A Few Minutes with Composer John Debney as we talk about ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016) and so much more…

Posted in Blu-Ray/DVD, Interviews, Movies by - September 01, 2016

While I am forced to admit that I probably have as much musical talent as my 15 month old puppy who randomly jumps on her squeaky toys with delight, I have to admit that as a film fan I have always had a unique fascination with musical composers, especially those who create scores for the films that I love.  So when the chance to actually talk with a noted film composer came around, I jumped at the chance.

In advance of the recent release of the live action remake/reboot of The Jungle Book on DVD, Blu-Ray and various VOD platforms, I got the chance to talk with Mr John Debney, a noted composer who has been working steadily since the 1980’s with over 180 credits to his name.

We talked about how he got started and found his career path, the creative process that a composer often has to go through, his work on The Jungle Book and so much more.

 Dave Voigt: You know I never really hear stories about kids picking up guitars and wanting to become film composer.  How does one actually get into this line of work as a musician?

John Debney: Boy that’s a good a question, and yeah to answer your question, when I was starting out and picking up that proverbial guitar I never really knew what the dream was going to be.  I mean I imagine I wanted to be in a band like The Beatles or something like that but through my formative years I did play in bands and wrote which was sort of my life for a long time.  Then by the last couple of years of high school and leading into college is when I started to focus on music as a career.  I didn’t know what the path would be, but I knew that I loved music and I had to be involved in it somehow.

In college I was a double major of drama and music and after a couple of years of being an undergrad I had really come to the conclusion that music truly was my first passion.  I subsequently transferred to a different school and started immersing myself in music, from classical to really everything and when I got out of college, I was lucky to get a job orchestrating for other composers, getting television gigs and things like that.  That was sort of my journey, and I am still on the road and really thankful and lucky because I have truly enjoyed what I do all throughout my career, working on different kinds of film and TV shows and it has been such a wonderful journey.

DV: I can imagine that it always varies, but when in the moviemaking process do you tend to get brought on to a project?

JD: Great question because it really does vary.  On The Jungle Book I was really fortunate enough to be brought on pretty early in the process.  My friend and our incredible director Jon Favreau got me in the process really early and it was a truly wonderful thing for me because it really enabled me to see the entire process of this film from start to finish.  My feeling is that the end result of what we did is really benefited and is a direct result of Jon getting me in early and having enough time to hone every single note of the score, and I mean that we really did hone every piece of music that you heard in this film.

Conversely there really are jobs where you just don’t have that much time at all.  It can be challenging but it also has a tendency to be liberating as well because if you just don’t have the time…you just have to knuckle down and do it which can often lead to you getting lucky and ending up with something that surprises you.  It really does depend and goes from film to film.

John Debney

DV: While working on something like this that is in many ways a reboot/reimagining of a beloved classic, how consciously do you have to stay away from the original material just so that you are avoiding any moments that may recreate the original material a little too much.

JD: That’s a great point to bring up because especially on this one the conversations were long and deep and Jon’s vision really was to have some familiar musical markers spread throughout the film and at first we really didn’t know how that was ultimately going to present itself.  What happened was that over time I would invariably try little moments of this piece of music of that piece of music as an underscore and I’ll give you an example.  During the sequence with Kaa in the jungle, I came up with the idea of putting chords of “Trust In Me” during the scene which is just so iconic and everyone relates back to the original film.  It was really important for Jon and I to really deconstruct some of these original, iconic songs like “Trust In Me” and we wanted to see if it would play as a subtle little hint in the underscore.  That’s what we strived to do and I think it was rather successful.  The idea of inserting these beautiful melodies and emotions from the original film and still updating them in what I hope was a clever way was really fun.

Another thing that I can identify which was so fun was during the big climax scene with King Louie in temple as Mowgli was being chased and I came up with the idea to see what Wanna Be Like You sound like as a big orchestral chase scene and I got to have some fun inserting that into there.  I think it worked well and I mean it’s always a struggle when trying to do a nod to something that came before you and was so iconic but if it is done in the right way, it can be really fun and people really get a kick out of it.

DV: This is something that I have always been truly curious about but as you mentioned previously you don’t always get a lot of time to work whenever you take a job.  I’ve always wondered, when you have down time are you always composing pieces with a thought of this could work for this kind of film etc etc or do you really have to go into each job with a clean slate?

JD: You’re killing me with the good questions today! (Laughs)  Personally I don’t and to be honest I stay as far away from musical ideas as I possibly can.  As I am sure you can imagine, music is constantly going through my head and I have to turn it off.  There have been times when I get hit with something at like 2 or 3 in the morning and I have to hum into my phone recorder to remember the melody and it happens a lot, but personally I tune it out as best I can if only to try and give myself a little creative room and juice when I jump into a new project.  It’s a very conscience thing for me to try and get away from it whenever I can.  I listen to talk radio while I am driving in my car, or the news just to filter out the melodies that roll through my head and that really is the truth,

DV: What do you say to that kid, who much like you did back in the day has just picked up that guitar and is dreaming about a career in music about the rewarding creative experiences that you have had while working on the myriad of films that you’ve participated in throughout your career?

JD: I could probably teach a class on this (Laughs).  It’s so, so deep and it’s a truly great question because when I came up the landscape is so much different than it is today.  This will probably foreign to so many people, but I was starting out with a pencil, a piece of paper and a piano and now we have the advent of MIDI and SYNTH technology we have so many amazing and wonderful tools right at our fingertips.  It’s a bit different but with these tools that we have and I always tell this to young composers that I truly feel that it is so important to still be studying music as much possible.  Learn how to write music, learn how to write a good tune and study what that is truly all about.  I really do think that one of the potential traps for younger composers out there is that you can literally press a button and have some pretty amazing tracks come out of these machines but as a composer and for anyone with any kind of aspirations on getting into this business, you still have to learn how to write in different styles of music.  If you want to have a long career, I would say learn how to write a full orchestral piece and learn an electronic piece or country music if you need to and much like my career arc, if you’re lucky having that skill set will enable you to be around for quite awhile.

For me, I think it’s been 25 years plus and counting and I am so unbelievably thankful for that you have no idea.  Knowing how to write a comedy cue has served me so well or a dramatic piece and the best advice that I can give is to be as well rounded as humanly possible in all types of music.  Then it comes down to the usual factors like luck, fate and all of the above (laughs).john-debney-jungle-book

DV: That really does apply to so many aspects of this business.  It’s so important to know the history and know where you’ve been before you can truly know where you are going.

JD: That is so true, I mean you really do because you just have to lay it out there and take the criticism from wherever it comes and be dedicated to making yourself better.  You have to be able to take criticism and learn from it and keep persevering through it all with a thick skin.

The Jungle Book is now available from all major retailers via DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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