Film composer Thomas Newman discusses “The Art of Film Scoring”
March 14, 2013
This past Tuesday, March 12, film composer Thomas Newman appeared at Le Moyne and Syracuse University to discuss his history of film scores, his interests and mentors and his advice for aspiring musicians, among other topics. Newman spoke at an event in the Performing Arts Center as part of the Film Talk Series (a Syracuse Film Festival program co-sponsored by Le Moyne and Syracuse University), and in several classes at both schools.
For over three decades, Newman has composed scores for dozens of films, most notably “The Shawshank Redemption,” “American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E” and last year’s “Skyfall” (he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for each of those, but he has never won). Known for his distinct style of music (a blend of orchestra with electronics), Newman got his first big break in the early ‘80s.
“My first interest was musical theater, [but] it didn’t quite work out,” Newman said. “I played some rock ‘n’ roll. I finally by accident got a job offer to do a movie around 1982. I had no idea if I could do it, if I could pull it off, if it was for me.
“I did the score and I didn’t think it was that good, but it was credit,” he continued. “You have to have the desire to get something going. You have to keep writing. Andrew Stanton [director of “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo”] has said, ‘It pays to love what you do, ‘cause you’ll get the s*** kicked out of you anyway.’ We’ll always do more than we feel we’re rewarded for. You have to settle in for the long haul.”
Newman’s particular style of music came about when, while studying classical music in college, he realized any attempt to live up to the great composers of the time wouldn’t be worth it.
“I just felt like I was never going to do as well as John Williams,” Newman explained, “and at the age of 27, I thought to myself, ‘No one’s listening anyway, so why am I trying to please anyone?’ At this time, synthesizers were coming into vogue. They were very rough instruments in a way, but I locked myself in a room and discovered I had a talent with sequencing. I had a groove and pace. I started working with other players and it just kinda grew from there.
“It was never an attempt at or decision of style,” he continued. “I just worked and worked and worked and refined and refined. I [would] listen to music I had done and ask myself if I didn’t like it where it had fallen short and why, and try to improve it the next time out. And brick by brick, you just build something up until someone says, ‘Oh, that’s such an identifiable style.’”
According to Newman, the process of writing a film score usually lasts around 10 to 12 weeks. The task can be a difficult one, especially when it comes to working with the director.
“You have to recognize that music is at the end of the process [when making a film],” Newman said. “By the time they get to me, there’s a little money and little hope. And you have to deal with people who have very quirky and specific tastes. You have to constantly be ready to move and shift in the name of making your music survive. The value of working with a director is, of course, you can play with ideas, and directors will stop you from being you if you’re falling back on yourself.”
One of those directors, Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “American Beauty”), has collaborated with Newman many times over the past 14 years.
“We had a great meeting of minds on ‘American Beauty’ and the collaboration was very successful,” Newman said. “I think we see things a lot in the same way. Our interests, where our eyes and ears go, have similarities.”
For Newman, the best aspects of writing a score are the initial creative process and the chance to work with other musicians.
“[When starting to write], I’ll do whatever it takes to get in the creative spirit,” he explained. “I’ll improvise, I’ll take out instruments, I’ll have players come over. I like the beginnings of processes because anything goes, anything’s possible. [And the musicians I work with] are so deeply kind to me, and they will watch my back and help me out. There’s a sense of friendship, so it’s a win-win.”
Newman’s next challenge will come in the form of his third collaboration with Pixar on 2014’s “The Good Dinosaur.”
“[Writing for] animation is a lot different,” he noted. “In live-action, you can settle on a mood or tone that lasts for a long time. In animation, the tone is shifting every two or three seconds. There’s a lot more writing, a lot more notes. It can be scary.”