Interview by: Dan Goldwasser
John Debney has had a rather busy year so far. With a slew of films already released (and more coming up), this versatile composer has had his work featured in the hit films Spy Kids, Cats & Dogs, The Princess Diaries, and others. SoundtrackNet managed to catch up with Debney and chat about his very busy year.
This was a rather busy year for you, with (so far) seven films coming out! How do you manage to squeeze so many projects into your schedule, and do you find it difficult to manage them all?
I believe that the amount of films I've done was strike related. Everyone wanted to get their films in the can as soon as possible if there was to be a strike. Normally I would not attempt to do this many films, but we were all afraid of a long period of no work. I'm pretty good at multi-tasking, and it wasn't that much of a problem, really.
Two of the bigger summer films that you worked on were Spy Kids and Cats & Dogs. Both of them have a "spy tech" approach to the music - what would you say were your inspirations for that type of scoring?
I'm a huge fan of the 60's spy genre - particularly the television shows. From "Peter Gunn" to "Man from UNCLE" to "I Spy", I love the genre and the music written for these shows. Jerry Goldsmith's great "Man from UNCLE" theme as well as Earle Hagen's fantastic "I Spy" theme are two favorites of mine. These were the main inspirations for those films.
In the case of Spy Kids, there were multiple composers involved in the film - how on earth did that work?
I was called in at the very end to lend some cohesiveness to what was a pastiche of musical styles. I simply didn't sleep for about a week and wrote new music to supplement the existing score. Danny Elfman wrote a really fun "Spy" theme and it was quite fun in retrospect.
You also scored Heartbreakers - with the theme by Danny Elfman. This isn't the first time you have worked with Elfman's themes. How did that come about, and why do you suppose it keeps happening?
Well, I love Danny's work and it's been a joy to work with him. Danny is extremely bright and also a very nice man. I've enjoyed working with his wonderfully inventive material.
So how (on a technical level) does that work? Does he write his theme, and just hand it off to you? Is there any collaboration involved?
He writes a theme and gets approval, and then I jump in and make it all work. There's really not a lot of collaboration at that point.
Why do you suppose that composers are writing themes for films but not scoring the film? What are your thoughts on that trend?
Relationships and money. Usually, because of schedule, composer A can't score a particular film, so he or she writes a theme and then gets composer B to flesh it all out and re-compose the score. Also, it can be quite lucrative. I've got no problem with it; it's certainly a path that has helped many younger composers, including myself.
Cats & Dogs had a few changes while you were scoring the film, primarily the ending. Why did they end up using music from another film (that you didn't score) for the big climax?
I had written a very ironic Latin-American piece which worked very well. I guess I might attribute that situation to a terminal case of "temp love" and inexperience on the part of the filmmakers. That's about all I'll say about that one...
Musically it was a complete mess (admittedly), but how did you get involved with Scary Movie 2?
Very reluctantly! I was ready to get out of L.A. for a few days when my agent called and asked, "What are you doing today?" I answered, "Nothing much." He then explained that Dimension Films wanted to hire me to do a few minutes on Scary Movie 2. I did so, and was paid well. I never had the guts to see the finished product, but Keenan Ivory Wayans was a nice guy and it was fairly painless.
You also recently completely the rather successful children's movie The Princess Diaries. What sort of experience did you have working on that film? How did the project end up in your lap?
"Rather successful" is a rather huge under-statement - the film has grossed over $105 million and still counting! My involvement stemmed from my long friendship with Disney's Bill Green. Bill thought that I would be right for Princess. He then introduced me to Garry Marshall and the rest was an absolute dream job. Garry is wonderful, as is his whole team.
You've now done a lot of work for Disney - do you see that as one of your more successful collaborations? Any chance you might work on another Disney animated film? (Or is it too soon to say?)
I know that Disney would like to have me do another. They have to get more projects in the pipeline right now...
This fall your music will be heard in Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. What sort of approach did you take to this score?
Jimmy is going to be a great big fun orchestral score with a lot of guitar, theremin and cool loops. The film is stunning and we're having a blast with it.
Are you using a real theremin? Or is it a "synth" theremin? Any word on a possible score release?
It's a synthesized theremin as there aren't many theremin players out there anymore. Also, they're really hard to tune for the orchestra. No idea about a score release yet.
You also have the family drama Snowbound coming out this year. Again, what type of approach did you take to scoring this film? As it is set against the Iditarod dog-sled race, did you use any world-instruments to give it an ethnic flare?
It's now been re-titled Snowdogs. It's a great big outdoor adventure comedy. The story takes place in Alaska. I've really only used a few ethnic flavors on this one. - some drums and ethnic flutes, that kind of thing. It was great working with Disney again. The score is simply a big score with fun Appalachian and Inuit touches.
What do you mean by "Appalachian"?
We're using the dulcimer, guitar, dobro, and stuff like that.
Next year you're set to be scoring the spin-off to The Mummy Returns with The Scorpion King. What can you tell me about that project? Will you be using any of Goldsmith's or Silvestri's themes? Or will you go in your own direction?
The Scorpion King is this enormously exciting film directed by Chuck Russell. Chuck has truly given the film its own identity and has very little referential material to the other films. The themes will be brand new and will reflect the epic quality of the story. It is quite simply stunning.
So it won't use any of the previously written themes, but would you say that it would be possible to hold all three scores up to each other and feel that they're all "cut from the same cloth"?
Most likely yes, in that they all take place within the realm of ancient worlds and myth.
Will you be scoring the film in an epic style similar to Cutthroat Island?
The score will definitely have the same scope as Cutthroat Island. Probably in the 100-piece orchestra and choir territory, with the addition of some instrumental "surprises".
Surprises, eh? What is the weirdest (or most exotic) instrument you ever wrote for in a film score?
That would probably be the Tibetan long horn for End of Days. I also used the shofar and dudek in that film.
You have worked frequently with director Peter Hyams, but you didn't score The Musketeer. Is there any particular reason for that? (Or was it simply due to scheduling issues?)
Contractually, this film had to be scored by a European for because of the European financing. Other-wise I would have scored it.
What other upcoming projects do you have in the works?
At the moment I've turned down many projects. I'd really like to concentrate on The Scorpion King for now. I've "cleared the decks", as it were, to be able to dive into that project.
When is that supposed to be done and out in theaters? Where are you planning on recording the score?
I believe it comes out in late May 2002. I believe we'll record in the U.S, but I'm not sure when at this point.
The score releases to Spy Kids, Cats & Dogs and Hearbreakers are currently available on CD. No word yet as to releases for Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius or Snowdogs - but we'll see!
Special thanks to John Debney and Jeff Sanderson at Chasen & Co. for assisting in this interview.
The Art of film and Television Music
Release date: 10/16/2001
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