And other highlights from the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award gala honoring John Williams

By C. Molly Smith
June 10, 2016 at 07:29 PM EDT
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

John Williams was honored with the 44th AFI Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre on Thursday, and for good reason: The legendary composer, 84, has worked on huge titles including Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (plus, many of the sequels for all), and he’s been nominated for 50 Academy Awards, five of which he won — and that’s just to start. Below are highlights from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, J.J. Abrams, Tom Hanks, and more addressing Williams’ accomplishments, their experiences working with him, and deep love of his music.

John Williams’ favorite Steven Spielberg story…

“Steven and I worked together for 43 years, something amazing, and it’s like a perfect marriage. We really have never had an argument of any kind and it’s a testament to this man’s humanity, his loyalty, his patience, and his very good taste. I have a favorite Steven Spielberg story that I want to share with you and that has to do with Schindler’s List, which you all remember. Steven came back with this film to show me the first cut as he always does and we went to his projection room and the purpose of this was to see the film and discuss the music for the film.

You’ll remember the film, it’s the story of Oskar Schindler, a German civilian who protected and employed potential victims of the Holocaust, a powerful masterpiece of a film. [It] ends in the state of Israel, survivors and their children go to the gravesite of Oskar Schindler to put stones on the gravesite to honor [his] memory. The lights came up and the film was over and it was time for Steven and me to start our meeting to begin to talk about the role of the music, and I was so overwhelmed by the film, I really could not speak. I went out and walked around the building for a few minutes to gather myself and came back to start the meeting with Steven and I said ‘Steven, this is truly a great film and you need a better composer than I for this film,’ and he said very sweetly, ‘I know, but they’re all dead.’”

George Lucas on the Raiders of the Lost Ark score…

“Music is the magic dust of movies. I’m happy and proud to be standing here years after I first heard the score to celebrate the man who wrote it. Star Wars was meant to be a simple hero’s journey, a fantasy for young people, and then John wrote the music and he raised it to a level of art, popular art that would stand the test of time. What I’m trying to say is, you made my life so easy. I had so many ideas for other movies, but I never got to them because you ensured that Star Wars would endure forever and then you did it again with Raiders of the Lost Ark. A long, long time ago, Steve and I sat on the beach to talk about the story for Indy and instantly, we both said at the same time, ‘John has to write the music.’ He said, ‘Great, that’s the most important part. Let’s go have lunch, and we can write the story later.’”

… which star Harrison Ford simply cannot escape

After walking out to a cue from Raiders of the Lost Ark, “That damn music follows me everywhere. They play it every time I walk on stage. Every time I walk off a stage… it was playing in the operating room when I went in for my colonoscopy. I was walking down a crowded street in New York a couple months ago. There was a big fire truck stuck in traffic I passed in the opposite direction. Some guy leaned out of the cab and gave me one of those New York [looks] and by the time I got to the end of the truck, that music was blaring out of the loudspeakers. John, I’m not complaining. To play a character graced by John’s music is of course a real gift. Music is the spice, it’s the salt and pepper in every film recipe that brings the whole thing together, the adjustment to taste at the critical moment. The collaboration between filmmaker and composer, how a score is used, how music is critical to the success of the film…John, you’re a genius, congratulations.”

John Williams called J.J. Abrams “angel” during sessions for The Force Awakens

“‘Oh angel, I just hope this cue is good enough.’ These are the sort of preposterous things that John Williams says at recordings sessions,” recalled Abrams. “This 50-time Oscar nominee seems to have never read his own resume. His modesty is no effect, no performance; he is simply one of the most beautifully humble people you will ever meet. He uses terms of endearment all the time. Another is ‘baby.’ ‘J.J. baby, dare we reference the force theme here?’ He’s like the sweetest superhero of all time. ‘Angel, do you mind if I lift this skyscraper up with my pinky?’ He is amazing. He would often conduct himself. His impossibly exhilarating, powerful, rousing, adventurous cues, utterly exhausting the orchestra, blowing away everyone on stage, then turn around and say things like, ‘Oh, that was just so silly, wasn’t it?’ Not enough can ever be said of course about the importance of John Williams’ music in what is so frequently described as a visual medium. Remove his score from any scene and it becomes nearly unrecognizable, something is instantaneously and fundamentally gone, perhaps the soul of the piece.

I’m forever grateful for being tasked with continuing the Star Wars saga, but there is no honor greater than being counted among the directors who’ve been blessed to collaborate with John Williams…Early in our work in The Force Awakens, Johnny invited me to his home to play some of the themes he was working on. It’s impossible to describe the thrill of hearing these cues for the first time. Themes for the characters of Rey or Kylo Ren being played by Mr. Williams himself on his living room piano. ‘J.J. baby, I was thinking something like this for Rey,’ and he played a cue that brought me to tears. ‘What do you think, angel?’ What I felt was that I was the luckiest man alive. Among the impossible number of things that George Lucas did so brilliantly, so right in 1977, was hiring John Williams, the man who would create a score as sublime, iconic, and impactful as anything else in a film called Star Wars.

Kobe Bryant (yep, he was there too) on why “The Imperial March” played during his 2013 return from injury

“I needed John Williams to inspire me. The Black Mamba was back, and ‘The Imperial March’ put me into character. That’s a villain ready for an epic battle. I’m a passionate believer that everybody needs a muse and John Williams is one of mine. In 2009, I asked to meet with him. I needed to understand how he created timeless music that was timeless because of its complex compositions that told simple stories that captured the magic within all of us. John’s music achieved a level of perfection that I wanted to replicated on the basketball court. If I could understand how John did it, maybe, just maybe, I could do it too… Congratulations on being the AFI MVP.”