Interview with John Debney

Sure he might have unleashed voodoo-action hell for Arnie’s “End of Days,” gone hunting in the primeval percussive jungle with the “Predators” or taken “The Caller’s” ring from the razor-sharp Nine Inch Nails receiver. But when you come right down to it for all of his impressive detours into darkness, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated John Debney remains known as one of Hollywood’s nice-guy composers in a career that hasn’t stopped running for three decades since taking up his family’s Disney legacy. It’s a warmly melodic, family-friendly spirit that’s much like Debney’s affable personality, growing from the small screen to apply his lavishly fun orchestral sound to such live-action and animated fantasy epics as “Inspector Gadget,” “The Ant Bully,” “The Scorpion King,” “Evan Almighty,” “Zathura” and “Lair” – a lavish orchestral score that arguably put videogame soundtracks on the map as a musical contender.

In a way, you might say that John Debney has retained the adventurous, sometimes goofy enthusiasm of a kid glued to the boob tube, as expressed through music that can touch both the looney tunes kid in all of us, as well as the wistful maturity of an adult who yearns for more in life. Both facets are on display this movie Spring, first as the anarchic show your mom tells you to shut off makes its second cinematic adventure. And Debney is there for the momentous occasion of “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” as the utterly bizarre hero and his equally wacked-out crustacean friends make the big leap into live action, as given super-heroic CG biceps to take on Antonio Bandera’s food-obsessed pirate. Debney fans who thrilled to his swashbuckling score for “Cutthroat Island” will surely groove to this very, very big symphonic expansion of the SpongeBob legend with a score that comes across as Erich Wolfgang Korngold meeting Carl Stalling, with a knowing dash of John Williams thrown into the iconic Krusty Krab musical mix, one that’s likely the most fun, and thrillingly “real” score as you can imagine being composed for a SpongeBob movie.

Though many of Adam Sandler’s performances have much in common with that certain ADD slab of yellow sea life run amuck, the actor is in restrained fashion at first for “The Cobbler,” an adult fantasy of far more indie-intimate proportions. One size doesn’t fit all for this Jewish mender who discovers a literal ability to step into his clients shoes, especially when it comes to the unexpected, but strikingly good idea of teaming Debney with Nick Urata for the music. As the leadman for the Gypsy-Klezmer influenced group Devotchka, Urata’s voice first impressed with the songs that drove “Little Miss Sunshine” to her beauty pageant, Urata then revealed his own instrumental abilities, going from the yearning child-like melodies of “What Maise Knew” to the sweetly romping score of “Paddington.” “The Cobbler” allows for a seamless meeting of the multiple identity minds between Debney and Urata for “Win Win” filmmaker Tom McCarthy, here with a score that has the delicious ethnic swing that encapsulates both “The Cobbler’s” Hebraic background and 20s jazz swing. But that’s just the start for a score that grows into decidedly oddball directions that SpongeBob itself would appreciate as funk joins with techno, rock and orchestra – all making for a wildly unique, yet mature comedy score as eccentric as it is emotional.

Now caught in his own musical workshop where the musical cobbling, and inventiveness have yet to cease, John Debney reflects on talking sponges, swinging Klezmer jazz and bringing The History channel a deliciously anachronistic sound.

Do you think having a dad who worked at Disney set you up to make a name with family-friendly cartoons and fantasy-adventures?

I don’t think that growing up in the business was an advantage for me necessarily. It helped me because I grew up in the Disney family that I was able to get a job in their music department. But from there the relationship of having a dad who worked at Disney worked against me quite often, because people erroneously assumed it was just a nepotism thing, and not necessarily talent.

How much of a musical inspiration were television cartoons for you?

I grew up first loving Disney cartoons and then later Hanna-Barbera cartoons and all of the wonderful companies that made these Saturday morning shows back in the day. But whatever generation we’ve grown up in, I think that cartoons are some of our favorite things. Later when I started to write for television cartoons, it was something I felt very comfortable with because I’d grown up in the environment of the Disney cartoon machine. So doing Disney shows like “Tiny Toons” was comfortable in my wheelhouse.

You’ve scored numerous cartoons that have been aimed squarely at the younger set like “The Ant Bully”, and ones that have gone for a more knowingly satiric adult appeal like “The Emperor’s New Groove.” What do you think is the difference in tone when scoring either approach?

