CS Score Chats with Composer John Debney!


CS Score Chats with Composer John Debney!

Here’s something you film score fans should absolutely love: to promote the release of Netflix’s Christmas film Jingle Jangle, CS Score got the amazing opportunity to talk with legendary film composer John Debney! This legendary artist has composed some of the greatest scores of the last three decades, including Hocus Pocus, Cutthroat Island, The Passion of the Christ and many others. All told, he has over 215 credits to his name and is set to compose the upcoming Home Alone reboot; and will (hopefully) compose the music for Hocus Pocus 2. At any rate, the interview is an interesting read and provides a few insights into his composing process,

Also, since we’re still waiting for new soundtracks to hit the shelves, we’ll offer a brief look at a couple of new releases from La La Land Records and Intrada, including Michael Kamen’s Lethal Weapon soundtrack collection, the expanded release of James Horner’s The Land Before Time and the re-release of Jerry Goldsmith’s Hoosiers.

Let’s do this.

Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton and David Sanborn

La La Land Records’ Lethal Weapon box set came out some time ago and quickly sold out due to limited quantities. Thankfully, the site has re-released the epic collection (again, in limited quantities) just in time for the holiday season and, oh boy, it’s a doozy. Each film in Richard Donner’s iconic series gets its own expanded 2CD release presented in their original assemblies, including the previously unreleased Lethal Weapon 4. The release even features the handful of songs used in the films from the likes of Sting, Elton John George Harrison, The Beach Boys, and Bobby Helms. Additionally, the set comes with a 40-page booklet detailing the Lethal Weapon film series, Kamen’s music, and detailed info about the scores.

Lethal Weapon 3 is probably the best of the bunch mainly due to the extraordinary action track, “Gun Battle,” which is as high-octane an action piece as you’re likely to ever find. A majority of the cues on all the albums consist of David Sanborn’s saxophone, which varies between playful and overtly dramatic; and while neither score offers much differentiation between the other (all four Lethal Weapons more or less follow the same beats and the score echoes their style), even with the latter two leaning more into the comic sensibilities of Donner’s films, each presents an entertaining amount of music worthy of a place on every soundtrack collector’s shelf.

[Note: I’ll do a more comprehensive deep dive into this release in the near future once I’ve had more time to soak it all in!]

Purchase the Lethal Weapon Soundtrack Collection here while supplies last!

You can also pre-order the collection here!

James Horner

James Horner was the master manipulator and his score for Don Bluth’s animated classic, The Land Before Time, remains one of the more memorable “sad scores” of his illustrious career. The composer liked to write long compositions and basically stuffs the dinosaur flick with wall-to-wall music that seesaws back and forth from family adventure and heartbreaking drama throughout its 74-minute runtime. Seriously, listen to track “Whispering Winds” (particularly the music around the 7-minute mark) and try not to … ah … feel some sort of emotion. (No, I’m not crying. It’s just onions.)

Intrada’s new expanded release offers two new cues to the already excellent original soundtrack release, titled “Journey of the Dinosaurs” and “Separate Paths,” both of which are considerable in length (7-8 minutes apiece) and feature some of the film’s best music. Also included on the disc is Diana Ross’ hit song, “If We Hold On Together.”

The Land Before Time released in 1988 during one of Horner’s most vibrant years during which he scored Willow, Red Heat, Vibes, Cocoon: The Return and Andy Colby’s Incredible Adventure. And while some may claim An American Tale as his animated-film-score magnum opus, The Land Before Time confidently stands as one of the finest animated film scores ever composed; and serves as a true testament to Horner’s greatness.

Purchase The Land Before Time here while supplies last!

You can also order the album here!

Jerry Goldsmith

Hoosiers remains one of the great sports films thanks to solid turns from Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, smart writing that emphasized character over sports-movie tropes, and Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic score. The composer would work with the same team years later on Rudy, which would bring about one of his greatest film scores; and while the score for Hoosiers never quite reaches the same heights, it offers enough rousing, goosebumps inducing moments and emotional cues to stand as a worthy addition to the legendary composer’s vast filmography.

This re-release of the 2012 complete score features cues not heard on the original soundtrack album, notably the tracks “No More Basketball,” “Town Meeting,” and “Get the Ball.” Even better, the score is presented on the soundtrack as heard in the film and not blended together in frustrating suites as it was on the original soundtrack release. Where the original soundtrack offered 39 minutes of Goldsmith’s work, this edition presents a whopping 60 minutes of music for soundtrack collectors to enjoy.

Purchase Hoosiers here while supplies last!

You can also order the original soundtrack here!

Interview with Composer John Debney
Jingle Jangle & Come Away

A musical adventure and a visual spectacle for the ages, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a wholly fresh and spirited family holiday event. Set in the gloriously vibrant town of Cobbleton, the film follows legendary toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) whose fanciful inventions burst with whimsy and wonder. But when his trusted apprentice (Emmy winner Keegan-Michael Key) steals his most prized creation, it’s up to his equally bright and inventive granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills) — and a long-forgotten invention — to heal old wounds and reawaken the magic within.

