Thomas Newman: a composer’s life in Hollywood

Meet the man behind the soundtracks for American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall and, now, Saving Mr. Banks – 11-time Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman.

Patrick Fahy
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Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman is one of Hollywood’s most respected and sought-after composers. In soundtracks ranging from The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Erin Brockovich (1999), American Beauty (1999) and Skyfall (2012), to Little Women (1994), Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL-E (2008), his distinctive style often mixes bold instrumentation, striking rhythms, electronic sounds, intimate piano and lush orchestral sweep. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and winner of two BAFTAs, for American Beauty and Skyfall, he hails from a family of celebrated film musicians, such as his father Alfred (who wrote the Twentieth Century-Fox fanfare), uncles Lionel and Emil, brother David and cousin Randy.

His latest score is for Saving Mr. Banks, which was the Closing Night Gala film of this year’s BFI London Film Festival. The behind-the-scenes story of Mary Poppins (1964), it charts the uneasy collaboration between Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in bringing her book to the screen.

How did you get involved with Saving Mr. Banks?

Through the director John Lee Hancock, who I’ve known for years but we’ve never had a chance to work together. He asked me, and it looked like a great movie, so I wanted to do it.

Is the film’s setting the Hollywood you grew up in?

I guess it was the Hollywood when I was young, so I think there is an interest in Mary Poppins for me. That came at a time of my musical life when I was very much just listening and not thinking at all seriously about making music. It’s always nice to remember that there was a time when I loved something that I didn’t know much about; it just reached my ears and moved me.

Listen to Newman’s end title music from Saving Mr. Banks.

Your music for the film has lots to do, because you’re evoking two distinct eras in three continents, and you’re often helping the film slide between past and present.

That’s exactly right. The score’s a lot about transition; how you go from the 1960s and circle back to Australia, and P.L. Travers as a young girl. So where do you do that, how do you do it and how do you make it as smooth a transition as you can in either direction? Typically it’s easier to go back in time than it is to get back to the film’s ‘present’ time. With film music, endings are often more difficult than beginnings, because a beginning is an underline, a way of exciting a moment, and then you have to find a way to dissipate that. Even if it’s on a sound effect, that’s less awkward to the passive ear than just kind of fading out.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Is that why film music tracks often end on a suspenseful note, without resolving themselves?

That’s right. Because to resolve something, you’re giving it dramatic or emotional resolve, when oftentimes the endings of these cues don’t resolve in that. You have to be aware of what the precise dramatic action is doing at that moment and then gauge how to literally come away without being noticed.

There are lots of interesting sounds in the score, like the Australian whistle and the glockenspiel music.

That was also to evoke a kind of fairy-tale world of P.L. Travers, an inner world, that you can finally relate to the arrival of her aunt, who is dressed so much like the Mary Poppins we know from the movie. I wanted to evoke that kind of storytelling at a deeper level.

It’s also a film about filmmaking, with some scenes about writing film scores. Was that part of the appeal?

Probably not; I mean, it was very appealing to me when I got into the movie, on my own, but it’s not that I said, “Ah, because it’s this, then I want to do it.” You look at something and say, “P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, Mary Poppins, the book, these fine actors and John Lee Hancock; sure, I’m in.” Then to see those scenes was really lovely because they’re done so ingenuously and appealingly.

Was there a discussion about how much of the Mary Poppins score should be incorporated into your music?

At first I was nervous that it would be an adaptation score, which I wasn’t as interested in doing, but John Lee Hancock said at the outset that that was not his intention. He was true to his word. There was more for music to do, for me, in terms of telling the backstory, and in that backstory it would be inappropriate to recall or recount musical motifs from Mary Poppins.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

There are two scenes with P.L. Travers, in low spirits, being driven into Hollywood in a limo. In the second of those, the music is sad with her, but in the earlier scene, the music’s upbeat and joyous, because we’re excited to be driving into town to meet Walt Disney. How do you decide whether to follow the audience’s mood or the characters?

Well, when she first gets into the limo, there’s something slightly – just ‘off’; this prim and proper Australian woman who poses as an Englishwoman, going through LA, in the winter time, and how strange all that would be for her, so the music really is reflecting locale, or a kind of ridiculousness. When you go back to her in the limo later, I think that there’s no obligation to do that again, and besides you’re already in a mood that the movie has established, so the music has to follow emotional content there, as opposed to locale.

It’s interesting in the scene where she first meets Disney and he outlines his vision for the film he wants them to make; it’s as if he’s casting a spell on her, and the music is doing that spellbinding thing as well.

