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14-Time Oscar Nominee Thomas Newman on Scoring Space Drama ‘Passengers’

This is not a typo: Thomas Newman has earned 14 Oscar nominations without a win. The composer behind such iconic scores as “The Shawhsank Redemption” and “American Beauty,” son of legendary composer Alfred Newman, finds himself back in the race with director Morten Tyldum’s sci-fi romance “Passengers.” Though he’s tackled countless genres, Newman spoke to Variety about the unique challenges of composing the sound of outer space.

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How did you come to be involved with “Passengers?”

For me, it was space. I’ve done space a little bit with “WALL-E,” but I’d never really done a space movie and the idea of floating through space interested me.

How do you go about creating the sound of the future?

Probably anywhere that gives you an idea. You just want to have an idea and if it’s a success, you ask where else it can go. It’s a practical approach to a poetic task, I think. You associate space with a lot of silence, and I think that proved to be wrong in terms of music in “Passengers.”

How do you choose when to utilize silence?

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You learn as you go. You learn what part of the drama can last without music and how music can add to the enjoyment or sharpen the tone of something. Obviously along the way there’s tons of input you get from a director and editor, so it’s highly, highly collaborative. Silence is always such a great thing. Maybe the best thing about music is its entrances because it’s a heightening thing. The tough thing about movie music is going away because in most cases you have to dribble away and hope people don’t notice it’s faded out.

Because you’re working in a known genre, were there any tropes you wanted to avoid?

I guess organs on a low key note reverberating. Or clusters of vocals. Those iconic sounds. And sometimes that stuff works because you are operating in a genre. So you have to be aware of what gives pleasure and satisfaction next to what you think is tired, because you’ve heard it and didn’t invent it.

This is a sci-fi movie, but it’s also a relationship film. How did that affect the score?

When I first saw the movie I thought, “Well, not a lot of music.” And Morten Tyldum said, “No, I see tons of music in this movie!” It was clear the more I got to know the movie, it’s a love story and things happen and the story keeps moving forward incrementally in ways that had to be accommodated appropriately with music. It just turns into the nature of the beast; you kind of get to know the nature of the beast as you go along and it wipes out your preconceptions.

What ended up being the biggest challenge in scoring the film?

The first two thirds of the movie are more sensual and atmospheric than the last third. So I think finding an action movie tone that doesn’t violate the tone you’ve set up in the first third. Finding that vocabulary and music was hard.

You’ve done so many genres, is there one you haven’t done yet you’d like to take a shot at?

Wow, I’ve never thought about that. I’ve done a wide range. I started with teen comedies — in the 80s I was the teen comedy/synth guy. People thought I didn’t want to do serious movies because I was doing “Real Genius” and “Revenge of the Nerds.” You know, I’ve never done a western! I did a movie with horses in it but not really a western. That would be fun.

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