It is rare for a composer to create a soundtrack that breaks through the mainstream, instantly becoming a favorite release among music fans. It is rarer that the soundtrack is nominated for an Academy Award and attains iconic status to the point of being performed live. However, it is rarest of all that the composer receives an opportunity to revisit that innovative collection of sounds to create a brand new score for another film.
John Debney is the recipient of that experience. Having become renowned the world over for his groundbreaking and breathtaking work on 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Debney recently returned to that biblical landscape to score a tale much earlier in the life of Christ entitled “The Young Messiah.” Read on, as Debney discusses his full-circle experience through music.
Mark Morton: How does it feel to revisit a world that you have already painted?
John Debney: The world is such a rich, wonderful world, in the sense of these instruments and the place and time, that I really jumped at the chance. Plus, working with this great director friend of mine, Cyrus Nowrasteh, who had directed “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” there was just no negative to it. I just thought it would be a real joy to go back, re-immerse myself in that music, and that’s what we did. The scores for “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Young Messiah” are loving cousins.
MM: I was simply wondering, because of how massive and impactful “The Passion of the Christ” became.
JD: It was humbling. I know a lot of people were touched by the film. It was amazing how big it got. None of us had anticipated what it became. I don’t think lightning necessarily strikes twice, but I’m hopeful that people will enjoy this sweet little movie. It’s certainly a beautiful film, dealing with the same person, Jesus, and I hope people see it and support it.
MM: There seems to be a bit a duality in the music for “The Young Messiah.” It is at once adventurous and introspective.
JD: “The Passion of the Christ” was a deeply personal and inward journey for me, musically. “The Young Messiah” was similarly deep in trying to figure out how to explore it – trying to paint a picture of a young boy of seven, who is in a family but not sure of who he is or what he might become. The winds of fate are swirling all around him, with people trying to find him. So, I wanted to write something heartfelt, something with a nice theme or two, and also something that would be really authentic, giving a nod to the traditional music.
MM: And once again, you have cracked that magical code of being able to blend New World-styled construction with ancient, Middle Eastern flourishes.
JD: I don’t know why I’m so lucky to get these kinds of things, but I sure love them. I love the traditional music from this part of the world (all the cultural influences), and all the instruments, the vocals and performances. I guess I could say that it’s just something that I love doing, and hopefully that comes out in the music.
MM: During your tenure composing “The Passion of the Christ,” you did an exhaustive amount of research to give the score that extra edge of authenticity. For “The Young Messiah,” were you compelled to research more, or did you go back to your original notes from the last time you were here?
JD: Yes, I did have to do a lot of research for “The Passion of the Christ,” and for this one, having already done that research made it much easier to approach. Initially, it was about just getting back to that place of discovery and reawakening those sounds; those colors. And the story is much different; “The Young Messiah” is one of hope and discovery and adventure. So the score isn’t exactly as deep, but I did want to imbue it with some hopefulness and a bit of playfulness. The first cut on the CD, “The Young Messiah Theme,” encapsulates the whole story – there’s a lilt to it with some percussion going through it. It was just fun to get back to those roots and get reacquainted with those sounds.
MM: One of the great hallmarks of a John Debney score is that you cannot take it all in with one listen.
JD: I certainly hope that’s the case. I really work hard on every score that I do. I think if one writes the same score over and over again, it becomes very boring for the composer and the listener. This is why, for every project I do, I try to make it the best that it can be, and I try to make it interesting. I think about that a lot. I don’t want to do things simply by rote. I’m at a point where I really love the projects I’m working on, and I want to give them their own unique sound. At least that’s what I try to do, and I hope the fans like it.
MM: What I enjoyed about this one is the density of texture in the themes. Even in the quiet, serene moments, there’s still a lot going on musically.
JD: By design, it is like that. Even in the simpler areas of the score, where there’s maybe just a pad or a drone, there’s always three or four things layered on top of each other, just enough to take it out of that patch people might hear in every score. With every score I do, I try to custom-design sounds, whether they’re pads or instruments.
MM: Is this type of score difficult to create correctly on a tight budget?
