At the beginning of July 2019, and during the celebration of the 4th edition of the Movie Score Malaga – MOSMA festival, Gorka Oteiza had the opportunity to interview the American composer John Debney.
In the interview that follows, they talked about many things such as how he got into the world of music and composing for films, the memories he has from his father that worked in Disney, when does he like to be involved in a movie, how a composer has to be close to the director to interpret the story he wants to tell, how he got into the project ‘The Passion of the Christ’ with Mel Gibson and how it evolved into ‘The Passion Oratorio’ concert that was performed and recorded in Cordoba in 2015, or why he loves the music of the TV Series ‘The Orville’ led by Seth MacFarlane.
John Debney has just premiered two movies now in August 2019: ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ (2019, dir. James Bobin), with a score co-composed with Germaine Franco, and ‘Brian Banks’ (2018, dir. Tom Shadyac).
Thank you very much John for being here for SoundTrackFest.
Thank you, Gorka, for having me.
The first thing we want to know is if there is a moment in your life you remember saying “Hey, I love this. I want to be a film music composer.” Did you have that moment? Or you started with music, and then one thing led to another, and suddenly you found yourself being a film music composer?
Well, that’s a great question. I started to play music when I was probably six years old, and I played guitar. I was in rock and roll bands and things like that. But I had been playing music my whole life. I was in high school musicals, so I was always surrounded by music. I always loved music and had a deep love for it, even early in life. So, I guess there wasn’t a crucial moment, other than I always studied music and played music. Then when I got into college, actually I was a double major, drama and music, because I didn’t know if I wanted to be an actor or I wanted to be both.
Okay. But both are quite close. They’re both arts…
Yes, they are. They are both about telling a story.
Indeed. Telling a story in two different ways.
I would say that my second year in college was probably when I really decided that of the two crazy professions, of being an actor or being a musician, I decided that music was really in my heart. So I think by the second year of college, I kind of made that decision to study music and try to make a go of it.
It was sort of like that. It wasn’t that I always had a dream to compose, but I’d always written music. I’d always written songs. And I guess by the time I got into college, I decided that I wanted to study music full-time. I went off and got my degree in composition, and then that’s how it started.
What are the memories you have of your first project? Because when you decide you want to compose for a movie or a short or a documentary, that first opportunity comes many times by chance.
And you find yourself with a blank sheet of paper and you have to start writing. How was that experience for you? Your first project, the memories you have…
It’s interesting that you asked that, because I’ve always been musical. I’ve always written music. And as I said, even as a young kid, a young guy, I would get my little cassette recorders and I would record myself playing a song and singing. So, I’ve always done it. It’s sort of natural for me to do that. And I don’t know why, but I was just maybe given this gift of music.
I think one of the first things I ever wrote music for was probably a student film or two, like a lot of people do. And then it went from there. You get that bug of writing music. I remember writing in college. I wrote a tone poem called Childhood’s End. There’s a great science fiction book by Arthur C. Clarke called Childhood’s End, and I remember writing that in college, and that sort of sparked the desire to write. Then I remember in ’77 I heard John Williams for the first time, and that really got me going. So I think it was my admiration of other people’s work, and just having honestly a spark inside. I always tell people, if I didn’t do what I do now, I would be doing something like… a bartender or something else.
Well! That was my next question. You anticipated my next question, but that’s fine. (*laughs*)
(*laughs*). Well, you know, I have to do this. I have to compose music! And I think that probably I share that with a lot of artists in general. We have to do it. If we don’t do it…We feel empty. There’s something missing.
So it’s like… “There’s something that I want to say… And without arts, I don’t have the way to do it.”
Yeah. Exactly! Art is a way to express yourself. We have just been to the Picasso Museum here in Malaga, and you see that volume and body of work… This huge body of work! Artists have to create! I think true artists, they have no choice. And I’m like that. If I’m not writing something I feel… hollow or I feel there’s something missing.
Do you create sketchbooks? I mean, maybe you have voice notes with many ideas…
I do. I have sketchbooks. And I have a lot of voice notes. Many of them created in the middle of the night (*laughs*)… It’s so funny. I guess we all use our smartphones now. But in the middle of the night, an idea comes and I’ll get on my phone, and I’ll kind of hum it into my phone.
Well, something quite similar happens to me. I have a paper and pen next to my bed…
Oh, do you? That’s great!
Yes, because if I have an idea, I have to write it… because, in the morning, it’s gone…
That’s true. It’s gone. Yeah. Well, I do that a lot where let’s say it’s 5:00 in the morning, and I’ll think of an idea or a musical idea, and then I hum it to my phone. And oftentimes I can’t decipher what I did. At the time, you’re half awake and you think, “Oh my God, this is great.” But you forget. You have to catch it while it’s there.
