An interview with John Debney by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.18/No.72/1999/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl
It’s Monday, November 1st, approximately noon, as I drive into Burbank, California, looking for the new location of composer John Debney’s studio. On my left is Warner Brothers studios in all its glory, on my right, in its entire splendor is – lo and behold – THE DEBNEY BUILDING. To my surprise, John didn’t just move to a new studio, but actually owns the building where he works. Debney reminisced about how he got involved with scoring film: “When I was about fifteen or sixteen in high school, one of the first times when I really got the bug, through my dad who worked for Disney and other people I knew in the music department, I would borrow piano sketches of the classic film scores and bring home a 16mm film print to compare them with. We had a projector, so I would read the music with the film constantly running back to listen to a sequence again – remember there was no video then. They used to do piano conductor condensed sketches of the full score, so on three lines you’d have the full score. I would go through scores like Paul Smith’s TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and compare it with the film. This was my first foray into really reading scores and watching the picture.”
When you combine the forces of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, director Peter Hyams, and composer John Debney, the results can be overwhelming. Just the accomplishments between Hyams and Debney are staggering. Peter Hyams, director, writer, and cinematographer, has directed such films as THE RELIC, TIMECOP, NARROW MARGIN, THE PRESIDIO, 2010, THE STAR CHAMBER, OUTLAND, HANOVER STREET, CAPRICORN ONE, and more. In addition to scoring Hyams’ THE RELIC and SUDDEN DEATH, Debney has composed INSPECTOR GADGET, DICK, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, PAULIE, LOST AND FOUND, CUTTHROAT ISLAND, LIAR LIAR, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, WHITE FANG 2, HOCUS POCUS, and the list goes on. Join these forces together and their most recent collaboration results in the Universal motion picture END OF DAYS.
Backtrack to Monday, October 11th, around two in the afternoon. We’re at the TODD-AO scoring stage in Studio City. In the control room, Hyams is emphasizing the intensity of the moment to Debney as the orchestra is about to perform a key cue that involves the climax in END OF DAYS. At the podium outside, conductor Pete Anthony is conversing with orchestrator Brad Dechter about Debney’s instructions to modify the cue to Hyams’ needs. It’s this threesome of Debney, Dechter, and Anthony that brings to light Debney’s musical vision through the direction of Peter Hyams. The orchestra then begins proceeding like clockwork as Debney, behind the mixing console, sits and carefully listens to his musical vision of apocalypse. This is the story of that vision and the teamwork of a director and composer that brought Arnold back to save the world again.
During the last year you’ve scored quite a few comedies, PAULIE, INSPECTOR GADGET, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, and DICK. Was it a great change to score in the action based drama genre again?
I’m very excited to get back into this again. To be honest, I’m sort of comedied out. Actors can also get pigeon holed, but composers really tend to. If you’ve done three comedies in a row you’re a comedy guy or whatever genre you work in. I’m perceived as a comedy guy and enjoy doing them, but I did get burned out with them. When the opportunity came up to do this I was overjoyed to do something with some meat in it, to be able to explore some darker sides of myself or the genre.
So you’re looking for challenging genres in order to branch out your sound?
Absolutely! I actually think that composing for comedy is really some of the hardest composing that one can do. A lot of great music comes out of comedies. The reason that I’m really looking to do other things in my career right now, to graduate out of comedy a little bit, is that unfortunately comedy scores aren’t really taken that seriously. Comedy scores get ignored. It’s traditionally accepted that dramas or action pictures get a lot more heat with their scores, so that’s one of the big thrusts for me.
Was getting the job to scare END OF DAYS a natural transition from working with director Peter Hyams on SUDDEN DEATH and THE RELIC?
Peter is the sole reason for doing this film. Rarely do you come across people that have so much loyalty and belief in what you’re doing as an artist that they will go to the wall for you. Without his courage to just stand out there and say, “This is my guy,” I wouldn’t have gotten to the finish line. I wouldn’t have got this job without Peter Hyams, there’s no question about it! After Arnold heard some music and he loved what I did, I told him, “Thank you for letting me make it to the finish line.” It’s so easy with a big movie like this to say, “I want one of those first ten guys on the list.” It’s much harder to want number fifteen or sixteen from that weird list we’re all on.
How did you feel about scoring your first Arnold Schwarzenegger film?
