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Lost Issue: David Newman Interview (1999) Conclusion

By Jorg Kremer


Jorg Kremer: Almost all of your scores have been recorded in Hollywood. But there are some exceptions like Brave Little Toaster (Japan), The Flower Planet (Germany) and Operation Dumbo Drop and The Phantom (England)...What was your experience with the foreign orchestras compared to those in Hollywood ?

David Newman: They are all a little different. I love recording in London. They have great halls and great musicians. My experience in Munich, well, it was okay. It wasn't tremendous. But that was a long time ago. My experience in Japan with Brave Little Toaster was fantastic. That was right at the beginning of my career. We went there because it was cheap but the hall was gorgeous and I had a great engineer and the orchestra was terrific. I still think that recording sounds beautiful. I had a great time doing it. Of course I also love scoring here in Hollywood. There are certain things that you get here that are hard to transport elsewhere. But it's getting more and more international. I know that composers are scoring in all kinds of places.

JK: For Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure you composed two very distinctive themes, but they didn't reappear in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. Why was that?

DN: They wanted to make Bogus Journey darker. It was a different director. He wanted to make the movie all his own and be totally different. They didn't want anything from the first movie except for the air guitar. And I agreed. I don't think it would have been appropriate to use the themes from the old movie.

JK: That's too bad, because I really enjoyed the love theme from Excellent Adventure.

DN: You mean the one that's sounds a little medieval? I guess I could have used that in Bogus Journey. It just seemed out of context for the new movie.

JK: Another movie I would like to talk to you about is Frankenweenie. You co-composed the score with Michael Convertino. Why was that and how did it work?

DN: Frankenweenie was the first score I ever did. We started out writing together; we split up cues. We were really good friends at that time. We just thought it would be fun. Before Frankenweenie we only did a couple of industrial films. Unfortunately then we had a big fight and that was the end of that. We co-composed some cues, but most of them we split up. I actually don't remember who did what cues.

JK: Frankenweenie was a Tim Burton movie. Would you like to have continued working with Burton? Personally I think your style would have been perfect for some of his films...

DN: I had a nice time with him. It's hard to know or to think about "what if," what would have been or could have been. I don't know what would have happened. As far as I remember, Michael Convertino and I were at least talking about doing Pee Wee's Big Adventure, which Burton did right after Frankenweenie, but for one reason or another we decided not to do it. But I think Warner Bros. would have axed us doing it anyway.

JK: One of my favorite scores of yours is My Father the Hero with this beautiful theme sung by the female solo voice.

DN: They had a song temped in that they were going to purchase for the main title. But then Touchstone said: "No you can't buy it, it's too expensive." I had a good theme already, which was a vocal theme anyway and I suggested that we try to use that them as a main title with a young girl humming. We did a temp and I sang it myself and played it for them. Steve [Miner, the director] liked it. We started putting it together and it sounded really good. Then we had a bunch of vocalists come in and try to do it. For some reason it was really hard for people to sing. We had an older studio singer come in and do it, then we had a younger studio singer. It didn't work. Disney was really great about it. They found an 18 year-old girl that had been in Sister Act [Ashley Thompson]. One of the music executives at Disney, Andy Hill, found her. It took about five hours for her to do eight phrases, but it turned out really well. It was really fun to do, because it was like doing a song, which I had absolutely no experience in doing. Actually I did a lot of theater when I was growing up, but I had never recorded a pop song. This song was hardly a pop song but it had a nice feel and it was good for the movie. For the rest of the film Mervyn Warren sang through all the cues that had vocals on them. He is an absolutely incredible musician. It was like working with an orchestral instrument. He could do anything. I liked that movie a lot. It had a lot more depth than most people gave it credit for. But to each his own. I think the idea of that movie really offended the American sensibility. You know, the idea of the young girl pretending her father was her lover. That's a little too weird for Americans. I also liked the girl [Katherine Heigl]. She was really excellent in the movie.

JK: In The Runestone you even had a little acting part. How did that happen?

DN: I'm very good friends with the director, Willard Carroll. He and his partner, Tom Wilhite, produced Brave Little Toaster. Tom [Wilhite] was the head of the studio at Disney in the era when they made Something Wicked This Way Comes, Never Cry Wolf and Tron. Those were his movies. I've been friends with them for 12 years. They have been my best supporters. Tom was actually the director of the Sundance Institue and allowed me to do an original score for the silent film, Sunrise. It was performed for the opening of the US Film Festival in 1989. But coming back to your question. I couldn't stand it, it was horrible. They even looped my voice. I can't imagine how people can be film actors.

JK: Yeah, I thought the voice used in the film was horrible.

DN: [laughs] you should have heard my voice.

JK: What film would you consider to be your big breakthrough?

DN: For me artistically, definitely Brave Little Toaster. That was a big step. I just love that music. Another step for me were the DeVito films, particularly War of the Roses.

JK: You're credited as co-composer on Dragnet.

DN: I just wrote a few cues. Ira Newborn was very nice to me. I also wrote some cues in Wise Guys, a film with Danny DeVito.

JK: I also like your very distinctive synthesizer arrangements.

