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ScoreKeeper Chats With Composer Thomas Newman!!

Greetings! ScoreKeeper here nerves barely intact after my brief yet impressionable conversation with one of Hollywood’s icons of film music. It’s not every day one gets to chat on the phone with one of their idols. However, on this particular day, that’s exactly what happened to me. I became enamored with the music of Thomas Newman the first time I heard SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992). His “outside-the-box” approach to scoring films using a kaleidoscopic range of musical textures and his unmitigated sense of narrative cements him in the upper echelons of his craft. If I were a director, Thomas Newman would be the composer I would hire.
This is a must-read interview for students of film music. During our short twenty-minute phone conversation, Tom expressed some supremely insightful perspectives on film music and relayed advice which strays from the stereotypical industry drivel. There’s no hyperbole here when I say that talking with him has been one of the hallmark experiences I’ve had while writing for Ain’t It Cool. Enjoy!
ScoreKeeper: You are currently working on REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008) for Sam Mendes, is that correct? Thomas Newman: I am. I’m going to be recording with orchestra this week.
SK: So you have not recorded anything as of yet? TN: No, I typically record with a small group of players, particularly with a movie like this which has a very intimate kind of psychological aspect to it. Then I will go in with an orchestra and overdub to these kinds of “stages and vibes” that I have set up and then I start to mix. I have actually been recording for about two weeks on and off and now we go to finish up with orchestra. Then I begin mixing at the end of this week.
SK: I don’t know much about the film yet. What type of score are you doing? How would you best describe it? TN: It takes place in the fifties. It stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as a couple “at sea” in their relationship and with their sense of selves. She has an idea to go to Paris and all kinds of strange events occur that makes it difficult for that to happen and the marriage is not in good shape. It’s very psychological. I guess what’s interesting about it is that it takes place in the fifties, so it has a real period aspect to it too which often times can be a lot of fun in terms of letting period music walk into a more psychological space. There’s a real interest in that kind of contrast.
SK: That sounds – I don’t know if typical is the right word – but it sounds like the type of story Sam Mendes would be good at telling. You work with him so well. I believe some of your best work accompanies his films. TN: I do too. I think that the three movies I had done before I would count way up there in terms of satisfying experiences in music that I still enjoy listening to. It probably is my type of movie too, just because it gives me an opportunity to stretch and to do different things and to be less obligatory with music.
SK: Does the scoring lean more toward using unique instruments, which you are known for, or a straight up symphonic orchestra? Will this score be more like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) or UNSTRUNG HEROES (1995) or a combination of the two? TN: Probably more like SHAWSHANK. I guess a big interest in my work has been this interior/exterior relationship of music and how to get from one to the other. A lot of that has to do with the manner in which I record. When you stand up in front of an orchestra, you have a proscenium setting with your violins on the left and the violas in the middle and cellos and basses on the right. It gives you a real classical sense of what an orchestra would sound like. When you work with smaller groups of players or players that you are recording individually, you can really place them in the sonic landscape within your sense of stereo and it’s a wonderful thing to go from one to the other. The use of a proscenium approach to orchestra can still place you in a place where you think you are watching a movie that takes place in the fifties, but with so many odd psychological situations that you really want to exploit a more modern sound than dramatic treatments can bring.
SK: How long have you been at work on this score? TN: You know I saw it about a year ago. Then, I guess, we were going to do it many months ago, but WALL-E (2008) – I had been working on WALL-E since late 2005 believe it or not – and so Sam was courteous and kind enough to wait for me to be done with WALL-E to finish up REVOLUTIONARY ROAD.
SK: Let’s go into WALL-E for a little bit…You said you started back at the end of 2005? What were you able to work on so early? TN: Well, it was a conceit that Andrew Stanton (writer and director) and I had, which was, if I started early on the film, I had thought it would be a way to break through procedural barriers with how it would function and how it functions in the procedure of things. So I started early with high hopes of really being able to do something different. I’m not sure that that was so effective because, of the nature of animation being so schedule dependent. Maybe had I been working with Andrew when he was writing the script I could have had more of an effect? I think we really started getting someplace when I started looking to picture, but I started real early. I bet it was meaningful on a certain level, but it certainly didn’t place it where I thought it would.