Initially I didn’t really think about it that way. I just thought about it as this big movie that needed a really cool score. Actually very late in the process when I was working with a scene from END OF DAYS I noticed Arnold on the screen. I just chuckled saying, “You know what? That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger,” and for a brief moment I kind of got off on that. Just for a brief moment, because ultimately it’s just another job and I don’t think that you can let yourself get caught up in all that. It was really great working with Arnold, he has a wonderful sense of humor and is very bright. We had a meeting in his trailer that was really wonderful that I’ll never forget. We sat for about an hour and just talked about the movie. He talked about music and what he felt in certain scenes it should be and what he was describing was exactly what I was doing and where I was coming from. It was a joy; it was one of those situations where amazingly through all the little ins and outs we all came together on the same page.
What was your challenge when scoring END OF DAYS?
I’m always challenging myself to work in areas that I’m not familiar with, that maybe I could be better at as an artist. I wanted to be really creative and do some really weird sounding things, a little more cutting edge material as well as all the normal scary and action oriented cues. I wanted to do some weird textural sound things in this film.
There’s a guy I worked with named Cevin Key, who’s a recording artist in a band called Skinny Puppy. We became good friends and I was able to interface with him to develop some sounds and textures. We came up with some interesting sounds that really affected the movie by experimenting with voodoo chanting women, samples from a tuva singer, these are throat singers from the steps of China that sing all a cappella, usually solo, doing two or three notes at a time an octave, these are elements I wanted to work with in the score that were successfully integrated.
So you’ve opened some new doors to your sound here?
I’m not known as the most edgy guy in the world. I’ve done comedies and these big overblown things like CUTTHROAT ISLAND which are wonderful. I’m not known as Mr. Nine Inch Nails, Korn, or Limp Bizkit but I love that music and listen to a lot of it. This reflects some of the music in END OF DAYS that I wanted to experiment with. You’ll hear it, but it’s not as prominent in the film as it is on the soundtrack that’s coming out (on Varese). I hope people will be a little bit surprised. Until you’ve done that, people don’t think you can do it even though you probably can.
How was it working with Peter Hyams your third time around?
Every time I work with Peter it gets better. It’s so funny; I think he gets a kick out of me because I don’t really get rattled very much. I’ve done this for so long and worked with Peter so much that if he hates it he’ll say, “This isn’t working for me. I hate this and don’t know what to say.” If I didn’t know him so well and had to interpret that I might freak out, but I don’t because I know what that means. I’ll go back to Peter and say, “I understand, let me work with this.” This is usually the first time he’s heard it or the first few times he’s heard the orchestra playing a cue. I’ll work with the cue, hone it, and then nine times out of ten, to his credit, he’ll say, “That’s great, let’s go on.” Also, I haven’t met many really great technicians who are also really good directors. Peter’s a great technician. With Peter, you get someone who’s very verbal with what he feels and eight to nine times out of ten what he wants me to change or do differently usually works better for the film, which is ultimately what we’re there for.
Do you remember the first time you met Peter?
I remember this so vividly. It was really hard to find his office, because I’m one of the few people born and raised in L.A. that doesn’t know the west side to save my life. That day it was raining really hard, so it took me a while to find his office. I arrived and we just had a wonderful meeting. We just started talking about everything, about baseball, film music, he told me about composers he’d worked with, he told me a few Jerry Goldsmith stories, and it was great.
Honestly, my feeling was that even if he didn’t hire me for SUDDEN DEATH, which was kind of a long shot, at least it was one of those meetings where I walked out not really caring if I got the gig. Of course I wanted it, but it was a situation where getting the gig was a long shot, so I decided to just go in and be myself and just try to relate on a human level. Obviously something clicked with Peter, because I got a call back asking me to do SUDDEN DEATH with him.
Was finding the initial tone of END OF DAYS easy or hard for you?
First I read the script and then I got a few scenes to work with. I got a lot of directives as to how I should write this score. My job as a composer is to first make the director happy and try to get his vision, to supplement his vision and make it all work. In this case I was getting a lot of directives from a lot of sides, which was really hard at first. One of the hardest things is to try to see really who you’re working for. This was a situation where Peter wanted one thing and the company initially wanted something a little different. All you can do in that situation is what you think is best and let the cards fall where they may. I did some initial demos where I went way out into left field. Peter called me and said, “You know maybe I’m just not getting this, but I think this is really off.” I went back to the drawing board and did what I thought it should be on the fourth or fifth attempt at a main theme. I sent it to Peter and God bless him, he loved it. He said, “What were those first few things, a joke?”
