Score one for Newman: A minimalist speaks out

'German' composer adapts to era

Ask composer Thomas Newman to discuss the inspiration behind his Oscar-nominated score for Warner Bros. Pictures' retro melodrama "The Good German," and he avoids the obvious answer. Newman is, of course, the son of famed composer Alfred Newman, whose work helped define the kind of lush, dramatic, orchestral film music to which "German" unabashedly pays homage.

"I didn't listen to any of my dad's scores," Newman says flatly.

Nonetheless, the veteran composer says that while he might have chosen to steer clear of any overt nods to his famous father, the prospect of working in an idiom dominated by the acknowledged masters of the form was more than a little daunting.

"Coming to the plate next to all these composers like my dad or Max Steiner or Bernard Herrmann and kind of playing their game a little bit was … a big challenge," he says.

This will certainly come as a surprise to anyone who has heard Newman's score for "German," Steven Soderbergh's meticulous re-creation of a 1940s-era melodrama that stars George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. Newman's attention-grabbing music plays a major role in defining the film's smoky, black-and-white milieu, deftly reimagining the sounds of Hollywood's Golden Age without descending into gimmickry.

That's no small feat for a composer whose less-is-more approach has led to seven previous Oscar nominations for films as diverse as 1999's "American Beauty" and 2003's "Finding Nemo," though he has yet to take home a statuette.

Newman is the first to admit that "German" represents a major departure from his typically understated work.

"I'm probably not quite so extroverted or maximal in my approach," he says. "My knee-jerk approach to drama is minimal and kind of focused. But the demands of the film and the nature of the acting are such that I had to kind of speak out louder."

Encouraged by Soderbergh to mimic a style in which virtually every action onscreen, no matter how mundane, takes place to music, Newman threw caution — and minimalism — to the wind.

"A film mixer told me that movies from 50 years ago were about 60% quieter, so I think there was a lot more music and a lot less sound effects," he says. "As Steven said, 'There is music in these old movies that is there just to get you from Point A to Point B.' Both Steven and I were trying to stay true to that. I was scoring in a lot of areas where, in a more modern movie, I wouldn't have taken that approach."

Newman admits, however, that the freedom to work without the constraints of modernism came with its own challenges, primarily the balancing act of creating music that was true to the spirit of the film without detracting from the drama.

"The golden age of Hollywood was the conceit of the movie and the style of the movie," he says. "I've done period movies before, but they've always been shot through a modern lens with a modern sensibility, where Soderbergh's lens was an antique lens, so it literally placed you there as if it were made then."

Newman admits to revisiting such classics as Steiner's scores for 1942's "Casablanca" and 1945's "Mildred Pierce," but he avoided immersing himself in the film music of yesteryear.

"I didn't listen too intently because I didn't want to get stuck being a 'listener,' " he says. "It occurred to me that that was also a danger: getting too enmeshed in what the music was like in that time. That would have been a whole type of different procedural thing, where you are listening really hard and you're asking yourself things like, 'How is harmony changing? What's the orchestration doing?' I figured if I did that, I would get so frozen and I wouldn't be able to move forward, so I tried to glance off of those influences and be influenced in a more vague way as opposed to an easily applied way."

So, is this "more is more" approach to film scoring something Newman could get used to? The composer says it all depends on the material.

"I do like that approach where it's appropriate," he says. "For me, like anyone, you want to go into a movie and have an enjoyable time where you're just involved. I just want my music to involve an audience in what's taking place onscreen."
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