by Dan Goldwasser
David Newman has scored over 80 feature films in the past twenty-years. From comedies like Throw Momma from the Train and Scooby Doo, to dramatic films like Hoffa and Brokedown Palace, his versatility and range reaches far and wide. Currently, his music can be heard on the science fiction film Serenity, based on the "Firefly" television series by Joss Whedon. SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to talk with David about his involvement on this film, and his other works.
How did you come on board to score Serenity?
I was skiing in Utah when Universal Music Executive Harry Garfield called me and said that Joss Whedon was looking for someone to score his film, Serenity. He had a problem with the first composer that was hired, so they were looking for someone else, and Harry thought we would get along well. I saw the film while on vacation, called Joss, and we had a great discussion about it. It's a wonderful movie with all sorts of possibilities for music. We talked a few more times, and then when I got back, we spotted the film in late January.
How long did you have to write the score, and were there a lot of modifications, since the film didn't come out nine months later? (You know how Hollywood is, with constant tinkering of the edits, etc!)
I worked on it from February until the final mix, which was in July. There were quite a few modifications, both to the picture and to the music, but it was all done in a culture of respect for the film and not just to "try things, mess around, or for an exertion of power".
The television series adopted the rule of "no sound in space" - was the film mix similar, with an emphasis on score?
Not really. It was mixed in a more conventional way, though there is plenty of music in those scenes. We were always trying to stay away from being too "big", but in the large space battle near the end of the movie, we went all out.
How hands-on was Joss, and how much time did you spend with him discussing the musical approach to the film?
It was one of the best experiences I have ever had on a movie. Joss was very hands on, but in an intelligent way. He allowed me to go all over the map before we honed in on the essence on the score. He was wonderful in "talking" about the music and the film which was so helpful in constructing the "musical world". I think we spent about 5 months doing the score. [Play "Serenity" MP3]
Did you watch any episodes of "Firefly" to become familiar with the characters/universe? If not, how did Joss "set up" the world for you? (What direction were you given?)
I watched a bit, but we wanted to make "this film" not an adaptation of the series. Joss and I did talk about the music as I have discussed in the above answer.
What can you tell me about the piano you found for use in the Serenity score, and where is that piano now?
The piano was a square baby grand piano that was, by a fortuitist coincidence, perfect for the character of River. The piano is still in Indianapolis in one the cellist's living room. It is "superbly" out of tune, so if it was ever moved all the wonderful "mistuning" would be lost. I had them sample the piano, and that's what I used for the score. [Play "Love" MP3]
How did you make the transition from session work / conducting into composing, and what was it that pushed you into that direction?
Playing violin and doing freelance conducting are very difficult, arduous ways to make a musical life. I had always resisted composing, but as is true to most of what I do, I eventually get where I am supposed to be. I am a very "traditionally" trained composer. I can pretty much figure out how to do anything I want it music (my definition of training). I think that composing is what I am supposed to do in music. So, once I figured that out I started on the path. Contrary to what it might seem like, for me in was extraordinarily difficult to get my first feature film (Vendetta, a Roger Corman film).
Why had you always resisted composing?
Composing is a daunting - and for me, "noble" - undertaking. I am a person that honors craft, training, and education, so I just didn't feel ready until that time. I think that the impulse to compose is something that is ingrained in a person, regardless of their upbringing or education. But for me, I wanted to be as ready as possible.
One of your first composing projects was Tim Burton's short film, Frankenweenie, which you collaborated on with Michael Convertino. How was it working with another composer, and would you collaborate on a score again if given the opportunity?
Terrible and horrible... and NO!
Do you feel that you might have been pigeonholed as a composer who specializes in comedies, or are you drawn to them?
Of course I am pigeonholed. I think that everyone is. You just want to be pigeonholed when it's useful and you don't when it isn't. But it is a fact of life for all film composers.
What is your favorite type of film genre to score for?
How did you meet Danny DeVito?
I met Danny on Throw Momma from the Train. He loved the score I did for Critters and had used some of it to temp his movie. We hit it off instantly and very quickly developed a "non-language" language. I love working for Danny, as he has such an innate sense of music which is evident in all his movies. [Play "Hoffa End Credits" MP3]
It's an understatement to say that you come from a musical family. Do you ever feel like you're in competition with Thomas and Randy? Would you ever collaborate with them if the right project came about?
I don't feel in competition with anyone but myself. Obviously you want everyone to love "everything" you do, but really the key to a fulfilling musical life is to be pleased with your own output and effort. As to collaboration, as I stated before, I don't believe in it in regards to orchestral music.
Growing up in "old Hollywood", you must have a unique perspective on the state of the industry. How do you feel that film scores have changed in the past few decades, and is it for better or worse?
Films are now spotted before the film composer comes on board, at least most of the time. It gives many films a "same" feeling. The music might be odd, eclectic, but it is usually "odd and eclectic" in a sort of "same" way. I think that is a negative. However, there are still many wonderful scores being written.
What "wonderful scores" stand out to you, from the past few years?
Can't really comment!
What do you consider your favorite score that you've composed, and why?
Serenity and Death to Smoochy. Serenity for all the reasons stated above, and Death to Smoochy as it was for me, one of the best marriages of a narrative and music. With all the songs I wrote and the crazy, manic style, the music seemed to me to fit perfectly.
Would you ever entertain a Death to Smoochy soundtrack release?
I would love to do that, It is just a re-use problem.
How come you seem to be under-represented on CDs?
I am not all that interested in having film music on CDs. For me it has to be a certain kind of movie. Comedies are just not good soundtrack candidates.
How involved were you with the Varese Club release of The Kindred, which has
now sold out?
I was not involved at all - it was a very nice surprise. [Play "John's Revelation" MP3]
What older scores of yours would you like to see get released officially?
Meet the Applegates, That Night, and all of DeVito's films that are not released, particularly Throw Momma from the Train.
What are you working on now?
I have a commission to write a series of woodwind pieces, and a woodwind Quintet (all with orchestra) for the Long Beach Symphony. I am currently working on that.
When will they be performed?
It will be on all the concerts for the 2005-06 Season. Each individual woodwind player in the Quintet will have a solo piece, and then for the last concert of the season they will all play together. If you go to the web site sometime early next year you will be able to see what is going on.
You also conduced the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the "Soundstage LA" concert, and the Henry Mancini Institute Film Music concert at UCLA this summer. Do you have any more plans to conduct film music live, and which scores of yours would best be suited to be played for a live audience?
I don't have any more plans, but I try not to plan too much conducting. It just comes up from time to time. I am not sure what would be good of mine, as most of my music has so much sampled playback and electronics.
What is your dream project?
I am living it! I get to write music all day, and am actually paid for it!
The soundtrack to Serenity is available from Varese Sarabande Records, and the film is currently in theaters. Be sure to check out the website for the Long Beach Symphony for details on the woodwind pieces.
Special thanks to Jeff Sanderson at Chasen PR for his assistance with this interview.