SK: I had heard a lot of talk about WALL-E and even heard Andrew himself talk about whether it is a silent film or not? Andrew said it’s not, it’s just unconventional dialogue. From the composer’s point-of-view were you approaching this as you would a silent film where the music might take an extra step or two into the foreground and tackle more responsibility than it might if there were traditional dialogue in it? TN: I’m sure you could think that but I’m not sure that that makes you work any differently. You are still looking at the image and you are writing to image and it’s either working for you or it’s not. You are not saying it’s going to work differently now, because it is a “silent movie.” I think you realize that you have more responsibility with the story…It’s leaning on you for elements of story to be told and if I think back, I wonder why I wasn’t just freaked out of my mind at the whole project on that level! When you think of how little dialogue there was, you just take it a step at a time. My cousin, Randy, who’s worked on many Pixar movies gave me good advice…I remember when I worked on FINDING NEMO (2003), he said, “Just look at the next ten minutes, don’t look beyond that, because if you do then you are sucked into that.” The job is so huge and it’s scary.
SK: You have worked with Andrew twice now. How did your experience working with him on WALL-E compare with your experience working together on FINDING NEMO? TN: I think that he was more sophisticated in his process and probably had a higher sense of expectation. We enjoyed working together on NEMO. I want to involve the director in the choices that I make. I figure there’s going to be a moment where a director decides what he thinks of the music I have written. If I can get a director in early enough, then I can avoid the pain of having to make changes or having a director not think I have made some right choices. Andrew was exposed to that really for the first time and I think he really appreciated that on FINDING NEMO. On WALL-E it was just an expectation so it was a lot of hard work. I don’t think it was a repeat experience. Obviously there is the comfort of a successful experience that has gone before, but it doesn’t make anyone more relaxed, Andrew is still going to need what he is going to need from me and he’s really not going to stop until he gets it. It’s just kind of the nature of his sense of expertise.
SK: I love the theme that you wrote for Wall-E and even more so the theme you came up with for Eve. Can you walk me through the genesis and development of those two particular character themes? TN: Well, typically the way I work is I just write an awful lot of material and throw it against the image and see what works. Then when something works I ask myself why. In the case of WALL-E, I think it was the same throwing these ideas at Andrew. I would send him CD after CD filled with many ideas, most of which were unsuccessful, I think, until we settled on something. When you are doing that, you are less inclined to have to defend an idea that you like simply because you wrote it. I think I always want to retain the sense of being the member of an audience and simply reacting to something and when something works. If you’re open and honest and are non-defensive about it, you can really see if it works. As for Eve, the first thing I wrote for Eve was recorded in October of last year and this is when she first gets off the space ship. There’s a deploy that she does of all her antics in the sky when WALL-E first sees her and I wrote a piece that is much more orchestral than the piece that exists there now. There were some issues with it. Was it not feminine enough? There were adjectives thrown at the piece I had written that made Andrew want me to just try again. I did and I think we all liked the new idea a lot better. That’s a good example of why you shouldn’t hold on to ideas, just because you wrote them.
