Becoming a Newman
Thomas Newman is among the most highly respected and successful film composers. Though part of a Hollywood musical dynasty, he has created a unique musical voice.
Thomas Newman is one of the most prominent film composers of recent years. He has composed music for more than 50 motion pictures and television series and earned fifteen Academy Award nominations and six Grammy Awards.
Newman’s father was a nine-time Academy Award–winning composer; his brother, two uncles, and a cousin have also written music for television and film. Newman received a B.A. from Yale University in 1977 and a master’s in music from Yale in 1978. His uncle Lionel, music director at 20th Century Fox, gave Newman his first scoring assignment for the 1978 law school drama Paper Chase. Newman’s first film score, for Reckless (1984), began a career in film composition that includes work on such classics as The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Finding Nemo, two James Bond films, and the war film 1917. He also composed the theme songs for Boston Public, Six Feet Under, and other acclaimed TV series.
The film composer Thomas Newman is part of a Hollywood musical dynasty, but as a young man, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to live up to the family name.
Thomas Newman: I never felt entitlement. I guess I’ve just always been, I’ve always had grit. I think if I’ve had any quality that’s driven me forward, it’s just a sense of, shoulder, shoulder down, and let’s keep moving forward.
Thomas Newman’s father, Alfred, was a nine-time Academy award-winning composer who spent nearly two decades as music director of 20th Century Fox during the 1940s and ’50s. He also wrote the iconic fanfare for the studio. The next generation of Newman’s brought cousin Randy, who’s become one of America’s most beloved songwriters and film composers. The rest of the family is littered with accomplished classical musicians and composers and growing up, it was a given that music would be an important part of Thomas’s life. His mother would drive him and his two siblings to lessons with best teachers, sometimes hours away, but the Newman children didn’t get much advice from their famous father, who would spend long hours holed up in his studio.
Newman: My dad was, I think in the days when he was alive, it was enough to make a living. And, then mother would do most of the parenting and that’s just not as true now as it was then. I always believe my dad loved us a lot. He would get up late and work late. He would rarely have dinner with us. There was a Sunday dinner he’d have with us, which was typically roast beef and mashed potatoes. And he’d have a flagon of Heineken ale, I remember, but he was 55 when I was born. So, so much of what my father was had already happened by the time I was born. And in the time I was alive and he was alive, he was sick, a lot of the time, he was a terrible smoker and died of lung cancer.
Newman was only 14 when his dad passed away. And though his mother was supportive, the young Thomas felt the loss deeply, naturally shy and reserved. It took a decade and two degrees from Yale for him to figure out where he belonged in music and in life.
Newman: Maybe by the age of 24, 25, I was kind of nowhere, it was like, okay, now what? Do I love music enough to stick with it? And the answer was a kind of vague ‘Yes,’ I really did like it, but I think it made me think that I had to bend as opposed to break and what was good about what I did and what wasn’t and now, okay, I’m gonna reengage. I just wanted to always put it above me. I wanted to enjoy it.
This was one of many values reinforced by Newman’s mentor. Stephen Sondheim was already a legendary musical theater composer when they met. Yet, he treated Newman as an equal.
Newman: He listened to the things I had to say as if what I had to say had some interest, and I don’t think I’d ever been really spoken to that way before. So he was and he was very open about process and collaboration in a way that he was not afraid to share vulnerability with me as a matter of what it meant to be collaborative. So I think I learned basic lessons in how humans interact.
AJC: Mmh, I’m sure that that translated to the film world from the musical theater world.
Newman: It does your ability to be a team player, to know how to try to make something better, not to outsize something based upon, an idea of oneself. All those are, I think, really important qualities to have because you were in the service of something. It doesn’t, a movie doesn’t start with me. It kind of ends with me. And it’s, it’s kind of an obligation I have to kind of carry it out in a way that’s respectful to the makers.
30 years on, those makers have included the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Robert Bradford. And he’s been a go-to collaborator for Sam Mendez since the director’s first film, 1999’s, five-time Academy-award-winning American Beauty, the tragic-comic tale of a suburban man’s chaotic midlife meltdown.
Newman: I tend to like, I think scenes that have psychology in them and that are subtextual in their musical nature. That they’re not redundant to image and that I can actually bring something to a movie that a director never would have thought of. And that’s always a joy for someone to say, I never thought this scene had a kind of depth that it has now with this bit of music underneath.
Thomas Newman uses unusual, sophisticated, melodic, and harmonic devices to create uniquely evocative scores. And he’s written some of the most memorable soundtracks in recent movie history. The Shawshank Redemption, Road to Perdition, 1917. Today Thomas Newman has secured his place in his esteemed family’s legacy by keeping an open mind, listening carefully, and never being afraid to scrap it all and start again.
Newman: Part of it is knowing that having an idea, isn’t the end of having another idea. I think the worst enemy for me is “I wrote this and therefore it has to be great,” that just puts me in a terrible position. I’d rather say, “I wrote this and I’m gonna now, put it away from myself and let it come at my ears and make sure I like it.” And as opposed to liking it because I wrote it because “I spent five hours writing it dammit and it better be good.” Giving up as an act of kind of self-acceptance in a way, these are all ways of measuring the product. And in the end you do want that kind of measurement. You don’t want it to be born beautiful, but somehow weak. It needs to be beautiful, but it has to be ultimately built to last.
Most of the time, Thomas Newman works to serve someone else’s vision, but despite being one of the most revered movie composers alive, he still goes to the piano to make music just for himself, like this, a congregational song called, “Speak So I Can Hear You” written for his late mother, Martha. And though this is a deeply personal piece of music, in their own way, all of Thomas Newman’s compositions feel like they come from the very soul of the man. That in the service of evoking, a universally heartfelt idea or emotion, he must give not only of his prodigious musical talent but also truly of himself.