“The Spirit of Collaboration” – John Debney (The VH Interview)

American composer John Debney has penned the scores for an almost endless list of soundtracks over the last quarter of a century. From Disney and Marvel, to his Oscar nominated The Passion of the Christ, Debney has created a soundscape that few others can hold a candle to.

We were very lucky to catch up with John after his recent trip to London to chat about The Jungle Book, his inspirations, as well as his love of Skrillex…

What first drew you to composing?

It was a rather subconscious thing to be honest with you. I started as a young man playing guitar when I was about six years old and I kind of fell in love. I always loved music. I started playing at an early age and as time went on I got into bands… Rock and roll bands and the like… and then when I got into college I really started focussing on music, and in my junior year at college I decided to make music my career. I got a degree in composition, got out of college and started working for other composers. So I guess you’d say for me, it was always that great love of music from a very young age, wherever that would have taken me. It could’ve taken me to many places, but it took me into film and television and I really enjoyed it! I’ve been very fortunate to have a lengthy career, and I still enjoy writing.

In all your years writing, do you have a favourite film that you’ve worked on?

I would have to say, and this is not just me trying to publicise (laughs), I would have to say The Jungle Book. That’s my all-time favourite. My relationship with Jon Favreau; he’s a great guy, a really personable guy, and also because of my long personal relationship with Disney. The Emperor’s New Groove is one of my favourites too, because that one sort of fell in my lap and I literally had about three weeks to compose that. I met so many wonderful people on that film who have become great friends since. So that was a really fun one because it’s really out of the box compared to the normal Disney fare. The journey on The Jungle Book though actually started with my father, who worked with Disney for forty years, and it ended with the great joy that is the new Jungle Book. So that really has to be my number one.

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Obviously, it’s such an iconic original soundtrack, and you’ve weaved that beautifully into the new film. What were the challenges living up to that original film?

It was a very daunting task as you can imagine! I’ve done this in a few films now, where I’ve had to embrace or reinterpret music from earlier movies, and I think that for me personally, it doesn’t serve the movie well if you try to ignore what work has come before. So on The Jungle Book, we knew inherently that we were going to quote some of the wonderful music. We had to. Jon knew that early on and communicated that to me, and I whole-heartedly agreed. How can you not? My job then became how to integrate these iconic pieces of music into a brand new interpretation. So I embarked upon the idea of trying to use these different pieces in rather new and unique ways. And so, what came out of it was an homage to the original, but also brand new music. I’m hoping we succeeded! I feel good about it!

You’ve done so many different films, from horror to Disney… How do you manage to keep things original and fresh between all these different genres?

I think it’s the way my brain works! I’ve noticed from years of doing this that I work best when I’ve got two or three things that I’m doing simultaneously. I like to multitask, to do different things at the same time. Let’s say I’m doing a dramatic show, and then I’m doing a comedy at the same time… That helps me. It helps me to wear these different hats and clear my head. Perhaps other composers don’t like to do that, but for some reason I do. I guess it’s served me well, because it does help me to divorce myself from one thing and then jump into another thing. We’re all wired differently, and I think that’s just the way I’m wired. Let’s put it that way!

If you could score any movie, past, present or future, what would be your dream job?

That’s a tough one because I have been so fortunate to do so many types of movie. I remember a number of years ago, I was sort of hoping and praying for some kind of dramatic movie that I could really sink my teeth into. And then, lo and behold, The Passion of the Christ came onto my plate. Since then, I’ve done so many different films that I honestly don’t have in my mind right now something that I haven’t done that I’d love to do. I’m not unfulfilled in that regard. I love working with directors who have a vision, and yet they let you explore. So for me right now, it’s all about the filmmaker and their spirit of collaboration.

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Do directors often have an idea of what the film should sound like? Do they ever just say “No, that’s not what we want at all!”?

Well, the best situation is when the director comes in and tells you he doesn’t like it! If they can express to you why they don’t, I think that’s critical. I’ve had the experience before where a director has come in and they don’t like something, but they’re not sure why. That’s hard. That’s very difficult because it’s like telling you that you don’t like blue, but you don’t know why you don’t like blue. That’s tough! Not a filmmaker’s fault; they just may have a difficulty in expressing it. Then it becomes a composer’s job to try to interpret it and try to find out the why and maybe go in a different direction.

Can we expect more work with Disney in the future?

I certainly hope so! I’ve just been over in London working with Disney on a big attraction. There’s a new ride that’s going to come over to Hong Kong Disneyland which is the Ironman ride. It’s like Star Tours; it’s a big simulator and it was just lovely. We’ve been at Abbey Road for four days and it was a lot of fun! There’s also been talk of a Jungle Book 2, and I’m hopeful that John will want me back if he so desires. To be frank though, I haven’t had a real break in four or five years now, so I’m gonna take a month or so off and kind of look at what’s out there and see what’s next. It’s a lovely place for me to be right now, and I hope there will be a lot of fun things coming in the future.

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When you say “looking at what else is out there”, who are your contemporaries that you admire?

Oh! I love so many! I’ve always hesitated mentioning names, because if I forget someone they may be hurt. There are so many wonderful composers out there. I have a great love for John Williams, as we all do. Star Wars is always high on my list. I have a great affection for Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. I have a really great love for James Horner, who we so tragically lost. There are just a lot of them. Alan Silvestri…. Jerry Goldsmith… They’re all my favourite!

And do you listen to much in the way of contemporary music?

I listen to so much! I love Echosmith. I love listening to whatever Trent Reznor’s putting out these days. I’m a being electronic fan; Skrillex and David Guetta. All those guys! I’m very eclectic. I like to mix it up and listen to all kinds of stuff. It fuels my imagination. That’s why I try to listen to as much different music as I can to try and educate myself!

The Jungle Book is out on Blu-ray and DVD from 22nd August