SK: One thing that I find interesting is you began and established your career – and I don’t mean to disparage these films – with movies like REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984) , REAL GENIUS (1985), DESPARATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985), and other types of films of this caliber. I consider them all classics in their own right and I love your work in them but now you are at the opposite end of the spectrum. You have been associated with some of cinema’s more revered films of the last several decades, like AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994), ROAD TO PERDITION (2002), and FINDING NEMO (2003). Many of these titles represent some of the best that Hollywood has to offer. When you look back at your career, what one film or maybe a pair of films can you pinpoint as being the catalysts for getting from where you started to where you find yourself today? TN: It was probably two movies. The first was DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN because it was the first movie I had worked on. I think REVENGE OF THE NERDS when it came out was a little bit of an eye roll for many people, but DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN was…I remember there was a cover on Rolling Stone of Madonna and Rosanna Arquette and I really felt like, “Wow, I finally participated in a movie that is kind of a hit,” so that was the first. Then the real movie was THE PLAYER (1992) – a Robert Altman movie – because I felt I was starting to have a greater understanding of my own sense of style. “Who was I and how did I do what I did?” I was getting a sense of process. There was a moment I thought I was going to be fired and I remember thinking “Alright, I just have to do the very best I can because if I do get fired, I just want to know that I tried my best.” (Altman and I) didn’t collaborate that intensely. He was in New York a lot of the time and I was in Los Angeles. I got through the score and the music made it to the movie. The movie was a huge success and made a big splash. I was able to make a CD that I really enjoyed. I think THE PLAYER was the first CD that I thought, “Wow!” It was a wonderful thing to reorder your pieces and try to make a listening experience that was meaningful just on CD. There was a movie afterwards called FLESH AND BONE (1993) where I felt that I was starting to understand how the orchestra could work with these stranger instruments or how to combine the sort of proscenium approach with strings and/or a large orchestra which I guess has become a real hallmark of my style.
SK: You seem to be at the top of your game and one of the questions I have always wondered is why haven’t you tackled a big budget summer action flick? Are you interested? Have you been offered or pursued anything of that ilk? TN: You mean action movies?
SK: Yeah, I would love to hear you do an action flick! TN: The thing about action movies is unless you have a real visionary director, the music for action movies is very… there’s a real requirement. It’s really required to do things and in that requirement often times I think you run out of room for personality. You are really making things exciting. Often though, not always, you have to resort to devices to do that. Action movies are just not something that I longed to do. I guess if something came along like THE MATRIX (1999) or something that was so stylized…that would be a real fun kind of movie to score.
SK: When I listen to music, being a composer myself, I can hear the compositional process. I can hear the construction of the music. It’s very much like if you look at a building…you can see the bricks, the pipes, the wood and nails…you see how the building is put together. Then something comes along like the Disney Concert Hall and you can’t see it’s construction. You have no idea how this thing was designed or built. It’s just there. That’s how I hear your music and its one of the things that has attracted me most to your work. I don’t hear the compositional process. I don’t hear the construction of the music. It just exists in its own free form. I love that. How do you do this? TN: Thank you. I love that you would say that. I bet it’s because I’m an improviser and I encourage improvisation in my process. A lot of times I will go in with an idea that is skeletal. I’ll go in with an idea of how I want to dress it up and I will really be able to deal with issues like transition in ways that you never would if you put a pencil to paper or worked with notes. A lot of the best ideas I have had are embellished by players that take the music in a direction I never ever would have thought. So often times it gives it a real feeling of freshness because you don’t sense the composition. I try not to be precious about the composition. A lot of times the music can almost be deconstructed or something you think was important in the writing process becomes less important when you add an element that somehow gets interesting in other ways. A lot of it is working with players and running a really loose ship and letting people laugh and not being a traditional composer in terms of process. Obviously there has to be some element of dictatorship but I really love input. I think so many people are dying for the ability to have creative expression. Sometimes you give them that opportunity in a very – controlled is the wrong word – but in a specific type of environment to say “Just go for something. Try something…” or “Take out this drum and bonk on it. Try something on guitar in this high register” and often times you say “That’s wrong.” but often times you say “Wow, that is really interesting” and again you are reacting to it. You are not so much conceding it and executing it as letting it walk in front of you reaching out and grabbing it. I think it’s just process. Early on in my career this was something I didn’t understand. “How do you work with others?” and “How do you get good ideas out of others? How do you encourage participation and how do you invite people to your table and allow them to feel like they matter.” I think my musicians really matter to me.
