'Toy Story 4' Composer Randy Newman on Writing a Song About an Introverted Spork

Deborah Coleman/Pixar
Along with his two Oscars, Randy Newman has won three Emmys and seven Grammy  Awards.

The singer-songwriter also talks about reuniting with Noah Baumbach for 'Marriage Story,' hearing his songs at Disneyland and why he avoids playing certain tunes at his concerts.

In the world of film composing, few have had a career arc quite like Randy Newman. The wry singer-songwriter has been nominated for 20 Academy Awards, having won twice for compositions from 2001's Monsters, Inc. ("If I Didn't Have You") and 2010's Toy Story 3 ("We Belong Together"). This year, he returned for Disney and Pixar's Toy Story 4 — which features a Newman score plus the original song "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away" — as well as scored Netflix's emotionally intricate Marriage Story. Newman, 75, chatted with THR on working with Noah Baumbach, writing a song about an introverted spork and how he unexpectedly created Disney's musical identity despite his affinity for darkness.

Marriage Story is your second collaboration with Baumbach. What is your process like with him?

You have to be able to get along with the director you work with. And I like him. He's a good guy. And the music has gotten better through each picture. I just tell him to give me adjectives, like "loud" and "soft" and "pretty" and "not so pretty." I'd send him stuff on piano that I thought I would expand later for the orchestra. Sometimes he liked the piano version, and we would just use that.

The movie opens with two highly evocative themes: "What I Love About Charlie" and "What I Love About Nicole."

There's a hint of the past in them — a storybook, once-upon-a-time type of thing. But I don't really do scores the way some composers do, where there are definite themes, and they bring them back and develop them. I like it better to just play what's going on in the scene. I think maybe that's what I'm good at.

What kind of orchestra did you work with?

A smaller one than usual. With Toy Story, I used a hundred musicians. This one maybe 40, which is a big difference. Fewer strings, fewer everything. I hadn't used that size orchestra before. It's more difficult in some ways because you can't hide behind 40 violins. You hear everything. If there's too much oboe, you hear it.

This new song you wrote and performed for Toy Story 4, "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away." Obviously we're literally talking about a spork that wants to stay in the garbage. Are there parts of your personal life you may have pulled from to write this song?

I didn't really so much. Woody is trying to keep Forky from throwing himself away. Just as in "You've Got a Friend in Me," where I wanted to emphasize the friendship. It's not a romantic creation. It's not like I suffered and agonized to come up with this song. I mean, I always suffer and agonize when I'm composing, but there was nothing from my life particularly.

So you don't think about a time when, say, a friend was deep into drugs or something like that?

Well, you can't tell people not to marry people, but there's times I've attempted that. But suicide is a horrible waste. I've talked to people who seemed to be seriously considering it. In this song, there was some concern about not evoking suicide because it's for children. But there's nothing in the lyric that disqualifies it from being looked at that way.

The Toy Story franchise is synonymous with you and you with it. Early in your career, could you ever have pictured being so closely associated with a Disney franchise of this magnitude?

No way. Even now, the songs I write for myself for albums and stuff are not Disney-like in any sense of the word. I went to Disneyland recently, and [my music] was all over the place. It really is an anomaly for me. I loved it, actually. But it's a real surprise.

Some of your songs are so dark.

They're funny in a dark way — let's put it that way. But not Disney-approved.

So at your concerts, do you find a lot of kids in the crowd who came to hear the hits, and then suddenly you're playing some dark song about depression and death?

Yeah. I try to do the [Toy Story song] "You've Got a Friend in Me" and "I Like to See You Smile" from Parenthood early. So the kids can go to sleep if they want. When I do an outdoor show with more kids, maybe there are some songs I won't do because they're too rough.

Which ones?

"Same Girl." That's kind of a rough song. "In Germany Before the War," which is about a child killing. I once asked a friend, "Do you think I could get laughs after doing that song?" He said, "No. I think child killing is pretty much a laugh killer."

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.