Thomas Newman to Receive 2010 Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award
Thomas Newman grew up surrounded by music, and if the front room of his Pacific Palisades studio is any indication, he still likes it that way. Rare, antique instruments are everywhere: An English cittern sits on a table, a French monochord -- a kind of violin-guitar hybrid -- stands upright next to a piano, on which rests a German stroviol, which looks like a cross between a saxophone and a violin.
Admitting to being a collector, he talks enthusiastically about finding the instruments in a London antique shop. The excursion was part of an ongoing search for "unexpected sounds."
The exotic, experimental quality of the instruments contrasts with the man himself -- if you didn't know him, you'd think he was just another Los Angeles soccer dad in jeans and a sweatshirt. He is completely angst free, without any Hollywood pretensions whatsoever, and disarmingly nice.
But he is anything but ordinary.
In this decade alone he's been nominated for six Oscars, amassing 10 nominations altogether. He has yet to take home the award, though it doesn't seem to matter much, and why should it? A perfectionist and a work horse, Newman has produced some of the most memorable film music of the past 20 years, from 1994's "The Shawshank Redemption" to 1999's "American Beauty" and the 2008 animated blockbuster "WALL-E."
In doing so he's somehow managed to live up to the
daunting standard set by his own father, the late Alfred Newman, a towering figure who won nine Oscars -- he was nominated astaggering 40 times -- in a career that helped define the lush Hollywood sound of classics like 1939's "Wuthering Heights" and 1951's "All About Eve," among many others.
Emerging from such an imposing shadow couldn't have been easy, but today Tom is casting a shadow of his own, working at a rarefied level few composers will ever reach. It is for these reasons that Thomas Newman is being honored with the 2010 Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award.
It may be hard to believe, but as a young man Newman had no interest in film music at all. Tagging along with his father to the recording studio or sound stage, young Tom was like any kid dragged to dad's office for the day.
"I do remember going down to watch my dad conduct," he says. "But when you're a kid, it's just 15 fascinating minutes followed by an hour or two of saying, 'Can we get out of here?' "
The last child born to Alfred and his third wife, Martha, Tom recalls an ordinary childhood where his father acted as "governor" to a huge extended family, many accomplished musicians in their own right, including his older brother David, also a successful composer.
From a distance, life as Alfred Newman's son appeared perfectly normal. He remembers family get-togethers where he and his musically gifted cousin preferred playing basketball over instruments. Of course, the cousin in this case is Randy Newman, the brilliantly acerbic songwriter who became a household name in the 1970s before embarking on his own successful career as a film composer.
While he was studying music during this period, Tom's assessment of his ability is less than generous: "I took piano and violin lessons, but I did not necessarily excel."
Randy remembers things differently.
"His father was a great pianist, but Tom was probably the best pianist that the family produced," he says, adding that he could have benefited from his younger cousin's work ethic. "I mean, who wants to practice?"
But as Randy went on to fame and fortune as a songwriter, Tom entered adulthood with only a vague idea of what he wanted to do with his life. He knew it would somehow involve music, but following in his father's footsteps wasn't a certainty by any means.
"There was never a question about pursuing music, but the idea of doing film music was pretty frightening," he says. "I wasn't ambitiously pursuing a career in film composition. I just didn't think I could do it."
But by the time he graduated from Yale with a master's degree in music, he was ready to --if not quite dive in -- at least test the waters of composition.
"I had ideas," he says of his early 20s. "A lot were good, but in many ways I had no idea or experience about how to carry them out."
Years of experiment in everything from musical theater to rock 'n' roll would follow, eventually landing Tom his first professional assignment on James Foley's '80s teen angst-fest "Reckless." A decade of paying his dues in lighthearted comedies would follow.
Navigating the business side of composing, mastering the art of collaboration and dealing with rejection were all lessons learned during this period. Mostly however, he recalls just wanting to get better.
"It's a question of aiming and then being wide of the mark and asking yourself, 'Why was I wide of the mark?' " he explains.
Get better he did, eventually making the transition to more mature, high-profile fare like Robert Altman's "The Player" in 1992. The dark Hollywood satire represented a major leap forward into the kind of world his father once inhabited -- ironic considering his previous outing was a lesser-known John Hughes picture called "Career Opportunities."
