How Obi-Wan Kenobi's composer created new sounds for old characters
Natalie Holt opens up on her experience working on the Star Wars spin-off, how John Williams got involved and how it compared to her work on Loki.
Thanks to the work of legendary composer John Williams, the Star Wars saga has one of the most iconic soundtracks in movie history - which must make it a little daunting for new composers coming to the franchise to follow in his footsteps.
Still, Obi-Wan Kenobi composer Natalie Holt faced even more pressure when Williams himself unexpectedly offered to contribute to the series alongside her own work, keen to finally write a theme for Ewan McGregor's Jedi Master.
"[Williams] said to Kathleen Kennedy [executive producer] that he wanted to give Ben a theme, because Obi Wan is the only heritage character that he didn't really give a theme to originally," Holt told RadioTimes.com.
"Having John scoring Obi-Wan’s theme just felt so appropriate. It had just the right balance for that character. John's got this 40-year history within the franchise, he's a genius, but he's also been scoring Star Wars from its infancy, so he is the voice of Star Wars."
Still, he's not the only one any more.
Following the conclusion of Disney Plus's latest Star Wars adventure, we sat down with Obi-Wan Kenobi series composer Holt to discuss how the show’s sound fits into the broader franchise, as well as what it was like working with Williams and director Deborah Chow while creating new music for iconic characters, such as Princess Leia and Darth Vader.
Holt, who also composed for fellow Disney Plus series Loki, discussed how her creative process differed for Star Wars and the MCU, while still striving to bring the same sort of unorthodox sounds to Obi-Wan Kenobi that she worked into the Tom Hiddleston series.
So, Natalie, were you a fan of Star Wars growing up?
Yes. I watched it with my dad when I was a kid on VHS, so I saw it many times on repeat. I had a huge crush on Luke. I think it was my first romance, you know?
How did you get into film and TV composing?
Watching ET when I was a kid was the thing that made me really notice music in a film. I don't think I realised it was there before, but hearing that music when they're riding their bikes, and then having it stuck in my head, was a big moment for me.
John Williams was a huge influence, too. When I met him, I said, "You're the reason I started composing." He was like "Oh, sorry about that."
How was actually working with him?
Getting to work with him was surreal. We weren't sure if he was going to give us permission to use his themes at first. Then he watched [Obi-Wan Kenobi], heard some of my music that I'd already recorded, and allowed us to use it.
John said to Kathleen Kennedy that he wanted to give Ben a theme, because Obi Wan is the only heritage character that John didn't really give a theme to originally. [Obi-Wan] used the Force theme in A New Hope but he sort of died relatively early on, and I don't think John realised then that he was actually such an important character. John came on board with our project after a month.
How did you find scoring some of the most iconic characters in the Star Wars franchise?
We were very clear that Darth Vader isn't the Vader of Episode IV yet. He's still half Anakin. You've got the moment when his mask cracks and he says to Ben, "You didn't kill Anakin Skywalker, I did." Then you realise he's finally gone and he's full Vader. That’s when you hear the Imperial March.
Everyone said we shouldn't hear it until then, because otherwise we'll lose the power of that moment. They wanted something visceral, angry and just full of rage [for the earlier scenes]. So I used the rhythm from the Imperial March underneath, but over the top there's a hunting horn and double bass, and it really goes dark.
For example, when Vader is walking down the street in episode three, we've never seen him be that evil. I feel privileged that I got to score such an evil, iconic moment where we're seeing this legacy character find full power.
Are there any other characters who stand out?
With Leia, everyone wanted something driving, rhythmic and innocent. When she went up the tree, it was an opportunity to give her a childhood theme, something that was light and joyous.
But this series is leading to her becoming the Princess Leia that we all know in A New Hope. And in episode six she puts Tyla’s holster on and we realise that she's changed, and then she's earned her more developed, mature Leia theme which we hear at the end of the finale.
It was a question of working with the old and the new, and being respectful. It was a journey, walking that tightrope and making sure we were being the right amount of Star Wars.
The series bridges the original two trilogies. Were you torn on where to pull influences from?
I think Deborah [Chow] and I felt that we are witnessing a very sad, lonely Obi-Wan. He's reflective, he’s turned himself off from the Obi-Wan Kenobi that he used to be, and he's living this narrow life. You feel like he's on a treadmill – that if the events of episode one hadn't happened, this would be how he lived out his days.
What happens in the series forces him to re-examine his separation from the Force and he eventually finds Qui-Gon. He gets that connection back in episode six. Having John scoring Obi-Wan’s theme just felt so appropriate. It had just the right balance for that character.
John's got this 40-year history within the franchise, he's a genius, but he's also been scoring Star Wars from its infancy, so he is the voice of Star Wars.
The trailer uses a bit of Duel of the Fates and Battle of the Heroes. Were you tempted to use those compositions at any point?
I don't have the power to just go and use a Star Wars theme. John Williams decided where his music was going to be used, and I don't get to decide what trailer music goes together. I just got to write the original new bits under the direction of the Star Wars team. So unfortunately, that wasn’t down to me.
How did you manage to find your own voice within the larger franchise?
I think my Star Wars experience was more akin to John Powell's on Solo than Michael Giacchino’s for Rogue One or Ludwig [Göransson's] for The Mandalorian. Rogue One was a new thread of the story and Michael didn't use any of the heritage themes. The same goes for Ludwig and The Mandalorian – we're away from the classical canon, as it were.
I suppose it's just myself and John Powell who have worked with those legacy characters here and on Solo. We've both worked with John Williams to set the tone and I think, yeah, it's really difficult.
I spoke to John Powell about it. I met him in LA and he said when he first landed Han Solo and he was frozen with the enormity of it, after growing up with the franchise and being a huge fan of John Williams, like all composers. So it feels like an enormous weight of responsibility and you just hope that you're doing it justice.
You must be happy to be breaking new ground, as the first female composer within the franchise ?
Yes, definitely. It's obviously brilliant to know that I'm here and other women can see that it's about finding the right person to do the job. It's about so many more things though, too, like how difficult it is to have the money to learn an instrument, to train, and to go to music college to do a Masters.
I went to state school, had a scholarship to go to music school, and I had a scholarship to study my Masters as well. So I came out debt-free from university and was able to do unpaid, short films and assist as a fun hobby. For me, it's important that people don't feel put off from entering into the industry, not just for gender reasons, but financial reasons, too. I think it would be sad if the only voices that we have in the industry are people wealthy enough to be there.
How did your creative process differ on Loki and Obi Wan? Did you have more creative freedom on one than the other?
During Loki, because of Covid-19 and lockdown, I had a huge period of time to work with the director Kate Herron. It was something like three months, whereas I had three months in total from beginning to end to score Star Wars. I had close to a year to do Loki, so I had the luxury of a bit more time. It was also more of an open, blank canvas.
I still managed to bring some unusual flavours and instruments, like a nose flute, a hunting horn and a Nyckelharpa, into Star Wars. John doesn't use synths generally, so I felt like I was able to put my own spin on things.
Are there any other franchises you're interested in scoring?
Well, I'm scoring something with Warner Bros on Batgirl at the moment, so I'm pinching myself. I'm also going to Comic Con in July and I can't believe I'm going to with both Marvel and Star Wars projects to talk about.
And before you go, we have to ask – are you already at work on Loki series two?
Yeah, that's filming at the moment. I've signed up for it and I'm reading scripts.
I’ve been toying around with ideas, including maybe creating a new theme for series two, but I said that to Tom Hiddleston and he was like, "There'll be outrage if we don't use the theme that you've [already] established." I was kind of happy to hear that.
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