Comedy composing poses a challenge

Debney cites 'timing and nuance' as important

While John Debney has scored such harrowing and emotional dramas as “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” he is perhaps best known for his work in the comedy realm — an area he calls “one of the most challenging in all composing, because it’s all about timing and nuance.”

He cites Jim Carrey’s performance in “Liar Liar” as an example of physicality dictating musical tone — so much so that he likens the film to a “live-action cartoon.”

“Jim is constantly doing things with his body and the way he’ll say a line, so the music plays a little bit different role with him,” Debney explains. “So, often I must just get out of the way, and sometimes I’ll use the music as a punctuation to what he’s doing visually.”

Other comedies may not be as broad in tone, “in which case the music has to play a different role,” he adds. “Often the music must literally stop on a dime or be able to shift tone with very little notice,” amounting to “some of the trickiest work you face.”

Debney, who early on worked with Hanna-Barbera composer Hoyt Curtin, has also scored such animated features as “Barnyard” and “Chicken Little,” “where the music has to subtly convey that we’re in a very different world,” he says. “I’ve found that the music has to really help convey the attitude of the animated characters.”

Similar to his experience with Carrey, Debney’s experience with John Travolta and Robin Williams on his latest project, Disney’s “Old Dogs,” required that the composer get out of the way of two actors who “each bring something different to the table.”

Comedies are also rarely receptive to one of the biggest guns in a composer’s arsenal — a strong melody. “It’s really hard to play one through a very comedic scene,” he notes. “In a drama, you have to do less, in a way, musically. With a great drama, a single note on a piano can speak volumes. But a comedy’s demands are more complex.”

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