ScoreKeeper Chats With John Debney About OutKast, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, And (Of Course) ELMO IN GROUCHLAND!!
Published at: Oct. 15, 2006, 8:28 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here unapologetically engaged in full geek-out mode over my latest interview with stalwart score-maestro John Debney. I’ve long been a fan of Debney from the elegant refrains of LIAR LIAR (1997), the jovial whistling theme from ELF (2003), the explosiveness of CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), or the rhythmic hymns of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004). His themes are memorable, his orchestrations colorful, and his sense of story is beyond reproach.
Debney recently capped a blistering summer having four films out concurrently at the box office: THE ANT BULLY (2006), BARNYARD (2006), EVERYONE’S HERO (2006), and IDLEWILD (2006) which he collaborated with André 3000 and Big Boi of OutKast fame.
I had the good fortune of talking with John about his career in film music and the professional relationships he holds dear to his heart. He’s the consummate artist skillfully revealing his own passion, not just with his music, but in the words he uses to reflect upon it.
ScoreKeeper: Let’s start off talking about IDLEWILD (2006). I’m certainly not surprised saying this, considering whom I’m talking to, but this is such a completely different project for a film composer. I can’t recall a more eclectic array of music in a film in quite awhile. How did you get involved with this group? What was your role in the film?
John Debney: Well, it was a very interesting script. I read IDLEWILD and I liked it very much especially when I was told that this was a first time director and first time writer (Bryan Barber)…
SK: That didn’t cause any apprehension?
JD: No, it didn’t. I thought the writing was just so good. These days to read a good script is a real pleasure. There’s a lot out there. So I read the script and took an initial meeting with Bryan Barber, the director, and I really took a liking to Bryan. I loved his enthusiasm for both film and for music in general. I came to find out that he was an eclectic guy himself and liked a vast array of music and film scores. We sort of hit it off at that first meeting.
We then had a couple of subsequent meetings and I think one of the things that he liked about what I was expressing to him was that I thought the film was not your obvious period movie. I thought the film was a very elegant depiction of the time plus it had all of those contemporary elements obviously because of OutKast.
It needed a really sophisticated touch to it. I expressed that to Bryan and told him about my passion for what he had done, and this era, and this kind of music…Cab Calloway, Fats Waller – a great piano player, all these wonderful artists from an era I love. I think that was initially the way I got involved.
Once I got the call to do the movie, then it became a journey with Bryan finding the right blend of both contemporary style and styles from the period. That was the tight rope that we were walking. We wanted it to certainly have a feeling from the period but we also needed it to stay contemporary because who was starring in the movie, and the songs, etc.
It was two fold…Bryan taking a leap of faith that I was the guy to do that with him. Then once I was hired, it was Bryan and I really sitting in a room working together finding the right tone.
SK: It’s interesting because if you were to sit and describe the music to me before the film was ever made, it almost sounds like conceptually it wouldn’t work.
There are so many different styles and flavors bound up in a single musical entity. But in the end, it does work because – and I never realized it until you just said it – it has a sophisticated touch behind it.
JD: You’re absolutely right in your observation that on the face it may not have worked. That was something certainly that I knew. It was only going to work if we definitely worked at it and stayed true to the period.
One of the key things for me, was getting Arturo Sandoval involved. From the outset, we were looking for amazing instrumentalists that we could invite to the party. Certainly trumpet was on Bryan’s and my mind. Once we came up with the idea of Arturo and was able to work out his schedule, that was a really key piece to the puzzle.
The rest of the score, honestly, became finding a couple of themes that would work for the characters…I used a lot of piano and that was something Bryan and I talked about. It was all by design but there was a little bit of trepidation in my mind how it was all going to work.
At the end of the day it was really fun for me. I thought it was different and successful.
SK: Did you then compose or arrange all of the jazz cues in the film?
JD: I did. There obviously was some period music which was a fun journey. What they did with some of the rhythm beds is that they (filmmakers and music team, i.e. OutKast, etc.) took some of the feeling of the period – like a Cab Calloway tune for instance – and recreated some of the rhythm from the song and then we, as a team, put things on top of the rhythm to create this seemingly new animal that was a combine of all these disparate elements.
We had a lot of fun remixing things. That was really a highlight for me; working with a gentleman named Swiff who is a great remix artist who’s involved with the OutKast guys. There’s another keyboard player who plays for André (Benjamin, a.k.a. André 3000) and his name is Kevin Kendrick and he was involved also with bouncing ideas back and forth between myself and those guys.
The areas that are a little more traditionally underscored are, in the whole, me. Then there are areas where there’s a combine going on. It would be the type of thing where we talk about something, and those guys would go away and create something and send it to me, and then I would manipulate it and add things on top.
