Randy Newman May Have Mellowed, But He's Still Taking on the Biggest Challenges of His Career

Randy Newman
Pamela Springsteen

Randy Newman

It has been a prolific year for revered singer-songwriter-composer Randy Newman: He scored his fourth Toy Story installment, wrote two original songs for the Pixar animated franchise and composed the music for Noah Baumbach’s unsparing drama Marriage Story. The 20-time nominee, 75, has won two Academy Awards for best original song and is a strong contender for both best original song and score nominations at the upcoming Oscars.

Marriage Story opens with two extremely long musical cues as Scarlett Johansson’s and Adam Driver’s characters talk about what they love about each other. Is that exhilarating or terrifying for a composer to set the tone?

You can’t let it [scare you]. Animated pictures can be really terrifying because you’ll see a chase scene and people are really moving, and [you have a certain] amount of notes you have to put down. This didn’t scare me; I knew I could do it, but it’s the first thing you hear and it is important. I was worried about, “Should this be an oboe or a flute?” Things you usually worry about.

This is the second film you have worked on with Baumbach following 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories. Why do you two work so well together?

[We have developed] a shorthand on the process. He doesn’t have to hear the whole cue, but he wants to hear some version on a piano. And when he likes something, he uses it. He used things I gave him in other parts of the picture that I hadn’t even seen. He’s a great enthusiast. You know, when guys don’t let you know that they like something, it makes you a little squeamish. He was pretty good about that.

You’ve said that Baumbach had become savvier about his musical choices. That must have made your job easier.

Yeah, it did. In the old days, I would say tough things about directors in general, like, “They don’t know anything, and I wish they would leave us alone,” and things like that. But people I have been working with lately, Pixar guys and Noah, have been pretty good.

You don’t think you have changed at all?

Maybe I’ve mellowed. I was glad to get a chance to write some of that stuff -- the lyrical kind of quasi-romantic stuff [for Marriage Story] -- because for the most part, Toy Story doesn’t have that. The last two have had it -- big scenes, six, eight minutes that are emotionally fraught. But for the most part, Buzz and Woody aren’t really getting it on.

For Marriage Story, you recorded with a chamber orchestra. How was that different from a Toy Story score?

It’s a different toolbox from what I’m used to. Toy Story has over 100 [musicians]. [With Marriage Story], you can’t hide musically. And I felt that was appropriate because they can’t hide either. With a big orchestra, if you put a flute with the violin in the string section, you don’t hear the flute, really, but it colors the violin. You hear everything in this. You don’t have a big enough violin section to drown them out.

You recorded the Marriage Story score at the Newman Scoring Stage on the 20th Century Fox lot, which is named after your uncle Alfred, who was one of three of your uncles to work there. It must be wonderful to feel your family’s legacy there.

It is. I would go there when I was 6 or 7 years old; it’s different, but a lot of it’s the same on the soundstage. I have usually recorded at Sony and haven’t recorded at Fox more than three or four times. But it is a big deal to me to go there and remember all my uncles being up on the stand. It’s a wide range of feelings -- mostly pretty good.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.