Film composer David Newman has a more extensive CV and movie heritage than most. The Newman family are part of Hollywood legend with a composing and movie music dynasty that includes father Alfred (Wuthering Heights, All About Eve, Airport and the iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare), uncle Emil (music director and conductor), uncle Lionel (Hello Dolly!, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, the score conductor for Alien and The Omen as well as musical supervisor on the original Star Wars trilogy) and cousin Randy (Parenthood, Toy Story and James and the Giant Peach). Having worked as a conductor in his early twenties, David Newman also trained as a pianist and violinist. And before long he was taken under the wing of composer gods John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith – where David played on the scores for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), The Twilight Zone (1983) and more. There was particular poetry to working with Williams as it was John who was earlier taken under the musical wing of David’s father Alfred in the ’50s.
David’s first stint of movie composing was for director Tim Burton and his 1984 short, Frankenweenie. He soon followed it up with one of the largest and most varied composer careers Hollywood has witnessed as the likes of Critters (1986), Throw Momma From the Train (1987), Heathers (1988), The War of the Roses (1989), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), The Freshman (1990), The Flintstones (1994), The Phantom (1996), The Nutty Professor (1996), Matilda (1996), Galaxy Quest (1999), Ice Age (2002), Serenity (2005) and The Spirit (2008) all continue to expand the musical wake of one of Hollywood’s hardest working tunesmiths.
David is also the brother of composer Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Finding Nemo, Angels in America, Road to Perdition, Saving Mr Banks, Wall-E and 1917). As well as repointing the sound of American cinema, in 2012 Thomas Newman was tasked by regular collaborator Sam Mendes to craft the score for the golden 007 bullet, Skyfall. Thomas’s work on his first Bond was nominated for an Academy Award and won the BAFTA and Grammy for original score. Cut to Double-O seven years later and James Bond 007 returns to London’s Royal Albert Hall and the home of the world premiere of Skyfall for the second debut of a Bond bullet alongside a live and full orchestra (following 2017’s Casino Royale in Concert). The conductor for these new 2019 Bond concerts will be David Newman.
As Skyfall rehearsals were in full flow, this bullet catcher and Bond music devotee spoke to David about his work, movie scoring history, his thoughts on 007 and Skyfall and the challenges of bringing a live Bond film to the hallowed Albert Hall…
Mark O’Connell: I often think that in that pre-internet age a movie score was a valuable something we could all buy and experience in our homes. It was how we owned and could keep a little part of a cherished movie. I feel that these new live movie concerts have now become an extension of that. Why do you feel global audiences are really responding to these live concerts?
David Newman: They are really responding. The proof is in how many orchestras there are performing movies. Almost every orchestra in the world is at one time or another during each season are doing one of these. I feel like it is more like a throwback to when the only way you could see a movie was going to a movie theater and see it with other people. Now of course you have all these options. You can watch a film by yourself or with your family. But I would guess most media is now consumed individually or with a very small group of people, whereas this is more like how most movies were historically consumed with crowds of people.
It goes back to the founding notes of cinema where live music in any form would accompany a film – whether it was a church piano, a local violinist or a small band. It is the DNA of movies’ marriage with music.
You can follow that trajectory also to the time when talking films started and the recording industry started to allow scores to be bought and recorded. Most of the scores in the era would be visual elements and not very sophisticated. In the silent era you couldn’t really record sound and a lot of places where you’d be playing the movie didn’t have the resources. Like you say, it would be on a piano in a church. And once in a while in Chicago or New York there would be a big orchestra and every once in a while there would be an original score. But it doesn’t mean that if there was an original score to a movie that you could hear it that way in Iowa or a myriad of places around, particularly, the United States. And once you get talking films and you can record then you can have a large accompaniment to a film in whatever size you want. It can then be fairly instantly seen all over the world. It is a weird trajectory because talking films were such a breathtakingly disruptive form of entertainment. And I think early on – maybe between the early 1930s and 1939 – they figured out the DNA of a film score. And that is still sort of what it is today – the idea that music is commenting on a story and is not just like a melodrama, but is doing something emotionally for the story.
I imagine when you are doing just a live concert of movie music – whether it your own or other people’s – there is a buffer space where you don’t have to align yourself to the visuals. But when it comes to these live cinematic concerts what are the elements that you have to really, really keep your eye and your ear on?
