Thomas Newman and Steven Soderbergh hadn’t worked together in nearly seven years when the director called the composer about joining his next film “Let Them All Talk” in October 2019. “I was in London finishing up ‘1917’ and he said he had this movie and he was interested in me doing it,” Newman tells Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Film Composers panel (watch above). “It was like late October of 2019 and we did it in January, February, pretty soon after I got back from London. We were able to record when people could actually smile at each other and see their faces.”
The HBO Max film is the duo’s fourth collaboration, following “Erin Brockovich” (2000), “The Good German” (2006), which brought Newman one of his 15 Oscar nominations, and “Side Effects” (2013). But the score is arguably the most unique one Newman has done for the Oscar winner. For one, Soderbergh wanted a retro ’60s score — think Henry Mancini and Neal Hefti — for the experimental film, which follows Meryl Streep‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist crossing the Atlantic on the “Queen Mary 2” with two old college friends (Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen) and her nephew (Lucas Hedges).
“[It] was startling to me in kind of a way, but I’ve learned over the years to trust Steven’s judgment about things like that, particularly when it comes to style and approach. And it was kind of fun being escorted through that door. It was a real fun experience,” Newman says. “It’s not where my aesthetic would naturally go, but oftentimes that could be a great thing. When I worked with Steven on ‘The Good German,’ he wanted the music in that movie to be in the style of Max Steiner, so I’m kind of used to these weird stylistic turns that he wanted to take as a filmmaker, and you kind of have to pay attention to those things.”
Newman called on his longtime collaborator John Beasley, who also fronts a big band called MONK’estra, to work on and record the jaunty, lighthearted music. “We recorded some basic tracks with some great LA musicians. MONK’estra came in and along the way, John did all of the B3 [organ] playing,” Newman explains.
Soderbergh’s other request was that the music not be a dramatic underscore. Typically, cues would carry through scenes, but in “Let Them All Talk,” they’re all brief pieces that are primarily used during transition scenes. “The score’s not doing what it would normally do. And there were a couple of moments where I remember asking Steven, ‘You know, this could be really be scored.’ There was at least one moment that was really a score moment, but he was just not interested, which is a great thing to kind of witness,” Newman shares. “You kind of love that — when someone knows so much about what he or she is creating that you don’t have to waste time trying things that have been vetted either intuitively or intellectually in advance.”
As a result, the film’s score totals about 20 minutes, making it one of the shortest scores Newman has ever composed. “It occurs to me that there’s a lot of music in movies these days — 80 minutes. Work on a Bond movie and it’s a lot of music,” Newman observes. “A lot of that is the nature of how drama is unfolding, so it’s often nice when drama unfolds in a way where music is not required and then you feel like you’re not necessarily leading; you’re supporting, you’re giving color and depth and tone to something, but you’re not driving it.”
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