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The Passion of Christ by John Debney Available at Amazon.com

The Divine Inspiration of John Debney
A conversation with composer John Debney
Interview by Christopher Coleman
(Contributors:  Matt Peterson and Steve Townsley)

"He (Mel Gibson) said many times that he didn't want any "God" music in here - any reverential music, which is interesting."
» John Debney




The Interview   - February 22, 2004



General Info:

Born in Burbank, CA

Began playing guitar at age six.

Studied at Loyola University and CalArts.



Composition Credits:

Passion Of The Christ
Welcome To Mooseport
Chicken Little
Raising Helen
Bruce Almighty
The Hot Chick
The Tuxedo
Spy Kids II
Snow Dogs
The Scorpion King
The Princess Diaries
Jimmy Neutron
Cats & Dogs
Spy Kids
The Emperor's New Groove
The Replacements
Michael Jordan: To The Max
End Of Days
Inspector Gadget
Liar, Liar
The Relic
Cutthroat Island
Sudden Death
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)
The Jetsons: Movie







With early-2004's most talked-about film now a part of his repetoire, versatile composer John Debney shares about his involvement in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.


CC: How did you become involved with THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST?

JD: It was sort of a fluke. I received a call back in early October 2003 from an old friend, Dave McEveety, who is one of the producers of the movie.  He wanted to get some advise on a film he was working on. He didn't reveal to me right away what the film was. He was simply talking in generalities and that they weren't sure what direction the music should be. As we talked more and more, he eventually revealed that is was THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. I just about fell off of my chair, because I had already heard a lot about the film over the previous few months! And, well, to make a long story short, he showed me the film. I offered to write some music because, being a life-long Catholic, that this is sort of dream come true. I wrote some music over a weekend and he (McEveety) was kind enough to bring Mel (Gibson) in on a Monday. He heard the music I was writing and liked the direction I was going. I later got a phone call and found out that Mel (Gibson) wanted me to join him on this journey.

CC: Did you ever feel overwhelmed by having to write the music for this particular film?

JD: Oh! Everyday! I'm sure you can imagine! It's sort of like "be careful what you wish for" you know. It has been one of my dreams and prayers to have the opportunity to write for a very dramatic story that would test people's emotions and heart. I've been known, throughout my career, as a comedy guy, so I could hardly imagine being "given" this thing.  So, of course, there were many days when it was sort of daunting to do anything. Still, it was a process and Mel (Gibson) was very collaborative. He came over often - every few days. I'd play him some music and we would talk and low and behold about three months later we were in London recording the score.

CC: Just how involved was Mel Gibson? How did his involvement compare with the other directors you've worked with?

JD: Well, every director is different. I'd say Mel (Gibson) was probably the most involved of all the directors I have ever worked with, but you can probably understand why. This is just so personal for him - so close to his heart and belief system. It's been something that he has been wanting to do forever. So, I'd say he was more involved than I've seen most directors be, but I'd have to say that this was a good thing.

CC: How much music did you write for the film?

JD: I think I wrote upwards of 80 to 90 minutes. In the film, I'd say there is at least 70 to 80 minutes of music.

CC: Was there any truth to the rumors that there would not be any score for the film?

JD: Yes, there was some truth to that because, during the film, Mel was thinking about exactly what type of movie he wanted to make. At one point, they were thinking about not even having sub-titles and they were considering using music from the period as the score. I think as time went on, I think Mel realized that he wanted some underscore music in there also, because it would help the dramatic content and move the story along. Hence the phone call to me.

CC: In listening to the sampler CD of your score for THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, I noticed that your palette of instrumentation roamed beyond the Middle-Eastern and Western instruments, but dipped into Eastern as well. I believe, at one point, I hear a Chinese erhu. Is that correct?

JD: You've got a good ear! That is exactly what that is.

CC: What motivated you to use that instrument?

