Composer David Newman Grilled on Comedy

Tunesmith is receiving the BMI Film and TV Awards lifetime achievement honor on May 20.

Last Updated: May 18, 2009 @ 11:20 AM

David Newman, 55, has scored more than 90 films in the last 25 years. Often associated with comedies and family films — “Ice Age,” “Dr. Dolittle” and “The Flintstones” are among his credits — Newman will be honored for his body of work on May 20 at the BMI Film and TV Awards. He will receive the songwriting organization’s lifetime achievement honor, the Richard Kirk Award.


Does receiving an award like this make you look back at all, wondering what does it all mean?

I sort of go back periodically, which is a byproduct of technology because you’re constantly converting to new technologies. I’ve never gotten an award like this, and I am not at all comfortable with it. It’s not the person I am. I don’t like attention — I’m more rank and file.

How so?
I grew up playing violin in orchestras so I approach music more from a player’s standpoint. My dad (composer Alfred Newman) downplayed (receiving awards). He had 45 Oscar nominations and won nine times but he always downplayed it.

In retrospect, are there films you can pinpoint as being turning points for you?

I do a small amount of lecturing and there are two films I always mention that made a difference, not just career-wise but also artistically. One was "Brave Little Toaster" (1987).

 

I learned what I could actually do and learned what I was capable of, which was a lot more than I had thought. The other film was my first with Danny De Vito, "Throw Momma From the Train." It was the first time I had a to rewrite a main title. It taught me a lesson that the worst things that happen while working on a film may eventually be the best things that happen.

 

You can’t predict. I always try to tell students to have that mentality. When someone tells you that they don’t like your music that hurts. But once I rewrote the cue I knew it was better.


Aren’t you basically telling students to always remember that film is collaborative?

It is. It demands that you be open to ideas from others. Another profound experience, and this one was more personal, happened on ‘Galaxy Quest.’ I had the last cue mocked up and it had been played for (the filmmakers) but they had not told me they didn’t like it.

 

We had the orchestra ready to go when they told me to rewrite it and we had to speed up the music and write another 30 bars of music. I sat at the piano and started rewriting, yelling out notes for the orchestra to play.

 

Because I sat in orchestras my whole life — the LA Unified School District had a fabulous music program in the ’60s and ’70s — a full hour a day from the first grade through high school — I was able to get across what we needed. It was so incredible (The musicians) respond — the orchestra starts to hang with you, which may be particular to Hollywood.

 

But it was a hugely successful flip from something they didn’t like to something they loved. That became a turning point for me as an overall musician.

You mentioned films that are not comedies but when we go over your credits, so many of your films are either studio comedies or family films. How has that come to pass?

It just happened that way. The first movies I was offered sounded appealing and for me, it’s the people involved and not so much the genre. I have never looked at (a film) from a genre standpoint. All the films are singular events, not a part of a genre. I don’t know that I have the ability to write comedy. And I can’t control any of this stuff – you take the jobs that are put in front of you. Even if it’s a shitty movie, you tend to find something good about it and try to contribute something good. I used to worry about those things more.

Comedy could well be more difficult that dramatic films. In drama, the composers working aroudn song placements are often asked to write extremely dark pieces that a song cannot convey. In comedy, the cues have to function on a multiple levels.

I’ve done a lot of dark comedy and there you are walking on a tightrope. It can be really tricky. I tend to think operatic in those cases. ‘Monster-in-Law,’ which was tricky to do, really was a genre movie, but i had so many different moods in it that you couldn’t force it go in any direction.

When you use the term operatic I immediately think of your work in ‘Matilda.’

Matilda was a gentle little girl who has to be seen as big and powerful. I had to come up with a way to get a big sound without overwhelming the little girl. I didn’t think of it as an issue at the time. I’d ask (the filmmakers) ‘what do you do here?’

 

The goal was to keep her spirit intact. You can find interesting stuff in the characters. I’m a late bloomer (in composition) so I didn’t have (a list of musical devices). But I have always been an avid reader and I try to stay attuned to people and characters. That’s how I look at it now.