If film composer John Debney has a specialty, it's that he can and does handle any kind of assignment, from child-oriented adventure films (Spykids II: Island of Lost Dreams, Inspector Gadget), suspense (Swimfan), animation (The Emperor's New Groove, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius), comedy (The Hot Chick; Liar, Liar), action/ martial arts (The Tuxedo, Sudden Death), sprawling epic (The Scorpion King) and nearly every other sub-category.
Southern California native Debney is the second generation of his family to be involved in entertainment, and has a background in rock & roll and TV scoring and orchestration. He's one of film music's citizen-advocates, immersed in the genre's history (he's conducted the Scottish National Orchestra in several recorded re-creations of important Hollywood scores by others) and concerned about film music's future (as a guest lecturer in the annual ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop). Debney is also among the industry's most in-demand composers, with several high profile projects on tap for 2003, including the forthcoming Jim Carrey film, Almighty Bruce, Garry Marshall's Raising Helen and the animated Disney movie, Chicken Little. In this Playback interview, Debney conveys the contagious enthusiasm of a true believer about his craft.
- By Jim Steinblatt
Was there anything about your childhood that prepared you for your career in film and TV?
Yes, I was born right outside Hollywood in Glendale, California. I was a show biz brat -- my father worked at Disney Studios for over 40 years, beginning when he was a teenager. He was a musician but he worked in production and he was an associate producer on many of the early Disney TV programs,including The Mickey Mouse Club. When I was a kid, I remember my dad bringing home some of the classic Disney films on 16 mm film. Once I'd learned how to read music, I'd sit with the written score for Sleeping Beauty, for example, and follow along while watching the film. I always had a keen interest in that.
You must have shown interest in music early in life.
Pretty early. Both of my parents played instruments; my mom played guitar and so when I was six, I decided to try that and took lessons. I just kept going, playing in bands as a teenage rock & roll person. In my college years (John Debney studied at California Institute of the Arts where he received a degree in Composition), I became serious about music and also about drama -- I hoped to become an actor. I decided that music was the less crazy of two crazy ideas, so I stuck with that.
Did Cal Arts have film music facilities?
Not really at that time. When I went to Cal Arts, it was serious music -- most of the students were going to be classical composers or symphony orchestra musicians.
Did you pursue other areas of music before embarking on your career as a film and television composer?
During my college years, I played in a band that got a record deal. I would do charts for the band and string arrangements. Once I got out of college and had gotten all the rock & roll dreams out of my head, I became serious about being an orchestrator. I orchestrated for different people who were scoring television shows. I think my story is one of slowly climbing up the ladder, starting as an orchestrator, putting in my time on television.
Someone took a chance on you with TV scoring work?
Yes. Eventually, I got episodes of a series, which led to whole series and themes. It was a long journey up but it provided me with the opportunity to learn many skills. Television does that because you have no time. In the Eighties, I'd be working with orchestras for TV shows every day of the week, which is unlike TV today. It was a great training ground.
Why are orchestras not as much a part of TV music today as when you started out?
I'm glad you asked that. It's been sort of a disappointment for me. One of the reasons I tried to get out of television in the early Nineties was that TV was going the way of "cheaper is better." Most shows these days are done with keyboard synthesizers, which are fine. The shame of it is that there's not a lot of room for live human beings, live players -- just a few shows utilize live musicians. To me a big part of the joy in what I do is that I consider it an honor to stand in front of live musicians and have the opportunity to hear my music played by these talented people. I made the decision to try and make the leap into more feature work. Through a series of circumstances, I was fortunate and got a movie or two from Disney. I've been on that journey ever since. I was lucky to get into the feature world, but it was only through saying no to a lot of television back then.
When you begin a film project, do you go in with your own conception of the music or do you have do it the way the director wants?
Nowadays, it's really a collaborative effort, sometimes to the detriment of the score. As a composer, you absolutely must listen to the director and whoever else is in the room. Compare that to the Fifties, the "Golden Age" of film scoring. Back then, you'd have a very strong music department. The composers were much more shielded and were able to do what they thought best. Many times, the director and producers would be hearing the music for the first time on the scoring stage. Now we demo everything beforehand. That could be good or bad.
When working on the score of a big epic, for example, do you automatically go for the sound of a full orchestra?
