The Den of Geek interview: Ira Newborn

He's scored movies by John Hughes, John Landis and Kevin Smith. He's the man behind the music from Police Squad! And now, Ira Newborn is talking to us...

The genius that is Ira Newborn

Ira Newborn boasts a scoring curriculum vitae that puts the vast majority of his peers to shame.

Primarily associated with scoring comedy films – not least many of John Hughes’ finest, along with the Police Squad/Naked Gun series – his work has actually seen him demonstrate real breadth, and has seen him work with some huge names in the music business.

Currently teaching music scoringat the Steinhardt School at New York University (regarded as the premier school for film scoring), he graciously spared us this time for this interview…How did you originally come to be involved with scoring movies?

It was just about taking advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. I was a studio guitar player, arranger and the musical director of The Manhattan Transfer at the time, and Kenny Vance, who was previously in Jay and the Americans, had a gig as the music supervisor of American Hot Wax and involved me as the musical director and arranger for the big R&R show in the movie.

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It seemed interesting and different and got me thinking about scoring. I had another similar job on The Blues Brothers too and that got me a bit of notoriety which led to my first scoring projects.How did you come to be involved in The Blues Brothers? It’s said many times that you rescued the film. What’s the story there?

Joel Silver was a friend of mine, and when Sean Daniel at Universal told him that Paul Schaeffer was not going to be allowed to take a break from Saturday Night Live to be the musical director of The Blues Brothers, Joel recommended me.

It seems that everyone was already in Chicago but not able to agree on musical issues, so nothing was getting done. I went in and luckily, I knew the Memphis rhythm section as well as the New York horn section and was able to get them cooperating pretty easily.

Your filmography reads like a list of some of the classic comedies of the last few decades – but you’ve hinted you weren’t happy at being bracketed as a comedy scoring specialist? Is that because you didn’t enjoy the comedy work, or was it a thirsting for tackling different genres?

Even though I have a very good sense of humour I have to think very hard about how to enhance the jokes in a comedy in the best way possible, and since not all comedies are that good, it makes it even harder.

After a while it gets very repetitive and one would like to do something different. Unfortunately, stereotyping is rampant in Hollywood.It must be quite a difficult and different discipline from scoring a drama or something like that? The timing and tone of comedy must be a real challenge to match?

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“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

If the comedy is sharp, fresh and well constructed, it can be lots of fun and very satisfying. If the comedy is rote, truly lowbrow and poorly constructed it’s bloody agony. It’s even more agonising knowing there’s nothing that can be done to save what amounts to a corpse whose family refuses to believe that he’s dead.

What’s worse, you’re not even allowed to tell them. You have to keep smiling and pretending that you don’t smell anything.

So are there many instances where you’ve been working on a project, and you just know that the collective whole isn’t going to work?

Yes. I’ve looked at so many movies shot by shot that I – as well as many other film composers – can tell which movie is incompetently made and which is skillfully made.

Does the music you do have to veer between the overt and the subtle? Because there are moments where the music is part of the joke, part of the punchline even, and others where you must have to simply not get in the way?

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You are right on the money.

Your cues then, in many of your comedy scores, are so precise, so perfectly pitched, it must be a relief to cut loose and put together an end credits piece where there aren’t quite the same demands on it?

It’s basically true, but since I love music and I love movies, I enjoy all the artistic requirements that one has to fulfil. It’s the dealing with egomaniacs, poorly made movies and unethical behaviour that is the really difficult demand.

So do you find yourself then dealing with people who don’t understand your art, but think they know it inside out?

The movie business is 10% movie and 90% business. The people who you work with understand your craft about as much as you understand the craft of the guy who paints your house or does your plumbing or electrical work. The only problem is, there is so much more money riding on every decision in the movies that everyone is scared to death to make a mistake because they might be blamed, punished and lose their lucrative position.

In a business where ‘the deal’ is most important, people try to make the deal first and worry about whether they can deliver second or third. Am I making myself clear? All the horrible sounding stories one hears about Hollywood are generally true and anyone who disputes this too enthusiastically is the enemy.

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Moving to your own work specifically, the theme tune to Police Squad/Naked Gun is synonymous with the series. What was your thinking when you came up with it?

My thinking was to get it as close to the 1950’s M-Squad theme as I could without plagiarising it and getting sued, just as I was instructed to do by the producers.As grand as that theme tune is, I love the score that underpinned the TV show and films. Did you end up digging back into the many other cop and detective shows of the past – including M-Squad – for your inspiration, or did it just come to you? Because your music is utterly integral to making some of the scenes work.

I remember what a lot of those cop shows sounded like, listened to a few to refresh my memory, analysed what instruments were used, what the harmony was, and other conventions and then put them through my brain-grinder and voila!

And then there’s your tremendous work on the John Hughes’ projects. What do you remember about working on them? What kind of brief were you given?

My job on John Hughes movies was to play ‘Beat The Temp’. He was very involved in making the temp dub and fancied himself a music maven.

To tell the truth, he very often had terrific taste in music though a lot of it really couldn’t work in a movie because it had lyrics and when you got it low enough to not screw up the dialogue, it wouldn’t have the desired effect. He would spend zillions licensing these records and when he couldn’t get them, I got to write the cue. I also got to write music in the holes where he couldn’t find anything to play. Sometimes when I couldn’t stand what he put in I would try and beat it. Numerous times I was successful.

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That does sound like quite a stressful process!

The amount of stress depends on how much you care about what you do, how much insanity you’re willing to put up with and how much you need or love money.

