Spielberg and John Williams, Leone and Morricone… the history of cinema is marked by legendary collaborations between directors and composers who have become inseparable. Here you will find a selection of legendary director-composer duos.
Music is an essential part of any movie. It helps create an identity and is often an integral part of its success. While some directors use existing classical, pop and rock music for their soundtracks, others decide to work with a composer. Throughout the history of cinema, these collaborations have sometimes produced legendary musical themes, as unforgettable as the films themselves.
Alfred Hitchcock & Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann worked very closely with the Master of Suspense for around a decade, scoring many of the director’s greatest movies, including The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest and, most famously, Psycho. Over sixty years after its release, the violins that bring the tension to a climax during the iconic shower scene remain engraved in the minds of movie lovers. Initially however, Hitchcock didn’t want to use music for this particular scene. It was Herrmann who decided to write a score using only a string section, something that had never been done before in a movie. Unfortunately, this brilliant and tumultuous relationship between the two artists ended abruptly in 1966 after a disagreement over the music for the film Torn Curtain.
Sergio Leone & Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone has composed a huge number of soundtracks, but it is his work with Sergio Leone that has left the biggest impression as it became the defining sound of the Spaghetti Western. Both men grew up near one another in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome and were even classmates in elementary school. After losing touch, they met again in 1964 when Leone hired Morricone, who was then writing for radio and television, for the film A Fistful of Dollars. The duo continued to work together for 25 years, until the death of the director in 1989. Morricone’s music was hugely important in Leone’s filming process. He would compose his scores before shooting, and then the director would coordinate the camera movements with the melodies that were played during the shooting.
Jacques Demy & Michel Legrand
Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand are probably the most iconic duo in French cinema. The friends’ long-standing collaboration began with Lola, Demy’s first feature film and a major work of the French New Wave movement, filmed in the city of Nantes. The pair would go on to revolutionize French musicals, notably with the sequel to Lola: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg released in 1964. Legrand convinced the director to make a movie in which all the dialogue is sung by the protagonists. This innovative idea earned him four nominations at the 1965 Oscars.
Steven Spielberg & John Williams
One of Hollywood’s most iconic director-composer teams is that of Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Williams has composed music for practically every film directed by Spielberg since Sugarland Express (1974). Their collaboration has resulted in outstanding and influential soundtracks for Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
With his work for Spielberg, Williams has received three Oscars and two Golden Globes for best original score. John Williams is most certainly the best example of when a composer’s work is as well known as that of a director.
Tim Burton & Danny Elfman
Another iconic Hollywood duo, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman have made their mark through numerous collaborations. By combining their talents for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the two men quickly developed a genuine bond. This is no coincidence, as the whimsical and eccentric nature of Elfman’s music is perfectly suited to the director’s eerie yet magical cinematic visions. Since their first movie together, Danny Elfman has composed the scores for Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick and produced by Burton), Mars Attacks!, Planet of the Apes, The Corpse Bride, Charlie and
Luc Besson & Éric Serra
In 1979, young director Luc Besson met Éric Serra and as he was particularly impressed by the composer’s talent, asked him to write the music for his first short film, L’Avant dernier. Serra would go on to become Besson’s appointed composer and has scored all of the director’s movies to date, except Angel-A, The Family and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
The duo’s working method is rather simple: once the editing is finished, the director sends the edited scenes to Serra, with timecodes to help him with the duration of the tracks. Then, the composer tries to translate Besson’s intention into music, accurately expressing the characteristics and emotions of the characters through his melodies.
Thanks to his collaborations with Luc Besson, Éric Serra won the Victoire de la meilleure musique de film in 1985 for the soundtrack of Subway, as well as the César for best music written for a film with The Big Blue in 1989.
Christopher Nolan & Hans Zimmer
Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer form the most iconic director-composer duo of 2010s blockbusters. Backed by Zimmer’s distinctive electro-symphonic musical scores, Nolan’s layered movies frequently elicit discussions and theories surrounding their themes and plots. Films such as Inception and Dunkirk are accompanied by soundtracks featuring intense tension that matches the action.
When he asked Zimmer to score Interstellar, Nolan gave him a single page of dialogue and notes that told the story of a father leaving his child to go to work, without any indication of the film’s plot. A gamble that paid off, as the composer’s epic soundtrack perfectly conveys the solemnity of this sci-fi flick. Surprisingly (although Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk were all nominated), Zimmer has only won one Oscar to date, for The Lion King in 1994.
Wes Anderson & Alexandre Desplat
Famous for his highly colorful cinematography and perfectly symmetrical shots, Wes Anderson frequently uses pop music from the 1960s and 1970s in the soundtracks of his films. These songs often accompany the music of French composer Alexandre Desplat. In fact, some of the director’s best-known works feature compositions by Desplat. The pair began collaborating with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and continued with Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Isle of Dogs (2018) and The French Dispatch (2021). Desplat’s whimsical, culturally rich scores are particularly important in Anderson’s films as they have very little dialogue and focus on the settings and the movements of the characters.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, set mainly in the 1930s, is the first of the director’s movies not to use pop music, but only original music written by Alexandre Desplat. His soundtrack was awarded the Oscar and BAFTA Award for best original score.
While direction and camerawork are the most immediately recognizable elements of a film, music that sets the tone and mood is just as important. The most memorable movies and soundtracks are often those created by directors and composers who have managed to establish a deep creative connection. From Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone to Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer, Hollywood has benefited from many of these splendid collaborations between directors and composers, which are too numerous to list here. An adventure that is not about to end, much to the delight of cinema fans and music lovers alike.