From 'Shawshank' to '1917': Thomas? Newman Breaks Down His "Proud," Petrifying Path Composing Famed Film Scores

11:00 AM 1/30/2020

by Tara Bitran

Over an hourlong chat, the prolific composer — and 15-time Oscar nominee — shared with The Hollywood Reporter his favorite memories of crafting each score, including four with Sam Mendes.

1917 Score_BTS - Publicity - H 2020
John Wilson/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

  • 'The Shawshank Redemption'

    I was double nominated that year with Little Women [directed by Gillian Armstrong]. It was so unexpected. Very dreamy. Shawshank was the first time I worked with [DP] Roger Deakins. It was like, "Wow, this looks great." There are moments where you just take for granted what's put in front of you. Shawshank always looked so beautiful. We've gotten to know each other better by virtue of proximity with JarheadSkyfallWall-E [on which Roger Deakins worked as a visual consultant]. [Director] Frank Darabont showed me a three-hour version of Shawshank early on without a stitch of music in it, and it was riveting. The question was: How could I not make this a worse movie, with no less character and personality? We often start that way.

  • 'Little Women'

    Little Women was the first time I went to London to record at Abbey Road with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was slightly intimidating, having not spent much time on a podium, period, so getting in front of that group was crazy. I did read Little Women, but decades ago. There is something Christmasy about that movie, with the snow and New England. I don't think I specifically thought of Christmas — maybe insofar as trumpets and bells and some baroque brass writing, which can put you in a Christmasy place, with the metals and hand bells and song bells. So I take it back. I was thinking a little bit of Christmas because it imbued me with that feeling.

  • 'Unstrung Heroes'

    I just remember meeting with [director] Diane Keaton and thinking what a lovely person she was. I've always been such an admirer of her comedy and of her as an actress. The title of it interested me because, "All right, it's 'unstrung.' What kind of whacky thwackys can I put into this that will give character and allow me to explore color and phrase and shape?" In Diane's case, I shared ideas and got a sense of what she likes and doesn't like. You try to make sure [you're] ultimately respectful of the decisions she makes, because it's her movie. I have to always remember that, that as good an idea as I think I might have, it's still in service of an idea that I did not create. Therefore, I have to be respectful to the creator even if I'm in disagreement, without being a doormat.

  • 'American Beauty'

    This was Sam Mendes' first movie. He was eager and such a quick learner, an amazingly quick study. You could see his eyes darting as we would work together; he would see that music was malleable and fluid. It just built from there. He's just a smart, smart guy. He has been very loyal to many of his collaborators, so you have to love that about him. All the percussion instruments began with a Sam concept. He'd been listening to some of my music, one score was Unstrung Heroes, and he liked how it pulsed. Rhythm in movies gives pace but also neutrality. It's not necessarily pointing toward feeling, but it's laying a rhythmic base for how feeling can be interpreted. Sam came in with some very specific ideas.

  • 'Road to Perdition'

    We were in post and 9/11 happened. We had a little more time by accident because of that. I don't think they wanted to come out with the movie right away because of its subject matter [mob vengeance] and the state of the union. I remember because of the Irish heritage in it, all the way through the making of it and in post, Sam [Mendes] didn't want the music to reflect anything Irish. I think he thought that might be mundane or prescriptive. And Jill Bilcock, his editor, asked why. He finally loosened up and I was able to use an uilleann [bag]pipe, this beautiful Irish bagpipe, that really unlocked a sense of the vocabulary of that movie. Suddenly penny whistles and things like that weren't off-limits. It was a huge help.

  • 'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events'

    I'm very proud of that score. They had this end title coming in, but [director] Brad Silberling said they'd probably use something that exists because it was coming in so late. When we saw this gorgeous, animated end title, there was just no way that there was going to be any piece of music that would work effectively under this new image. I had a small germ of an idea that had been sitting there and Brad said it was great. So I very quickly sketched out a shape and we executed it in a single day. More time is not necessarily better time. Sometimes in less time, you really crystallize your sense of who you are, your sense of what something needs, and you go for it.

  • 'Finding Nemo'

    At the time, I'd say, "It's my first and last animated project." It was so terrifying because it was so new. And when you get through it and you realize you did get through it and that you battled the brute fear of, "I'm going to fail and it's going to be a very public failure," and it doesn't happen, you're relieved and proud that your muscles were bigger than you'd ever imagined. Doing Finding Nemo was a big moment in my career, in terms of what was I able to do, being able to adapt to projects that weren't necessarily right down my alley. My cousin Randy [Newman] had scored I think every Pixar movie up to that point and here I was coming in. He told me, "Just look at the next 10 minutes. If you look at the next 50, you're sunk." So I got some good advice from my cousin.

