did you come to composition more gradually through your instrument?

I can remember as far back as when I was 8 or 9 and being cognizant that the music in the movies that played in my little one-theater town captivated me, and were a big part of the wonderful atmosphere a film creates. My mom and dad loved music of all kinds like the big bands of Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey and singers like Frank Sinatra.  But they also had a few soundtrack albums, like those of Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, and Jerry Goldsmith. I loved the pictures those scores painted in my young imagination and wondered what it would be like to do that as a vocation.   

Tell us about a favorite music teacher who inspired you.

I went to the University of Houston School of Music to study composition. I had several great teachers there, but one of them was very important in propelling me to think about film scoring as a part of my musical life. His name is Robert Nelson, a wonderful composer, teacher, and influencer of young minds. I was in his classes on orchestration, 20th Century Techniques, and others. Along the way, I learned that he had experience in scoring for film, and he also wrote music for the annual Houston Shakespeare Festival. 

In the last year of my degree program, I asked Dr. Nelson if he could create an elective on film scoring and teach me privately. In that semester he taught me so much about writing and orchestrating for film, dealing with dialogue and working with someone else’s vision for the “film,” as he played the part of the director. 

What music do you like to listen to?

A regular family tradition is for my wife Cathy and I to get up late on a Saturday morning and prepare a classic diner breakfast for lunch. Our son, Riley, comes over and we have food and great conversations. The pop/rock hits of the ’60s & ’70s are always playing in the background; Doobie Bros, Beatles, Eagles, ZZ Top, and the like.  A great way to start the weekend!

As a composer, my iTunes library is filled with many score composers’ works that I love to listen to over and over: Bernard Herrmann’s great Hitchcock scores, John Williams’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones scores as well as Schindler’s List etc, a myriad of works by Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Alexandre Desplat and others. A real favorite of mine is James Newton Howard’s score for Signs, which was an amazing showcase of development of a three-note motif.

I also have favorites I regularly listen to and study from the great composers like Beethoven’s 2nd movement of his 7th symphony. Simply a wonderful brooding piece with a brief happy respite in the middle. Wagner’s overture to "Tannhauser." Bach’s great B minor Mass. Barber’s "Adagio For Strings" (which is a complete workshop on string writing!) and so many other wonderful works from the likes of Debussy, Poulenc, Palestrina, Faure and others.

Which composer do you wish the world knew better?

I think this would be James Newton Howard. He is, of course, a successful A-list Hollywood composer, known in the industry for his big scores for Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy (with Hans Zimmer), The Hunger Games, and so much more.  But I think he is underappreciated as a composer, in the classic sense.  I mentioned his score for the movie Signs. This is a wonderful example of classical theme and development.  The movie introduces a simple repetitive three-note motif. In the first scene, this motif is eerily simple and quiet, with a component of anxious anticipation. Later as the film introduces the alien invasion, the motif becomes more sinister and scary. But at the end, as Mel Gibson’s character realizes that all the random crazy happenings in the movie have coalesced to give him the answer to defeating the aliens and saving his family, the motif becomes this huge anthem of victory and redemption. The score is an amazing tour de force of compositional development not seen very often in modern film scoring. 

What's an instrument or ensemble for which you would love to compose and are waiting for the invitation?

In my work so far, there has been very little writing for choir.  So, I would love for a film to come along that had a need for lots of choral writing, Like Hans Zimmer’s Da Vinci Code score, or similar.  All through school and college I was in choirs, and love the pull and emotion of the human voice. I think the instrument that comes the closest to having the same pull on the human heart as vocal music would be strings. So, a wonderful combination for me would be to write for string ensemble and choir. 

What do you want the audience to take away from Overcomer (musically or otherwise)?

I want people to come away from Overcomer realizing that their identity is not what they do for a living, or how much money they have, but it’s a spiritual relationship with Christ. If people could see themselves as God sees them, their lives would be completely different. They would know they are important and worth so much! Just as John Harrison learns in the film.  He realizes his identity is not being a basketball coach, but it’s realizing who he is in relation to God and his family. 

I hope the music I wrote for the film can help to propel the audience on a wonderful journey of laughing and crying and ultimate redemption and victory as they experience Overcomer.  I hope they leave the theater humming one or two of the themes!

Answers have been edited for length.