From the imagination of writer-director David E. Talbert and featuring original songs by John Legend, Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, and “This Day” performed by Usher and Kiana Ledé, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey reminds us of the strength of family and the power of possibility.

RELATED: Jeffrey Dahmer Limited Series in the Works From Netflix & Ryan Murphy

The cast also includes Sharon Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Kieron Dyer, Justin Cornwell, Lisa Davina Phillip, and Hugh Bonneville.

The movie was produced by Lyn Sisson-Talbert, p.g.a., David E. Talbert, p.g.a., Kristin Burr, p.g.a., John Legend, Mike Jackson, and David McIlvain.

ComingSoon.net: How did you get involved with Jingle Jangle? 

John Debney: Well, like a lot of things in our business, I was contacted through my agent regarding Jingle Jangle. And was sent the script, read the script and absolutely fell in love with it. I fell in love with the characters, with the emotional arc of the story, took a meeting or two with David E. Talbert, our wonderful director, and we sort of hit it off. We just sort of connected and I sent him a bunch of my music to listen to. And one of my scores that he loved was Come Away, which I had just finished. So he told me that he loved Come Away and he loved the attitude and the emotionality of the music. So he hired me and here we are. We went on this wonderful journey together.

CS: You’ve worked on musicals in the past, but how difficult is it for a composer to tackle something like this? Do you write the score around the songs or vice versa?

Debney: Well, that’s a great question. You know, as I did with Greatest Showman, the songs were written ahead of time, obviously because they have to shoot through the songs and stuff. So I had listened to all of the songs, fell in love with them. And my job then was to kind of stitch it all together, to infuse in areas of the film, infuse them as bond melodies. And in other places, you know, create new melodies for our characters. And it wasn’t unlike Greatest Showman, where I had that kind of make it all a unified whole. You know, one of the things that David didn’t want was the score to not relate to the songs and vice versa. So there are many times when I would play into a song or out of a song or even on top of a song, and you know, creating arrangements of the songs for the film as it were. And yeah, so it was like that. It was sort of a big quilt that sort of helped it stitch together, but all the while, with all this great material, the songs are so wonderful. And so, yeah, and my job was maybe easier because of these great songs, I must say.

CS: One of my favorite cues from the film is the big tunnel sequence where the kids are riding down on the cart with the robot fleeing from a giant wall of fire. It’s a really intense sequence. And obviously, there’s an infinite amount of ways you could score that moment. How do you settle on the mood and style for each particular sequence?

Debney: That’s a great question. That’s one of my favorite sequences, too, the big tunnel sequence. And you know, David and I worked really hard on that sequence for just the reason that you sort of alluded to. You know, David wanted an adventurous, exciting … he wanted it a little bit dangerous. And then ultimately, you know, he wanted it to sort of soar and be grand when they take off on their sled and they’re heading towards the way out, heading down the tunnel. So in every step of that section of that film, in that section of the score, we were very cognizant of keeping the adventure up, keeping the pace up, keeping the threat up when we needed to. But yeah, to have a little fun with it all, too, which was really important, and thank you for mentioning that cue. That’s one of my favorite scenes.

CS: You’ve composed heavy dramas such as The Passion of the Christ and Hacksaw Ridge with Mel Gibson, and then also lighter fare like Ice Age and Hocus Pocus. Is there a particular style that you gravitate to a little bit more or that excites you or challenges you more than any other?

Debney: Well, thank you for that question. Yeah, I’ve really been the luckiest guy in the world, that I’ve been able to do many different genres of film. But to answer your question, I think the kinds of films that when I loved the most and sort of speak to my heart are films like Jingle Jangle and Come Away, where there’s a deep emotional storyline between people, between family members. That’s where my heart is. I did a movie years ago called Dragonfly, I don’t know if anybody remembers that film —

CS: With Kevin Costner, right?

Debney: Yeah, with Kevin Costner. And it’s kind of an underrated film. I just loved the film. I like films that speak to the heart. And those are my favorite kinds of films, the ones that can touch your heart and you can have a little fun along the way. Elf is a good example, where you have a tremendous amount of fun, but then there’s also that wonderful end of that movie where it gets very big and emotional. I love those kinds of movies. Those are my favorites.

CS: Speaking of that, you talked about Come Away, and that’s a film that perfectly encapsulates everything you’re talking about in that it blends fantasy with real-life drama. You’ve got pirates. You’ve got Alice in Wonderland. You’ve got Peter Pan. You have all these different elements working together. How difficult is it to try to balance the drama with the more adventurous stuff that you like to do?

