They Shoot, He Scores

You might not know his name, but his music--experimental, impressionistic, sparse--haunts TV's "Six Feet Under," for which he has been nominated for a Grammy in composing and arranging, and films such as "Road To Perdition," "In the Bedroom," "American Beauty," "The Green Mile" and the upcoming kid flick "Finding Nemo." Composer Thomas Newman, 47, is scion of a movie score dynasty that includes dad Alfred Newman (nine Oscars, 45 nominations), uncle Lionel Newman ("Hello, Dolly!"), brother David ("Anastasia," "Ice Age") and cousin Randy (the "I Love L.A." guy and composer of countless scores). The Palisades High alum chats about the importance of not saying too much, among other things.

Is there a "film scoring" community? Do you hang out?

When my dad was at 20th Century Fox, there was a whole stable of composers. They hung. In my generation, I don't see it. There's no studio system. I'm closer with musicians.

Do big film composers have a niche? John Williams for a sweeping score, Tom Newman for a subtle, artsy score?

Sometimes I think it's a generational thing. In the '30s and '40s, music was large in scope. It heightened and "melodramatized" the movies. You could argue that this era is different, where your interest is not as much broad strokes as in somehow making stories more compelling. A lot of times young directors are interested in finding ways of doing things in their own unique way.

How do you describe your style?

I tend to be spare. I tend to freeze moments a lot.

What's next once you've conferred with the director and read the script?

You say, OK, it's a period movie. You really can't get away with contemporary instruments in a contemporary way. Then I start just having ideas. Gather, let's say, 10 to 20, 20 to 30 small fragments. What if we tried that there? No, that's too sentimental, or not sentimental enough, or overly abstract.

Do you assign motifs to your characters?

That would be more action adventure movies, where it becomes more operatic in scale, like, here is the evil character. Usually I do not write themes for characters. I usually write music under which a character lives.

Knowing where not to put music is also important.

That's right. "In the Bedroom" had a very small score. It was clear that a lot of music would make that a tedious movie. It would be commenting all the time, and perhaps saying things would make the dramatic intention less ambiguous, and ambiguity can be compelling in that movie.

So the movie score . . .

Can say too much.

Many soundtracks now are like pop song albums. Is scoring a dying art?

You could never have done songs [for] "In the Bedroom." [But] "The Graduate" is a great example of how songs are probably better than a score. The thing is, songs are good when they're good and bad when they're bad.

Your most recognized work is probably your theme for HBO's "Six Feet Under." There's something haunting yet lively about it.

It's like the series, putting the ridiculous next to the profound. That clearly is [writer/producer] Alan Ball's talent. Surprising you with death in the face of utter ridiculousness. I started to get a sense of that with "American Beauty."

When did music become your "tool"?

I went two years to USC and then transferred to Yale [where he got a bachelor's and a master's, both in music]. After I graduated college I was in a band, the band fell apart, and then I had an opportunity to write music for [the film "Reckless"] in 1983.

Do you like any pop bands?

I'll listen to electronica. I like the Eels, Radiohead. I listened to the latest Beck album. I bought the Eminem album, which I liked an awful lot.

Do you see live music often?

No, but there's this improvisational group called Tokyo 77 that I'm in with three other guys that you'll see on a lot of credits of my film scores. Their pedigree is way beyond working with me. This is some wild, out-there stuff. Occasionally we book a gig. We played at LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions] and live on KCRW. We want to try to do that more.

Other side interests?

I collect instruments and antique toys that make music. I like the idea of taking a box out of a little children's toy that maybe is 60 or 70 years old and putting it into some other kind of musical context.

Your cousin Randy has detailed why he loves L.A in song. Your reasons?

I love its history, the fact that so much of it is gone. You look at early pictures of Los Angeles, you just don't see anything recognizable. There's something sad about that, but there's something deeply moving about it too. A sense of ephemera. I don't think I've been much of a Hollywood person in terms of parties and things like that. But man, John Cage came out of Pomona, there have been some great composers who have come out of this town.

Are you a movie buff?

Not really.

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