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American Beauty composer reflects on his most emotional hits

Thomas Newman – who has scored films from Finding Nemo to The Shawshank Redemption – tells the story behind his best tracks

Those aren’t onions. Many of the tears you’ve shed at the movies are a direct result of Thomas Newman’s orchestral prowess. He’s the composer behind the soundtracks for films like Finding Nemo, American Beauty, Wall-E and now the new Bond entry, Spectre. He’s a mainstay on Spotify put-you-to-sleep playlists and his compositions inevitably stir something deep within. Has he ever shed a tear listening to his own work? “I get emotional over it and I don’t even know why,” he admits. “Sometimes I can be moved by choices I make but other times I’m not moved at all, it’s funny. There were moments in He Named Me Malala when I was quite moved by what I was watching and also what I was hearing.” Trawling through his massive oeuvre – to date he’s soundtracked 105 films and TV shows over 36 years – Newman offers up the making-of stories behind his most enduring tracks.

LITTLE WOMEN (1995)

“I first came to Abbey Road Studios in 1994. I scored Little Women there. What I remember most about it was how hard it was to come to London from Los Angeles and conduct when you’re jetlagged. I’d never really worked with English players, and there were differences in the hour structure. In Los Angeles it’s a 50-minute hour and in London it’s 90 minutes before a break. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Wow, I would love to get off the podium and hear a playback or have a 10-minute break.’ We got to our first break and the players ran from the room and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I guess they wanted to get in line for tea. But at the time it was like, ‘Was I that bad that people are running?!’”

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

“Sam Mendes, the director, loved the plastic bag theme (aka Any Other Name) very much and that it worked really in that scene where there’s this plastic bag floating. We got to the end of the movie and it was clear that we were going to have to go back to that theme and Sam had already given me that impression that that was what he was going to do. He said, ‘This is the moment I’ve been dreading, I don’t think it works at the end.’ It was so last minute, such a kind of swipe, I remember thinking, ‘This can’t be right.’ You couldn’t introduce a new tune, it seemed like the tune to end with but it was this really daunting moment that was resolved by saying you can’t just put the plastic bag tune at the end; it has to be written but let’s find the point that it stops working and let’s assume then that at that moment the music will be written. And it ended up working great but there was a little doubt there.”

FINDING NEMO (2003)

“(Disney/Pixar) wanted to make sure I was the right guy (to compose this film) and when I started on it, I was given about 10 minutes worth of footage that they wanted me to score, some very tricky things like an anglerfish chase and when we first meet Dory and she asks Marlin to follow her and her tail is swishing. I’m asking myself as a neophyte in animation how much action do I need to catch? So that was a very tricky start to something I ended up really enjoying.”

LESS THAN ZERO (1987)

“I had this idea that I wanted to keep this as a teenager – I mean it’s a movie for people I guess in high school right? I mean characters who are setting up for college or whatever and so kind of high end visually that I thought wouldn’t it be amazing to bring this lush string orchestra playing through it so – the tune I wrote, this kind of string theme, the high endedness of the visuals made me just want to get on a podium and conduct something real for a string orchestra that was just incredibly lush. ”

HE NAMED ME MALALA (2015)

“I did meet Malala. She came to my studio for a day with her father Zia and that was quite an honour; I was a great moment for me. There were moments in Malala, I felt very moved by the storytelling and ‘pleased’ would be the wrong word, but the music could be part of what moved me, that I was trying to contribute to something that was meaningful outside the realm of creative work but just more in terms of the world. So there were moments on Malala when I was quite moved by what I was watching and also what I was hearing.”

SPECTRE (2015)

“The thing about Bond is you are borrowing from one of the great movie themes ever. It’s kind of required that you do it as it’s such a great theme and everyone wants to hear it. So you do have those obligations and then there are scenes that need to be new and fresh to make Spectre a different movie than Skyfall. So you want to with resort to similar vocabulary and you want to add with new vocabulary. There was talk on Skyfall about trying to collaborate (with Adele) but that never materialised. I met Sam Smith on this but the song had already been completed. It’s just one of the things that is born with the projects. You don’t feel that it’s wrong or it’s right, it’s just, ‘Here’s the song, when can it appear in the movie?’ So I think you just take on the task as you need to.”

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

“I remember really liking the opening shot of the prison and thinking ‘There’s no way I’m going to get that by (director) Frank Darabont’s ears.’ Yet he liked it and it was just such a wonderful surprise that he did. Sometimes you’d think, ‘This great idea is never going to fly just because I love it so much.’ With the things you like the most, you wonder if you’re liking it in a precious manner. I thought it had complex harmonic sensibilities and it wasn’t obvious. You can always hear a director saying, ‘Well I don’t really know what this piece is saying so therefore I reject it.’ There are any number of things you can anticipate going wrong, and sometimes they go right. But I think the things you like most are the things that get rejected first. That’s just how things work.”

THE PLAYER (1992)

“Robert Altman was a very jovial guy and obviously a famed improviser and perhaps less effective in post-production, which is like the crystallising process. So I found myself at sea often with him because we’d have conversations about what music is and in the end I don’t know how interested he was? Or maybe by the time I was involved he was just tired? I was going to be fired and I really believed that I was – I don’t know, I believe I was probably hired for a very Altmanesque reason, having to do with the Newman family name and The Player being a movie about Hollywood and when it came right down to it, was I the guy? I think ultimately I was but there were some shaky moments along the way with Altman. I really like the opening, which was a pretty quirky tune that opens the CD and ends with a big Hollywood finish to it.”

MEET JOE BLACK (1998)

“I worked with Marty on Scent of a Woman and I always felt like he wasn’t sure what he thought of me; I know he liked my work on it – but I wasn’t the slam dunk to record or to write on Meet Joe Black. He ended up hiring me and he was tough on me, he tended to not like electronics. At one point he said, ‘None of that deedle deedle shit.’ ‘Whisper of a Thrill’, which is this big love scene between Joe Black and Susan, was going to be a moment when it had to turn into something other than this string writing and he liked it very much and I still like it. To this day, that’s one of my favourite pieces, in fact.”

Spectre Soundtrack is out now on Decca Records