The answer is yes, but it was certainly a team effort and all quite fun.
SK: That seems to be a very unique situation to be in. If you compare it with other films you might just assume that OutKast did their thing and you did yours separately from each other. That seems to be more akin to the norm.
JD: Yeah, absolutely. And, again, was one of the things we wanted to avoid. Bryan was definitely on board with combining all these disparate elements into the score to create something new. Actually, it was really his idea since the very beginning. Why can’t you, for instance, have hip-hop beats with a 30’s jazz orchestra?
Some of the powers-that-be were concerned about what the score was going to be but at the end of the day everybody was pretty thrilled with it because it was staying true to all these different elements. It was unique in that sense. I think it’s reall unique.
SK: You mentioned earlier about how you had to convince Bryan (Barber) to take this leap of faith and hire you as his composer. What did you do or say to convince him?
JD: You know, that’s a great question. I’ve mulled it over a lot. There are certain films that I wouldn’t be the absolute obvious choice for and this is one of those cases. I’m more of a mainstream guy, I guess you could say – not by my intent – but certainly I’ve done a lot of more mainstream comedic work, etc.
The way that I convinced Bryan was simply out of the passion that I felt for the project and the passion I felt for him. We’ve come to be very good friends and I really just liked him a lot. He’s a young guy that in my opinion, just gets it. He gets the idea of film and experimentation and collaboration. He also didn’t want to do the most obvious kind of a film. So he was, every step of the way, wanting to create something that was a little bit different.
I remember – it was probably our third meeting – when I expressed to him that even if I wasn’t the person to do the music that I felt he needed A, B, C, and D. I think he responded to that. That I cared so much for what he was trying to do that I even stepped back and divorced myself from it a bit and told him exactly what I thought it should be regardless of who was doing it. I think he liked that.
Shortly thereafter he hired me and that’s how we went.
SK: How comfortable are you working in the jazz idiom? Is it a strength? Is it a challenge?
JD: Well, I come from that background. My first instrument was guitar. I did all the above. I played in jazz bands and rock bands. Doing a jazz based score is something that I would jump at the opportunity. I did some of that in SIN CITY (2005) which was really fun. That was obviously a noir score and sort of an homage to that genre. But it certainly had elements of jazz.
I’m an old jazz aficionado and someone who’s played a lot of jazz. It’s something that I love.
SK: You have a history of not only collaborating well with filmmakers but also with other musicians and composers as well. Where most film composers might be completely unwilling to collaborate with others in their field, you seem to relish it. Is this merely happenstance or do you truly enjoy working with others in the music field?
JD: You know, I really do. The payoff for me is working with the musicians. Whether it’s a big orchestra or working one on one with different musicians at different times. That’s the payoff for me. I come from that. I’m an instrumentalist who’s played in a lot of different bands, etc. The idea of working not only with different musicians but also working with different composers is really fun for me.
The part of it that is least fun for me are the hours spent sitting at a computer. I enjoy the collaboration with live human beings. Whether it’s another composer or another musician, I treasure that.
SK: For example, your collaborative relationship with Robert Rodriguez. He’s a filmmaker but he’s also a musician and has a hand in scoring his films.
JD: Oh, he absolutely does! It’s funny you should say that. I was just thinking about him while we were talking about that last question. I would definitely say that Robert is one of those guys. He’s a renaissance man. He’s truly an up and coming really fine composer. I use to always kid with him that he really doesn’t need me anymore (laughs).
Both Graeme Revell (co-composer on THE ADVENTURES OF SHARK BOY AND LAVA GIRL (2005) and SIN CITY) and I, just treasure when Robert calls us because it’s like a friend calling us saying ‘what are you doing for the next few weeks?’ and you jump in.
Robert is open to ideas and is open to the experience level that someone like Graeme and I might bring to the table. It is fun working with Robert and I hope to do it again.
SK: Will you be working with Robert again on SIN CITY 2 (2007) and possibly SIN CITY 3 (2008) in the near future?
JD: You know, I’m assuming so. Robert is so busy. I think he jumps over from GRIND HOUSE (2007) to SIN CITY 2. He’s expressed to me the desire to do it so I’m hoping that does happen.
SK: When you work on a score for a Robert Rodriguez film, the assumption is that you compose your parts while Graeme Revell composes his parts. How does Robert fit into that situation not just as the filmmaker but as another composer to collaborate with?
