'Finding Dory' Director Andrew Stanton & Composer Thomas Newman on the Emotional Life of Fish

Alberto Rodriguez /Disney/Pixar
Composer Thomas Newman and director Andrew Stanton at the scoring session for the film Finding Dory on March 22, 2016 at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif. 

"Just to be underwater again was really great," Newman tells Billboard.

Director Andrew Stanton and composer Thomas Newman are swimming with the fishes again -- and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The twosome, who first worked together on 2003’s Oscar-nominated Finding Nemo, are on the scoring stage on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Calif., working on the Disney Pixar sequel, Finding Dory. 

Stanton sits in the control room, Newman is conducting an 83-piece orchestra as footage of Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) in peril unspools over and over again. Seemingly small changes, such as switching keys to a G-sharp on one measure or adding a tuba, yield big changes to the scene’s ominous sound (Finding Dory, which opened Friday, June 17, grossed $9.2 million in Thursday previews, as it swims toward a predicted domestic opening weekend of $100 million).

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For Stanton, when the music is added, “That’s when it feels like a real movie,” he says. “The parts have all been spread across the driveway and suddenly you’re here and it’s so close to what it feels like to watch the film finished. To have the live orchestra makes it even more visceral.”

For Newman, his return to the sea was a welcome one. “When I started on Dory and I heard just the sound of the ocean and the way in which [Andrew] treated the underwater and the way that fishtails would swoosh, it was a very familiar memory, it was a good memory. Just to be underwater again was really great.” He also adds that many of the musicians on Nemo play on the Dory score, recorded over six days in February and March. The score also came out Friday via Walt Disney Records.

In addition to working on Finding Nemo, Stanton and Newman collaborated on 2008’s Wall-E -- Newman received Oscar nominations for best original score for both -- so it’s no surprise that they’ve found a shorthand…sort of. “Andrew knows when something’s not finished, when I’m just presenting, so he has a better sense of what might come later if he’s not hearing it now,” Newman says. “He’s now comfortable enough to trust me. It’s a great thing in many ways, but it really buys you nothing in the end. That sounds so bitter, doesn’t it? [Laughs] I didn’t mean it that way. Good work is good work, and Andrew isn’t going to stop until it’s as good as it can be.” 

Simply getting the job means Stanton’s faith is there, the director says. “I feel like I treat Tom’s music like one of my cast members,” Stanton says, “so for as much as I may give him a hard time about how this cue may or may not be right, he’s already 95 percent in the bull's-eye just because I cast him as the composer.”

Though Finding Dory’s score references the Finding Nemo score so the two, as Newman says, are “harmonious without sounding redundant,” Stanton adds that Finding Dory is, literally, a whole different kettle of fish, when it comes to capturing the little Blue Tang’s joys and flaws. “Her journey is way more internal,” Stanton says. “It’s her finding who she is, not only from a lineage standpoint, but from a confidence standpoint, and that’s reflected in Tom’s music.”

Newman’s role is to musically complement the emotions he feels when he first watches the scenes. “The feeling is there,” he says. “Then you add music and you ask yourself, ‘Am I feeling the same emotion or am I stomping on it and [need to] adjust?’ It’s having empathy.”

As the two banter, Newman jokes that he’s grown more efficient at “getting to the end zone sooner … and it’s better to get there sooner if it’s going to be rejected.” But Stanton has the final word as he addresses the 13-time Academy Award nominee of such scores as American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Shawshank Redemption and Bridge of Spies: “How many movies have you done between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory? It’s in the double-digits, isn’t it?,” he asks Newman. “And yet, I’m still here with the fish.”