I don’t categorize cartoons into sort of a narrow box of what tone they should be. I take each animated show as its own animal, because I don’t want to go in with any pre-conceived ideas of what I should do. When I was working on the “Looney Toons Back in Action movie,” for which I had the great joy of taking over from Jerry Goldsmith towards the end of his life, I had to honestly go into that production knowing I was going to have to write Warner Brothers-type music in the tradition of Carl Stalling. So there is a “style” that’s suited more to the actual studio. In the case of my score to “The Jetsons Movie,” I went for the Hanna-Barbera style that Hoyt Curtain developed, which was a jazzy, retro-sound. So I don’t think it’s the cartoons, or their movies that dictate the music. I think it’s more the era in which those shows were made.

On that note, do you think the appeal of “SpongeBob” is just how insane it is – the kind of “you’ll go blind if you watch it” stuff we used to get from our parents for watching “The Three Stooges?”

Yeah, I think that has a lot to do with it. I think SpongeBob crosses a few generations. When my boys were growing up, we would hesitate letting them watch “SpongeBob SquarePants,” because for some reason my wife felt that the show was a little bit in bad taste. But honestly, looking back on it, I think everything these days is in your face and distasteful in some ways! Back then, “SpongeBob” was an edgy thing. But now, it’s pretty mainstream. And the wonderful thing about doing “Sponge Out of Water is that I’m able to relive and replay some of those classic SpongeBob musical ideas, but to also create something big, new and orchestral.

On the opposite note, do you think there’s an adult appeal to SpongeBob?

I think there’s an adult appeal to the character. Parents get some of the jokes that kids don’t. Then there are a lot of jokes that the kids get which the parents don’t think are that funny. I think really smart comedy is like that, whether it’s animated or not. But there are always going to be things that appeal to certain age groups, which is the kind of timelessness of SpongeBob in a way. It’s become iconic. Where the show was sort of rebellious, parents are now going to take their kids to this movie, and I think they’ll all like it.

Having taken “Jimmy Neutron” to the big screen for Nickelodeon, is there the expectation of a bigger sound to really get home that this is a “proper” movie? And if so, was that particularly important for a film that had the characters going out of the ocean to take on CGI dimensions?

Yes. We knew going into this thing that we wanted a large scope, especially when the characters come into our live-action world. Definitely the filmmakers wanted a score that would fill the screen and tell people that this was a big, fun and very adventurous film. So there are all of those things in the score. There’s right down the middle “fun” music for SpongeBob with the pedal steel guitar, the ukulele and the like. But when we come into the real world, we explode into a much bigger sound, which was always the desire.

Do you think part of the score’s humor comes from just how epically symphonic it is?

Yes. It’s like Elmer Bernstein’s gag in “Airplane!” where you’re playing music very seriously without commenting on the comedy. But there are times when you want to comment on it, which we did on “SpongeBob.” It’s more the fun factor of it all. Sometimes if you play music that’s very serious, like an Indiana Jones movie, which I did a bit in SpongeBob (thanks maestro John Williams!), I think the score comes off as being more enjoyable for that.

How would you describe SpongeBob as a musical character?

I think that each character in the movie has their own theme, and motif. Plankton’s theme is played in the low brass and the trombones. SpongeBob music is just wacky. It’s just “SpongeBob-ish,” meaning there are hints of a Hawaiian guitar, 50s kitschiness and a funny mocking baseline. Creating those individual vibes was a lot of fun for me.

Was it important to capture a bit of the original cartoon’s scoring as well?

Yes. We had to give the hardcore fans bits and pieces of the original SpongeBob music because it’s so beloved and iconic. So there are numerous pieces from the show that hit at really fun moments where you might not be expecting it.

One of your fan favorite scores is for “Cutthroat Island.” What’s it like to return to those epic pirate waters here, and how did you want to make it just a little less savagely scallywag-ish in tone for Antonio Banderas’ Burger-Beard?