JD: Most things are difficult to do on a tight budget, and I don’t say that flippantly. In order to do things the right way, you obviously have to pay these wonderful musicians, compensate them for their artistry. In the case of “The Young Messiah,” it was a smaller film and the budget was on the tight-side, but it wasn’t so tight that we couldn’t get it done the way we wanted. We ended up in London, working with my friends over there, so it was a great experience.
But yeah, any film that has the scope of “The Young Messiah,” really needs enough of a budget to do it properly. The hard part comes when you’re asked to do a big epic and you have one dollar to do it. But thankfully, I like to pick and choose my battles, and most of the ones I’m working on now are wonderful projects with budgets that are commensurate to getting the job done properly.
MM: Forgive the implication, but do you ever notice if you are putting more effort into a project that might have a personal or lasting meaning with an audience?
JD: Oh, I think that’s a very fair question, and the answer is absolutely yes. I would say it this way; I think that any of us as human beings find subject matter that we’re passionate about, I think it shows in a way that the art or work comes out. I try to lock in and get inspired by something in a given film, whether it’s a comedy, drama, or whatever. Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes it’s the story or subject matter itself, and sometimes it’s actually a little of all of those, where I’m trying to grow a bit as an artist.
I’ll give you an example. I did a film called “The Call” a couple years ago, which was the culmination of a lot of my experimentation into electronic music and the blending of aggressive electronic sounds with traditional orchestral sounds. I enjoyed that experience. I really love trying to think outside the box and grow as an artist. So, any of those factors get my juices flowing, but if there’s subject matter that I’m very passionate about, it digs a little deeper for me, for sure.
MM: Beyond being meaningful to people on a story level, you have also entered into the realm of great biblical epics. “The Passion of the Christ” is consistently ranked among ‘greatest biblical epic films of all time.’ Does that ever enter your mind?
JD: Isn’t that something? When we did that film, none of us, including Mel [Gibson, director] right at the top, dreamed it would end up what it became. The fact that we now have a number of religious films coming out quite often – we had “Risen” recently and “Miracles from Heaven” – I think it’s a great development that films that have a spiritual nature are being embraced by the culture. So, there was “The Passion of the Christ,” and then a very long lull where Hollywood wasn’t even embracing films like that, and they’ve come back around. It’s very exciting that I get to do these types of films. I think we need more films like “The Young Messiah” and fewer films with explosions and people getting blown away. I think it’s better spiritually for our hearts, perhaps, that we see films that are a little more positive and tender.
MM: There’s a bit of a peculiarity deep in this score, in that while a very short cue, it creates a bit of a vortex of depth and meaning around it that seems to elevate it above the tracks surrounding it. Can you tell me a bit about “Mary Presents Baby Jesus?”
JD: That’s a very perceptive comment. Both in “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Young Messiah,” for whatever reason, I gravitated to the events that occurred through the mother’s eyes. I have an instinctual affinity and love for Mary’s character. I just love the idea of the trials and tribulations of this story and viewing the events through her eyes. In “The Passion of the Christ,” it was the “Mary Goes to Jesus” moment and in “The Young Messiah,” it is “Mary Presents Baby Jesus.” I guess they’re two sides of the same coin, you could say. There was a lot of pathos and joy putting both of those moments into those films.
MM: How important was it to have Lisbeth Scott participate in this project?
JD: Oh, it was very important to have her back on! She is my ‘ace in the hole.’ Whenever I feel I need something super-special, I always call her. In fact, I call her on everything that I can, because she’s just that special. She’s such a wonderful person and a wonderful artist, as we know. I just had to make that call. And she’s very humble about it. But she’s just so perfect, and she was kind enough to grace me with her voice on this project. I think people who recognized her on “The Passion of the Christ” will also recognize her on this.
MM: And she had the added benefit of performing “The Passion of the Christ” live over the past several years.
JD: Yes, she did. In fact, it was performed live three times last year, twice without me and once with me in The Czech Republic. I think 6,000 people heard it in one sitting in Spain, and then I did excerpts from it in Poland. It was really wonderful, and we’re going to do it again in Poland in June. We’re going to view the entire film with a live orchestra performing with it. And I’m hoping to bring Lisbeth and all the crew with me.
MM: Why do you think that area of Europe is so receptive to this music?
