David Newman

David Newman: “You’re bonded to it”

Short Profile

Name: David Louis Newman
DOB: 11 March 1954
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Film composer, conductor

Mr. Newman, as a film composer, your philosophy is that “the film itself is king.” What does that mean exactly?

The thing about film is that it’s organic during the making of it; it changes, things happen, but once it's done, once you're scoring it, it doesn't work with you. You have to work with it. You're collaborating with a medium and not with people. By the time you get to postproduction and editing, and its ready to be scored, you're simply trying to give it what it's asking for, you’re trying to provide what's helping the story. So the music is just a small part of it. It's a fascinating part of it, it's probably the least understood part of it — because music is really hard to understand anyway, even for musicians.

You were nominated for an Oscar for your soundtrack to Anastasia, and worked on over 100 films including Heathers, Ice Age, and Spielberg's West Side Story. Is it challenging to tell someone else’s story through your music? 

Well, you have to follow the film, and generally, it's not that complicated. It's easy to see what doesn't work. We all understand stories, and the music needs to be in service of that story, otherwise, there's no point in putting in the music. Film isn’t even 100 years old, so before 1930, there was nothing like it. The people that started writing film music in the 1930s — my father Alfred Newman included, but also Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin — they were trying to figure out how you put music in a film when there's talking. The questions they were asking themselves: what is music doing? Why is it there? How much should it be there? Those are the same questions we are still asking ourselves as composers.

“The movie comes out, and either it does well or it doesn’t… But when it does well, it’s really addicting.”

It sounds like there’s inherently less ego involved in film music because you’re not really thinking about your own needs as a composer.

It’s less hegemonic than most other ways that you write music, sure. You've got the director and the editor, you know, the hierarchy. And if you make it about yourself, you're going to have a really tough time making a career because it's a hyper collaborative endeavor. It’s really fun collaborating. There's generally a lot of resources, things happen really fast, and then the movie comes out, and either it does well or it doesn't… But when it does well, it's really addicting. It's a beautiful art form, it's extremely well paid because you own tons of music that is in films, and that can be incredibly lucrative without doing any work at all. But it just depends on your vision of yourself: do you want to be an artist? Or do you want to be a working composer?

Are those lines becoming more blurred now that many pop and electronic musicians are starting to dabble in film composition?

There are a lot of people that come at it now from the pop music world, you’re right. When I started in 1986, there were way less people that could do film music because there was way less technology, right? You had to be really well trained to do it. You’ve probably heard this polemic about training, that musical training isn't important, that training doesn't make you a good composer. But actually, it used to be you did have to have training. Now, because of technology, you don't really need to be trained at all.

These days you can replicate an entire orchestra from your laptop.

Exactly, you just need to figure out how to use a digital audio workstation, and how to bullshit and talk to people! I don't mean bullshit as a pejorative, that’s a bad word to say, but we have to sell it. And either you're good at it or you're not good at it. As a film composer, you have to endure that you're constantly having to get a job! You do a job, and you have to get another job. Unless you're in a rarefied part of your career, you have to keep doing that. It is a tricky thing. It's the blessing and curse of freelance. It's right around the corner, or you could just be going nowhere!

Does that unpredictability impact how selective you can be with your work?

90% of people take whatever movies they get! Unless you're John Williams or Hans Zimmer… You’re not going to take everything, but given a reasonable budget, you might consider it. I've done films that I thought were just horrible, and they turned out to be really good. I've done films I thought were really good that turned out to be horrible. It’s really hard to predict, unless you're working with a really terrific director, which is really few and far between.

Apparently one of your favorite directors to work with is Danny DeVito, because his films are particularly visual and evocative.

Well, he’s very Italian, his work is almost operatic, you know, when you think about the bigness of it, the colors he uses, the point of view, and the stories that he's drawn to. Throw Momma From The Train was a sort of Hitchcock send up and then the next one I did War of the Roses was almost like a Shakespearean divorce comedy to the death. I like making big statements, for better or for worse — and sometimes it's worse, believe me. But Danny allows those films that really slam into them a little bit more. I just clicked with with Danny and I love working on films with him.

“There are are a good number of great artists working on these films, so you can always find something that takes your breath away.”

By contrast, which films or genres would you say are more difficult to compose for?

I did this film called Serenity that was really hard to do. Because it was a Western adventure sci fi film with a lot of big ideas in it, which I'm sure was why I was hired. Mostly what I've done is the sort of dark romantic comedies or dark quirky comedies. And that was really difficult for me in the beginning, but I got good at it. That was a little tricky to figure out, but I did figure it out. I don't know. For me, it's project by project. For most film composers, you do what you have to do, sometimes you also do stuff you don't want to, and you just never know what's going to work.

So you don’t need to believe in the film in order to compose its music?

I mean, when you are scoring a film, you're like a little kid. And even when you think you don't like it, you have to look at it over and over again, and you end up seeing something beautiful and wonderful and lovely. And the more you look at it, you just start to bond to it. The more familiar you are with something, our brains tend to bond to it and find the good in it. Eventually you reach a point where you just can't give up, not because of your willpower, but because you cannot make yourself give up — you’re bonded to it. There is no film that I've ever done that I didn’t bond to in some way, even as crappy as it was. Maybe it's your brain tricking you, but generally, there are are a good number of great artists working on these films, so you can always find something that takes your breath away.