It was wonderful getting back to my pirate movie roots. I quite love that kind of music, and I don’t know why. Maybe I was a pirate in another life! As we had a pirate as our bad guy in “SpongeBob,” I just know that I had to go there. I created a theme for him that turned out to be a major theme in the score, as the very first piece of the movie is a big statement of the Burger-Beard melody and the SpongeBob theme. Later in the movie when our pirate comes onto dry land, there’s a furious minute-long pirate piece that’s probably faster than it should have been. It’s my favorite piece of score in the film, and I give big props to my orchestra for being able to pull that off. The LA musicians are incredible, and they played the hell out of it. So I’d say the music is in the vein of “Cutthroat Island,” though it’s a different type of theme for our bad guy. But nevertheless it’s in a world that I love.

“Sponge out of Water” plays in a slightly less cartoon-y, Carl Stalling way than one might expect. Was it important to go for a more, adventurously straight route than “Mickey Mouse’ing all of the jokes? And is that an approach you prefer in general for your animated scores?

Again, I take every project as its own thing. In the case of SpongeBob, as with every film I do. There were times in SpongeBob where we had to be cartoony, and others where we didn’t. Sometimes we’d hit things right on the nose, and at others we’d purposely not. It’s in the shaping of that where film music works well. Other than that, there’s no hard and fast musical rule.

Let’s talk about “The Cobbler,” an Adam Sandler “body switch” fantasy that you’ve co-scored with Nick Urata. How did the idea come about for you teaming with this score, and did you “divide” the cues based on what the needs would be?

The idea was brought to me by our mutual agent Laura Engel, who thought that this would be an ideal score for us to collaborate on. I thought the idea was great, as I’d loved Nick’s music for a long time. So we met, and I really liked Nick, We subsequently had a meeting with “The Cobbler’s” filmmaker Tom McCarthy, and really hit it off. Nick and I loved the strange, off-kilter angle of this story, as well as Tom’s work. So it was a no-brainer. We thought, “What if this score was a Devotchka-Klezmer tinged score, as our lead character is a cobbler. We wanted it to have the flavor of his background. It would be a fun, ethnically tinged score, which is what we came up with.

What do you think is the trick to a composer co-collaboration so that the score comes out as having one voice?

I think it’s important if you’re collaborating with another artist that you come up with a sound, and stick to the ground rules of what it is, so it doesn’t come across like there are two different musical things going on. That was crucial. And once we figured out the band and instrumentation of the cobbler, we just sort of went with it. We knew we were gong to have a clarinet, a tuba and a rhythm section, with magical dulcimers thrown in. But yet we had to make sure that it was all of a musical kind.

Could you talk about the score’s jazzier, Django Reindhart-esque roots, which are central to Nick’s music with his band Devotchka?

Part of the credit for that goes to Tom McCarthy, who had some great temp music in there comprised of different bands and artists from that world. That gave us a great road map of what we were going to do. We just had to figure out what we could do given the slim music budget of an indie film. So we came up with a rhythm section with ukuleles, guitar, clarinet, and a little sax that served the band. We added a wonderful violin player by the name of Sandy Cameron, and just went from there.

Having scored movies like “Bruce Almighty” and “A Thousand Words,” what do you think the challenge of “adult” wish-fulfillment fantasy is, especially for a movie that’s tied into emotion like “The Cobber?” not to mention having Adam Sandler doing a more restrained performance for it?

Both “A Thousand Words” and “The Cobbler” had lots of comedic moments. But at the heart of it all there’s this deeply felt emotional storyline. And I think you have to connect with that musically. If the score is too light then you’re doing a disservice to both the film and the audience. So it’s crucial to be in touch with the comedic side and the heartfelt side, which shouldn’t be cloying and over the top. Everything’s got to be emotionally centered.

How did you want “The Cobbler” to go from a wistfully intimate, “unplugged” approach to crazier moments for funk, fuller orchestra and techno rhythms?

Well, we had no idea where we were going! And as the film progresses, it gets even more schizophrenic and wilder. At face value, our hero is a cobbler. But he’s got a personality-changing shtick, and we had to go there – whether it meant getting techno, or getting funky. You can’t plan that stuff.

What was the challenge of keeping on top of modern beats in a way that’s real, especially for a composer who wants to sound contemporary in a way that isn’t pretending to?

Whatever age you are, or whatever part of your career you’re in, I think you always need to foster a desire to stay current and to listen to what’s being played now – to not let yourself get stale. Just try to keep your mind open to all of the new styles, which is what I embrace. I think it took me four movies to get my feet underneath the more contemporary electronic work that’s out there. Take my uber-aggressive scores like “The Call” and “Alex Cross.” These were learning experiences for me in how to integrate current music with the orchestral and acoustical elements I’m more familiar. The most exciting thing for me right now is to create scores like “The Cobbler” and “The Caller,” just things that are left of what people would consider my center. Because if you don’t embrace change you’re doomed to repeat yourself and be boring. I don’t want to be that artist. I always want to be a little bit surprising.