I’m mainly a film composer. So I think the job of a conductor at these events is to synchronise as palpably as possible. It is going to be different enough because of the environment and the group of people that are going to play. And we’re all human. We’re not perfect. I think the mandate is to try and synchronise. And not just the obvious James Bond explosions where the music sits on this and that and the other. But what about all the dialogue scenes where music goes on a particular phrase that exists in a dialogue. That’s just as important as well.
You’re really flying a plane. It is not just the orchestra in-front of you. It’s the audience of passengers sat behind you. It looks nerve-racking. Is it nerve-racking?
It’s very nerve-racking. And of course there are many conductors who do this now. There’s so many performances. But it all depends on your background. I’m a film maker. I’m trained in classical music. And I was a professional violinist. I played freelance in Los Angeles all through the ’70s and into the ’80s with John Williams and others. But I still consider myself a ‘film maker’. I’m still part of the filmmaking process. I have a particular stance on what I think a scene should be, how dramatic it should be and how you push through all the other sounds in the movie. But you’re going to get a variety of opinions about that.
Your own musical heritage is a given. When growing up in that Newman household – which I kind of stupidly imagine it is like some Newman Partridge Family where the Newman boys all sit round just riffing and playing and composing. And I’m sure it wasn’t really like that, but where did the Bond scores feature in that upbringing? Where you aware of that Bond sound?
Sure. They were one of the most exciting movies and an early series where you would get sequels. They weren’t really sequels, but they were a series. And it wasn’t so common then as it is now. They were racy with that John Barry music. There was nothing like how fun it was. They were exciting with all the women and the whole thing. We loved it. Tom and I loved them.
Nearly sixty years on, the expectancy for a new Bond score and Bond song is still mainstream news in Britain. As a composer, why do you suppose that is? Or is just because of that heritage and that idea of sequels, recurring motifs and coming back again. What is it about Bond?
There have been books written about it. My good friend Jon Burlingame wrote one [The Music of James Bond, 2012]. It’s a very unique property that lasts this long. It was very modern for its time. It still seems contemporary. It doesn’t seem to age. I would imagine very special for Britain as it is about British security services. But it really resonated. I remember when we were growing up it was the most exciting thing. And it’s still going.
Now I can only apologise for what is a real TV Guide question here, but if you were given carte blanche for the next Bond score and title song who would be your ideal artist to take on your fantasy Bond anthem?
I don’t know! There’s been such great songs, but quite frankly the song part of it was never the most fun thing for me. Although I loved some of the old songs – all the way from Paul McCartney to Sheena Easton. I love the Adele song and I think it’s great. I think it was the only one to ever win the Academy Award, right?
It’s the first. Sheena Easton, Carly Simon and Paul McCartney got nominated, but never won. Bassey never did. But it was the first win and then Sam Smith did it three years later. So, no pressure then for the next song and film! What were your thoughts when you heard your brother Thomas had secured the gig for Skyfall? As a composer what did you think he’s now got to navigate and get right?
I just knew he was going to have a blast, which I know he did. He’s working with a director that he’s familiar with. He spent a lot of time here in London writing and recording the score. It’s got that sound of the British thing and the whole DNA of James Bond. It was exciting. It was cool.
I loved it. I am a big fan of both of you, but I was so pleased when I heard he was going to be doing it. So you’re conducting Skyfall partly for your brother Tom and I hope he returns the favour one day as I am holding out for Thomas Newman conducts Critters in Concert. Can we make that an Albert Hall thing next year, no?!
Yeah, yeah – okay!
Has he given you any brotherly notes? Has he whispered in your ear ‘be careful of that cue’?
No. I’m sure he trusts me to kill myself by doing the best job I can. As I said I do get very nervous. It’s really meaningful to me do these concerts the best way I can. Your analogy of flying a plane for the audience is a very good one. When you’re conducting you do feel like you’re in an aeroplane with all the technology that you use to synchronise to not be too slow or too fast – it is like flying an aeroplane and you’re always on course, but you just keep correcting. And you want the audience to feel comfortable with it. You don’t want them to feel that it’s dangerous. It is a bit dangerous obviously, but you want them to sink into the film and hear the music live and be together with each other. It’s so important to be communal.
I remember seeing Casino Royale in Concert at the Albert Hall in 2017 and I was behind the conductor and was fascinated by the tech and the monitor he had with all these dots and almost space-age technology guiding him. And the greatest compliment I can give is that concert – and I am sure I will say the same after Skyfall in Concert – is that I forgot the orchestra was there. I had to remind myself that a piano piece was not just on film, but being played by a pianist near the left of the orchestra. It’s a great skill. But it is a weird situation of wanting to be noticed and unnoticed as well.