DN: I do all of that stuff at home. The whole score of Heathers actually was done at my house. On the films I am doing now, I try to incorporate the synthesizer into the orchestra. I almost always have electronics in my scores. Most of it I design myself. I have a large studio at home. Martin Frasu, my assistant, does a lot of the sound programming but I actually do all the electronics at home. I bring a hard disc systems to the scoring stage just for playback, but I mix all my movies at home and refire all the electronics. That way, it is very easy for me to incorporate the changes that I will inevitably make on the scoring stage. I've used computer-generated music printing since That Night (1993). The system that I use is like a music word processor. Instead of writing it by hand, I just type it in. It really helps because I have horrible handwriting. I have gotten really good at inputting music into my computer system. It's a much better way to notate because immediately after you are done, it is very close to being in a publishable form. It is also incredibly easy to make changes, edit things, all the situations that you would think of that are analogous to a word processor. I also have a large midi system, because one has to do mock-ups nowadays. I also have a quite a few samplers.

JK: Some of the films you've scored weren't that good, though the music was great. Is it more difficult to write music for films that aren't that brilliant?

DN: When the movie is good, you tend to write better music. When the movies are better thought out, when they are more intelligent, it's easier to write good music. Obviously you want to work on movies that are good because you have to look at them all day.

JK: Are there movies you wouldn't do because of their message or political point of view?

DN: Probably, but they haven't come up. Hollywood is pretty conservative. They're not going to do anything that risky.

JK: In my opinion you've composed some of the best film scores of the last 10 years, yet you've never been nominated for an Oscar. Does that bother you, and what is your opinion on the music Oscars?

DN: The music Oscars have lost their luster for me. The choices of the last 10 to 15 years for the most part have been dubious. Music is a very esoteric art form. It's hard to explain. Sometimes you play music for people and they don't like it and after you'll play it over and over again they suddenly are really enjoying the music. When you don't have a lot of music in your ears and you haven't listened to a lot, it's very hard to know what is good and what's not. It is hard to know what you like and don't like. I know that's not a very democratic view but music is a very undemocratic art. It's a very difficult thing to judge what is good music and what's not. Most people that are voting on this, they don't care about music. It's not even an issue for them. They wouldn't know what a movie would be like without music. They have probably never seen a movie without music. In the era of my father the music Oscar had a totally different meaning. It was a real honor. Certainly today a comedy isn't going to get nominated. They have this comedy category now, but they pick dramatic movies that are funny. The kind of comedies that I have done would never be nominated. The Oscars used to be a fun thing for me to think about, but it's not really that interesting anymore.

JK: Isn't an Oscar win financially rewarding?

DN: It really isn't. I don't think it really does that much. I think a lot of people wouldn't even know that you've won. A lot of people don't care. They want you to work on their movie and get the music done.

JK: Is it more difficult for you to write music when you're in a bad mood or when you're depressed?

DN: You have to push through a lot. I don't know how other people deal with it. I only know how I deal with it. You just have to keep going. The great thing about music is that it's incredibly interesting. Actually the music helps me get in a better mood or become less depressed.

JK: Unfortunately a lot of the great score of Operation Dumbo Drop is not on the album.

DN: They didn't want more score on the album. I only had about 25 minutes on the CD, so I picked the cues that I thought were the best. Though I was listening to the score the other day and I agree: there are some good cues in the movie that are not on the CD. There are some nice tracks that would have made a more diverse album. A lot of the music that I put on the album are sort of the same. But I thought they were the most dramatic parts of the score.

JK: You're not very well represented on soundtrack albums.

DN: It's because I do Hollywood comedies. They're expensive to put out. If there are any albums, they're usually song albums.

JK: Your brother has had a little bit more luck with albums.

DN: Yeah, because he's not doing comedies. Also, he's doing little scores. Mostly his scores have been smaller. My scores have generally been pretty big. It usually is a larger orchestra, which means high re-use fees. Some of Tom's scores have been big, but very often he might have a big cue or two and he'll have a lot of real small cues and he'll have a lot of synth stuff. So you can put that on the album. He probably also sells pretty good. There is always the future. Like we talked about Elmer Bernstein earlier on, you'll never know what the hell is gonna happen. Actually I don't mind it. I wouldn't want all that music out. Sometimes you write stuff that you think is not so terrific and then they put out an album and there is nothing you can do about it.
 
JK: Since pop music is such an important factor in some of your films, do you have a lot of knowledge of pop music and do you like it at all ?

DN: I grew up in a certain era of pop music: the late '60s and early '70s, and I liked a certain type of pop music. I enjoyed the new wave stuff in the early '80s. I'm not a big pop music expert, but of course, it's part of my youth. I grew up with Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and the Stones. It's an important part of our culture.

JK: What are you up to at the moment?

DN: I'm just getting started doing Out to Sea for director Martha Coolidge. It's a Fox film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. It's a comedy in the Grumpy Old Men style. There is a lot of '40s dance music in it because they're dance instructors on a ship. I'm not quite sure yet what I'm going to do. I'm in the middle of writing some themes.

Then I'm working on a commission for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a series they are calling "Filmharmonic." I'm really excited about that. The piece will premiere in April of next year. It will be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It's a 20-minute computer-animated film based on one of the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights. It's kind of a mythical prince-and-princess love story, but it's a little abstract. It's based on drawings by the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano. He started out in Japan as a game animator. Now he is a very famous artist in Japan. He's also getting well known here in America. It will be a multi-media 20-minute piece. The interesting thing is that I'm going to write the music first and then they're going to animate to the music. The music will be at least 50% of the equation, if not 60 or 70%. They are all music-driven pieces. The other composers who are working on Filmharmonic at the moment will write music for live-action films; my film is the only computer-animated one, but all of them will be silent films. This project is the brainchild of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's so interesting because I think the Los Angeles Philharmonic has never had anything to do with the Hollywood community. At worst it will be an interesting experience and at best I would hope it could play some part in bringing a brand new collaboration between Hollywood and the classical orchestras around the world.
 

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