Talking about dreams and ideas, let’s jump to your creative process, because that’s something that’s very interesting. Every composer has a different way. Let’s talk about a movie for example. When you are scoring for a movie, it has many stages, from the script, to the storyboards, to the visuals, and then up to having a rough cut.
Yeah. It’s a long process!
In which part of the process do you like to be involved and be in the movie? And, then, in which part do you usually get involved? Because sometimes projects are so complex that composers get involved at the end, in post-production.
Well, I am a visual person, and I’ve realized now at this point in my life, that reading a script is great, but it doesn’t get my ideas flowing. Ideas flow with me by watching something and seeing something on the screen. And that’s probably from early in my life. I loved watching movies. My dad worked at Disney for 40 years and he would bring movies home every weekend.
Wow! That had to be great as a kid!
It was great. My dad worked at the studio for many, many years. 40 years. And he would bring home movies every weekend, 16-millimeter films. So we’d have movie night. I learned how to run a projector when I was a kid, like eight years old. So I think I fell in love with visual imagery really early in my life. And specifically with film. There’s just something very comfortable for me.
So it’s quite natural for you…
It’s what I grew up with. So I guess that as time went on, I realized that I’m a visual person. If I can get a scene, or if I can get even photographs sometimes, or paintings, that’s the way I like to work. When I was working on ‘The Jungle Book’ for instance, all they had initially were paintings. And that was very, very helpful, because I’d put them all up on the wall, and I could sort of start to write themes based on these pictures. I’m a visual learner, I guess. So I start with that. I start with the visual, whatever it is: maybe a painting, a sketch or a scene.
I read a quote of yours saying that going to a set doesn’t help you, because thing there take forever.
No. It does not, because movie making is very tedious. They have to set the lights, stage, etc… It takes a lot of time. And then they do a scene, but then actors go away… they do 10 seconds and cut.
You don’t really get what’s going on…
No. So sometimes going to a set is not the most exciting thing for me, because you’re waiting around a lot. And every now and then you might get to have a conversation with the director… but he’s always so busy… so he doesn’t have time to explain things to you.
You don’t feel you’re inside the movie.
No, I do feel like an outsider. When I go to the set, I’m like, “Should I be here?” And I’m always going, “Can I come in and I’ll talk to you for 10 minutes?” And they’re gone. So, I hope that didn’t come out the wrong way… I mean, I love the process of filmmaking. But yeah, for me being on a set is not as interesting as sitting with a creative director or producer and really talking about what their ideas are.
That’s something I also wanted to ask you about, because the filmmaker, the director, has many things in his head, but music is not his world. He doesn’t know how to talk about music. He talks about the story, character development, or feelings and ideas…
And the composer sometimes only talks about music. Do you think composers should be closer to the director? I mean, should they have some filmmaking background, or at least knowledge of how a movie is created?
Well, another great question. My job is to interpret those feelings that are kind of undefined feelings of the director. So I’ve become kind of an accomplice to him/her. Because many times they’re talking about emotions and storytelling; what a scene is about, what a story arc is about. So I have to interpret that. I guess what I would say is, I don’t know all the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, but I do know drama. Or I think I know drama… or comedy, depending on the movie.
You have to do it long enough where you sort of know what’s going to work and maybe not work. But you also have to go on a journey with the director, because they don’t always know. Many times I’ll write what I think it should be, and then I’ll write another idea. And they may like the other idea, but I kind of know that the first idea might be the right idea.
Well, maybe you have a moment later in the movie to try it again…
It happens all the time. And sometimes, I’ll go back to the first idea. Jon Favreau is one of my favorite directors in the world, and Jon and I would sort of do that. I would give him 10 ideas, and he might like number four. But I know that number two is really closer.
And sometimes I’ll then try to sneak in that ‘number two idea’ into a scene, just to see if it sticks with him. And it usually does, not all the time, but it usually does. So I think that you get to a point as a composer where you have to interpret this stuff as best as you can.
Well, we have all seen that with long-term relationships of director-composer, like Spielberg-Williams, or Burton- Elfman, it’s easier to know what your partner wants.
So you’ve had a long working relationship with Jon Favreau, but, is there any other director you feel really comfortable working with, at that level, because you really understand each other?
Well, I think there are many of them. Garry Marshall was a very dear friend, and a great director that I worked on like eight films with. We lost him a couple of years ago, and he was a great guy. I won’t say that I knew exactly what he wanted all the time, but after a while, you get to know what they might like and what they don’t. Robert Rodriguez is another. He’s a friend of mine, and we’ve done I think five films together. He’s another one where we sort of get each other. And I think those great relationships are the ones that form over time.