JD: Yeah. That was the fun part with SIN CITY. Graeme and I didn’t hear what each other was doing. That was…a little odd when we were doing it. We were thinking ‘is any of this going to make sense?’ The unifying factor was Robert. It’s all filtering through Robert. That’s the joy of what we can do with him. We can throw this material at him, then he’ll give us his ideas, and then he forms it all into this whole. It was really a fun experience going to the premiere of SIN CITY and Graeme and I had not heard what either of us had done. Seeing it as a whole was really a joy and we had a lot of fun at the cocktail party afterwards saying, ‘man, what was that?’ But it was cool and it worked.
SK: You recorded the score for SPY KIDS 2: ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS (2002) in Austin, Texas, home to Robert Rodriguez and of course Ain’t It Cool News. Any plans of possibly repeating that feat with a future Rodriguez film?
JD: You know, that worked so well I have to say. It was a logistical nightmare in terms of the ‘where we’re going to record’ and ‘how we’re going to record.’ I was listening to SPY KIDS 2 just the other day while I was making a CD for someone and I was struck by how great it sounds and how great the musicians’ performances were.
It was one of those guerilla scoring episodes. We recorded at this high school for performing arts which turned out to be a really good place to record. Also, Austin was in the midst of a week long storm. It’s really a fun little thing with SPY KIDS 2, if you listen very closely in the quieter moments you can hear some rain on the roof. It was one of those things where we learn as we go yet the product and the musicianship was just wonderful.
It was difficult to perform. Robert wanted this sort of Bernard Herrmann-esque approach to areas of that film. So the music was, quite frankly, difficult. They just nailed it.
I would love to do it again. You’re always fighting the clock and the logistics of how to do it, but I think if Robert were ever wanting to do it, we could certainly do it again.
Needless to say, I love Austin. It’s one of my favorite places to be. I would love to do that again.
SK: My first favorite score of yours was LIAR LIAR (1997) which features a wonderfully composed lilting theme in 3/4 which I find to be characteristic in a lot of your work. Being a good melodist can be the trickiest part of composing a good film score. How much time do you spend working on your individual themes? Does it take a lot of work or do they just come out almost by themselves?
JD: They’re all different. Some of them come very quickly while other times – absolutely – blood sweat and tears over these themes. I think that is an area of film composing that is, unfortunately, not stressed enough…That is the idea of writing a good theme.
I speak at different places like USC where I go a few times a year to their film scoring program. I tell young composers that I think it’s so important to work on your melodic writing. I get a lot of CDs and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that while they may be very skillfully written, in terms of the craft of writing, sometimes there aren’t enough melodies that I think are well developed or well thought out.
I do work really hard to try and write a good melody. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. Sometimes it does come easy and sometimes it’s just a real pain to come up with something that I think is pretty good and might stick to the film.
SK: I recall an interview John Williams gave where he professed how he spends so much time getting the melodies just right so that each subsequent note in the phrase is “inevitable.” I think that is a great lesson.
I do agree with you that that approach – the care in crafting a great melody – does not appear to be the majority practice among composers anymore.
JD: I totally agree with you and I bemoan that fact. I think there is sort of a lack of melody now. I think there’s always room for a great melody. I keep wanting to hear it in a lot of scores that I get, many of them by well known people. They don’t seem to either have the knack for writing a melody or aren’t interested or something…
There are guys that write great melodies that are out there still. John being one of them. Alan Silvestri comes to mind…James Newton Howard also comes to mind. I think there are guys out there that really care about that.
I wish more composers would consider that…the art of writing a melody.
SK: Since we’re talking about great melodies…I have a three year old son so I’m very familiar and very fond of your score for THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND (1999).
JD: Ah! (laughs while sounding slightly surprised) That’s cool. That’s so nice of you. That’s so obscure…
SK: Well yeah, that’s…
JD: It’s funny you should say that because I love that score too. I had fun writing it. It’s a score that really nobody knows about unless they have young kids.
SK: And that’s what my question revolves around. When I put the DVD in for the first time and my son watched it, I was really surprised by what a great score it had. I didn’t know you did it until the closing credits.
It’s led me to wonder…Why take on a project like this? It’s not the flashiest project you’ve done and it’s certainly not going to give you a lot of exposure. You had to know that most likely they wouldn’t put out a CD of the soundtrack. What motivates you to work on a project like this?
JD: That’s a great question. I think the quick answer for that one would be at the time…now, we must be going back…seven or eight years…
JD: ’99? Is that when it was? Ok, I was close.
Well, the kids were younger. I have three boys and they were in their early teens and in the case of my youngest who would’ve been…around ten. Elmo was a character they had grown up with. At the time, I thought it was really a fun idea to do something that they would love.
Not only that, but I went to see the film and met the filmmaker and I really liked the film honestly. It was also for a studio I hadn’t done a lot of work for. That played into it too. I wanted to do something with Columbia (Pictures).
