Born in Burbank,
Began playing guitar at age six.
Studied at Loyola
University and CalArts.
Earned Emmy's for THE YOUNG RIDERS
and SEAQUEST DSV.
Passion Of The Christ
Welcome To Mooseport
Spy Kids II
The Princess Diaries
The Emperor's New
Michael Jordan: To The Max
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)
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
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
CC: Did you
ever feel overwhelmed by having to write the music for this particular
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
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
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?
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
JD: You've got a good
ear! That is exactly what that is.
CC: What motivated you to use that
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.
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
CC: How did
scores from previous films centering on Jesus influence you? Was there any
temp music used in the film?
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
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."
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
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
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
you so much for your time and all the best to you in your upcoming
JD: Thank you Chris and
God Bless you.