JD: I'll tell you exactly what that was.  To answer your question - going into this thing very early on, Mel and I talked a lot about representation of Satan in this film. And it was a bit of a challenge as Mel said that he didn't know what the music for Satan should be. He said that he didn't want it to be cliché or just some sort of "scary" music that you always hear. So he said that it would be great if we could find an instrument. So I said, "Well, Mel, the way you have represented Satan in the movie (which I think is a great representation), is not what you'd normally see. He's not just some guy with horns, but has this seductive quality." After trying out a few things, I finally came to the erhu. The erhu is such a beautiful sounding instrument - very voice-like and I found this incredible, world-renown, player, Karen Han.  We decided to have her over one night to play. I didn't know exactly what I was going to get, but what came out was incredibly beautiful, exotic sound that has this human-vocal quality to it. As soon as Mel heard it, he loved it and kept bringing it back up to me. So that became the instrument to represent the devil-person in the film.

CC: With there being so much controversy surrounding the film already, does it concern you that the Asian community could get a little ruffled over the use of an Oriental instrument to represent Satan?

JD: Well, I certainly hope not! I don't really think so, though. Literally, there is every other type of ethnic musical instrument represented in the film. The idea is that this score be sort of a "world score." What you'll find is that the full, commerical CD, has a much broader representation of the score's pull. You'll hear elements from just about every culture from different woodwind instruments and so on.

CC: How did scores from previous films centering on Jesus influence you? Was there any temp music used in the film?

JD: When I saw it, Mel had not really temped the movie, but had a lot of traditional music and a little bit of music from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. I think the music I wrote was probably more influenced by who I am as a person. I did; however, hire a couple of people who played on THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. My idea was that score be inclusive of just about every idea that Mel had. I don't think it is disjointed in that message. It is sort of an amalgamation of everything Mel and I talked about.

Early on there are a few moments in the film where the music does swell and get "bigger" and more emotional and so I asked Mel if he thought it was "too much." He said, "No. I think you can go further." He was very conscious in that he never wanted to manipulate the audience at all. He said many times that he didn't want any "God" music in here - any reverential music, which is interesting. Still, when it does get more "powerful," Mel would say that we've "earned it" at this point and I think the audience needs to feel this emotion at this point.

CC: You certainly have a wide range of work, from adventure, horror, comedy animation. Is there a score that you feel "defines" you? - a score that you could take and hand to people and say, "This is me."

JD: This would be it! It's who I am. I'm a life-long Catholic, who, for a few years, lost his faith and then when my mother died, went on his own spiritual reawakening as it were. I had a number of conversations with Jim Caviezel (who plays Jesus in the film) and we both agreed that for everyone who worked on the film, whether a Christian or not, you can't be untouched by this film. I would say this would be the best work that I've done so far and that it would probably express most clearly who I am and what I believe. It has certainly been the hardest thing I've done and yet the most rewarding.

CC: How was it to be working on WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST at the same time? Was it difficult to switch gears back and forth?

JD: I was finishing up MOOSEPORT and THE PASSION was starting and, in a way, it was sort of cathartic. I could do a little MOOSEPORT, put that aside and then open up THE PASSION folder and work on that. So it was sort of a nice respite from working day-in and day-out on THE PASSION. You can imagine, just considering the visuals (from THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) on the screen, that it hits you pretty hard.

But to be honest with you, some days it was hard to make the switch. There was probably a week or two when I was working on both films and I'd be working on something for THE PASSION and realize that I'd have to finish up this four-minute piece done for this other movie.

CC: You are certainly one of the most prolific, not to mention versatile, film music composers out there today. Do you think your versatility is actually a key to your "prolificness?"

JD: I think you hit the nail on the head. I, for whatever reason, I guess I have some sort of "rep." I feel so fortunate to be able to do so many different kinds of films, because, as you know, in Hollywood you get type-cast. Having said that, I've done mostly comedies, but to be able to do something like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is so enriching for me. I'm hoping that this project will be successful and that I can then do more.

cc: Well, controversies and all, I hope that both your name and Mel Gibson's are getting mentioned as nominees around this time next year. Both of your efforts are deserving.

JD: That's very kind of you. For myself, I don't even want to think about it yet, but I'm telling you, for Mel, I hope all that is true because he would deserve any and all accolades!

CC: Thank you so much for your time and all the best to you in your upcoming projects!

JD: Thank you Chris and God Bless you.



   The Passion of Christ by John Debney Available at Amazon.com

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