'Skyfall' Builds Academy Support, Composer Thomas Newman Overdue

Skyfall

"Skyfall" could land a surprising number of Oscar nominations when they are announced on January 10. James Bond films, while they have been popular over the decades with Academy voters as popcorn entertainment, have not been Oscar contenders except for the occasional technical or song nomination. (The Oscarcast is tributing Bond on its 50th anniversary, in any case.) But Bond 23 is directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and brings a certain class and patina missing from many other Bond films. (More from Mendes on 'Skyfall' here; more on the frontrunner Adele song here.) "Skyfall," which has been praised in many quarters as the best Bond film ever, could wind up in the best picture race, if the PGA list of ten is any indicator; the film also landed nods for ensemble and supporting actor Javier Bardem from the Screen Actors Guild, and Bardem and Judi Dench with the Critics Choice Awards. Another long shot would be a Best Score mention for veteran composer Thomas Newman, who faced a unique challenge with "Skyfall."

Mendes told me he wanted to see what Newman, 57, who he considers to be too modest about his skills, would do with a big-scale orchestral score and a 90-piece orchestra. (They worked together on the more intimate "American Beauty.") The results are stunning--and as delicate and emotionally nuanced as his other scores--including "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

Born in Los Angeles, Newman is the son and nephew of Hollywood composers Alfred and Lionel Newman, respectively, brother of composer/conductor/violinist David Newman and cousin of singer-songwriter-composer Randy Newman. While Thomas Newman has been nominated ten times, he has never won. I got him on the horn to talk about his work on these films.

Anne Thompson: How hard was it to marry the old Bond themes with the new movie and score, staying in tune with director Sam Mendes' and audience expectations?

Thomas Newman: We sure worked at it. It's tough. First, I'm not English. There was a high level of expectation, even if you wanted to defy it, plenty of people are around you defying that. The franchise is so huge. Everyone has such a strong opinion. Any one creative individual is not so big as Bond himself. The Bond Theme is such a great tune, I really wanted to honor it on behalf of the fans and the movie. Monty Norman wrote the theme, which was heavily arranged and stylized by John Barry. Talk to almost anyone about that tune, it's their favorite from the movie.

AT: How much original score is there?

TN: I think there's about 100 minutes of score and 11 minutes of the Bond theme.

AT: Who brought you in?

TN: I had read that Sam Mendes was doing Bond. I thought, 'Wow, he's not thinking of hiring me, it's different from what I've done before.' I thought maybe I could bring a fresh approach, and mustered the courage to holler, 'if you are willing.' He said, 'Away we go!" We do have a history together, a sense of procedure and process, it helps. In the end it comes down to doing the job right, it's not as if a prior relationship ever lets you slide.

AT: What's your process with Mendes?

TN: We started in LA with Bond in late April. I was sending Sam rough-mocked material to London. I wrote the score in London from mid-June to early October. Bond had a lot of requirements; the music has the muscularity and swagger of Bond along with the excitement of action. We understood the premise in terms of what we needed to address. In terms of fine-tuning, Sam was present for every decision in the mix, recording and instrumentation. I am a creative individual with my own biases that I am not aware of, I come to create the task inside my own skin. It's up to director to refine or eschew my biases.

AT: You also work with the musicians.

TN: My approach with the players is to stay loose compositionally so that when I am around the players their influences can be taken in directions that are surprising to me. Ultimately, I feel that the material becomes fresher than when I really direct it, I am benevolent in my autocracy, I do not put them on a leash, I let them run in the corral, I am delighted by the creative input by musicians.

AT: Talk about some of your original ideas.

TN: You can argue that a musical vocabulary puts you in spy mode in an action picture. Locations inspired me. The sequence when Bond drives to the Shanghai airport to the high rise uses a groove, a generated pulse rhythm I discovered. It's exotic, not necessarily indigenous, it's the sensibility of being in that place.

There's a stoic's theme for M, so obvious that you can not ever sentimentalize her, so how do you find something with strength, conviction and stoicism that gives emotion without slurping for it?

