Composer Thomas Newman laughs when recalling an email he received from producer Lindsey Collins three years ago, asking him to consider scoring a movie she and director Andrew Stanton were working on. “It’s about a fish,” she wrote.
Newman took the job. After all, his first collaboration with Stanton, “Finding Nemo,” hooked them three Oscar nominations. Another four noms came for their work on 2008’s “Wall-E.” Both pictures earned Stanton the Oscar for best animated feature.
“He’s the De Niro to my Scorsese. He’s my muse,” Stanton says, during a break in recording Newman’s 83-piece orchestra at the Sony scoring stage. While writing “Nemo,” Stanton listened only to the scores of his collaborator, who had also worked on such films as “American Beauty” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“I knew what his music would do in spots that might seem innocuous or benign on the page. … There are complexities of emotion that can only be captured and expressed with music.”
Stanton says Newman has brought a maturity to his projects. “While other musicians have about four or five flavors, he can just keep finding shadings within shadings.”
Some of the characters from “Nemo” return to the new film, but don’t expect the “Dory” score to be a rehash of the 2003 original. The film centers on the Blue Tang (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), who’s still plagued by short-term memory loss as she goes in search of her parents. She’s aided by clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and some new friends, including an octopus (Ed O’Neill), a beluga whale (Ty Burrell), and a whale shark (Kaitlin Olson). “There are a couple of moments [that reprise themes from the first film] but not a lot,” Newman says. “This is way more Dory’s movie.”
What is similar about the two tales is Newman’s signature wide-ranging palette of musical colors. The big orchestra and small choir, recorded in February and March, were the final touches of a six-month creative process that began with the conductor’s experiments using a core group of key players (drums, guitars, woodwinds, sound design, and programming wizards) and continued in Newman’s Pacific Palisades studio as he took those ideas and expanded them into a score.
Stanton calls his meetings with Newman therapeutic. “Tom can’t go forward unless he really, really understands [the story]. If what he should be doing in a scene is not obvious, it forces me to explain out loud what my intentions are. We’re always chasing adjectives, finding the right way to describe things.”
The final mix — a blend of unusual acoustic and synth-generated sounds with traditional orchestra — is warm and magical, with moods that range from eerie to menacing to propulsive to touching. Animation, Newman concedes, is more difficult to score than live action because “every second is just so much change, and the moods typically don’t last long.”
But, he adds, there’s feeling in the movie that allows for feeling in the music. “All of us can strongly identify with these characters. All of them are deeply flawed. Dory has issues that make her stumble, but that doesn’t stop her. This movie is so deep, as was ‘Nemo,’ in terms of themes: loss of family, fear about being a good parent. Huge issues come up again in ‘Finding Dory.’”
How does Newman musicalize such issues? “You underline them,” he says, “because they’re real: fear, regret, self-doubt. In terms of storytelling, they all need to be addressed in a certain way. It boils down to scoring a movie — it’s moving when it should be, it’s funny when it should be. You just hope you can sharpen the focus of the drama.”