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Oscars '98

The Newman Conquests

With 70 Oscar nominations in film music, Alfred, Emil and Lionel and their modern-day descendants outscore the rest.

March 22, 1998|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

Like his cousin Randy, the chance to work with an orchestra is largely what draws David to scoring films. David learned to love orchestras from the inside out--playing violin as a child with the Santa Monica Symphony, studying performance and conducting at USC, then working as a studio musician and freelance conductor.

"Composing to me always seemed so daunting," said David, who was 15 when his father Alfred died. "But after college, I started listening to hours of [my father's] stuff. It was so beautiful: the music, the playing, the ability to get it in a movie. It planted a seed in me that eventually came to fruition."

It wasn't easy at first. After he'd decided to give scoring a try, it took David three years to get work on his first low-budget films like "Critters" and "Vendetta."

Quickly, though, he moved up to major studio pictures, collaborating with director Danny DeVito on "Throw Momma From the Train" (1987). He has scored all of DeVito's films since, as well as a varied slate of other movies, from "The Flintstones" and "The Nutty Professor" to "Heathers" and "Boys on the Side."

This year, David got his first Oscar nomination, for "Anastasia," and he describes the scoring of that film as a "lovely" experience.

"They were very receptive to my ideas. I really felt part of the team, which is very rare. I definitely think the music is better [for it]," he said.

Communicating with a film director can sometimes be a challenge, he said. "Everybody has horror stories about things directors have done. One who says, 'I really like that. Why don't you play it backwards?' Or, 'It doesn't go up enough or down enough.' "

But, he added, "when somebody's good, like DeVito, and they ask you to do something, and you start thinking about it and realize, 'That's probably a really good idea. How am I going to solve that right now?' You learn to think on your feet. It can be very interesting."

Meanwhile, David was the first composer signed up for Filmharmonic, a Los Angeles Philharmonic program that commissions film composers to write original music to be performed alongside new short films.

"I'm very interested in the combination of classical music with moving images--film or, maybe in the future, holograms," he said. As he thought about the future, he found himself summoning the past.

"My father was a huge influence on me in all aspects of music and in the whole idea that you could get everyone together to do something extraordinarily beautiful. The collaborative and the performance and the music all rolled into one," he said. "My father respected good musicianship. He was honest about it. Those are good traits."

THE EXPERIMENTER

Thomas Newman is on his way out the door of Paramount's Sound Stage M, when the phone rings. Robert Redford wants to chat.

"When I don't hear from you, I think the worst," the composer teasingly tells the director/movie star, who is calling with suggestions about music for his latest film, "The Horse Whisperer." The process of "getting Bob's opinion," as Thomas calls it, takes about 20 minutes. Afterward, the boyish 42-year-old reveals his secret: He loves noise.

"I have an interest in mundane experimentation," says Thomas, whose scores often incorporate unexpected sounds, like Aboriginal chants and the chirping of cicadas. "I take the approach of the listener, in a way. What draws my ear? And why? What if you struck a bell? What if you bowed a bowl? I love hurdy-gurdies and baritone ukuleles. Anything that makes noise."

Since scoring his first film, 1984's "Reckless," Thomas has earned a reputation for making music that is both subtle and innovative. And he is versatile, moving easily from drama ("Fried Green Tomatoes" in 1991) to comedy ("Scent of a Woman" in 1992).

In 1994, Thomas was nominated twice for Academy Awards, for his scores "Little Women" and "The Shawshank Redemption." The next year, he was nominated again for "Unstrung Heroes," Diane Keaton's eccentric comedy.

Now, he is up to his neck in "The Horse Whisperer," Redford's adaptation of the bestseller about a man who can calm troubled horses. Thomas says the project, filmed under the big Montana sky, has been a challenge.

"It's an exquisitely shot movie, and a lot of it is about the land. So the music has to represent a certain sumptuousness. But beyond that, the story is a very intimate one about a mother and a daughter," he said. "The size of the environment almost contradicts the intimacy of the relationship--in an interesting way. So the issue is how big do you play and how small? When the movie is big, if you play small is that OK? And when there's filmic scope does there want to be musical scope?"

Thomas was 14 when his father died, and he did not initially set out to emulate him. At first, he says, he was more interested in musical theater than in film composition. He got a music degree from Yale, worked on Broadway with Stephen Sondheim and tried, he says, to figure out what he had to offer.

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