Not necessarily -- there are lots of ways to approach a movie. Here's an anecdote. Last year I worked on the The Scorpion King. There were so many levels that I had to deal with. One is the fact that almost all films are "temped," meaning that the filmmakers will go in and throw bits and pieces of different scores to try and give an impression of what the music might be. These "temps" can be really good or bad, depending on what they're trying to achieve. The initial discussions on Scorpion King were that it'd be along the lines of The Mummy, but a little more adventurous, and that the music should be a massive, traditional score. They did a couple of screenings and that resulted in the thinking that the score should be rock & roll. As it ended up, it was mainly a traditional score with some rock & roll elements.
When doing a lighter film -- a romantic comedy or something aimed at teens, you take a different tack. You must have to go in with a different mindset for each film.
You must leave behind whatever you did last, because every film is different. Variety is the spice of life and I've been fortunate to be able to work on Scorpion King and then turn around and do The Princess Diaries. That makes it fun for me.
What was your most challenging project?
As the most challenging and rewarding, the one that comes to mind is Cutthroat Island (the 1996 pirate film directed by Renny Harlin and starring Harlin's then-wife, Geena Davis). That may seem strange because the film is known as this huge failure. When we were doing it, it was this amazingly glorious experience because it required me to compose over two hours of huge swashbuckling-type music. It was a tremendous opportunity to write that kind of score, which I relished. The film didn't do very well, which was disappointing. Still, it was the most challenging and highly rewarding simply because I was given this huge canvas to paint.
In working on a film like that do you think back to scores by Korngold and the other film music pioneers?
Absolutely. Our intention was that it be an homage to them, because I grew up loving Erich Korngold, Max Steiner and all those guys. I was trying to write the best possible score I could. I think for any composer to write for a pirate movie, a big cowboy movie or a space epic like Star Wars, that's a dream job. The Scorpion King was right up there because it was really fun to dive into all the elements that go into something like that.
What was probably rare in film music 25 years ago, but commonplace now are the soundtracks in which part is scored by a composer with the rest just pop records that are licensed. The film scoring community can't be thrilled by this.
I'm sure the die-hard fans aren't terribly enamored by this. But I can go either way with it. I think if there's a balance I don't really have a problem with it. I only have a problem with a song idea when the studio is jamming the songs down the throat of the film. I've had many directors tell me that they don't want this or that song as part of the film. But the reality is that if you get a hit soundtrack, quite frankly, some of those do better than the movies. My main criterion is that the songs do something for the movie and are part of the movie.
I've understand that the Jim Carrey movie, Bruce Almighty, is your current project. What else is coming up for you?
I've been fortunate that Garry Marshall, with whom I worked on The Princess Diaries, invited me back to the party for a film he's working on now called Raising Helen starring Kate Hudson. Garry is one of these special human beings that is tremendously wonderful to work with. That's what I'll jump into after Bruce Almighty. And there's an animated Disney feature looming somewhere over the horizon.
How does composing for animation differ from live-action film scoring?
I always describe animation as being a two-dimensional situation, i.e., you don't have living, breathing human beings that make noise. You have the screen and the actors voicing the animated characters, along with the sound effects and the music. The music and sound effects in animated movies have to create a lot more of the environment and, many times, the emotions of the film. Animated, 2-D figures can't emote in the way a human actor can. The music in animated features often has to convey a lot more.
What are the important issues for film and TV composers today?
One of the concerns I have is technology, which has enabled us to do amazing things. In the old days, a composer might play a little theme for a director on a piano and say, "See you in six weeks on the scoring stage." Now, literally ninety-eight percent of every piece in a movie has been demo'ed thoroughly before we even get to the scoring stage. Technology can be a tool to show directors and producers a hint of what the music will ultimately sound like. The down side with technology is that, with younger composers coming up, we may sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are skills, techniques and fundamentals that have to be learned in order to be a really good film composer. I've already seen instances where the technology can really overshadow the craft. You can get someone who's barely knowledgeable of music fundamentals doing big film scores. My hope is, with the advent of technology, that we never lose sight of the craft involved -- that learning harmony, theory and counterpoint is really important.
Conducting is another concern of mine. I conduct all my own film scores. There are lots of big composers here in Hollywood who don't ever conduct. It's sort of a dying art. I just hope that there won't come a day when all the scores in films that you see are reproduced by machine -- that while a machine is part of the process, it can't replace a great living and breathing violinist.
Playback : February - March 2003