It can be tempting to categorize Hollywood films as visionary projects helmed by a director — in fact, it is a tradition now often criticized under the label “auteur theory.” But how much less iconic would franchises like “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park” be without their ubiquitous melodies composed by John Williams? Would Christopher Nolan’s bombastic blockbusters really have the same weight stripped of their Hans Zimmer scores? Would David Fincher thrillers like “Gone Girl” and “The Social Network” be as enticingly menacing without electronic accompaniment from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross? All of the mentioned film scorers are respectively distinct and accomplished, but none of them have amassed as broad of a portfolio of Hollywood work as Thomas Newman, who since the start of his movie scoring career in 1982 has been responsible for original music in everything from “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” to “The Shawshank Redemption.”
In his career, Newman has established collaborative relationships with film directors Sam Mendes on projects “Skyfall” and “1917,” Andrew Stanton on “Finding Nemo” and its sequel “Finding Dory” and current John Lee Hancock on “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen” and the upcoming “The Little Things.” Listening to a Spotify mix of Thomas Newman’s entire body of work could surely occupy a semester’s worth of time on its own. On Tuesday the virtual incarnation of the Virginia Film Festival released a recorded interview and tribute to Newman hosted by Charlottesville Symphony music director Benjamin Rous. The hour plus long conversation did its best to span a massive catalog of work while giving music theory and creative insights into Newman’s process.
Rous began by asking Newman about his inspiration for working in the film industry. Newman modestly replied that because he didn’t feel “deft enough to be a pianist” but studied music composition in college, film music emerged as a pathway for his musical imagination. On the subject of Newman’s broad sound palette, which commonly features orchestral, electronic and countless other modes, the composer said “I want to delight my ears more than anything,” while keeping in mind the viewer’s perspective in addition to listening. When set to the task of spatially and tonally arranging an orchestra’s place in a film’s sound mix, Newman’s qualifiers are simple but ultimately subjective — “Do I buy all of this being mixed together?”
An action-heavy clip from the war film “1917” was shown accompanied by a sweeping and moving score as a soldier does the unthinkable and runs in front of a trench. “The music essentially has to say he’s going to make it,” Newman said. Rous pointed out the role of a high-toned, sustained pedal point in the sound mix contributing to the sense of optimism. Newman calls tools like these elements of his “musical vocabulary,” a vocabulary which he admits one needs to be open to changing when working with various directors. After an emotionally moving scene featuring music coming in and out of “The Shawshank Redemption,” Newman admitted “the easiest thing about movie music is entrances … the drag is ending.” Newman sees his role as a musician in film as that of a “reactor” instead of a direct “actor,” following the emotions on screen and being subject to the demands of a given project.
In a turn away from the dramatic, Rous and Newman discussed the difficulty of working with the faster-paced world of animation in films like “Finding Nemo.” Rous praised the “immersive” quality of Newman’s underwater score, which Newman says was an intense labor, working with “not as many sustained moments” as live action and with a requirement to score over an hour of music under a strict time crunch. “You really have to make progress every day,” Newman said. The process of scoring “Wall-E” was similarly grueling for Newman. The opening half-hour of “Wall-E,” in which there is no dialogue and only natural sound and music, was particularly “terrifying” for the composer. But he noted that the opportunity of animation is unlike anything else. “In what other movie would you see a clownfish crying in the first six minutes?” Newman noted, referencing “Finding Nemo.” “Just being there is really special,” he said.
Rous asked Newman about his work on the “sprawling franchise” of Bond films with “Skyfall,” asking about the creative decision to delay the iconic Bond theme until the climactic reveal of Bonds’ classic Aston Martin late in the film. “You know you have to use [the Bond theme], how you use it is, I guess, what the question was for me,” Newman said, addressing the difficulty of placing the music amidst the darker and grittier tone of the more recent Bond films. Upon further discussion of Newman’s “Skyfall” score, Rous asked,“How can music be stylized?” “It’s already so abstract,” Newman said. He elaborated that his score is “stylized as it relates to the image,” pointing out the necessity to match the percussion in that moment to the intense quality of a starkly filmed, silhouetted combat scene early in the movie. Newman conceded that sometimes the process is “trial and error … I guess I’m riffing here!”
In the final part of their conversation, John Lee Hancock, director and Virginia Film Festival board guest this year, joined Rous and Newman to discuss their prior collaborations and work on the upcoming “The Little Things.” Referencing the 1920s historical drama “The Highwaymen” and the use of electric guitars amidst more period-appropriate music, Newman wondered “if the ear is just more gullible [than the eye].” Hancock agreed with the musician, adding that modern sensibilities were acceptable and inevitable so long as what’s on screen, like the contemporary cars and costumes, are believable. Rous introduced a scene from “Saving Mr. Banks” where Walt Disney is introduced, and Newman pointed out how despite the scene being “just inside of a room … the music is kind of ebullient and large.” For the larger-than-life character of Disney, however, Newman proudly stated “But it works!”
Newman and Hancock ended the conversation with industry chatter on subjects including the role of “temp music,” the necessity for directors to let go of preliminary soundtracks and let composers create and the difficulty of bridging diegetic, in-world movie music to the original soundtrack while timing all of the elements correctly. Rous concluded the conversation by asking about the meaning of marrying sound and picture, to which Newman conceded “on either side of the fence, we’re asking about what any of this means without the other component.” Newman and Hancock agreed that for most films it can be hard to imagine one element — sound or picture — without the other.
“A world without music is kind of bland and boring,” Hancock said. Newman clearly agreed.