OSCARS Coverage: Randy Newman on Why Music Matters in Film & more

Randy Newman in Hollywood. Photo by Paul Zollo. Photo by PAUL ZOLLO

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

How The Movies Took Him from “Davy the Fat Boy” to “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and countless Oscar nominations.

“I love when I perform on the Oscars,” he said, “thinking of a billion Chinese people watching and thinking, ‘What is this?'”

Tonight Randy is performing at the Oscars again, as he’s nominated for his 19th and 20th Oscars, for Best Song for “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4, and for composing Best Score for Marriage Story.

So in honor of his cinematic accomplishments over these decades, we’re happy to bring you this 2006 interview which focuses entirely on the movie work.

Randy Newman in Hollywood. Photo by Paul Zollo.

“I’m so tired,” he says with a weary smile in a distinctive voice which is one-part New Orleans and one-part Angeleno, “and I’m so tired of hearing myself say I’m so tired.”

It’s an exhaustion that stems not from the challenge of matching his previous level of brilliant and unparalleled songwriting – a problem which he’s said for years has been his fundamental challenge in life. This present fatigue comes from the rigorous level of work he’s been devoting to completing the orchestral score for a new Pixar animated feature, Cars, as well as a new song for the film, “Our Town”, sung by his friend James Taylor. Composing a score, he says, is so exceedingly arduous, that after completing one, he doesn’t want to do much of anything besides brush his teeth.

Randy Newman is a true American treasure, one of the most gifted, inimitable and significant songwriters of modern times. As a melodist, there are few in his league, and as a lyricist, he’s set the bar with his character-driven “untrustworthy narrator,” a novelistic device that other songwriters have used but never mastered. When I asked Bob Dylan who he thought was a great songwriter, the only living artist he pointed to was Randy. Remarkably, he’s also become one of the world’s foremost film composers of the last two decades. In the history of the cinema, there has never been another film composer who is also an accomplished songwriter. Sure, there have been many who have written the music for a few movie songs – always with other lyricists – as Chaplin wrote “Smile” with John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, David Raksin wrote “Laura” with Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini wrote “Moon River” (also with Johnny Mercer). No other film composer has ever written both words and music and been able to achieve the brilliance Randy does. At the same time, there’s never been another songwriter who has become a consummate composer of film music.

The songs he’s written are legendary: “Sail Away,” “Political Science,” “Louisiana,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “The World Isn’t Fair” and so many others. Astoundingly, his many movie scores – full, sweeping, orchestral works – are also legendary: Avalon, Ragtime, Toy Story, Toy Story II, Monsters, Inc., Awakenings, Parenthood, The Paper, Meet The Fokkers, The Natural, Babe, Maverick, Meet The Parents and others. Like his Uncle Alfred Newman, a legendary film composer who in his day was Hollywood’s greatest and most prolific (although an insecure alcoholic, as Randy discusses in the following), as well as his Uncles Emil and Lionel Newman, Randy has become a celebrated film composer himself.

We met on a brisk, sun bright day in West Hollywood. Dressed in a cream-colored suit, and with his hair now all white, he resembled another distinguished American humorist – Mark Twain. From the lyrics of his songs, one might presume he’s a misanthrope, but he would be wrong; he’s actually one of the warmest and funniest songwriters America has ever produced.

Though there are others who have effectively merged humor, satire and irony into their songs, no one has done it as effectively as Newman. No one has led us through songs as he has to shed light on the intolerance, ignorance and human frailty so prevalent in modern times. He’s done it with music that echoes the essence of America, closer to ragtime than rock ‘n’ roll, with all the rough edges revealed.

But today we are here not to talk about his incomparable songwriting (about which we have previously spoken at length), but to chat about his film scoring. It’s there that our discussion begins.

You write fully orchestral scores. Is that because you think an orchestra is the best medium for a movie?

For the ones I’ve been given. There are some movies for which straight rock and roll would be best – a movie about young people or modern life urban style stuff. I love an orchestra in what I’ve done; I’ve thought it was the right thing.

With animated films such as Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story, your music brings a human warmth to movies that have no humans on the screen.

That’s exactly what they wanted. And exactly what they were worried about. That’s what you always try to do. The characters in those pictures are adults. Toy Story is a kid’s movie, but their emotions – you take them seriously.

Do you start a score by writing melodic motifs for certain characters? In Monsters, Inc., for example, you have a beautiful motif whenever the little girl Boo is onscreen?