In this film you had to have some liturgical references because we’re dealing with the Catholic Church and it’s very much in that realm of things, right out of biblical references. Peter initially wanted to use Gregorian chants. I thought this was cool, but we’ve heard that a lot. What I came up with was a boy’s solo voice that would represent the angelic side, the good side, or God as it were. Then I took that a step further and found a couple of interesting samples of some other solo boy sopranos that were very demonic sounding. So what you’ll hear in the score are three solo boys. The demonic boys are panned hard left and right, they kind of come at you whispering in your ear, always answering each other. The angelic boy states his theme a lot more infrequently, he’s always in the middle or high up in the mix. I didn’t really intend it to come out this way, but it came out as a trinity. The subtext of the film or whole point of the movie is that the devil is trying to tempt Arnold’s character, Jerico Cane, to do his bidding. It’s all about seduction, is Arnold going to be seduced into doing the devil’s bidding? You have to see the film to find out.
What we ended up with was these three boys and a choir, so it never ended up being a Gregorian chant. Peter and I both came to the conclusion that it turned out great using the voices of children. In many ways, this made it a lot scarier and more disturbing, that you’ve got these very angelic and demonic sounding voices. This was influenced by Carl Orff, which is where we all draw from for that music, Carmina Burana is the piece. There’s a little bit of that in there, but there’s also a lot of other interesting things as well. Just wait till you hear the END OF DAYS dance mix – I’m not kidding, that’s going to be the last thing on the CD and it might even get on the charts!
What were the logistics of your score here?
We scored END OF DAYS on the TODD-AO scoring in Studio City, California on October 4th, 5th, and the 11th. These were all full sessions. In fact we had four days to score this, but got it done in three. I used a small choir of sixteen voices that we tripled up, meaning we triple tracked eight women and eight men besides using two boys who did all the solos. I also used a duduk, assorted conch shells, a shofar, which is a type of rams horn trumpet, didgeridoo, and some weird trombone samples.
The two keyboard players at the sessions were Mike Lang and Mike Watts. Pete Anthony conducted the score, while Brad Dechter, Don Nemitz, Frank Bennett, Pete Anthony, and Chris Klatman were the orchestrators.
I had a lot more time to write it than I’d thought because they kept pushing it back. We were supposed to initially score in August, but because of changes it didn’t get done. I even turned down two or three movies in-between because of this film’s importance. I was hired in February and started really working on this in June, so it’s hard to tell exactly how long it took me to write this. The longest cue here was about three and a half minutes, Peter’s movies tend to be like that because they’re very fast moving and he likes concentrated chunks and then no music. He doesn’t like to bridge scenes with music, he likes to go out. It’s just his style and believe it or not, the shortest cue was eleven seconds long.
How many scores did you conduct before you stopped on INSPECTOR GADGET and this project?
I conducted all of my scores with the exception of CUTTHROAT ISLAND. The reason I didn’t conduct that was because the size and scope of this score was so tremendous, also it was my first score for director Renny Harlin. There was no question that I should be in the recording booth with him, so I could listen to what he was saying, interpreting, and then make it happen. I did that on CUTTHROAT ISLAND and then again on INSPECTOR GADGET. It’s logistics. INSPECTOR GADGET had a tremendous amount of MIDI and synthesizer material, it was just too much, and I had to be in the booth giving mixing notes to the engineer and talk with the filmmakers.
In END OF DAYS it was the same thing, tons of pre-records, tons of synthesizer, I even actually mixed the booth mixes. This is prefaced by saying I mixed in all the MIDI with the orchestra so I could really get a feel for what was there. It’s really logistics and the scope of the project that keep me in the booth. There are a tremendous amount of advantages to being in the booth, however, I do think that when I’m conducting my own music it’s more of my vision because I can tell the musicians what to do, I miss it. By the same token when you have someone like Pete Anthony who’s a fabulous conductor and a great communicator, I’m not losing anything. If a composer’s on the stand and he’s emoting the score, the orchestra really knows what to do. I’ve conducted for other composers and all you do is do your best to interpret it, but it’s different when I’m up there sweating heavily and emoting, I can feel an orchestra is with me. I would prefer to be out conducting; however, these days with all the technical things we have to do I can see the advantages of being in the booth.
You just finished scoring END OF DAYS a couple of weeks ago. Now how do you feel about the results of your score?
I’m never satisfied, to be honest. I think there are some things that are really great in it and there are some other things that could have been better, for me personally as a composer. I’m always really self-critical. I think the film looks really good and it’s a lot better now that everything’s in it. It’s very entertaining and if people go see this film they are going to really enjoy it. It’s a ride, a thrill ride with a great message at the very end, which I think people will be very surprised about. On the whole I’m very pleased with the film.
What are your plans from here?
No film projects on the books at the moment. Nothing has come up that’s really been interesting. There have been a number of things that I probably could have said yes to. I need some time off. I just moved into a new studio and I really want to get it up and running.
