An Interview with David Newman by Ford A. Thaxton
Transcribed and Edited by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.73/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
One of the season’s most entertaining films – and one that may hold a special place for STAR TREK fans – is GALAXY QUEST. This lavish story about the cast of a fictional science fiction TV series, a la STAR TREK, who are mistaken for real space heroes by a group of aliens seeking help in their battle against an evil villain, was both nostalgic and spectacular, aided by an energetic score by David Newman, who is given one of his most expansive canvases for broad orchestral composition. After completing his score for GALAXY QUEST, Newman composed the prequel to THE FLINTSTONES, which reunited Newman with America’s favorite stone age family (he scored the original film in 1994). Interviewed on February 16th, Newman described his work on both films.
How did you become involved with GALAXY QUEST?
I’d done BROKEDOWN PALACE with Don Zimmerman, who was the editor on that. We’d had a really good time, so when he moved on to this project, he recommended me.
I know that you and your wife are fans of the classic STAR TREK and also THE NEXT GENERATION… So did this project have a special appeal for you in that regard?
It was fun. I really liked the movie, when I saw it, so that really was the motivating thing. The director, Dean Parisot, was just a wonderful, intelligent guy, and I really liked Don Zimmerman, so it a very enjoyable project.
What was the toughest thing for you on this score?
First we talked about parodying the STAR TREK theme. The original theme, aside from the fanfare, is almost a kind of a lounge melody, with that sort of Latin beat. So we toyed with doing that and different sorts of things. Then we came up with a little bit more of a straighter concept, not so apparently parodying the original television show.
But you did come up with what has become known as the “classic GALAXY QUEST” theme. The first time you hear it in the movie is during the opening credits, but throughout the film, you hear this kind of small, TV-orchestra version of it…
Whenever they show the “show”, yeah. It needed to be a theme that I could develop and use in different ways, and that also dictated what kind of melody and what sort of setting it started off with, so that it could be used through the movie as things changed and became more serious.
How big was the “classic” GALAXY QUEST theme orchestra?
First we recorded the last cue, the big version of it, and then we just took out everybody except about 30 players, so it’s the size of a regular TV orchestra of that time. Instead of four trumpets playing the theme, one trumpet would play the theme; instead of six horns it would be one or two horns; instead of thirty violins it would be eight violins. We just took everything and kind of pared it down. And also, John Kurlander, the engineer, miked it differently. He miked it more like it would have been miked for a TV show in the ‘60s.
As we both know, STAR TREK fans tend to look for every hidden meaning imaginable in something related to the show. Was it in your head to put in any little TREK-isms that were kind of akin to the original show?
I did a little bit, here and there, especially at the beginning. The first cue, definitely.
You have a motif associated with the villain in the film which has this kind of effect with the bows banging on the strings… Some people have speculated that was your nodding of the hat to STAR TREK II, which has an effect like that used for Khan.
I don’t know about that. It was just a sample that I have, it’s actually a combination of col legno, which is where you throw the wooden part of the bow on the string, and also something that’s called snap pizzicato, where they actually snap the strings when they pluck it, they pluck it so that it twangs. It’s sort of a STAR TREKian, spacey kind of thing but I don’t know if it was an intentional reference.
I think you came into this film fairly late in the process. Were you faced with the dreaded temp track?
Yeah, but they didn’t temp anything in the first two reels, so I actually wrote the first two reels, or like the first 18 minutes of the film. They had temped the rest of it, but it ended up a lot different than the temp, to a certain extent.
How large of an orchestra performed the score?
About a hundred players and a chorus.
The film is essentially a comedy, which is a fine line to walk between being serious and giving in to comedy music. How did you find that aspect of the score?
We just played it serious, for the most part. It is a fine line, because you’re in and out of playing serious, and giving the movie energy and motion and giving it emotion and unifying the whole thing, and then taking the themes from the fictitious show and using all that stuff to make it exciting and emotional and giving it a payoff at the end. Everybody was very concerned with the end of the movie, which they always seem to be now. I guess when you’re moving so fast with these schedules, that either the beginning or the end of these movies tend to be problematic. The most difficult thing of this movie was getting the beginning to work, and then making it payoff at the end – getting from the sort of TV theme kind of thing to the end of the movie.