It’s the liveness of it. It’s so different when it’s live. And that is the goal. It’s what you said – you don’t know what to make of it. You go in and get ‘what am I supposed to watch’? ‘What is this?!’ ‘Is it the film or the orchestra playing live’? ‘What does that even mean’? It’s very hard to explain it to somebody who hasn’t experienced it.
Are there any particular Skyfall cues and themes you are looking forward to working with?
Yeah. But you’re going to hear things differently because it’s different. It’s a different environment. You’re going to hear things you don’t hear in the film because it’s live or they might have turned things way down in the film and sometimes the composer augments it a little bit because it’s live. Or does this or that. To me you get to hear the music in its original context.
I’m a big Spielberg devotee and wrote a recent book about that era of late ’70s and early ’80s American cinema. I recently saw John Williams praising you at a recent Hollywood Bowl concert. And I was then most excited to discover you were one of the violinists on the E.T. The Extra Terrestrial score – so I must ask what was that like working with one of the masters of cinema?
I was trained as a violinist. So was Tom. And piano lessons too. We had all our conservatory stuff. My parents made sure that we learned that. And when we were twelve or thirteen, rather than the American way which was to learn it in college. So we were all very early trained and Tom got into composing much earlier than I did. And I was doing the violin. And then I went to college and started doing freelance work. And I did a lot of conducting in my twenties. So I was a pretty secure orchestra player. I could play and sight-read pretty much anything, like the guys here in Britain. So I was able to soak it all up. But it wasn’t intimidating in the way you might think it was. I played on hundreds and hundreds of film scores. Also, I played on many, many John Williams film scores. And Jerry Goldsmith too. There were certain ones you just knew were special. And from the minute it [E.T.] started there was something special going on. Those cues with the solo harp and it goes on for four minutes. I’d never heard of anything like that – like watching John work with these really iconic harp players on an instrument that is very tricky to do if you’re not a harpist. He’d given Ralph Grierson the pianist the harp pieces. The end titles for E.T. are very much like a Chopin “Harp” Etude. And it’s also very difficult to play. So he gave it to Ralph at the beginning of the session and said he wouldn’t record the end titles until the end. And you could hear Ralph practising it for days. I’d go and sit mainly in the back because I was young and just soak the whole thing up. I’d watch how it would unfold and how they rehearsed and that’s where I learned.
It’s a beautiful score and one of its greatest skills is it very quickly sounded like music we’d known for a hundred years. That ten minute end sequence which is all music is like some suburban opera.
That was the most difficult for John to get right.
So one of the most anticipated films of 2021 is Spielberg’s West Side Story. It’s a delicious proposition of cinema and I think Spielberg is in a really good place to do his take on it now. Who knew his next shark movie was going to be West Side Story?! Now you cannot say much about it and rightly so, but what are the challenges and privileges being the guy that gets to re-voice Sondheim and Bernstein?
I’m not really re-voicing, but I really can’t talk about it. We pre-recorded all the music. They just finished shooting so it’ll be a good twelve weeks before any of us get to see anything and before we start working on it. There will be stuff that needs to be worked on, but it’s still in a stage where I am working out my role in it. It was a huge pre-record as you could imagine. There’s over an hour of singing and dancing. We did that over a two month period.
David, I deeply, deeply appreciate your time and words here. As a kid I seriously fell in love with the score for The War of the Roses when I was about fourteen and got goosebumps one Saturday afternoon at the movie theatre when your baroque score waltzed across Saul Bass’s titles. So it’s a real treat to have some of your time here today.
I seriously appreciate that.
I will be there for Skyfall in Concert and I cannot wait to see Newman Does Newman Does Bond and I think it’s going to be a great weekend of cinema and Bond music.
We’re going to do the best we can.
Again, a massive thanks to Mr David Newman and the Royal Albert Hall team.
Skyfall in Concert is at the Royal Albert Hall on October 4 and 5 2019 and opens at the Sydney Opera House on Friday 22 November 2019, in Lucerne, before further global performances unfurl in 2020 – including Toronto’s Meridian Hall on February 22/23 2020 and Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on April 3/4 2020.
Mark O’Connell is the author of Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan and Watching Skies – Star Wars, Spielberg and Us.