It’s a warm October day, and on the cavernous Stage One at 20th Century Fox, 85 of Hollywood’s top musicians are about to tackle cue 4M8 of Thomas Newman’s score for “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Paramount’s $150 million Christmas picture.
Newman, who is conducting, explains that the scene involves a teetering house about to fall into a lake and that the music should be “really kind of woozy.” Via a mike on the podium, he confers with orchestrator Thomas Pasatieri in the booth behind him and, baton in hand, gives the downbeat.
Over the next hour, Newman makes slight adjustments and records the two-minute, 16-second cue several times. The music — which accompanies children escaping death from the toppling edifice — is urgent, grim and, yes, woozy.
On a “10,” the musicians’ hourly break, he retreats to the glass-walled booth, listens closely to a playback (with and without dialogue and sound effects). Director Brad Silberling arrives, smiles and pronounces it satisfactory. The orchestra moves on to cue 5M4 and the impishly diabolical music for Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).
Newman is carrying on a family tradition. In fact, Stage One has been officially renamed the Newman Scoring Stage in honor of his legendary father, nine-time Oscar winner Alfred. Here, the longtime Fox music director conducted such classic scores as “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Song of Bernadette” and “All About Eve.”
But the family connection is not what brings Thomas Newman to Fox. It’s the sound. “It’s a fantastic room,” he says later. “There are moments when I invoke my dad and think about him on the podium, but in a very positive way. I don’t feel at all intimidated by him. I feel like I’ve found my own voice.”
That voice is responsible for some of the most innovative scores for studio films of the past decade. Constantly searching for new sonorities, Newman has been nominated for Oscars six times (most recently “Finding Nemo,” “Road to Perdition” and “American Beauty”) and continues to experiment with offbeat acoustic sounds, often merging small-combo results with the more traditional symphonic ensemble.
“(‘Lemony Snicket’) creates these wonderful anachronisms that collide,” explains Silberling. “It’s playfully bent. It feels somewhat Dickensian and yet there are contemporary concepts, so we played with that throughout. Tom’s got everything from accordions and balalaikas to more interesting contemporary rhythms and percussion.”
Newman says the challenge of “Lemony Snicket” was one of “comic tonality. What kind of movie are you watching and how are you supposed to perceive it? And if these are a series of unfortunate events, how do you still make them compelling and delightful?”
Silberling praises Newman’s discovery process, which had the two working side by side in Newman’s studio over several weeks this summer. “It’s like having a writing collaborator in the grandest sense, really helping to create a tone for the movie. He’s doing so with an energy, gothicism and a sense of humor.”
Creative satisfaction can be elusive. But, says Newman, “movie music allows me to work with players as creatively as I can. What satisfies me most are those nonverbal moments with players, when I sense them thinking and responding. And I think, wow, this is amazing. Hollywood gives us the money to do this. I want to be grateful for that and I also don’t want to waste it.”