‘1917’ Composer Thomas Newman On His Pursuit Of Out-Of-The-Box Sound For One-Shot War Film

When composer Thomas Newman was approached for 1917, he was excited about the notion of working on a film unlike any that had been made before. “That was compelling all on its own,” Newman reflects. “‘What am I in for? What is he in for?’ We’ll know as we do it, and not before.”

An epic war thriller constructed to appear as a one-shot film, 1917 centers on Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), young British soldiers who take on a harrowing mission during World War I. Racing against time, deep into enemy territory, they must deliver a message that will save the lives of 1600 men.

One of Mendes’ most trusted collaborators, who has worked with him over the course of 20 years, Newman first entered into conversations about 1917 last November. “He talked about it being one shot, and he imagined maybe an hour’s worth of music. That went up by half, so it was like 95 minutes of music,” the composer recalls. “He didn’t know how much orchestra he thought belonged in it, although he felt it needed to deliver. So, I knew that much.”

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In conversation with Mendes, Newman understood that however tense and horrific the journey of the film would be, it needed to come around to some sense of human redemption in the end. For the composer, this information raised a number of questions. “What would that [redemption] be, musically? How would music speak?” he says. “When would it speak, and what would be its language?”

A month or two ahead of the shoot, Newman got to work, funneling ideas to Mendes, without seeing a single frame. “I think maybe in April, I started seeing imagery and started attaching ideas to various sections,” he shares. “The good thing about it was even in the failures—the ideas I had that ultimately, he didn’t accept—we would still make progress, in terms of it shedding light on what it would ultimately need.”

Given the life-and-death stakes of 1917 and its one-shot conceit, Newman would find questions of rhythm and pace to be some of the more puzzling to figure out, as he went about crafting his score. “At one point I’d asked Sam, ‘Do you want me to send any very basic rhythm that you could film to, that would give you a concept of what the speed of a scene would be, internally?’ And he had absolutely no interest in that,” the composer shares. “He was so well prepared, I think, and so not interested in what he knew he could be helped by in post, that I think he had to respond to a kind of inner dramatic rhythm that then I could elaborate.”

For Newman, the question of pace was answered, as he went about musical experiments on one of the film’s first scenes, which sees Blake and Schofield walking out of General Erinmore (Colin Firth)’s dugout and onto the front line. “The idea is that the music had to be exciting and promising, but it couldn’t get in the way of the story,” he says. “I think we learned a lot about pace, as it related to not being so outspoken or colorful, but having a sense of neutral pace that helped an audience know the tick-tocking aspect of the film.”

In terms of laying down music, Newman began not with an orchestra, but instead with three musicians in Los Angeles that he’d worked with for many years. “We would get together and just experiment with noises, and sounds, and pulses and things like that, and I think I derive my vocabulary as I work,” he notes. “You try a lot of things and you think, Well, this color seems inappropriate, for whatever reason, and obviously I was getting input from Sam.”

Early on, Newman wondered how much “military flavor” should go into his score. It was a war film, after all. So, it seemed important to at least play around with snare drums, and other instruments often associated with this kind of material. “You could go there, but when I had, Sam would say, ‘This sounds too military.’ Clearly, he didn’t want the movie to fit in a box, and he didn’t want the music to put it in that box,” the composer notes. “At the same time, it needed to drive forward somehow. So, what was that going to be, if it wasn’t outward snare drums?” Ultimately, through his usual process of exploration and discovery, Newman landed on lap dulcimers and processed field cadences as the sounds that would propel Mendes’ film.

Before recording with an orchestra—which included strings, solo cello, brass, breathy wind instruments and big drums—Newman laid down a bed of electronic, modeled sounds, as a base for the score, as he’s often wont to do.  “I think I like the idea of inward and outward, or psychological and more extroverted,” he says. “The thing about electronic sounds, or ambient sounds, is it kind of hides intent more, and allows for an orchestra to grow out of something, as opposed to being there to begin with.”

In the end, Newman considers 1917 to be the most challenging film he’s ever worked on, both in terms of vocabulary and execution, and the marathon of bringing his score to the finish line. “I worked for many months in LA, and then we moved to London in September, and I think the nine weeks I was there, I didn’t really have a day off, so it was physically exhausting,” the composer says. “So, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction of having made it in one piece, and looking back with pride in the collaboration.”

“I so much wanted to support the movie, because I think the movie was so good before I laid a finger on it. I think as a composer, you really worry that you’re going to make the movie worse than it was, or make it more ordinary than it is,” he adds. “I think I was glad that I felt like I didn’t do that.”

Certainly, the Film Academy agrees. 20 year after his Oscar nomination for American Beauty—his first film with Mendes—Newman is in the running once again, with his 15th nod. Interestingly, the composer is contending this year against his cousin, Marriage Story’s Randy Newman. But we’ll have to wait until February 9th to see if the younger Newman can break out this season with his first win.

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