" 'The Player' was kind of was my first adult experience writing," he recalls, "probably because [Altman] threatened to fire me at one point. There was a moment where things weren't really going well because I think he was a much better improviser than he was crystallizer. Crystallizing is a postproduction phenomenon where you say, 'OK, let's take it all and let's finish it up.' But I wasn't fired and it woke me up to thinking, 'How do I get through something and make it as great as I can so that I know that if I am fired I did my best?' "
He got through it of course, a mere two years later landing Oscar nominations for both "Shawshank" and "Little Women."
By then it was clear Tom Newman was not going to shrink from the mantle of his father, but it was his daring, percussive score for 1999's "American Beauty" that let everyone know he was his own man.
What he did after that cemented his place on the A list. Over a blistering three-year period he put his range on display in 12 very different films, including the big-budget blockbuster "The Green Mile," the tricky indies "Erin Brockovich" and "In the Bedroom," the dark melodrama "The Road to Perdition" and the animated Pixar crowd-pleaser "Finding Nemo."
"One of the skills of a great artist is to be able to work in any style and yet remain utterly, recognizably himself," director Sam Mendes says. "Tom somehow manages to achieve exactly this. The first two scores he wrote for me -- 'American Beauty' and 'Road to Perdition' -- could not have been more different: Two utterly distinctive scores, yet unmistakably the work of the great Tom Newman."
Randy adds that, in addition to versatility, Tom adheres to a work ethic that may very well be in the Newman DNA.
"It's sort of a businesslike atmosphere when you write movie music for a living," he says. "That's what you do when you're awake if you're doing a picture. That's the way Alfred did it and that's the way Tom does it."
Indeed, in discussing his working methods, Tom reveals a deconstructionist's fascination with the minutiae of film music -- it isn't simply something he does, it's something he thinks about. Often.
"The odd thing about movie music is: What's it doing there?" he asks. "It's such a strange thing when you focus on it. But why is it there and what's it doing? How much does it need to be upfront or in the back or subtextual? What is your sense of drama? How does drama move forward? How does storytelling take place?"
Looking back, it's hard to believe this is the same Newman whose interest in film music was so nonexistent that he can't recall a single conversation with his father about the subject.
"I don't think we ever had a discussion about music," he says without a hint of regret, adding that if he could talk to his father now he'd prefer it be "man to man" instead of composer to composer. "'What kind of wine do you like to drink?' Those are the things I would have liked to ask him."
It's a surprising statement, but like those obscure instruments in his studio, Tom's search for his own "unexpected sounds" has helped him escape the burden of the past.
The key, he says, is simple: He had to learn how to please himself.
"You want it to be good, so why wouldn't you? You want to escape with your pride at the very least. You want to feel proud of what you've done and enjoy listening to it. I guess that was it in the end: I wanted to please my own ears.
Newman on Newman -- the composer looks back at select scores
"The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)
"When I saw the 'Shawshank Redemption' for the first time it was over three hours long. It didn't have a stitch of music in it and it was absolutely riveting. So the issue for me was to not make this a less good movie. How can the music improve it as opposed to weigh it down? My daughter was born during the scoring so there was a moment where I had to leave for two weeks, which made me very nervous because I felt at the time I hadn't gotten far enough along with [director Frank] Darabont for him to trust that I was going to do good work."
"American Beauty" (1999)
"I had a five- or six-week hiatus so I wondered if there was anything out there that was available ... Sam [Mendes] had shown interest in me, but I had a meeting with him and we had little-to-no time. He said, 'Yeah, 20 minutes of music, three- or four-piece group, kind of country-western style.' Then he goes away to London to recut and he comes back and says that's all gone. It's more like 45-50 minutes of music and there's no country-western."
"In the Bedroom" (2001)
"I knew nothing about the movie and I was nothing but skeptical. Twenty minutes in, some hideous event happens and I'm just lost. Had I read the script I would not have been lost, but it was just a thrilling, true kind of movie moment for me where I was in my seat, kind of rapt. And that's the value of seeing the movie first. Seeing a script and then seeing a movie, you have an expectation of a script that oftentimes is different than what the movie ends up being."
"I really had to break down [director Andrew Stanton's] expectations. I think he really wanted a space opera type of score with huge strings and all. And I thought that would be good sometimes, but certainly not all the time. I realized, though, that the only way to prove that to him was in the trench. I would never prove that to him in conversation."