It was really all those factors that made it fun for me. I remember going to a preview of the film and the theater was just jammed packed with these little kids and they just loved the film. If I’m going to see a film that families can love, that does play a role. I gravitate towards that for some reason. I love sitting in the theater and seeing people have a great time and in the case of ELMO they were certainly loving the movie.
SK: Has there ever been even the tiniest glimmer of a chance that they would ever release any of that music on CD?
JD: Never! (laughs) It’s so funny you should bring that up and I’m delighted that you did. I’m actually putting a little CD together right now for another project. I always have a hand in…if I get a call from the agent and they’re looking for X, Y, and Z and I’ll look back on all the scores and pull different cues from different movies. That’s one that has a special place in my heart and yet, for some reason I never really pull material from there. Since you brought it up, I might do that today. (laughs)
SK: Although you have the reputation of being a fairly diverse composer, you have scored a hefty dose of family and kid-friendly films throughout your career.
JD: I do and honestly it’s not be design. There was a period in my life that I’m coming out of within the last year or so. It was all about working a lot and trying to become a better composer. Unfortunately I would say…killed myself to do a lot of work, not out of just wanting to be a whore for work, but because I enjoy the process and want to always become the best composer I can.
I would certainly say my work is weighted in the kid-friendly, family, comedy area. But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t love to do more of the other stuff. That’s really what I’m trying to concentrate on now is consciously do other things, like IDLEWILD, or THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), which was really a different journey for me to do that film. So I’m trying to do more the dramatic or non-comedic films although I certainly love still doing the comedies and probably will always do those.
Right now I’m working on EVAN ALMIGHTY (2007) which is the sequel to BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003) which was a wonderful, fun experience. Tom Shadyac is the guy who did LIAR LIAR, BRUCE ALMIGHTY and now EVAN ALMIGHTY. I also did a film for him called DRAGONFLY (2002) which is another film that really holds a special place in my heart because it was at a time when I lost my mom. DRAGONFLY deals with issues of life and death and the afterlife. I would definitely love to do more of that kind of thing.
Some people will ask, ‘what are your three favorite scores?’ Invariably the ones that come up for me are CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), DRAGONFLY (2002), and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004).
SK: You’ve scored around a dozen films in the past two years since scoring THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. You’ve answered a barrage of questions surrounding your work on this film. Now that you’ve had time to digest its success and reflect upon it, what does this film mean to you today?
JD: Well, in one sense, I’m never tired of talking about it. It’s such a phenomenon in both the controversy that it stirred and the success of it. I look back on it as probably the greatest experience of my film scoring career in that it was both the most creative, and it was also the hardest. It was the most gut-wrenching experience, but ultimately a great experience in that it allowed me the opportunity to really experiment and really dig deep into my own psyche.
I would say, looking back on it for me, it’s the deepest most introspective thing that I’ve been able to do yet and rolled into that are all the emotions the experience brought. Both really highs and some lows. It’s definitely the high point so far of what I’ve been able to accomplish.
SK: When I first saw THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, it was a fine-cut that had been temp-tracked with Peter Gabriel’s score for THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988). Did you first see the film with the temp-track? Did Mel use it to communicate his ideas to you?
JD: I did see it with a temp-track and I liked it for about five or ten minutes. Then it started to grate on me. I saw it with the temp-track because the filmmakers – Mel, and the producers – were in a bit of a quandary because they thought intellectually that it was great idea to have that type of music permeate the film. I thought a little bit of that was working but it was presented to me that they really didn’t know what to do.
I realized very quickly that while THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is a wonderful musical experience, it’s a one level, one coloristic shade, and that’s all it is. It doesn’t have the peaks and valleys you need – certainly that I felt THE PASSION needed.
The way that film worked is I offered to write some music for Mel on spec just because I thought it was a really beautiful work of art. Still to this day, I think it’s one of the finest examples of just general filmmaking regardless of the subject matter.
So I wrote some music for Mel. He came over and I played him some of the material. He really responded to a couple of things then hired me to do it. My job, once I did get the assignment, was try to make some kind of uniformed score out of what Mel wanted; an eclectic moment to moment approach to the film. So that’s what I did and honestly at the time, I didn’t know if any of it would work. We sort of went into this thing blindly. Mel would come over every few days, I’d play him material and then we’d experiment together and we’d bring in instrumentalists. It was a very experimental approach and again, I didn’t know if it was going to work.
But then there were some moments where I got little hints of what I thought the score as a whole could be and over time I think it sort of started to dawn on me that this was something very special.