In fact, they get better over time, don’t they?
I think so. But you can miss… I mean, I don’t succeed every single time. I think it’s an interesting thing, especially in Hollywood. I think I have a theory, but I don’t know if it’s true. I have a theory that the greatest directors, when they find their cinematographer and they find their composer, they stick to them. But that’s not a rule. Because I have guys like Jon, where I don’t do every film or everything that he does. The hope is that we will work again together, but you never know. Some stick with the same person like Steven. But of course, why wouldn’t he? Good for him. I would too. (*laughs*)
Well… It’s John Williams… and if it’s working perfectly, why change it…
That’s it. So it just depends. You have to develop those relationships, and if they flower into something like a Spielberg-Williams thing, that’s the best. You have to treasure them. But you also have to be able to let go. Because there are times when maybe a certain composer isn’t right for a certain project.
That’s true, it can depend on the project. And talking about projects, your career is huge, with more than 200 movies, but let’s go and talk about two specific projects.
I’ve chosen two because I love them, and I think they are also interesting to talk about. So let’s go first with the ‘The Passion of the Christ’ with ‘The Passion Oratorio – Live Concert’ celebrated at the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (Spain) in 2015 but released this April 2019. That’s a very recent project.
Yes it its!
So, let’s talk a little bit about the movie first, because I suppose that you already knew that the movie was going to be great, a great success…
No, we didn’t.
You didn’t? Because it had all the ingredients to be a great movie… or at least it looks like it had all of them…
No. And it’s very interesting… On the surface it did. But I must tell you, it’s such a deep, deep story, with lots of chapters. I came to this movie through a very weird way. My friend Steve was the producer on the movie, and he called me one day and said “They have this movie, and they are having trouble. They can’t figure out the kind of music, the kind of score that they should have.” And he said, “Would you look at it?” And I sort of gleaned and said, “Absolutely, I’ll look at it.” And I said, “Is this the Jesus movie?”
And he goes, “Yes.” And I go, “Wow!”… I’d read all the stuff about it, good and bad. And anyway, we watched the film, my wife and I, and we were in tears. We were weeping at the end of the thing. So I knew that somehow I had to, if I could, try to convince Mel to give me a chance. I wrote some pieces of music on a weekend. I saw the film, wrote a bunch of themes on a weekend, and then I didn’t know what was going to happen. I told my friend Steve, that I had written these themes, and I said, “I don’t know… you want to hear them or Mel wants to hear them?” And Steve said, “Oh, well why don’t I get Mel to come over to your office?”
“Wow. Okay.” So Mel came over on a Tuesday or Wednesday, a few days later, and I played him these pieces of music. There was one piece of music that is this, it’s the trailer music (*John points to a CD that’s on the table during the interview*). I played this for him and he responded. I noticed he was sort of tapping his foot and he liked the beat; he liked the rhythm. He liked the interesting colors of the instruments I used. So I played him other things, and he said, “Oh, yeah. Thank you. They’re great.” And then he left. It wasn’t a very long meeting.
He took his motorcycle and left, and then I didn’t hear anything for a few days. Then my friend Steve called me, and he goes, “Oh, by the way, Mel wants you to do this thing.” So that’s how it happened.
That’s a great story!
Then what happened was a four, five, six month process of working on this thing, with honestly, trial and error. Bringing musicians into the studio, trying things, trying ideas. Mel came over every few days and we started to work on this thing. He was a great collaborator. He was there the whole time. He would come in, we would talk, we would try to things. Some things he didn’t like, some things he liked. And then honestly, it kept going on like that for a while. It was a little bit difficult, because it’s a very difficult film and you could imagine writing music for it.
It’s very hard.
Yes, it is. It’s very hard, very intense, and very, very deep film, and with hard images to watch. So, this went on for a few weeks… and I don’t want to make it too long of a story… but then there came a crucial point where I had to come up with the theme for Mary. Mary’s Theme. I was trying everything, and I tried a number of ideas he didn’t like. He just kept not liking, not liking… I would play him something and he’d kind of go, “Oh…” And then I’d play him something else. So, it went on like that for a while. It was very difficult, because it was hard emotionally to deal with that. Luckily, one day, during that process, I woke up and had a theme in my head. Which happens…
That’s what we talked about earlier (*laughs*)…
(*laughs*)… Yes! It was 2:00 A.M. in the morning, and I had this theme in my head. I called my friend, Lisbeth Scott, who’s the singer. I think I left it on her phone machine… I hummed something… And she called back saying “Oh my God.” She wrote some lyrics, we prepared it, Mel heard it, started crying, and we were all good!
Then that opened the door to our work. We worked, worked, worked…. finally went to London and recorded. And the rest is sort of history.