Yeah, but she’s late in the picture. In Monsters nothing really good happens for a long time. There isn’t a consonant, straight-out chord for a long time. There is, for some, establishing stuff, but then it’s in danger for a long time. But I might be able to unify things more if I did do something like that. Sometimes I’ll write themes that are related, but it isn’t motific development. Sometimes it will be a sound more than a melodic motif. Like, the pizzicato on “Desperate Housewives” [by Steve Jablonsky] is a sound, irrespective of the notes they’re playing. I’ve done that for pictures. If you can [add warmth], you’ve done what you’re supposed to do. I don’t want [the audience] listening to me instead of looking at the movie, ever. But you want to count for something. When they’re running down the hallway, write something that runs them down the hallway and increases the heartbeat of someone in the audience.

In many of your scores, certain melodies are prominent, but they don’t take away from the image.

Yeah, I don’t think that takes away from the image. It’s such a miniscule part of the whole – the music. They turn it down to a level where you can’t hear it anyway. Like in Bug’s Life, the dragonfly sounds like a B-29. I can’t hear what I did. So you might as well write a melody. Sometimes you don’t want it. But in most cases, like the scenes with Boo, she’s got a little tune for her that isn’t just aimless wandering.

That melodicism might be why people come to you.

Yeah, but I’ve been offered mostly comedies. I’ve been typecast. What I do best, probably, would be a movie like Pride and Prejudice or Brokeback Mountain or Cinderella Man something where if they want that kind of stuff, I can do it. But this other action-comedy stuff is goddamn hard, these Pixar movies. Cars wasn’t quite so hard, because they didn’t have feet. My cousin Tommy [Newman] lucked out in that [Finding Nemo] was underwater. Monsters was really hard because they’re running around. And Bug’s Life was like three times the size of the average score, because they’re really moving. And it doesn’t look right if you don’t move with them. There’s a school of thought that says, no, you don’t have to [move with them]. But in an animated picture, you do. I don’t think there’s any way around it. You don’t always have to move when a grasshopper is flying after an ant, but it doesn’t look right to me if you don’t.

Do you always compose on piano?

No. I used to, before the synths were around. But I’ll write on a synth and then put it down on paper. If it’s an action scene, nothing’s gonna make enough noise for you, usually, but brass. It just won’t. There just isn’t anything else besides brass and percussion. Woodwinds are just not gonna do it. So you play a brass figure [on synth]. I come from a background and a family that would have hated that. You get used to any modality. I was always scared when I’d write an oboe solo, and I’d worry about a million different things. With a synth, it isn’t particularly accurate, especially in my versions. I’m not good at using a synth, but I’ll listen to it, and I’ll still put it on paper so I can see it.

Do you score while watching the images?

It varies. Sometimes you’ll have it broken down in certain scenes. It used to be that you couldn’t look at it. You couldn’t get the video; you’d just work from a cue sheet. Now you can look at it and lock in the place you’re gonna start, and the place you’re gonna end, and fiddle about. So, yeah, you look at it. There’s a little silent movie type stuff you’ll do, where you’re playing along with it, but you don’t do the real writing when it’s on.

Your Uncle Alfred wrote 300 movies scores.

He did. He worked all the time, every day.

And you sometimes watched him work?

I did, since the time I was five-years-old.

Did you watch him compose or conduct?

I would go visit him when he was working, and he’d ask me what I thought. I might have inherited some of my attitude about composing from my uncle – because here was this guy who was the best movie composer there was, and he was asking me, when I was eight-years-old, “What do you think of this?” And he looked worried. And if he was worried, maybe I thought, subconsciously – because I didn’t want this to happen to me – “Oh God, maybe I should be worried, too…maybe I should suffer, and live in a garret.”

I’ve yet to be able to stride confidently into the room where I’m gonna be working. If it’s going well, sometimes you know where you’re going the next day. But then the next cue will come up, and you’ve got that empty page stuff. I don’t even like to hear myself say it. But it’s not unique to me. Johnny Williams feels the same way, accomplished as he is. James Newton Howard feels the same way when he starts a picture, as many as he’s done, and as fast as he can do them. I was talking to him once, and I said, “I really hope that I get hit by a car, or something, and get out of this. I don’t want to die, or anything – I know that’s hard to believe.” And he said, “No, I feel the same way.”