Debney: Well, great question, too. That one, you’re right. Everything that I love was in Come Away. You have the fantasy. You have the emotional drama. And then, you have pirates — honestly, it’s certainly a composer’s dream to be able to write music for Peter Pan and write music for Alice in Wonderland and the like. So for me, it opened up my floodgates as Jingle Jangle did, where it just gave me such a high working on both those films. On Come Away I also had a wonderful director by the name of Brenda Chapman, who couldn’t have been more lovely and collaborative. And then, in the case of Come Away, this amazing cast. So it was just a joy to do it. Was it daunting? Yes. I’m just trying to make music for iconic characters that everyone knows like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, which, in the case of that film, could be daunting. But it also kind of gets my creative juices flowing. And for me, it’s much easier when I have something so rich like Come Away or Jingle Jangle to work with. It’s a joy. It’s a real joy. So I didn’t stress too much about it. It was just sort of a joyful experience on both films.

CS: At this point in your career, how much direction do you need? Are you able to watch a film and write the score without too much guidance? Do directors trust you to do what you want to do?

Debney: Oh gosh. I wish that were the case. That’s very rare. And honestly, I think it’s essential to get in the trenches with the directors and really get to know them and really get to know their likes and dislikes. And it’s very important. It’s as important that a director tells you what they don’t like as well as what they do like. I hope that makes sense. In other words, that’s the only way for me as a composer to really hone in on what the emotion is they’re looking for. So anyway, it’s essential. I wish I could say that I’ve been hired on films where they just sort of leave me alone and let me do what I do, but it’s rare and I don’t think that that’s realistic. Maybe someday they’ll do that, but I like the interaction with the director, to be honest. I really do.

CS: You mentioned how you like to score the emotion of a film. So, is that your ultimate goal with each project you work on — to really bring out the emotional points of the story?

Debney: Oh honestly, I’m a big softie. You know, my director David E. Talbert, who’s now really my brother, I call him, he laughed because he just thinks I’m the biggest softie there is. And I lead with my heart, honestly. Sometimes that gets you in trouble, because sometimes I won’t try to play the emotionality of a scene or a part of the story. And I have a tendency to go a little overboard. And that’s when again, that’s when a great director will pull you back a little bit or kind of guide you through the process. But with Mel Gibson, every director’s different by the way. With Mel, it’s a great relationship where I can look over at Mel and if he’s got a certain look on his face, I know he’s not digging it. So that then tells me, well, I’ve got to go back to the drawing board. So but to answer your question, yeah, I lead with my heart. I always try to get into that part of the movie. Usually, that’s the part of movies that also appeals to audiences, to be honest with you. I think most audiences get led by their heart, too.

CS: Mel Gibson is working on a Passion of the Christ sequel and there is a sequel to Hocus Pocus coming as well. Are you involved with those projects at this point?

Debney: I know they’re happening. I have — honestly, I’m just being completely frank. I would love to work on both of those. You know, Adam Shankman is directing Hocus Pocus 2. He’s a friend of mine. We’ve worked together a couple of times. I’m hopeful. Nothing’s in writing or stone, but I’m crossing my toes and my fingers and we’ll see what happens. But the pandemic has kind of slowed the process down a bit. But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful.

CS: Can you discuss any of the other projects that you’re working on at the moment? Because you’re attached to the Home Alone reboot and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Have you begun work on any of those?

Debney: Yes, I’d love to talk about those. So, Clifford the Big Red Dog, we’re already finished with that. It’s a wonderful interpretation of the classic children’s story. And it turned out great. It just turned out great. I think it comes out next year sometime. Home Alone, they’re still building. And for me, the Home Alone reboot is the bucket list item for me, because I’ll confess that John Williams is probably my favorite living film composer, and the idea that I might follow in his footsteps with something that he’s done magnificently is a sheer joy and an exciting proposition. But I have started working on it. We’ve done some initial work on a song.

CS: I have to ask just as a fan, what’s your favorite score that you’ve worked on and why is it Cutthroat Island?

Debney: Wow. That’s a good one. You know, people always ask, if you’re lucky, if you’re so lucky like me to have been doing what you do for a while, you know, you get to look back a bit. And I have so many favorites, I must tell you. It’s like children. How do you decide which is your favorite child, you know? I’ll tell you some of my favorites. Jingle Jangle has to be on my top five. Maybe near the top. I think The Passion, only because of the work that Mel and I did together. Of course Cutthroat Island. That was my first big, huge adventure film score. But there are others that mean a lot to me. Hocus Pocus means a lot to me, just because that was my real break into films. And then, I guess I’d round out the top five with Elf. How about that?

CS: That’s perfect.

Debney: That’s my friend, Jon Favreau, we’ve done, I think, five films together. And I’ve seen him go from the guy on Elf who had his first really big film that I did with him, to the Jon Favreau that we know is in the league of all of the greats, like Spielberg, Zemeckis and other great storytellers. So I would say, I have a number of favorites, I would say those could be my five top ones.

CS: That’s awesome. I appreciate you answering my question. I’ll let you go. I know you’re busy. But I really appreciate you sitting down and talking to me. This was like a wonderful treat. I could talk to you all day, to tell you the truth.

Debney: Oh thanks, man. Let’s do it again.