The leitmotif for the villain: you learn about Silva through computers in the first 30-45 minutes, there's a motif of mystery tied into Silva, more than a theme, source music accompanying him, he's a quirky music lover.

You address the movie as it needs addressing, that carries into the music. There you are in a scene, writing music for the scene, the movie is reflected in the music in a mirrored kind of way.

AT: You used location sounds in "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" as well.

TN: It's a question I asked [director] John Madden. 'Why hire me, considering the subject matter and characters, I had spent no time in India, and had no time to go, there's was no degree of studying I could do with the Indian style of music'? So I approached it in a fantastical way. It was daunting. I wanted to participate meaningfully, not be cheap about utilizing instruments. That wasn't the reason I was there. It's one of my favorite scores I've worked on. I liked the music, the way the cd flows. I tend to like what I like to listen to, what's complex in movie music, wanting to be able to listen back and truly enjoy it. It trolls along, there's a lot of groove to it, I love getting groovy, like the rhythm of the pace and beat. I used some Indian players, Indian violin, Indian flutes and singers, and a stable of players I've used a long time in LA. We recorded the voices and strings in London.

AT: How long have you been doing this?

TN: I guess my first gig was in '83. I've been doing it close to 30 years, it's a blink. I've been at it for a while.

AT: Were you brought in by your famous family?

TN: That was no reason to get into it. My dad died when I was young, I did not watch him work that much, I was not that interested in music. For "Star Wars" in 1979 I got a bone toss, I knew John Williams through the family, Uncle Lionel and Dad knew him well, John decided to give me a small bit in "Return of Jedi" when Darth Vader dies, it was so well-sketched and orchestrated that I was copying stuff down more than adding to it.

I had an opportunity, I met a producer in NY, Scott Rudin, who came out here to work on his first movie, "Reckless," with Aidan Quinn, Darryl Hannah, and there I was. I thought it was a tough job, at first. I think you have to develop vocabularies and a sense eof procedure. You meet people to help you through. It took me 8 or 9 years to feel comfortable with the work and not fraudulent in my efforts.

How you get through any job is to make it meaningful, and like what you do. It took me a while to get comfortable in my role, to realize I had something to offer dramatically. I needed to understand what it was in order to have an opinion of what I thought. If I fell short of the mark, I had to ask 'why?' and correct it the next time out. That's how I started to understand this.

AT: What are your favorite, best realized scores?

TN: On "Flesh & Bone," I started to make stylistic progress, to understand working with a small ensemble in the sampling realm and adding strings, an interior/exterior sense of how music is made and can fit behind drama. "American Beauty," "Shawshank,""Wall-E," I like working with a game changer like Pixar. I learned from Pixar that the way to be free in music is to satisfy the dramatic requirement and see what you can sneak in that interests you stylistically. In animation you're very tied to action and mood changes happen quickly. The action is more demanding moment to moment.

AT: Where do you do your composing?

TN: I have a couple places where I work. I have a computer with several monitors above, and computer programs that lock up any idea to picture so you can have an opinion about it, as can anyone else in the room. It makes the invisible more visible, it's easy to move the music around--'like here, delay it 10 seconds'-- it's a collaborative process.

AT: What are the differences beween Mendes and Madden?

TN: They're similar in approach. Both are really musical and have great ears and have a great sense of how music is altering the image dramatically or emotionally. I'd put them on a par in their sense of leadership, they can be discouraging and encouraging. There's always moments when good ideas fall away for whatever reason, dire moments in one's level of energy. The mark of good leadership is when someone is rejecting ideas, they are still encouraging you to keep going forward. There's nothing worse than feeling discouraged, it's not a good place to be in, you have to keep ideas floating and still refine the director's sense of what they're doing.

Some other people leave you alone more---Steven Soderbergh--I've worked with him several times, it's a different way through, his approach is looser more improvisatory during post-production and leads to amazing choices. How you get to the end of the line, some directors feel the need to carry the point, others are confident enough in the material, like Soderbergh, to let go of it.

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