  • 'The Good German'

    I come from a musical family. My father was [nine-time Oscar-winning composer] Alfred Newman. He died when I was quite young. He started in the ’30s, worked all the way to 1969. In a funny way, I never wanted to do movie music the way he’d done it because I could never be that way or that good. But I studied music in school and had the right harmonic vocabulary to handle it, and there it was. [Director] Steven Soderbergh, who is very brave, and this was certainly stylistically very courageous [harking back to that noir genre], had temped it with Max Steiner and music from the era. It needed to feel like it was all done with orchestra, and essentially it was. There may have been a couple of pre-lays I had done, but to that end, it was great to use chromatic harmony and be expressively melodic. In the end? Quite fun. Going through it? Holy crap. 

  • 'Wall-E'

    There was a moment when [director] Andrew Stanton said, "Would you like to work with Peter Gabriel?" Of course, my jaw dropped. A lot of my interest in high metal rhythm came out of his album So. I wrote him an email saying as much. We flew out to London to meet with him. I knew there was a good chance this wouldn’t happen if we didn’t click. But we emerged with enough of an idea to go forward with what became "Down to Earth." But Wall-E was tough, just 20 minutes of pretty much no dialogue at the beginning of the movie, the music setting tone and the mood of the character. I love that "First Date" track. Andrew was interested in evoking that ’70s, Brady Bunch vibe.

  • 'Skyfall'

    That was real terror. Sam [Mendes] has been so loyal, he really wanted me to do this movie. I never in a million years would’ve imagined myself scoring a Bond movie, because it’s very English and it’s just action. If there are moments of reflection and musical personality, it’s the smaller part of the score. You’d think about, what’s English elegance on the one hand? Martini glass, bow tie, tuxedo. On the other, what’s muscular energy? Skyfall was so demanding that when I got to London, I didn’t see Sam for three weeks. The "Skyfall" song was a fait accompli. It was so strong to begin with, I don’t think they thought there was any need for Adele and I to collaborate. We were going to try, but that never worked out. My orchestrator Jack Redford did orchestrate and arrange the strings.

  • 'Saving Mr. Banks'

    The Mary Poppins movie has such beautiful songs. They have so much flavor. It’s like being next to a warm fire in terms of sidling up to it. As I remember it, the challenging thing was doing the transitions from past to present and how [Mary Poppins author] P.L. Travers as an adult was remembering what it was to have this relationship with her father. So there was something deeply sentimental and sad about it, because she was such a lonely adult and adored her father. You could tap into those feelings and the idea that there was going to be this magical moment, how the writing of this book was a way for her to have something that she could depend on emotionally. I scored an early Tom Hanks movie that probably he’d want to forget called The Man With One Red Shoe (1985). I’ve ended up scoring a lot of Tom Hanks movies quite by accident.

  • 'Bridge of Spies'

    This was pretty much a departure for [director] Steven [Spielberg]. And it was really circumstantial because I think John [Williams, Spielberg’s longtime composer] had had some back issues or something and had been away from work and he had other obligations. So there was going to be no way that he could work on it. Steven was a very able collaborator and a very courteous one. When he came over to my studio and he would like something, you could tell he liked it because he was a member of an audience liking the movie that was in front of him. He’s very honest emotionally that way. If something works, he is so delighted that it works, like a kid. And very patient. Yes, there were 45-minute meetings or an hour and 15 even because he was going to be flying to Vancouver or something like that, but I never sensed an impatient person in him. He was a great collaborator.

  • 'Passengers'

    I’ve done a couple of space films in my career. I think the way you make each one different is you have to take the movie and ask what’s exciting about the movie and then see what that means in terms of the musical language. I love the idea of a spaceship hurtling through space on an endless voyage and this idea of bows and whistles and dreamy bows and whistles, the "being lost at sea" kind of thing. So the existential aspect of that was compelling to me, and I guess I just took it from there. A lot of the time, when you do these things, you’re not thinking. You’re just surviving, and you’re saying, "What makes this scene more interesting?" Then in retrospect, you can look back and say, "Ah, I kind of saw what I was getting at," but at the time you’re just following with your nose. And I think I enjoy that. I enjoy intuiting more than intellectualizing.

  • '1917'

    Sam [Mendes] comes from this amazing theater background. 1917 combines all of his best instincts as a cinematic director and as a stage director. He was in command from the word "go." The movie wasn’t discovered, it was born. When Schofield [George MacKay] is running on the grass, Sam gave me very specific instructions: He’s going to make it. Sam’s idea was that the music would have an arc. It had to land at the moment that he goes up the trench and decides to run. I first saw the movie at the L.A. premiere. Sam asked, "Have you not seen it yet?" I said no. And he told me, "You’re such a chicken!" It was just so much work and it’s hard to step away. But finally seeing it was great. I really enjoyed it.

    This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.