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Scoring The Screen: Thomas Newman And the Music Of 'Shawshank'

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Scoring The Screen: Thomas Newman And the Music Of 'Shawshank'

Scoring The Screen: Thomas Newman And the Music Of 'Shawshank'

Scoring The Screen: Thomas Newman And the Music Of 'Shawshank'

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Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman — whose credits include animated films like Finding Nemo and Wall-E to The Shawshank Redemption — kicks off our "Scoring the Screen" series with Robert Siegel.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Seeing a movie isn't just about seeing. It's equally about hearing words and music.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS FILM SCORES)

SIEGEL: Those are bits of some of my favorite movie scores. Even "Lawrence Of Arabia" would feel small to me without that magnificent orchestral score by Maurice Jarre. This week, we're bringing you a series that examines the music behind the movies - Scoring the Screen. We'll hear from five composers, and we start today a with 12-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman. You've probably heard his music and scores for "Erin Brockovich" or "The Shawshank Redemption," "Saving Mr. Banks" or this one - "Wall-E," the animated film about a robot left alone on an abandoned planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WALL-E" SCORE)

SIEGEL: At first, the score is quirky and playful. Later, the emotion deepens as the score conveys WALL-E's loneliness and sorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WALL-E" SCORE)

SIEGEL: See, you are practically ridding a score for a silent film. How did you do it? I mean, did you see a finished animation and write to it? Or were you in the process? How did it all happen?

THOMAS NEWMAN: I mean, you always see various phases of the animation. It's funny. When you go and see the movie, you think, wow, I never saw that. It's because you never did because it's in a constant state of refinement. So a lot of these movies, you can parcel out areas and decide when transitions need to take place, which is a lot of what animation is about. It's feeling followed by transition, followed by more feeling, and typically in, like, little five-second bursts.

SIEGEL: Here's something from another animated film you scored, which was "Finding Nemo," a great movie. This is a part of the score titled "Fish Are Friends, Not Food."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM SCORE, "FISH ARE FRIENDS, NOT FOOD")

SIEGEL: I feel as scared as a small fish being chased by a shark right there. Was that bass at the beginning - is this the "Jaws" joke?

NEWMAN: Well, I don't know. I mean, I guess there are certain conventions that come with film and with scoring film. So maybe one of those is menace in a lower register. It's trying to evoke some sense of chaos and adventure.

SIEGEL: We hear that as we're watching very rapid action in the animation. As you're writing it, do you know how fast that scene is going to be? Or...

NEWMAN: Oh, you have to. Pace is what it's all about. And the speed of cuts - you know, the nature of tails kind of swishing around - all give you kind of clues as to what kind of pace the music needs to have.

SIEGEL: The music we expect to hear in the movie theater, seeing a movie, has changed a lot over the years. And some would say the audience's expectations of what they hear has changed a lot. But I was listening to what you wrote for "The Shawshank Redemption" - a piece that The Wall Street Journal recently just wrote about - how good it is. If my wife is listening right now, she may start crying.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: She believes the second hundred times that you watch "The Shawshank Redemption" are the best.

NEWMAN: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: But could you have composed this had you been around in 1940?

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION" SCORE)

SIEGEL: I think people are weeping on highways all over America right now as they're hearing that. This is old-time movie music that you wrote, yeah?

NEWMAN: I guess you could say it is. It's certainly orchestral. I mean, it's kind of doing something like movie music would have done long ago, I think.

SIEGEL: The way one person put it to me was today's filmgoer would feel manipulated by the music of the old days too much.

NEWMAN: I think that's probably true. I think as storytelling has changed, you know, it's kind of turned into kind of hyper-reality movies. So, you know, music is such an odd thing when you think about it behind an image, until you take it away. And then you realize that a movie sounds blank without it, which is very uplifting for me to realize - that there is a place for it. But it's a very odd thing to talk about it, which is - which is why it's easier when it comes in. It's easier when you lift a moment. But when you have to go back down and away, how do you do that, unless you come out with a tire screech or a gunshot or something?

SIEGEL: Let's just do a very brief family tree here. Your father, Alfred Newman...

NEWMAN: Yeah, my father's Alfred Newman - born in 1900, child prodigy at the piano, ended up in pit orchestras in the teens. I think he's one of the youngest conductors to conduct Broadway and worked with George Gershwin and Jerome Kern and Cole Porter - went out with Irvin Berlin in 1930 to Hollywood and never left. And the family kind of followed him out. My uncle Lionel ended up being a bug guy at 20th Century Fox, which my father had been - and, of course, my cousin Randy - you know, one of the great American songwriters. It was a storied family and, in many ways, very tough to emerge from.

SIEGEL: Do you have a favorite movie score of someone else's? I mean, is there something which, to you, is sort of the platonic ideal of the film score and - boy, wish you could do that one day?

NEWMAN: Well, Hugo Friedhofer scored "The Best Years Of Our Lives" - I liked an awful lot. And the score to "The Wizard Of Oz" - the Stothart score.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE WIZARD OF OZ" SCORE)

NEWMAN: It really always struck me as very fresh and original. But I'm not a huge fan of - I mean, I'm not a fan boy of film scores. I should know them better, and I don't. I don't even know my dad's music that well.

SIEGEL: People attach much importance to this. Your father sort of won Oscars the way Ted Williams won batting titles, but -and you haven't won one yet.

NEWMAN: (Laughter) I have not yet.

SIEGEL: How else should I say that? You have not won one. Does this keep you awake at nights in winter, or is it an ambition? Does it matter much?

NEWMAN: I think what matters most to me is that - you know, this is going to sound terribly pat. But the opportunity to be able to write it and to be creative, to actually have discussions with directors about feeling, about tone and subtext is so rewarding that the idea of being acknowledged - you know, while it's great, you kind of put it somewhere else. So I don't think it keeps me up at night. It may hurt a little bit, you know, for five minutes after it happens, and then it's over.

SIEGEL: But still, as you mentioned, you love the score from "The Wizard Of Oz." That was a year (laughter) when I think it beat out "Gone With The Wind."

NEWMAN: It beat out "Gone With The Wind." Also, it beat out four scores of my dad - "Hunchback Of Notre Dame," I think, and "Wuthering Heights" and "They Shall Have Music." Yeah. I know. It's crazy. So I don't really ever see it as this is the best so much as this is what won. Unless it sounds bitter, in which case, I retract that.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Thomas Newman, thank you for joining us and talking with us about the music you write for the movies.

NEWMAN: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Veteran film composer Thomas Newman was our first guest in our series on film composition. Tomorrow, we'll hear from a newcomer Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the music for the film "Whiplash."

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