Did anyone on the film have any inkling that it would get the popular and critical success it has received?
I don’t know if you saw director Dean Parisot’s other movie, HOME FRIES, which was another bizarre example of a film that looks like one thing but when you actually see it, it’s a completely different experience. HOME FRIES looked to me like a light Drew Barrymore comedy, but it turned out to be more of a dark comedy, and I use the word “comedy” not in the traditional sense of the word. I think what he and Zimmerman added to the script made it a lot more interesting to a broader spectrum of people. Not just kids, who they initially sold it to, but to adults too, people like us, who know the show and get all the jokes and the bickering and there’s a certain logic to the whole thing. There’s a certain plausibility to this completely im-plausible situation. If you take the leap that this could actually happen, everything that happens is pretty logical.
It’s been widely rumored when they were doing the film; it had a much more adult, slightly racier tone to it.
And then before release they felt it was going to be a kid’s picture, and they chopped a lot of things out.
They did, but I don’t think any of it really affected it all that much. When I first saw the movie, I was surprised by how well Tim Allen did that heroic character, how the ensemble seemed to be really good, and how the ending was very affecting. Every subsequent time I watched it, I find that the ending has sort of a non-cynical innocence to it, even though some of the more salient issues, some of the more sexual innuendoes and a bit more swearing and things like that were removed. But it was mostly cosmetic things that were removed.
After you did GALAXY QUEST you scored the prequel to the FLINTSTONES movie, which you had also scored, which was VIVA ROCK VEGAS…
Yeah, I just finished that now.
What kind of music did you write for this?
I did a completely different turn with VIVA ROCK VEGAS. I did sort of an old rock and rock / rockabilly approach to the movie.
This time around, did you use as much of the old show music?
I didn’t use any of it. We made a conscious decision not to do that. There’s a lot of rock and roll in it, as I’ve said. I used four electric guitars, a stand-up bass, and an electric bass and organ, and fair-sized orchestra. There’s a lot of electronics, a lot of my home-brewed stuff on the score, to try to give it a sense of youngness and freshness.
The movie is the whole story about how Fred and Wilma met.
And Barney and Betty.
They must use the old theme song somewhere in it.
There’s a big production number at the end that is just really terrific. We pre-recorded it a year ago, there’s a big statement of it at the end of the movie.
And your next project is the sequel to THE NUTTY PROFESSOR?
Yeah, and before that I did another sort of off-beat independent movie called DUETS, with Gwyneth Paltrow. It was done for Disney.
Your agent says you’ve just signed to do 102 DALMATIANS?
I think so. I’m not that far along yet, though.
Just out of curiosity, what would you want to do at this point? You’ve done just about every kind of film one can imagine.
I’m not sure. What I care about most is if I like the film and I like the people. I thought GALAXY QUEST was a terrific movie. I also think the new FLINTSTONES film is a really excellent, intelligent movie. I had a nice time on that. Except for the schedules, which are getting shorter. Last year I thought BROKEDOWN PALACE was one of my most favorite experiences of any in my whole career, I loved that movie, and I also had a great time on DUETS with [director] Bruce Paltrow. That was great, really smart, about three different groups of people whose lives converge on these karaoke competitions.
Being one of the famous Newman film music family, obviously you understand the history of film music perhaps better than composers without your background. What do you think about the current state of the art of film music?
We’re in a period now of films that are not terribly sophisticated and sophisticated music doesn’t even work in these movies. It seems completely out of place; say in terms of melodies or development of motives. It just doesn’t seem to fit any more in a contemporary movie. It’s more about producing song-oriented scores – I don’t mean that it’s full of songs, but it’s that sort of songlike sensibility, it’s a verse and a chorus, and you pick your moments to do something catchy. But to take a melody and then develop it and score under dialog where you’re following the subtext of what’s being said, I don’t think there are very many movies now that can handle that sort of thing.
What was the last film that you did that you thought you were able to do that?
I thought BROKEDOWN PALACE and DUETS did that. There are certain kinds of movies in which, in a certain way, you can do it.