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Lost Issue: David Newman Interview Part One

by Jorg Kremer

There are only a handful of Hollywood composers who have written as many creative and entertaining scores in the last 10 years as David Newman. His fresh and inventive style has produced the clever combination of waltz and tango for Danny DeVito's War of the Roses; the Rota-esque, Italian-flavored music of The Freshman; the wild, percussion-oriented sounds in Meet the Applegates; the elegant, ironic score for Norman Jewison's Other People's Money; the moody rock music for Boys on the Side; the beautiful Americana in Paradise; the ice-cold horror of The Runestone; the heroic fanfares of The Mighty Ducks; the jazzy big-band music of The Marrying Man; the Herrmanesque touch in Throw Momma from the Train; and the wicked electronic score to Heathers.

The son of the late Alfred Newman belongs to the legendary Newman film music dynasty, along with brother Thomas, cousin Randy, sister Maria (a violinist) and uncles Lionel, Emil (composer/conductors both) and Mark (an agent). David started as a violinist, and performed on such early '80s scores as E.T.; he also conducted James Homer's first score, Battle Beyond the Stars. Today Newman is one of the busiest composers in Hollywood, scoring big-budget blockbusters by big-name directors. The friendly composer lives with his wife, musician Krystyna and their 7-year-old daughter, Diana, and his 18-year old stepdaughter, Brianne, in sunny Malibu, California.

Jorg Kremer: First of all I would like to ask you about your compositional style, which is very unique. Was there a time when you developed it?

David Newman: Well, I feel that I'm in a constant struggle to develop a style that's expressive of my sensibility. I've always had a certain sound and a feeling of content that I enjoyed hearing. I played the violin from a very early age, and I was brought up playing in orchestras. I went to public school and at that time, there used to be an orchestra in every school in which all grades could participate. Orchestra was actually a class at school so every day for a certain amount of time, you struggled through ensemble music. By the time I was 12, my brother and I [Thomas Newman] were playing Haydn, Mahler, Tchaikovsky & Beethoven symphonies at school and at many community orchestras in town. My Mom made sure that we played three to four times a week in an orchestra. In the meantime I started studying theory, counterpoint and a little bit of orchestration privately when I was about 12 or 13. I also started studying the piano when I was 10 years old, so I was studying piano and violin simultaneously which is the traditional Germanic tradition of learning classical music. I was very interested in performing, and as I got older, in conducting.

I wouldn't know how to describe my musical sensibility except that I feel I learned a lot of it from my father. I have a bit of his perfectionism, impatience, love for the community that an orchestra brings to the table, and a desire to make a strong, beautiful, cogent statement with music. I also think that string playing is very important to me. I grew up with a certain sound in my ear as to how the violin should be played and that has stayed with me. When I hear the way the 20th Century Fox Orchestra used to play in the '40s- '50s (Captain From Castille, the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, etc.) that is where I think I get my sensibility.

However, I still feel I am discovering what and who I am as a musician, much less a composer and a film composer, because I didn't start writing for films until I was in my late 20s. Actually I didn't start writing music seriously until that time.

JK: You were talking about the influence of German romantic music of the 19th century on your musical style. But I actually hear much more of the modern 20th century composers, like Stravinsky and Bartok, in your scores.

DN: Yes, you're right. The dark comedies I've done have that sensibility. They move really quickly and they have quirky, off-center characters, and there is a certain sarcasm to those films. Some of that 20th Century music seems to fit those characters and moods. One must always make the music sound right for the movie. Very often you can't write exactly what you would like. It's very much dictated by what you're looking at. There are so many extra-musical factors that play an important role.

JK: But in your scores there are still a lot of musical colors that are very David Newman, no matter if it's a comedy or a science-fiction film.

DN: I'm glad to hear that, but when you are imagining yourself, what you do and what you compose, it's sometimes very hard to see and hear how your music affects others. It's much easier to look at somebody from the outside. I'm not sure where all of my trademarks come from. A lot of it has to do with the movies that one does. Maybe some of the movies that you do early on in your career have an effect on where you end up, because you tend to get asked to do similar films, later on. But there are also a lot of examples of people's careers taking a completely different turn. Like Jerry Goldsmith, or Elmer Bernstein for example. They have been able, in the large picture, to reinvent themselves. I really admire that in a film composer. I think that my father had that ability.

JK: You've been associated with a lot of pop-oriented comedies for which you've composed some interesting music, but unfortunately those scores are often not properly appreciated. Would you like to score more dramatic or serious pictures?

DN: Yeah, definitely. What I love the most in music is the dramatic, sweeping and epic type of tapestry. That's much more my nature than doing pop comedies. But to tell you the truth, the thing I like to do most is to work on movies that I think are good. I really think there are not many good movies. I would say about 70% of all Hollywood movies are in some form or another, pop-oriented comedies. So very often you don't have the choice, but yeah, I'd much rather do drama. But it also depends on what kind of comedy it is. For example I really enjoyed working on Matilda last year. I had a great time; even though it was time-consuming and difficult, I loved working on that. I loved looking at that movie over and over again which is really the litmus test. I also loved working on The Nutty Professor last year, which was a big pop comedy. It was a struggle but I still had a nice time on that. Then I got to do an action adventure last year called The Phantom, which I really enjoyed because it was a change of pace. The director is a very good friend of mine. We [Newman and Simon Wincer] have now done 2 movies together and I think I have done good work on both of those films.

JK: Talking about your comedies: Your sometimes wild and inventive compositional style fits those perfectly, like Madhouse, Meet the Applegates or Throw Momma from the Train. Do you like those kinds of comedies, and does a composer have to be a funny person to create such funny music?

DN: I don't know if the composer has to be a funny person. Again it's hard to tell. I really like Meet the Applegates. Michael Lehman directed that movie right after Heathers. I thought it was really a good film. Or just look at the DeVito movies. They are always very interesting with great kind of twists. Generally when a movie is good, your music ends up being better.

JK: I absolutely agree. But in my opinion there is one exception: David Newman. You've scored some marvelous music for less than great pictures. I can't watch Firebirds or Little Monsters, but I just love the scores.

DN: That's very kind of you to say. Coming back to your original question, I don't think you necessarily have to be a funny person, as in a stand up comedian, to write music for comedies. I mean everybody must have some sense of humor somewhere in them somewhere. But I'm also very serious about music. The older I get, the more I find there is to learn about music. I adore studying, and listening to good music and good performances. We go to the opera as often as possible, as much as there is here in Los Angeles. But I would have to say that I also have a pretty good sense of humor. I'm not always a serious person.

To be continued in the next Lost Issue...

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