The Version Interview... Thomas Newman - the man behind the soundtracks to SPECTRE, American Beauty and more...
On 23 October, Decca Records is releasing one of the most anticipated film soundtracks of the year: SPECTRE – the 24th James Bond adventure.
After the success of Skyfall and winning a BAFTA for best film music, Thomas Newman (‘American Beauty’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’) returned on SPECTRE to create an original score to accompany the film. The soundtrack album includes an instrumental version of Sam Smith’s new Bond main title song ‘Writing’s On The Wall’.
Thomas Newman is widely acclaimed as one of today’s most prominent composers for film. He has composed the music for more than 70 motion pictures and television series and has earned ten Academy Award nominations and five Grammy Awards.
At the age of 27, Newman successfully composed his first film score in 1984 on the film Reckless. Since then he has contributed distinctive and evocative scores to numerous acclaimed films, including Desperately Seeking Susan, The Lost Boys, The Rapture, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Player, Scent of a Woman, Flesh and Bone, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, American Buffalo, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Oscar and Lucinda, The Horse Whisperer, Meet Joe Black, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Erin Brockovich, In The Bedroom, Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Cinderella Man, Jarhead, Little Children, The Good German, Revolutionary Road, Wall-E and Skyfall. Newman recently composed the score for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming release Bridge of Spies. Other recent projects include The Debt, The Adjustment Bureau, The Help, the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, Saving Mr Banks, The Second Best Marigold Hotel and upcoming Finding Dory.
The Version caught up with him in London for an exclusive interview.
Can you tell us a bit about the process you go through when writing a film score?
Sure, you can start as early as when you read a script so it is an ongoing process where you can have quite a bit of time to do it. Once you’ve read the script you’ll talk to the Director about their general approach to the film and then you start to look at the early imagery for the film and start to build a picture of what it’s going to look like on screen. For me, it’s very much about how the score works with the images and so this part is really important. It’s very much a collaborative process with the Director, it is all about exploring ideas.
So when was work on the Spectre soundtrack completed?
Whilst the movie is coming out next week, the CD soundtrack is still being finished. It really is down to the last minute, we pretty much finished it yesterday evening, so we do make the most of all the time we have.
And when did you actually start work on the Spectresoundtrack?
We had a big meeting last October, Sam and I. We had some initial ideas and we worked from there. Typically, you use all the time you have and that can be months. The thing is though with a creative process like this it isn’t always a case of the more time you have the better, sometimes more time can have a negative impact on the creativity so shorter periods can work better because there is more pressure and that can be a good thing to get the ideas out.
You sound very enthusiastic about developing ideas, can you tell us more about your creative process?
Yes a film reveals itself in a number of ways. I start with colour, I think about the colours associated with the film and then the harmonic vocabulary so the composition. I don’t have rules in terms of process because you want to keep having ideas and having any kind of rules associated with a creative process is not a good thing. As I say, it is all about how the music fits with the image on screen and I try to write in a passive way. By that, I mean I ask myself does the music work with what I’m seeing, do I like it? If I’m seeing it and the soundtrack is working then I keep going.
What is the best environment for you to get creative in?
I have a room at home with a piano and speakers and I try to by whimsical in my approach. I try to be fluid. I sit at the piano and just see what happens really.
Without giving too much away, can you tell us about one particular Spectre scene and how you wrote for it?
You know what, I don’t know what I can and can’t say! It’s too easy for me to give things away, let me think… ok so there is a chase scene of course, and the thing with chase sequences is they can be very conventional, right? You think they’re all the same, so it would be very easy to just write something conventional to go with the chase. There is one chase sequence in Spectre and I am so pleased with the piece. It would be very easy to overwrite and do this big loud, thumping piece but you’ll have to see what we did.
Aside from Bond, much of your work is critically acclaimed and infamous. The American Beauty theme for example, is very iconic. Did you know it was going to become that way when you wrote it?
I don’t think you ever know if something is going to be iconic, I don’t write with iconography in mind . I think it is associative anyway, so people remember particular scenes from films and that is of course a very memorable scene and so with some of the greatest pieces I’ve written perhaps it is as much about what you are seeing on screen at the time and how memorable those scenes become.
Thinking about the cinema experience, music is so important to the enjoyment of a film and yet in some ways, a viewer isn’t all that conscious about the score. Is that something you bear in mind when you write?
Cinema is certainly an immersive experience and you want the experience to be more about than about the viewer just hearing music and sound. You have to be very careful not to overwrite. You know I see some films and the music is either overly loud in the post production, or the music doesn’t quite work and it can be distracting or irritating or just too much. You have to be really mindful about not overwriting, it’s about complimenting the story not writing music to ensure people are overly conscious of it, you know?
You’ve worked with Sam Mendes on most of his film, what’s he like to work with?
He’s so smart. He is so switched on and has great ideas and most of what he says makes sense! We do have a great working relationship and that means that he is very comfortable telling me if something doesn’t work, he is very much a leader and he does reject ideas as much as he accepts them and I think that is really important.
You have been nominated for Oscars many times but have never won. Who have you upset at the Academy?!
Oh you know what, I have no expectations about Oscars. You can never tell how it is going to go and it is one of those things where of course it would be great to win but equally I don’t judge the quality of my work against an award, you can’t value your work like that.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m in London for the Spectre premiere, which I am excited for any my wife is coming over here for that so that will be great. Work-wise, at the beginning of November I begin writing the score for the new Finding Nemo film which is called Finding Dory and that will be a very fun and exciting project to work on, and that will keep me busy for a while!
23 October: Global album release date
26 October: UK film release date