With almost 80 film and TV credits dating back to the late ’70s, it’s no longer a surprise when Thomas Newman — 53 and still boyish in appearance — is credited with three scores in the span of a year. But it’s the quality of the projects that continues to astound.
This year, Newman — scion of a film-scoring dynasty that began with his legendary father, Alfred — has chalked up three scores that find him on both familiar and foreign ground. Besides “Wall-E,” the features reunited him with his “American Beauty” collaborators: director Sam Mendes and screenwriter-turned-director Alan Ball, whose “Six Feet Under” solidified Newman’s ability to summon up quirky, lilting melodies to counterbalance the often disturbing drama that unfolds onscreen.
If “Revolutionary Road” offers more of Newman’s trademark sound — worked out over a period of eight or nine months while he was finishing “Wall-E” and featuring the composer on piano — the Eisenhower-era setting posed a creative challenge.
“Sam wanted there to be something a little old-fashioned about the music, in terms of how it worked with the classic imagery he was going for,” says the composer, who has scored all four of Mendes’ features. Newman sought to incorporate his “sense of ambient color” but — because it’s set in the 1950s — avoid any style that might seem too modern.
As the film deals with a couple (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) whose marriage is falling apart, Newman needed to exercise restraint. “The dramatic interest comes out of ambiguity and not out of any clarity that you can derive from the musicmaking,” the eight-time Oscar nominee explains. “We have a theme, but we’re not necessarily sure what it says. It gives punctuation and phrase to the movie while trying not to say too much.”
The minimalist idiom of “Revolutionary Road” contrasts with the often exotic sounds of “Towelhead,” Ball’s controversial coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old girl of Lebanese descent living in Houston. “It was evocative of character,” Newman says of his brief score, which incorporates Middle Eastern percussion and a variety of more pop-oriented tracks to accompany her fantasies.
Newman’s work on “Wall-E” began three years ago, when director Andrew Stanton began conferring with his “Finding Nemo” composer about this cautionary, futuristic tale of two robots that harkens the tragic-comic tone of Chaplin and Keaton.
“It was a long, long process, and a very scary one,” Newman admits. “We all wondered, would people like this movie? Would they go to see a movie where there was (almost) no dialogue?” — a situation that placed even greater pressure on the composer.
Stanton “was very interested in all the great ’70s space movies,” Newman says (there’s even one overt nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey”), leading to the inevitable music dilemma: “How do I find a voice for this without it sounding like third-rate John Williams?”
Newman found that voice. “Inside Wall-E is the embodiment of humanity,” he explains. “It became clear that there was an intimate side to (the story) as well as a massive scale. I knew, ultimately, that I could make a difference in how you felt about Wall-E as a character.”
It took a 105-piece orchestra to realize the “massive scale” needed to convey the devastation of Earth and the hugeness of the spaceship containing mankind’s survivors — as well as the warmth of the growing relationship between janitorial robot Wall-E and the sleek, sophisticated Eve.
And, as he often does, Newman conducted experimental sessions with an eight-person team of soloists to come up with surprising sounds, ranging from valiha (a bamboo zither from Madagascar) to the Afro-Peruvian cajon drum. “It’s where you can have doubts about how things work and try to improve them before you work with the orchestra,” he explains.