The History Channel's newest miniseries Houdini takes on the dramatic and elusive story of one of the world's greatest entertainers of all time: escape artist Harry Houdini. With Academy Award winner Adrian Brody leading the cast in the title role, was the network stretched too thin for any other impressive names? Not quite! Enter: Oscar-nominated composer John Debney.
An impressively long list of projects makes up Debney's resume of work, but most notable are the differences in genres the composer has taken on over his career. Debney's first feature film he scored was Hocus Pocus, but from there you can see how he branched off into the dramatic, the thrilling and even back to the whimsical or the comedic. He even garnered an Academy Award nomination for his score for The Passion of the Christ. We had the chance to speak with John recently, and his excitement for his job - which has taken up over 30 year of his life - is a refreshing lesson in what music lovers can truly accomplish if they put their hearts into their work.
How did you get into composing music for film?
Well I've been doing it for a long time. I started about 20 or so years ago doing a lot of television - I got my degree in music and started working for a number of guys orchestrating and arranging. So I started in television and as time went on I sort of "graduated" into the film world. Lo and behold, I've been very lucky to have such a long career and I've been doing a little of everything. Lately I've been getting back into doing some TV work because there's such great stuff on TV.
It's just been a really fun thing to be able to do something like Houdini and then turn around and do something else. So I've been having a lot of fun right now!
How did you get involved in Houdini?
I got involved with Houdini through a producer friend of mine who I had worked with on another TV series last year called Bonnie and Clyde. So she was coming on to this Houdini project and had told me a little bit about it and my eyes got really big -I'm a big fan of Houdini, and have been for most of my life, so I was very interested in at least trying to get onto the short-list of people they were considering. I took a meeting with the director (Uli Edel), we sort of hit it off and then they hired me!
How would you describe working on a miniseries compared to a normal series and/or a film project?
Working on long-form television is really close to working on a film - it's just usually longer. Some of these miniseries can be up to 6 or 8 hours. Houdini is 4 hours: 2 nights, 2 hours each night. It's very similar to a film where you're working on themes and threading these themes throughout the show, but the only difference is that some of these miniseries can be much longer than a normal film. So it's more about the volume of music sometimes than about the difference in these shows. Doing a series you're doing an hour or a half-hour a week, so you have a much longer period to work on it.
So they're just sort of similar but slightly different animals, in that a miniseries is just sort of a longer film and then you're done - and that's it.
What was it like working on this project? How much creative freedom did you have with Houdini?
They gave me a lot of creative freedom. The filmmakers and I spoke about early on in terms of what type of score would be good for this thing. I really didn't want to write your basic, traditional period score for it - I wanted to do something really different and something more contemporary. When I experimented with the intro and sounds for Houdini I ended up sort of settling upon a very electronic/contemporary sound that has touches of the period - things like solo violin or gypsy violins. We had a lot of stringed instruments. The idea was to infuse a really contemporary score with instruments from the period that would give you the flavor of the times and give you the feeling of who this guy was.
So there weren't a lot of creative ideas dictated to me. I sort of came up with this idea and hopefully people like it! The intention was to have people be a little bit surprised by it, because it's so contemporary and yet I think it works nicely. I think it's a lot of fun.
Your resume of projects ranges from Hocus Pocus to The Passion of the Christ to Iron Man 2 - obviously a wide scope of genres and musical themes. How would you compare your approaches to your past works to that of your work on Houdini?
I may be kind of different in this regard: I really love the idea of doing different types of things in many different genres. I am always looking to do something different and do something that I haven't done before. So really each one of the projects you mentioned are so incredibly different. It's fun for me! I guess you'd probably compare me to someone that's writing a book or script - you know a good writer can write in any genre and that's always what I've tried to do. I've tried to hone my skills and try to be the very best composer that I can be.
Whether it be something like Elf, for instance, or something like Iron Man or Sin City ... It's fun for me, personally, to do different types of things and always try to maybe surprise myself a little bit by doing something different. It helps clear my head and it's more fun that way. I think if I were to do too much of one thing I might get tired of it or it might get a little stale, so that's why its fun for me to always try to look for something that's a little different than the last thing I did.
What was the first instrument you learned how to play and what would you say is your favorite instrument to write for, play?
I started on the guitar - so my training makes me a guitar player. But I've learned to play piano, a little saxophone and a little cello. So I would say my "home" is the guitar, but in terms of writing for an instrument, I just love the cello. There's something about the sound of that instrument that's so emotional and there are so many things you can do with it.
Are there any artists you're listening to/are excited about currently in the music world?
You know, I listed to so much that it's hard to pinpoint one thing. But I'll tell you I'm a big fan of Trent [Reznor]. I love Trent and what he's done both in his pop career and his film career. I listen to him a lot - I just love the way he can blend different styles and sounds. He's sort of a musical chameleon. I would always point to him as somebody that is very interesting to me.
Then of course there are other great, more traditional composer types like John Williams - and I listen to a lot of classical music, too. There are all kinds of things I like to listen to in the car just to inspire me.
I have an appreciation for any type of genre or style, really!
Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into your industry?
It's kind of hard to crystallize it down, but still there are tremendous opportunities these days for to work in video games, A.V. in film, and trailers - a lot of young composers are doing big trailers ... that's a lot of fun and very lucrative. I'd say just study, study, study and try to become the best musician you can be. If you have an interest in doing music for media there's a tremendous amount of opportunities out there that one can explore these days. I think it's really important to be a really good musician and also have a handle on technology because it's changing minute to minute. I think that if you can navigate both of those worlds you're going to do well!
Do you have any projects that you're working on now or will be working on in the near future?
I'm working on The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water right now (which is a lot of fun) and I'm just starting The Jungle Book for Disney and I have a number of TV things for next year that are cool ... I'm just having a ball keeping busy and I'm really happy to be so busy!