SK: This process of creating music, especially for a Hollywood film, doesn’t seem very ideal considering the extreme time pressures. It sounds like a laborious, time consuming process. TN: It can be but the value of film is that the image tells you when you are right and wrong. You can say, “OK…here’s an idea and here’s someone playing to this idea…Oh that doesn’t work because I can’t hear the dialogue now. It takes me away from the dialogue…” You can argue too that when you get in front of an orchestra and you have composed every note all of these same issues will occur. “Oh, I had no idea that clarinets in that register would distract me from something…” Then you are making your adjustments there. In a way it’s more fool proof because you go over the material a lot and you are constantly looking at the material and you aren’t trying to close your eyes and jumping so much. You are really letting something work or not work as legitimately as it can. So in a way it’s saying, “OK, here’s the timeline, now how can I best exploit that time and with all of the ammunition I have to make this happen…OK, I have this amount of music. I have this amount of players, now what? What can I do that could be interesting?” I think I resist the notion that “OK, I’m going to write. I’m going to record. I’m going to mix” I think I knew early on that I had to find my own way through the process.
SK: Fascinating! Any hope of a CD release of THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE (1985)? TN: It’s funny because I like that music a lot. I don’t know. I’ve been approached a couple of times about putting together a compilation. I just haven’t done it. I probably should. You know, I do have all of the material. It’s all on quarter-inch 15 IBM tape. Talk about old format! But I still enjoy listening to that when I hear it.
SK: I do too. I love where the soundtrack industry is today. So much material is being released and I’m just eating it up left and right. Yeah man, we want RED SHOE! Even as a limited release I think it would be a real boon for fans. TN: Well thanks, I’ll consider that.
SK: Excellent! I’ve got one more question…How many times have you heard your music during the Olympics? TN: I just heard some last night. I heard some LEMONY SNICKET (2004) last night. That’s always a pleasure to hear it. I guess some of these human interest stories and the drama of real life that the people reach out to my music. I feel flattered.
SK: It’s always a nice “drop-the-needle” Thomas Newman music quiz when you watch the Olympics. It seems they use your music a lot! TN: Have you been hearing some?
SK: Oh yeah. I heard that LEMONY SNICKET piece and I caught the tail end of something that I thought might have been JOSH AND S.A.M. (1993) but I could’ve been wrong. It was definitely you though. I’ve been so busy these past few weeks I haven’t been able to watch nearly enough Olympic coverage as I would like. Well, that’s pretty much all I had. It’s been a real honor to speak with you. You’re one of my all time favorite composers. I don’t think I’ve been this nervous talking with a composer. TN: Man, that’s sweet. Don’t be nervous talking to me. I’m probably more nervous talking to you. I want to demystify the process probably because my dad (Alfred Newman) was one of the beginning film composers and it was all so mythic when I was a kid. I want to make it practical in a way. Like, how do you approach music and how can you make an idea better? Often times all I’m trying to do is say, “OK, here’s an idea. Let’s just make it better in as little time as we have and aim low. In the end, you will get higher than when you aim high.” I think sometimes lower expectations often give a better result. There is nothing more fun than to see a movie and to be compelled by it. That’s why I think I want to lay back and not take center stage a lot with music. You want to make the actors look good. You don’t want to steal from these people. In the end it’s going to make you look better.
SK: Well Tom, I want to thank you immensely for taking time out of your extremely hectic day to chat with me. I would love to continue our conversation again someday and dig deeper into the art of composing for film. Perhaps another interview in the future? TN: You are very kind and yeah, let me know. I would love to do another one. Thank you. Thanks for the talk, I appreciate it.
SK: You take care and I will look forward to REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. TN: Excellent man, we will talk soon.
With WALL-E poised and ready for DVD release later this year and two new movies, TOWELHEAD (2008) and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008) set to hit theaters soon, Thomas Newman remains one of the more prolific and sought after composers in Hollywood. His work continues to amaze and inspire me and I look forward to each new score he writes. The score for WALL-E is currently available on Walt Disney Records and TOWELHEAD was just released on iTunes earlier this week. On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News I’d like to once again thank Tom for sharing with us his insights and perspectives on scoring for films. I’d also like to thank Pearl Evidente for her tireless help in making this interview happen. Until we speak again…


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