I sat down with my agency, Kraft – Benjamin-Engel, about a year and a half ago and one of the things that Richard Kraft wanted to do was to get me very busy. In the sense that he felt I’d been under-utilized. In hindsight I totally agree with that. So in the last year and a half I’ve done seven films, that’s a lot. And now it’s nice to take a couple months off, and really look at what’s out there, so we’ll see what’s going on next year. As far as Varese goes, it’s an open door for Bob (Townson) and I. I absolutely love doing those re-recordings with him.
Director Peter Hyams on John Debney
How did you meet John Debney?
I actually was looking for a composer to score SUDDEN DEATH. Before this I’d made a picture with Mark Isham, whom I adored, called TIMECOP. Mark wasn’t available because of another film. John’s name came up by Sam Schwartz, who then represented him. I said, “I don’t know who this guy is,” and Sam said, “If you ask other musicians and composers, John is possibly the most gifted of the next generation of composers.” Everyone I asked about John thought he was wonderful. I listened to his music, which I thought was really good and then we sat down and talked. He’s an unquirky, uncomplicated guy, so you almost can make the mistake of saying, “How talented can this guy be because he’s such a straight, sweet guy?” When we started working together it was apparent that this was someone with a really extraordinary talent.
You’ve, worked with some legendary composers like Jerry Goldsmith.
Who did extraordinary work. There’s no question that John can reach this level. He is the next one and it really depends on catching the film that hits. Composers unfortunately tend to be judged the way directors are judged and quite often it’s not necessarily on the quality of their work, it’s on the success of the films they do. I just saw a thing in Variety about listing the composers by the box office total of their work, as if one had anything to do with the other. It has nothing to do with it. The quality of the score is due to the quality of the score, period. However, if this film is the hit that people say it’s going to be, then John Debney becomes that much more sought after. The fact that he did spectacular work may or may not be the reason why people want him.
What is special about John’s sound?
When you’re doing a picture, like SUDDEN DEATH, which is (a) a thriller and (b) starred Jean-Claude Van Damme, the last thing in the world you want is a score that doesn’t sound intelligent and refined. I remember saying to him, “What I want to do is to make the film sound more intelligent. I want the actual sound of the film to add to the IQ of the film.” I clearly wanted this with orchestral music.
What approach were you looking for when scoring END OF DAYS?
There was a very delicate line to find the right sound for END OF DAYS. It was a very tricky thing because if you write just a straight, scary score it has the danger of being a horror movie. What John found was, this religious underpinning that suddenly transformed the whole thing into an elegant, ultimately disquieting, frightening, and a much more, moving score.
How do you communicate to John what type of score you want?
First, you want to know what the composer’s thinking, but then I reject things, I go, “No, that’s not it,” because I can’t tell you what is it abut I can tell you what it’s not. When it comes to cues for a scene then you have to get more specific. John gives me synthesized sketches of each cue, and then I comment on them before we go to the scoring stage. It’s one of biggest thrills in the world when you hear a real live orchestra play this, except you’re mainly thinking of your film at that point, “Does this work with this scene?” That’s what you’re looking for.
Does the synthesizer mock-up sell the cue short?
In a way, but on the other hand I’m showing John a rough-cut of my movie. So he has the imagination to see what it’s going to be like when it’s put together and he can hear the sounds that are going to go into it. John’s not working from the finished dubbed film, he’s working from a crude output, on tape with a lot of sound effects.
Do you think John captured the apocalyptic nature of this film?
I think he absolutely did a brilliant score for this film. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who didn’t know John Debney’s work and really went along with this as a generous act of faith on his part, because I believed very strongly in him, was completely knocked out by the score. He turned to me and said, “John Debney turned out to be everything you said he was.” Which is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said. Arnold Schwarzenegger understands film and every aspect of it. He certainly lets you know when he doesn’t like something and he certainly lets you know when he likes something. Arnold’s an incredibly gracious man, he then got in touch with John and made sure he knew how pleased he was.
What do you find unique about John Debney?
While being so helpful, cooperative, and eager, John has the ability to change and adapt quickly on a scoring stage. It’s legendary and quite remarkable. His willingness to take input and adapt is incredible. This makes all the difference in the world, because I’ve been doing this for awhile and I remember the days where you showed up on the scoring stage hoping that the music was good, because you didn’t even know what it was. That’s before we had synthesized sketches of every cue. With a composer like John, he makes it a lot easier for you as a director.
A Personal Note
Thanks goes out to Ronni Chasen and Jeff Sanderson of Chasen and Co., Amanda Schuler, Jim Sheparis, Jonathan Wilson, Mick Stern, director Peter Hyams, and the musical visionary, composer John Debney.