Yes. Which is really a freeze, and you notice at the end of that scene she diverts her eyes; you can tell she kind of shakes it off. So the music had to be something that would allow you to feel a sense of hypnosis.

There are a couple of strong scenes (where she hands him the contract, and when he visits her), where there’s no music, and it’s very effective. How do you know when the best music is no music?

I think because if you had scored that, the music would have had to take on some tone of anger, and maybe that was going to be asking too much of the music. And then there’s, “Does it work, with no music?” I’m a huge fan of not overemphasising with music. Sometimes you can really get a sense of music underlining things that the audience understands already. And, as you say, silence is great. The more silence there is, the more chance you have to underline a newer moment with more refreshment.

Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman

The film’s main, upbeat theme brings to my mind the image of somebody happily tapping on a typewriter, which seems really appropriate for a film about a writer.

Yes, I thought so too. It’s a piece I like a lot, because there is joy, and there’s joy when we first meet P.L. Travers and her dad in the opening scene, where he calls her by all those wrong names. So if you can find a way to justify joy and elation, I think it’s always a good thing.

At what stage do you generally get involved in a project?

Any stage. Oftentimes lately it’s reading a script, but that can come with some jeopardy, because reading a script predisposes you to a kind of movie you expect to see, and then when it falls short of that expectation you have to realign. Sometimes the best experiences are when I know nothing about this movie, I’ve never met the director and I come and see something and I’m blank, because then it’s coming at you in a way it would never come at you if you’d read the script, with an expectation.

Do you have an example of that?

In the Bedroom (2001), a movie I did with Todd Field. I didn’t know what the title meant; was it a farce or a romp or – ? I had no idea. And then when one of the characters was killed 20 minutes into the movie, I was so lost as to where this movie would go that it just filled me with a kind of joy, because I was really going to have to wait and just see what happens. Movies at their best do that.

When you start to compose, do you have an idea of what you want it to sound like, or does it take on a life of its own?

I think the latter. I never come in with a clear intention because intention strikes me as limiting. So I try to let it kind of travel towards me, and I’m often watching the movie and hearing the music ideas and really trying to react as if I was not attached to the music I’ve created. I think it’s too easy as a composer to say, “I like this because I wrote it”, as opposed to, “I like this because it works.” I always want it to be that.

How do you decide where the music should feature?

Typically by the time we’re involved there’s a lot of temp music put in and that gives a clear indication of the director’s ideas, but then you mess around. Hopefully, if you’re wise enough, you say, “The music should start earlier,” or, “it should start slightly later, and here’s why.” And the only reason you know is because you’ve tried it. “Let’s try it here, let’s try moving it three seconds later – ah you know what? I like the three seconds later.” Then you have to back up maybe 10 minutes to make sure you’re right about that. You get a sense of a larger rhythm when you back up.

Do you ever look back at scores you’ve done and wish you’d done certain things a different way?

Yes, I think when you’re in Hollywood, when you’re on deadlines, you look back and say, “I did good here”, and, “Maybe I didn’t do quite as good” – you don’t even know why. I don’t think it’s necessarily because your procedure changes but circumstances lead to varying results. So I try not to look back! Or if I do, I try to look back on pieces I love from various movies.

Are there any of your soundtracks you’re particularly proud of?

You mean if I put on a CD of my own? I’ve really enjoyed the music to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). John Madden’s the director, and a really great collaborator. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) I think is a really strong score. I look back on a lot of them and it’s still a joy listening to a lot of the music.

I find the end title music from The Shawshank Redemption really beautiful.

Ah, that came very quickly. That was written, orchestrated and recorded in a day. It was one of those days where you start way early and you go way late, and you’re inspired by the idea that you’re at the end of the line. The last thing I was writing, the last thing I was recording. But there’s a physical pain there for sure.

Do you listen to other people’s soundtrack albums?

I don’t that much. I listen askance – I don’t listen probably as much as I should. I’m not a huge purveyor of the old scene, like my dad’s music and Bernard Herrmann’s, as much as I love it; it’s not like I feel a part of a tradition.

What music do you enjoy listening to?

Popular records, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Steeleye Span, Eels, or Charles Ives, Morton Feldman. Any number of things.

Listen to Newman’s BAFTA-winning score for American Beauty

Were you ever tempted to become a singer-songwriter?

I wanted to write songs but I’m not sure I ever really wanted to do that. The minute you’re a singer you’re a face, and the moment you’re a face you’re a presentation. I don’t think presentation fundamentally has interested me.