It’s really ridiculous and laughable to look at things that way, and harmful to yourself, and harmful to anyone who has heard you, who aspires to be something like you, and thinks you’re great, and wonders why you wouldn’t have confidence in what you’re doing after all you’ve done in the past. Wouldn’t you just figure that the numbers would just favor you? What’s the worst that could happen to you in there? But you can’t always change, though it’s stupid and non-productive.

You once said that Alfred would drink every night.

He did drink every night – at 5:00. I saw him in funny instances. There are other people who knew him differently.

Did Alfred offer any advice on scoring?

He said, “Never be afraid of melody.” But nowadays I think you have to be wary of [melody] because [directors] might not want it. He said not to worry about things going too slow musically, but I do. He said, “Don’t work at night.” But mainly, because he was loaded at night. I try not to [work at night.]

You mentioned that James Newton Howard had only four weeks to write the score for King Kong. Is that uncommon?

No, it’s not uncommon, but I wouldn’t do it. I would never do it for anyone I didn’t really love [Laughs]. Cause it’s just not enough time. The first thing that I try and get is as much time as I can – to do the job right. You’re working all the time, anyway, but it’s nice to get eight weeks. It used to be more…ten…or whatever you could get. But now it’s more common that someone would get four weeks or three weeks.

Is eight weeks sufficient?

It’s a sufficient amount of time to hope for if you’ve got 40 minutes to write music for. I think James must have had an hour and 45 minutes or more to do. It’s a three hour movie. He plays very well. And he can do synth stuff with real facility and write five to seven minutes a day. I can’t write five minutes a day. I have written two minutes a day.

Do you work on a film score all day long?

Yeah. I can’t do that with songs. But film scores, from morning till night, and usually seven days a week. Sometimes, if things are going really well, I’ll take Sundays off. It usually gets down to a scramble, where you’re writing specific scenes. You have to. You’ve got to do a certain amount every day. You can’t have too many bad days. You can’t have two in a row, so you just don’t. Maybe what you end up with is not the best thing that you could have thought of. Maybe you’re never satisfied with it completely. But most of the time it turns out okay. It isn’t like, “0h no, I’ll throw that out.”

Do you have any say about where music goes in a film?

Yeah. Starts and stops – not like what composers used to have, where you’d decide yourself. The director often wasn’t there when you spotted a film. I don’t think [Milos] Forman was there when I did Ragtime. When Al used to do a picture, sometimes the director didn’t even show up, and now they come from rock and roll. They’ve listened to it all their lives, and they know what they like. The problem with that is that it’s a very arcane business. I’m not saying it’s exalted. It?s not like small particle physics, but it’s odd. I once saw a scene from a Cary Grant movie without music. He was moving around, and there he was. Then they put the music in, and they would have music for little things that he did – not like a cartoon, it didn’t catch everything – and it made him look graceful. It did something for him. You can give somebody more intelligence than they might be indicating they’ve got. And you can do lots of stuff for action.

Scorsese edits to the rhythms of songs. Do you try to match editing or rhythms in the movie?

Oh yeah. Cuts. Not ostentatiously, but you try. It’s movement – or the end of lines – the end of dialogue. It’s changed a bit, in that a lot of times in action movies, they’ll just dial you down. It used to be that you’d get down and then people would say stuff, and you’d come up again. Yeah, there’re a hundred little things you can do for a picture. That makes the picture better. It’s all supposed to do that. That’s all that music is for in a movie. Pride and Prejudice, if it’s supposed to make you tear up a little bit, music can help do it. Or make someone look smoother than they are, or cooler than they are, or just as cool as you possibly can. You can’t make a bad movie look like a good movie, but you can make a good movie look like a really classy, great movie.

Do you write to match a character, or are you thinking more of action and emotion?

All of it. Often it’s movement rather than words – little things, little stops, little starts. There’s no way that a director’s gonna know that kind of odd stuff. He shouldn’t have to. You hire someone who’s sort of an expert, who’s watching for that his whole life, and you kind of let him do it. You can tell what they want from what their temp track is. It’s their medium; it’s their picture. If I write something that the director doesn’t like, I change it.

Does that happen a lot?

Not a lot, but it happens, yeah. Stuff gets thrown out, moved around. The odds are that the music guy will be right more often than the director will be right. But [the director] is right because it’s their picture, so they know presumably exactly what they want it to be like.

Do you choose your projects based on scripts?