I thought your score for “Stonehearst Asylum” was one of last year’s best. It marked quite a different direction than your last industrial-driven score with Brad Anderson for “The Caller.” Was it particularly fun to go in a thunderous, gothic route here?

It was extremely fun to go into the bowels of this kind of Hammer-esque, traditional scoring. But I have to give all the credit to Brad Anderson for that. He’s an auteur, and a great director. From day one with “Stonehearst,” he wanted me to create a very passionate and traditional gothic score, tinged with some irony and quirkiness, because it’s a pretty quirky film. There a re a lot of comedic underpinnings to it. Brad challenged me to write some very beautiful themes, especially the love theme. I went to London to record, where the musicians played it with incredible verve and emotion. It was a great experience. My only regret is that the movie deserved to be released properly, and it didn’t get that chance. But nevertheless, I’m proud of the score, and the movie.

You’ve been a big part of “hipping up” the History Channel with your work on “Hatfields & McCoys,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Houdini” and the forthcoming “Texas Rising.” How did you hit on an approach of incorporating a wildly anarchic “rock and roll” approach to the more expected music you’d hear from the time periods? And do you think these shows would have been as big of a hit if the music went for something straighter?

Thanks for asking that, because I take great pride in the work I’ve done for The History Channel. The nice thing about those projects have been that the channel and those shows’ teams have given me great creative license for those sores. I scored “Hatfields” with my buddy Tony Morales, and we created what I consider a modern western-flavored score. We had great specialists on that like the singer Lisbeth Scott. Then after that was the incredible “Bonnie and Clyde.” I’d fallen in love with the director Bruce Beresford years before with his work like “Driving Miss Daisy.” He’s a wonderful gentleman, who allowed me to create a jazzy score that would at times be spot-on period music, and at others use completely contemporized, loopy music, especially because I felt that the real Bonnie and Clyde were rebels who could have been living right now – two star-crossed confused kids going out to create havoc and kill people. So I definitely wanted the score to have their edge and a groove to it. Fast forward to “Houdini,” where the creative direction was to have it be heavy metal, Nine Inch Nails-ish grooves meeting Gypsy violin music. That immediately caught my interest, and you can imagine the fun I had doing that. The very first piece of music in the film accompanies Houdini chained on a bridge, ready to jump into the freezing cold water. It was a three-minute cue that I spent a couple of weeks on, seeing if it could work. And I found that the cooler those people in the costumes looked in the scene, than the hipper and edgier the music sounded. It really did something to your mind. The byproduct out of all of that experimentation was that I got to create a superhero out of Houdini, of course aided by an amazing performance by Adrian Brody. Usually I can’t do what I want unless it’s on the screen, and boy was it there front and center with his performance. I called a good friend of mine named Sebastian Arocha-Morton to help me remix and produce the score. We ended up with a two-CD soundtrack. It was a gas, as they would say in the old days.

As a composer who’s worked nearly continuously for over 30 years, how do you see the Hollywood-scoring scene now? If it needs a big fix, what do you think it’s going to take to make it happen?

I’m extremely fortunate to still be working over that length of time. I didn’t even realize it was that long. I’m very lucky to have had the career I’ve had and to still be on people’s list. They still haven’t thrown me out yet as it were. I think there’s a lot of exciting new composers on the scene right now, so I don’t think that there’s a necessarily a dreaded disease in composer land. There are incredible people doing wonderful, new-sounding scores with their own style, which I think is great. I think in general it would be nice to celebrate diversity in the different types of music that’s being created in Hollywood. When things start sounding the same, that’s not a good thing – not that they are. Diversity is something that should be embraced.

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” opens in theaters on February 6th, with its score album available soon on Varese Sarabande Records. “The Cobbler” opens March 13th, with John Debney and Nick Urata’s score available on Lakeshore Records. “Texas Rising” premieres on The History Channel on May 25th.

Visit John Debney’s website HERE

A special thanks for Stephanie Pereida for making this interview possible