Debney discusses his most compelling films

The composer recounts what made them unique

Variety chose 10 of John Debney’s most compelling projects and asked the composer to recount what made them unique.

Hocus Pocus (1993)
“A whirlwind, completely enthralling and exciting. The feeling was, I was a racehorse, the gate opened, and it was a blind dash to the finish line. I’d never worked with ensembles larger than 65, and this was a 90-piece, A-list orchestra at Disney.”

Cutthroat Island (1995)
“Probably the most glorious and epic adventure of my career. I was in England for three weeks with (director) Renny Harlin and (actress) Geena Davis, and I got to work for the first time with the London Symphony Orchestra. During the first few notes of the main theme, I was literally in tears. I had never heard anything like it.”

Liar Liar (1997)
“Sometimes the funniest thing you can do is not play comedy; other times you have to go with it. On ‘Liar Liar,’ we just went with it. Jim Carrey was so brilliant in that role. The music had to follow him and play along.”

The Princess Diaries (2001)
“My first film (of five) with Garry Marshall. I wrote ‘Princess Diaries’ while we were dealing with the passing of my mom, and what came out of me was truly an homage to her. So that holds a very special place in my heart and is probably one of the prettiest pieces of music I’ve ever written.”

The Scorpion King (2002)
“My first foray into that ‘Mummy’-franchise movie world. Very loud, very aggressive, just brutal. We were going to do something on the rock ‘n’ roll side, and there are a few strains of it left.”

Elf (2003)
“There is an irony and an edge to ‘Elf.’ I think the reason it works so beautifully is (director) Jon Favreau’s sophistication. The moment I got a little sentimental with the music, Jon would pull me back. But at the end, when the sleigh takes off, we went for it. All of us in that moment are kids again.”

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
“I dug very deep for that music, and what came out was a heartfelt score that I didn’t even know I had in myself. … (Afterward) there was a stigma attached to it, but that didn’t last very long. The whole experience, and the Oscar nomination, was fantastic. It was difficult to go back to everyday life.”

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005)
“I’ve got these wonderful bookends now, where ‘Princess Diaries’ was my mom’s story and ‘Dreamer’ was my dad’s story. My dad was an outdoors guy, a cowboy who never got to be a cowboy. ‘Dreamer’ is an homage to my dad. I was honored to have Josh Bell play the violin solos.”

Lair (2007)
“My first foray into the videogame world. The great thing was complete creative freedom, which is rare. I had about a year to work on that. It was my homage to many composers including Miklos Rozsa and Basil Poledouris. We recorded with an 86-piece orchestra in Abbey Road. It was fun.”

The Stoning of Soraya M. (2009)
“I was completely devastated after seeing it. I just had to do it; the subject matter was too important. I have a great love of music from that region of the world (the Middle East), so I tried to pull in the right performers. Some of my ‘Passion’ teammates came back. (Vocalist) Sussan Deyhim is from Iran, and she completely responded to this.”

As told to Jon Burlingame

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