Tech Support: Thomas Newman on 'Skyfall' and the everyday challenges of a film composer

Posted by · 8:05 am · February 16th, 2013

Film music composer Thomas Newman landed his 11th Oscar nomination to date last month, for his original contributions to “Skyfall.” It’s the latest in a long line of Academy mentions both in the song and score categories for two decades for him, but despite the strong showing, he has yet to wrangle one of the trophies for himself.

Last weekend he won his second BAFTA Award to date (on just three nominations from the group throughout his career). And, along with “Skyfall” colleague Roger Deakins, he is putting a little bit of pressure on the presumed frontrunners in his category.

A handful of those Oscar nominations along the way have come for Sam Mendes films, including the director’s latest. Mendes likes to showcase Newman’s work in his films, being very detailed with his sound mixers about how he wants it to shine, and that was a particular note on “Skyfall.” This was, after all, the new chapter of a franchise that has music woven into the fabric of its very identity.

“I think I’m the ninth composer in 50 years,” Newman says of his place in that legacy. “It’s one thing to kind of come up and show people a sense of original style and another thing to try to make the ‘Bond music machine’ kind of happen in just the right way. But in the end you want to make an exciting movie. So I think Sam was going to make sure that I did that. He wanted to make really sure that the music took it on that way, that there were no moments of sag, that there were moments of excitement all the way down.”

Newman had a working repertoire from four previous films in place with Mendes. But he was moving into just his second collaboration with director John Madden, for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” And he frequently takes on gigs with new talent, so when asked about the delicate nature of taking over the intimate head space of a director’s vision for its musical identity, he still has plenty of perspective.

“I think in the end, a director wants to recognize his movie,” he says. “It’s a tough process, because of the shock of the new. Any new idea you play for a director, it’s going to hit him or her in the face a little at first. It’s a measure of strength to see how they kind of come away from that but in the end if I have some swell idea for a scene in a movie that has nothing to do with the director’s vision, that can not work because it’s just not his movie anymore.

“What’s nice is to be able to surprise a director with an idea he or she never would have thought of but is moving and improves the scene. But it’s a game of taste, and taste is undefendable, and often times really good ideas can be tossed out for really no good reason, just taste. ‘I don’t like it, sorry.’ It’s one of those things.”

The practice of using temp music to help guide that vision is also dicey at times, Newman says. “I guess you kind of hope when you hear temp music that it’s average, that it’s kind of doing what it needs to be doing to help the movie tell its story. Typically what you try to do is see what the music is doing dramatically and not necessarily instrumentally or compositionally and see if you can find your own way to that dramatic place.”

Ultimately, though, he thinks it’s best to come as fresh to the visual material as possible. “Often times reading a script can mislead you,” he says. “Or really, conversation with directors — pre-production conversations with directors — can mislead you, because they’re in the middle of forming a sense of style and content. Sometimes the best thing is to see a movie and, boom, there it is. There’s no expectations; it hits you for the first time and you have a real honest idea of what it is.”

But “Skyfall” was, of course, a different beast altogether. It’s a film with a built-in musical pulse, and the challenge for Newman was finding it and making it click fresh for a new generation. But not without releasing the past, of course, and indeed, therein lie the overall theme of the film. And maybe, just maybe, it can be the first film of that lineage to win a pair of music Oscars on the occasion of 007’s 50th anniversary.

Wouldn’t that be something?

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