Then, I’ll never forget, once we got to London and we were recording with the orchestra and the choir there was those moments of complete and utter…uh, it’s still hard to describe. Being in awe? Being awestruck of how music can work with a film and the power of imagery with music. We all felt it. Mel felt it. There were times in the booth when we were recording in London where different people would literally break down and weep. That was the experience. Working with these musicians in London and again with the choir, it became evident there was something at work that was greater than any of us, including Mel. It was just really wild.
No matter what your faith, there is a spirituality to the music that I didn’t even create. It was this collective effort on the part of all these musicians. It came together somehow.
SK: As the filmmaker, Mel Gibson faced a Mt. Everest of public opinion and expectation which I’m sure created a great deal of pressure on him, not just financially, but spiritually and artistically. There were people looking for him to fail with this film. As the composer, did that pressure find its way over to you? Were you more nervous about your work in this film than any previous films you worked on?
JD: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
SK: I can’t even imagine. There’s already so much responsibility in your hands with any project. But with this film, it had to have been greatly magnified.
JD: Absolutely. All of the above. It was because Mel cared so deeply for the film, because of the subject matter, because of the controversy. You know – I tell people this and it’s the truth – I almost quit ten times and I think Mel almost fired me ten times. (laughs) It was really like that. At times I felt like it was a complete disaster and the end of my career. Then there were these moments where all of a sudden I would come up with something that Mel liked.
It was all the above. I can’t stress that highly enough. It was a roller coaster ride full of self-doubt. But it was all predicated by the fact that Mel cared so deeply for it and every note of the music was absolutely precious for him.
SK: And now you’ve been enjoying taking the music on the road, performing it in cathedrals and concert halls across the country as “The Passion Symphony.” How has that experience been?
JD: It’s been great! I wish we had more opportunities to perform it but when we have performed it quite frankly, it’s an amazing experience. People are very touched by it. It’s been a unique thing. Expanding a film score into a symphony was quite interesting and daunting. I don't know if it’s any good but I know it’s something that I had to do.
SK: Will one of these live performances of “The Passion Symphony” be released on DVD in the future?
JD: I wish they would. No, there are no plans right now.
SK: Looking back on your career, what do you view as being the “big break” that started your whole career rolling?
JD: Hmm, that’s a good question too. I mull that over a lot.
SK: Each film pushes you further toward your next project, but there has to be one that stands out as the film of greatest benefit to your career.
JD: True. I will say that there was a huge break on LIAR LIAR (1997). I’d say 1997 was the year for me to have had a couple of successes. Let’s face it, CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995) may be a good film score but it’s all based on the success of the film. You can do – and many of us have – good film scores and all of them for not-so-great movies and it doesn’t really do much for you. It’s all about the success of the film. I would therefore say that LIAR LIAR and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997) in the same year, were big breakout opportunities for me.
I would even go back a step and say that there was this score for Disney called HOCUS POCUS (1993), that was a wonderful break for me. I had done a lot of television and lot of Disney things and through my relationship with Disney, when they got into trouble when James Horner left the project and they had two weeks to score HOCUS POCUS, they called in a few people and I was one of them. I got the movie. So that was a big break which led to a three picture deal with Disney and helped get me into the feature world.
SK: Are you really as busy as it seems? Your yearly output is tremendous.
JD: Well…it’s a little deceiving. Sometimes I might have just written a theme for a movie or might have replaced part of a score, which happens a lot. But yeah, I’m also blessed with stamina that I’ve been able to create a lot of material in a short period of time and I’m also a good multitasker. If I have to, I’ve worked on a couple of movies at the same time. I don't like doing that. I hate doing that. But sometimes you just have to due to schedule changes.
Yeah, I was that busy for a number of years and would go from one to the next, from one to the next…I’m now trying consciously not to do that as much.
SK: Well John, you have been most generous with your time. I could easily go on and on but I’m going to refrain and be very happy with this.
JD: Thanks! It was great talking to you.
All accounts are currently pointing toward Debney composing the score for John Favreau’s IRON MAN (2008). The two have paired off twice before with ELF (2003) and ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE (2005). If this remains true, it’ll reside atop my most anticipated scores list for the next two years. The super-hero score is getting a tad lethargic as of late and a melody laced injection of Vitamin D(ebney) might be just what the doctor ordered.
It was a real pleasure talking with John. There were more questions on my list left unasked than with any previous composer I’ve interviewed. Hopefully we can repeat the experience after he completes a few more film scores. At his rate that’ll take about two and half weeks. Maybe then I can finally ask him if THE ANT BULLY was really about communists.
Thanks again to John Debney for taking the time to talk with me. I’d also like to give thanks to Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.