Where do you compose?

I have a studio just next door to my house. I just wander over.

Do you ever run out of inspiration when you’re working?

One thing about working with small ensemble players and sampling and having phrases that you can put into a computer is that it always gives you something to do. There are some moments where you literally have to go, “OK, C goes with E flat, E flat goes with F,” but I’ve developed a lot of techniques of creative involvement, so I’ve never really suffered from writer’s block. I’ll get desperate, but I won’t get utterly blank.

Do you have ‘eureka’ moments where you suddenly seize on something that you’ve been looking for?

I think so, yes. There are moments where you start to understand the needs of something and how you can supply that need, and that’s a good moment. That’s when time passes pretty quickly. I remember when I wrote the love theme for Bond; I was with my son at Abbey Road and he was just sitting behind me giving me some suggestions. It’s funny that when you tie a creative act to an environment or to a person, you can remember, but, typically, when I write, I have no idea what I’ve done or why or how it ended up the way it did. It’s strange.

What changes have you noticed in film scoring since you started in the industry?

I think it’s a business model now as opposed to a creative model. You’re given a certain amount of money to pull something off. The true joy I get out of making music is interfacing with players and trying to get to a creative place with performers. But the model now is to save as much dough as you can and do as much as you can without the help of anyone. My best work is always done in the presence of players who are generous with their creativity. To be truly creative you have to be open to anything, and that lets some bad stuff in. Bullets do fly in Hollywood, and some of what you write is going to be flatly rejected, cruelly rejected, or respectfully rejected, but what are you going to do about it? You still have to remain open to the joy of creating.

When you go to see a film, are you analysing the soundtrack music, or can you just get swept up in the film like everyone else?

As an audience member it’s hard for me often to just let go and be absorbed, because you realise the tricks. Music is part of an immersive experience, so you’re not supposed to notice it; you’re supposed to just be involved. I sometimes regret that about myself.

You’ve said that your favourite Oscar memory was attending the 1968 ceremony with your father. Was that when he won for Camelot?

Yes, it was two years before his death. I must have been 12 or something. I remember the time of year, I think I was just leaving to go skiing in a week and my dad was up for an award. It was one of those magical times in one’s young life when things seem ordered and beautiful. It was a great night.

Do you think the great Newman family tradition will carry on with the next generation?

You know, I don’t know. I hope so. I think my kids have music in them – who knows what will happen with that? Because it’s so much more than just being gifted in music, to actually pull it all off.

What do you do to relax outside work?

I collect postcards of Los Angeles. I collect ephemera because that interests me. I like to bike in the mountains just because it’s so beautiful and spiritually inspiring. It fascinates me that people have occupied these canyons, hills, beaches and oceans that I occupy now and it gives me a sense of lineage.

What was it like working on a James Bond film?

Thrilling. I’d worked with Sam Mendes for many movies before, so we had a kind of vocabulary, and I got to go and live in London for close to four months and work out of Abbey Road Studios, which is a great place to work. The musicians in London are second to none.

You’ve often spoken of experimenting with the music when you’re creating the sound for a film. Was there less chance to experiment with Skyfall, given the requirements of a Bond film?

That’s a good question. I think in the case of action movies it’s a lot more about how sound feels coming out of subwoofers, and your personality is obviously subverted in the name of the franchise and the existing music of the franchise, but you know, at the same time, yeah. I always experiment because it always makes me feel like I have something in my pocket, ideas I can pull out. But there does have to be an awareness that it’s James Bond; it needs to be masculine and muscular and very present tense.

Listen to Newman’s BAFTA-winning score for Skyfall.

Is it possible to say what you learned from your father and uncles about film composing?

When I was quite young I used to watch my father conduct, and I learned – just ‘that feeling’ that you get when you’re in that room and trying to do something creative. He was a fantastic, remarkable conductor and you really hear it in his performances. And also a love of strings. My dad was always known for his string writing. There may be a little bit of a bias in me because of that real tenderness that I appreciate in his music. My uncle Lionel headed up music at Fox after my dad had left, and he gave me a lot more practical information. He let me on the stage, and I’d see John Williams conducting The Towering Inferno (1974) or The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Just being down there, you see how everything happened. “Oh, they go on a 10-minute break; people leave, they come back.” It’s enough, you know? You learn things without knowing you’re learning them.

You’ve just had a birthday. What did you do?

I went to the premiere of Saving Mr. Banks at the London Film Festival! That was my birthday evening, so it was lovely. We had great seats too: centre balcony. It was just perfect.

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