John Debney, Emmy- and Oscar-Nominated Composer, Will Receive ASMAC Golden Score Award

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John Debney

The industry veteran, who will be honored along with Conrad Pope, reveals a few "fluke-y" career breaks and what it's like to work with director Mel Gibson: "Because he's a great actor, he’s less verbal and more demonstrative."

John Debney has written music for animation (Tiny Toon Adventures, The Emperor’s New Groove), action movies (Cutthroat Island, Iron Man 2), comedies (Elf, The Princess Diaries), religious epics (The Passion of the Christ, for which his score received an Oscar nomination) and television — he and Bruce Broughton are nominated for a 2016 Emmy for the score of History’s Texas Rising. Right now the California-born composer, whose father was a Disney producer, is gearing up to do Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book and Mel Gibson’s upcoming drama Hacksaw Ridge. Debney, 59, and Conrad Pope (who has worked on the Hobbit and Harry Potter franchises) each will be honored with a Golden Score Award from The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers’ at a ceremony featuring famed songwriter Richard M. Sherman at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles on September 17th.

You’ve won three Emmy Awards, numerous ASCAP awards and you were nominated for an Academy Award for your Passion of the Christ score, so what does the American Society of Musicians and Composers Golden Score Award mean to you?

ASMAC organization has been around for a long, long time it was always in my mind the sort of grandfather of all those organizations — it’s been around for 76 years. So I always considered this award, when I was a younger composer, as something you get as a career achievement when you’re 80. But nonetheless it’s very prestigious and I know a lot of very successful people who have gotten this award, and it’s just really cool to be getting it with my friend Conrad Pope who’s one of the most amazing guys that I know, and we sort of came up in the same era. It’s your colleagues voting on your body of work and it’s rather humbling to be at that point where they’re giving me something like that.

How are you involved in the event’s performances?

They’re going to perform a medley of greatest hits of mine via a nice string quintet — we did the work a couple of years ago at a film festival and it will highlight things like Cutthroat Island and Princess Diaries, sort of a four- to five-minute medley. Also a couple friends of mine are going to perform  — Mike Lang’s going to play some excerpts of Dreamer, which is an Americana film I did a few years ago, and some friends and I are going to perform. There might be electric guitars involved.

How do you get a string quintet to perform a gigantic score like Cutthroat Island?

It’s very difficult, actually. My friend and a wonderful composer and orchestrator, Kevin Kaska, did the arrangement a number of years ago for string quartet and did a beautiful job, and somehow got the meat of Cutthroat Island into that form.

You’ve had some great TV projects in the past year or two, you’ve scored movies for years, you’ve done video games and even arrangements for an online series — so what are the best opportunities for composers right now?

There’s a plethora of opportunities and I’m embracing all of them — I’ve jumped back wholeheartedly into doing television because it’s so good right now. There are incredible series and miniseries like the one I did with Bruce Broughton, Texas Rising, and they are great opportunities to do different stylistic things. I think of Houdini, which I did last year — Adrien Brody got nominated for it. It was a period film but that score was all electronica. Netflix is doing shows now, and I’m going to do a Starz show this year for my friend Josh Stern who did Swing Vote and Jobs — a great director.

What’s the biggest break you ever got?

I think there were a couple — I think the biggest was probably coming in and doing Hocus >Pocus for Disney over 20 years ago. That was a huge break and the result of a really kind gesture by James Horner who was going to do that film — he gave me a nice recommendation for that project and I’ll be forever grateful for that to him for that. I think doing Cutthroat Island was a pretty cool, flukey thing — again a friend of mine, David Arnold, was going to do it, but something happened and he was out and I was in.

You’re going to do Hacksaw Ridge with Mel Gibson.

Yes, and again, strangely, because of James Horner. James was scheduled to do that film and then the worst possible thing in the world happened and we lost him [Horner died June 22]. It sounds like it should be a really powerful, wonderful drama and I will be reunited with Mel on that, which will be great because we have a history and a shorthand after working on The Passion of the Christ together. Mel is probably the most intensive director I’ve worked with, in a good way. Because he’s such a great actor, that plays a part in it — he’s less verbal and more demonstrative. Sometimes I can play something for him and just tell by the look on his face whether he’s into it or not.