You also worked several times with John Landis. What do you remember about those collaborations?

John Landis makes no bones about not knowing anything about music but if he hates it, you’ll hear about it. If he loves it you’ll hear about it too. I actually had a very satisfying experience doing The Blues Brothers and Into The Night.

John is very enthusiastic, and when it’s positive it’s very nice and infectious. It was his idea to use B.B. King in Into The Night.

And it must have been terrific working with BB King: did it live up to expectations?

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Oh yeah! He’s incredible, a force of nature, a tremendously gifted natural musician and a very nice man. He’s one of the few musicians who can play one single note and be recognised. He could sing the Manhattan phone book and you would think it was a great song!

You’ve worked with some amazing names in the wider music business. Do you have any more special memories of any particular collaborations?

Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles scared me to death because they were so talented. Toni Tennille is a wonderful talent and she and the Captain are fantastic human beings. B.B. King was a thrill to work with. He’s another force of nature. It would take too long to tell all these stories!

John Landis moved on to tackle Innocent Blood, which you also scored. Given the number of comedy scores you’d done, were you happy to tackle something different?

Well, yes and no. That movie was John trying to make a film with real love, real gore, real comedy and real everything else in it at the same time. It’s extremely difficult to change gears and somehow make the music – or anything else – organic.

The comedy was broad, the horror was gory, the love was almost obscene….this is almost impossible. The audience can’t take it either. People who want to see the romance get turned off by the gore, people who want the gore get turned off by the romance, etcetera. The composer tries to figure out a way to play all these things correctly. In addition, for some reason the orchestra couldn’t play in tune that day.

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That must have been a problem. Is it one you encounter often? Are you put in front of a fresh orchestra, or can you work with people you’re familiar with?

Mostly we have a list of people we have worked with but we can’t always get who we want because there may be two, three, four or even five other big recording sessions going on. Sometimes you don’t get such a good orchestra. Sometimes it’s raining outside, the air is soggy and full of moisture and nothing sounds good.

Moving more recently, how was working with Kevin Smith? He seems to be a very big fan of your work?

Working with Kevin was very nice. He did seem to appreciate my previous work and he did seem to like what I wrote for him for Mallrats.I’ve read an interview when you seemed to really appreciate that level of detail Kevin went in to regarding your work. Do you find that most directors don’t have that level of respect or understanding for the scoring process?

Most directors don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground about music. If they’re regular guys and somewhat modest people who are interested in having a fruitful relationship with the composer, they don’t puff themselves up and they speak frankly with their composer, who is almost always ready to bend over backwards to help them get what they want and need… just like an intelligent homeowner who wants to get a great paint job and listens to the expert painter that he hires.Not many films in the comedy genre seem to have a proper score anymore, instead favouring a compilation album of contemporary music. How frustrating is that for a composer?

If that’s what they want, let’em have it! What can you do about people who prefer reconstituted orange juice to fresh squeezed? What can you do about people who subsist on a diet of garbage fast food, not because they can’t afford good food, but because they have no taste and no brains? De gustibus non est disputandum.How involved do you get with a film’s production? Do you step in when everything is pretty much in the can, or do they bring you in earlier in the process?

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I usually come in when there is a rough assembly. We talk while the director, film editor, music editor, music supervisor and the director’s girlfriend and his friend from college are selecting tunes for the temp.

Do the director’s girlfriend and friend from college then try and have input on your work? Because I think that’d drive me nuts if I was in your shoes!

Yes, you would go nuts. Many directors, especially the most infantile, need an ‘amen chorus’ or ‘posse’ surrounding them to validate every decision that they make. Very often the girlfriend or college roommate becomes convinced of his or her exquisite taste and judgement and begins to get even more invasive…..kind of like a tapeworm.

I remember writing a cue, recording it and then racing into the control room to hear the reaction. I was just in time to hear the director ask his eleven member posse of yes-men “O.K. What’s wrong with it?” How many of them do you think had the bollocks to say, “Nothing?”

I remember another time where I wrote an authentic 1959-style, live rock and roll show theme and the director’s girlfriend, who was probably born in 1961, said she didn’t like it. It was history until I soaped her up and she decided that it was brilliant. 10% music, 90% bullshit.

What are your five favourite movie scores?

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This is a difficult question because I don’t much care to listen to movie scores except for research or for certain individual pieces of music that I like. I’ll make an attempt if you wish: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Outland, Cinema Paradiso, The Godfather and King Kong.

And what about your own work? Which of your own scores are you happiest with?

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. Maybe Angels in the Infield, because it was a complete score and not just a bunch of jokes.You don’t seem to do much scoring work any more. Is that right, and how are you spending your days?

I don’t do much scoring anymore because Hollywood is an insane asylum where the patients and staff all get paid huge sums of money to validate their insane behaviour.

If someone points to a white wall and asks you what colour it is and you say “white” and they say, “it’s black,” if you don’t agree with them and you say “but it’s white, Mr. Bumble sir,” you’ll be punished. It’s black.

I spend my days teaching film scoring in the graduate program at New York University and practicing my 30 or 40 guitars and other assorted instruments.

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Pretty soon I’m going to start playing live and start looking for more creative writing projects. If you know any intelligent, talented and well brought up film-makers, tell them I’m still available if they have a well-made movie of almost any type.

Ira Newborn, thank you very much.

Sadly, much of Ira’s work is out of print in the UK. However, we have tracked down, via Amazon’s US website, the soundtracks to The Naked Gun 2 ½), and the LP of Into The Night, and Weird Science.

Interviews at Den Of Geek