Composer Thomas Newman has worked with Sam Mendes on almost every film the director has made over the past two decades, including Skyfall, Spectre, Road to Perdition, Jarhead and American Beauty. From their first conversation about 1917, Newman understood that it would be like nothing he’d done before. “I knew that the experience of time in this film was going to make it different from any other project I had encountered.”
Newman says, “It meant exploring how musical time works in lockstep with or in counterpoint to film time.” Because 1917 is experienced almost in real time, Newman and Mendes needed to approach the score differently. “We wanted to make sure we had earned the right to express emotion in musical terms,” he added.
Newman adds, “Because the movie takes place in present tense, the more the music commented on any particular action, the less exciting it was likely to be. Sam and I talked frequently about how to earn those moments where music could be justifiably emotive, and likewise how music could get out of the way and avoid the trap of being overly written.”
The goal was to create a score that served the story and didn’t distract from it.
“The challenge was getting the music to create a kind of neutral propulsion that benefited from paleness and steered clear of comment,” Newman continues, “Viscera, we figured, would win out over needless complexity. So in many cases, the music only hints at feeling, is absorbed by landscapes. Only in rare instances does it reflect character, speak directly to drama or draw conclusions.”
Newman began working on the score before and during production. “The composing process spilled out in real-time for me, too,” Newman says, “That was quite unique. 1917 was pretty much born as it was being shot.”
The film’s music was also shaped by the filming locations themselves. “The locations did have an impact on the score, by virtue of color and palette alone.” Newman adds, “Mud brown in the case of No Man’s Land. Chalk and grass in the case of the final run. They suggested an instrumental vocabulary that affected my approach to harmony and tempo.”
Throughout the writing process, the longtime creative partnership between Newman and Mendes helped them navigate uncharted musical ground. “Sam has a very reliable set of ears,” Newman says, “And he can point very easily to colors and sounds that move him or distract him. Lucky for me, music has always played heavily into his manner of storytelling. So, the expectations were high but the rewards were deeply meaningful.”
Like every element of the film, the score was designed to bring the audience inside the experience of these two young soldiers. He adds, “Mostly, I wanted the music to propel action without complicating it, to hover passively at one moment, and land and propel at another.”
Newman says, “1917 is compelling, immersive drama without music. The goal was to avoid accidental redundancy and to add richness and dimension to the drama only as it unfolded.”
Watch 1917 starting 17th July only on SonyLIV.