Yes it is!
But to answer your first point, we did not know anything! Mel would say often, “Look, I’m putting my own money in it. I don’t care if I lose it all.” And he meant it. We would talk about it. So it was really a surprise, honestly. A huge surprise. Go to the theater and find lines around the block, and crowded people in the theater. And it was the first week it opened! It was… It was that! A great success!
And from one thing we jump to the other… to ‘The Passion Oratorio’ concert in Cordoba
In Cordoba. Yes. Which was a beautiful performance. Oh my God! Let me tell you that after the film came out, a few months later… Or even earlier… maybe just two months later? I realized it was very difficult for me to leave this behind. So I thought, “Well, what could I do next?” And I thought about creating a symphony or an Oratorio. Because I thought there were so many unexplored themes… the musical themes that I’d written that never made it into the film. So I thought, “Well, why don’t I do this?” And strangely a partner came in, a financial partner. They booked our premiere in Rome… And I had not written… I had barely written anything… (*laughs*)
Well, it’s nice to have that kind of deadlines (*laughs*)… pushing you out of your comfort zone…
I kind of think it needed to be like that. It really did. I remember getting a call, and started writing. About four months later or so, we were in Rome premiering the Oratorio. Wonderful, beautiful experience. We have performed it a number of times since then. Thankfully Cordoba is my favorite. I mean, it’s a fantastic place. It was the right moment during the Holy Week, in a great venue, Lisbeth Scott was there, Pedro Eustache was there, Kevin Kaska conducted it…
Unluckily you were not there. That’s the only thing missing in that puzzle…
I wanted to be there!! I really wanted to be there! But, you know… work, work…
We know, we know…
Just work… work!. But I remember getting a phone call from Ray, our friend Ray Costa. And he said, “You’re not going to believe this.” I go, “What?” He goes, “There are 6,000 people here!” It was full! It was amazing. He was sending me iPhone videos… Oh my God, I was in tears. Like, “What???”
And now it’s recorded in a DVD/Digital edition for history.
Yeah, it is! What a great memory! And we actually hope to do ‘The Passion’ live to picture next year.
That’s very interesting!
So hopefully we’ll come here to Spain and we’ll do it.
We’ll be here waiting for you! And now I’m going for the last question, because I think we’re running out of time… even if I have more than one question left…
Take your time!
I want to talk about this (*Gorka shows a CD with the soundtrack of The Orville – TV Series – Season 1*).
I’m glad you did that!
I want to talk about this, because it’s the best music on TV at this moment, The Orville. I love the show, and I love the music. I think it’s wonderful.
Thank you. I thank you from all of us.
The show has so much good music, that some episodes could even be movies by themselves.
Yeah. It’s incredible. They have 30, 40 minutes of music. Yes. And it’s big music. We work so hard at making this as good as it can be. And it’s interesting, because all of us challenge each other. I’ll call Joel (McNeely) on the phone and then I’ll say, “Yeah, that was great last week.” And then I’ll do something and they’ll call me and we comment on the music.
How do you decide who does each episode? Does Seth say, “This is for you.” Or you take the script, read it and say, “I like this episode. I’d like to score this.”
Seth does… He casts us just like he would cast an actor. He casts the composers for each episode. I don’t know how or why… But I’m just happy to be a part of it. He’s the most wonderful guy to work with.
Well, he really knows about music.
And he loves it. He’s a musician and makes the music the DNA of the show. Seth very strongly feels that the type of television music that we hear these days, is not what he thinks it should be. And we’re so thankful, because he never calls to say, “Oh, can you lose a couple of violins?” Which is a normal discussion due to financial reasons. But Seth will be, “Do you need any more violins?” That’s what he says. So we are so blessed, because we get to do 80 to 90 musicians a week! And that never happens.
That’s very strange these days on TV, indeed…
Never, never, never happens… And we’re so proud of it. I know we all are. And I think the quality is like a film every week.
Season two has just finished and then I hope season three and four… and more… will follow!
Well, I thank you for that. It’s getting better and better. We work very hard. Literally, everyone from the visual effects, actors, Seth on down, really strive to make it so good. Seth kills himself almost to make it that good. And it shows. It really shows. The visual effects are beautiful.
You can see that people that work in the project are committed.
Well, as I told you with the orchestra and the music… I can’t believe it’s happening, because this doesn’t happen anymore. So it’s a very special moment. And the fact that it’s now going to go into season three is amazing. Amazing.
So let’s hope we have The Orville and your music for a long time!
Hopefully, you will!
John, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you, Gorka. Thank you so much for your interview. What a pleasure.
Interview by Gorka Oteiza
Photos by Rafa Melgar