[Based on] who I’m gonna be working with. I think of what kind of musical opportunity it is…like Seabiscuit, which looked like a big opportunity for music to really help something out. Certainly Avalon did. The things I’ve been doing lately, the Pixar things. Bug’s Life needed things. Monsters too. And maybe I helped them all, but doing comedy – Meet The Parents, Meet The Fockers – maybe I made them $320 extra [Laughs]. I don’t know what I did for them. The second thing I look for is who I’m gonna be working for, to see if I can deal with the guy. Lot of composers can’t be that fussy about it, and if they’re offered something, they take it. But I don’t want to work for someone who?s gonna make me write things four different times and not know why.

I understand that you weren’t happy with Seabiscuit, because you weren’t allowed to do what you wanted.

No. I wasn’t, but I’m not sure what [Gary Ross, the director] wanted. I did what I thought was right. He ended up changing a lot of what I did, and that hurt my feelings, and I think it hurt the picture. Horses are racing. You don’t necessarily do the horse race, but you do the doubt about the horse race. He felt that everyone knew what was gonna happen, but it isn’t like everyone knows the history of Seabiscuit. Even if they had, you play fair with them. You don’t give away surprises with music. I hate it when that happens. When you know that, Oh Jesus Christ, this is gonna happen now.

Like when you suddenly hear spooky music.

Yeah. You know, those are the kind of movies that get helped most by music. Think of some of that stuff without the spooky music. Music’s really important in films [laughs]; it’s amazing.

Is it difficult for you to write a score?

Very difficult, because it’s writing for an orchestra and being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. It’s very different from songwriting. You just have to do it. There’s no way out.

Do you always use the same size orchestra?

No. Smaller one for smaller films. If it’s a big outdoor thing like Maverick, or an action picture where you need a big brass section, then you need a lot of strings to soak it up. 100…108. Less on Meet The Fockers. Cars is pretty big. It also has electric guitars, acoustic guitars, mandolin, and some bluegrass stuff that I recorded separately.

And drums?

Yeah. [Jim] Keltner.

Do you compose a score from the beginning of a film to the end?

No. I wish. You get different parts of it. They’re finished with this, and then you get it. They’re never finished, exactly. It used to be that they’d finish a picture and then give it to you. Sound and music was the last thing done, but with an animated picture, it comes in different parts. It makes it difficult somewhat because you don’t get to set anything. You can write something you can use all right. Like in Cars, I did the last race better than I did the first, in my opinion. It’s really little, boring stuff like that that you end up thinking about. You realize that you’re talking about taking enormously seriously an ant and a grasshopper. It’s because the studio succeeds in doing it, so you have to figure out what music would look good with an evil grasshopper. I really kind of like writing music for movies. I like it because I love working with the orchestra. I love the sound an orchestra makes, and I love the guys and the women in the orchestra. I feel very comfortable doing it and it makes it worth it. Almost. 

Randy Newman’s Oscar Nominations

2020 Nominee, Oscar for Best Score for Marriage Story (2019).

2020 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Toy Story 4 (2019) for “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”

2011 Winner. Oscar for Best Song, from Toy Story 3 (2010), for “We Belong Together”.

2010 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from The Princess and the Frog (2009), for “Almost There.”

2010 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song from The Princess and the Frog (2009), for “Down in New Orleans”.

2007 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Cars (2006) for “Our Town”.

2002 Winner, Oscar for Best Music and Original Song, from Monsters, Inc. (2001), for “If I Didn’t Have You.”

2002  Nominee, Oscar for Best Music, Original Score for Monsters, Inc. (2001)

2001 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Meet the Parents (2000), for “A Fool In Love”.

2000 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Toy Story 2 (1999), for “When She Loved Me.”

1999 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Babe: Pig in the City (1998) for “That’ll Do”.

1999 Nominee, Oscar for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score for A Bug’s Life (1998)

1999  Nominee, Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, Pleasantville (1998)

1997 Nominee, Oscar for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score for James and the Giant Peach (1996)

1996 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Toy Story (1995) for “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.

1996, Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score for Toy Story (1995).

1995 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from The Paper (1994), for “Make Up Your Mind”.

1991 Nominee for Best Score, for Avalon (1990)

1990 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Parenthood (1989) for “I Love to See You Smile”

1985 Nominee for Best Score for The Natural (1984)

1982 Nominee, Oscar for Best Song, from Ragtime (1981) for “One More Hour”

1982 Nominee, Best Score, Ragtime (1981)

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