JD: I think it’s really simple. Poland is still a very Catholic country, and this year is the 1,025th anniversary of Christianity in Poland, and they wanted to mark the event with something special. So, they invited us to come perform “The Passion of the Christ” live in front of upwards of 18,000 people.
MM: Wow, you’re a rock star!
JD: Well, isn’t it cool that film scores are starting to get a lot of performances on the concert stage? I think it’s great! And this one has become a bit of a fan favorite. We’ve had a lot of inquiries from South America and other places in the world, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we do this a few more times in the next year.
MM: For all its accolades and media profile, “The Passion of the Christ” was another example of being the bridesmaid and not the bride for you at the Oscars in 2005.
JD: That’s okay, my good friend Jan AP Kaczmarek beat me that year [for “Finding Neverland”], and I was thrilled for him. But to give you another full-circle, the man who is putting together the Polish show is none other than Jan AP Kaczmarek! Jan loves the film and loves the score, so I think, though he won’t say it, this is his way of giving me a little nod. He’s the one who has been pushing all this great stuff over there in Poland, so I couldn’t be more thankful.
MM: Are there any scores in your filmography that you would personally like to put out there on the live stage?
JB: I sure do, and the reason it’s on the top of my head is that I was just talking to a concert promoter about this. We think we’re going to do an “Elf” live holiday concert with the film. We’re hopeful that it could be this year. I’m not making any promises, but there is talk and there is wind that we might be doing this. The other one that I’d love to do, as I love holiday-themed stuff, is “Hocus Pocus” for Disney. It’s a big Halloween favorite. Every year, there are screenings of “Hocus Pocus” that are literally sold-out here in LA – big theaters packed to the brim. So, if we’re lucky, we may indeed do a couple of Halloween concerts in the next year or two.
MM: Continuing with the full-circle theme, I’ve read that you are working with Mel Gibson again.
JB: Yes, we are just in the very beginning stages of working on “Hacksaw Ridge,” which is the incredible true story of a young WWII soldier who ends up saving half of his platoon through his heroism. I’ve only seen a couple of scenes, and I don’t think Mel’s looked better, in terms of his work. And I’m hopeful that this is going to be a movie that will remind people how brilliant a director he is. I’m really pleased to be working with him again.
MM: It’s no secret that Disney is in your blood and that you grew up around the studio during Walt’s time. What did it feel like to be offered to score the remake of “The Jungle Book,” knowing (and probably experiencing) the legacy of the original film?
JB: It’s been amazing. I literally finished the last bit of it two Fridays ago. So, it’s incredibly immediate, and I’ve been on it for a year and a half. I would say that it has been the best journey I’ve ever been on, in terms of working with film. I got to work with my friend Jon Favreau, who brought me back into the fold. We worked together a couple times before [“Elf” in 2003, “Zathura” in 2005, “Iron Man 2” in 2010], and it’s just been an amazing experience.
My dad worked at Disney for 40 years back in the day, and I know Richard M. Sherman very, very well. And I grew up with that film and the boy who was the voice of Mowgli, Bruce Reitherman, who was one of my best friends at the time. It’s hard to put into words how incredible it is. You want to talk about coming full circle? THIS is coming full circle. The film itself is a masterpiece, I feel. I think people will be blown away by the technology involved, what they had to do to create this world. And I think Jon has done a masterful job of pulling all the pieces together. I couldn’t be more proud of it, to be honest. I think I’m more proud of “The Jungle Book” than anything I’ve ever done.
MM: I’ve been biting my nails in apprehension since they announced that this remake was in production, because the original was one of the last movies Walt Disney worked on prior to his death.
JB: Yes, you’re right, it was. One of the big directives from Jon, for everybody concerned, was to do work that if Walt were to see it, he would like it. And I thought that was really well put. In other words, Jon Favreau wanted something classic, something with melody, and something that would hopefully stand the test of time. And I think we’ve done it. Musically, I think fans are going to be really pleased with how we blended some of the old with the new material. I could not be more thrilled with the whole thing. I think it turned out great.
Keep up with John Debney on Facebook, Twitter, and at his official website.
Lakeshore Records’ soundtrack for “The Young Messiah” is currently available at iTunes, Amazon, and Amazon Digital.