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Tuned in Tuesday: Composer John Debney Talks HISTORY’s Houdini and More [Exclusive Interview] 

Photo Credit: HISTORY
Photo Credit: HISTORY

If you’ve watched HISTORY’s Hatfields & McCoys, Bonnie & Clyde or Houdini, you’ve definitely heard composer John Debney‘s work. Most of his recent work is in feature films for everything from Liar, Liar to Evan Almighty to Iron Man 2 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. TV Goodness spoke exclusively to John about his recent work on Houdini as well as a few of his upcoming TV and movie projects.

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TV GOODNESS: I was doing some research and it seems like you might be the go-to composer for the HISTORY Channel. You’ve done Hatfields & McCoys, Bonnie & Clyde and now Houdini. That’s exciting.

John Debney: “Yeah. You know someone else mentioned that to me the other day and it is interesting that I’ve done three of their higher-profile things. I’m really delighted by it. They’re a lot of fun to work for and they really are doing some great productions, obviously, with all three of those.”

TV GOODNESS: They really are. How did you hear about Houdini and what made you want to get involved with it?

John: “I’ve been a life-long Houdini fan ever since I was a young kid. I read a little bit about him, learned about him [and] got into magic for a while, as I think a lot of kids do. A producer friend of mine, who I had worked with on Bonnie & Clyde mentioned to me that she was going to be working on Houdini and I just, sort of, my lit up like ‘Whoa. I love Houdini.’ He’s one of my favorite people from history in a very interesting time, a very interesting guy. So, I threw my hat in the ring, we took a meeting or two, they hired me and there we went.”

TV GOODNESS: Talk to me a little bit about your process. How did you come up with the sound of the show?

John: “It was a little bit different for me on this one since you mentioned a couple of historical things I’ve done for HISTORY Channel. I’d thought long and hard about this one. I didn’t think that I necessarily wanted to just write a traditional period score, so I started to experiment a little bit and spoke with the director and producer. We came up with the idea that in many ways Houdini was a superhero back in the day. So we mused about the idea of going a little more contemporary with music. Experimentation is always key, especially at the beginning of something. I experimented quite a bit with some very contemporary sounds and musical soundscapes. We came up with an amalgam of– there’s a little 9 Inch Nails influence, there’s some very contemporary rock n’roll and synthetic music that is represented in the score and, in addition, there are some very traditional instruments that reflect Houdini’s background. There’s a violin that comes and goes in the score and then there are things like zithers and dulcimers and stuff like that, a lot of stringed instruments that highlight his background. So it became a bit of a new thing for me, which is a very contemporary score with some gypsy influences in it.”

TV GOODNESS: When you work on this or any project, how do you get inspired? Does it start with a script or is it something else? Does it depend on the project?

John: “It’s a great question. I really draw my inspiration from the characters, the actors. I usually latch on to some aspect of the story that really appeals to me emotionally – a love story or love arc, mystery or whatever it is. With this one I just fell in love with the time when Houdini lived and what was going on and who he was as a person. So my intention was to – I wouldn’t say represent him musically…he was, in my mind, quite the adventurer and death-defying guy. So that’s what the music is representing, that he was this superhero of the gilded age as it were.”

Photo Credit: HISTORY
Photo Credit: HISTORY

TV GOODNESS: Tell me about your favorite cues from the series.

John: “My very favorite piece of music is the first cue in the movie. When we come into the movie we see Houdini up on a bridge about to attempt his most death-defying feat. That was a key piece of music for me to get because it was a longer piece – it wasn’t terribly long, but it was a three minute piece – and it had to do many things. It had to set up the whole story or the idea of the score being more contemporary, certainly. It also had to represent Houdini’s death-defying jump off the bridge. I used electric guitars for him when he was in his most badass moment, which in on the bridge, this little hole in the ice and then later on in that scene we get into a bit of a flashback, which is another key area where I brought in the solo violin. I brought a little more of the gypsy feeling to represent Houdini’s family life, especially his relationship with his mom.

I’d say my second favorite piece of music is right at the very end of the show when Houdin’s saying good-bye to his wife Beth and there’s a rather poignant, a very beautifully acted scene between the two of them. Adrian [Brody]’s so good in this whole show and especially in that scene. I latched on to the emotionality of that and really enjoyed that moment ‘cause it was the culmination of their relationship and having to say good-bye. So, really the front and end of the show were my two favorite areas.”

TV GOODNESS: When you’re working on this or any project, how do you work through setbacks? How do you overcome writer’s block?

John: “Great question. Luckily, I don’t experience writer’s block as much as I used to. I think, honestly, I’ve learned over the years to just jump into the whole thing and put down any idea that comes to my mind. Most of the time you end up discarding a bunch of it, but there might be one or two ideas that bring you to a place that lead you down a path. So there are times when I guess you could call it writer’s block or there are times, certain days where I just don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything that’s that interesting. But then invariably, I try to forget about that and try to get a little sleep and then you start fresh the next day. Invariably ou get to the sound of each show, but sometimes it takes you a little longer and sometimes it’s very quick, by the way.

Sometimes you happen upon a motif for a theme that just seems to work. And then moving forward it’s always interesting when you’re playing for the director for the first time. He or she may have a completely different take on it all. At that point sometimes you have to, or oftentimes, you have to take a left turn or retool. To me, that’s why it’s such a collaborative process with a director. Sometimes they come up with things that you didn’t even really think about when you were envisioning the music. Again, it’s one foot in front of the other and a lot of trial and error and then usually you happen upon it. Then you’re off to the races after that.”

TV GOODNESS: What can you tell me about any upcoming projects? It looks like you do mostly movies and then you sprinkle TV in there every once in a while. Is that correct?

John: “Yeah, that’s correct. I’ve been lucky really to just be doing movies for the last number of years, but lately – especially next year – I’m gonna be doing a couple of TV shows which are quite special. One of them is a civil war show with Carlton Cuse and Randall Wallace, which should be fun ‘cause I love to do especially Americana music, American music from the period and the Civil War. I’m a big Civil War buff so that should be fun. And then I’m doing a series called Odyssey, which is a very different series. It’s a modern thriller and it involves a lot of intrigue in the Middle East and nefarious plans. There’s a wonderful heroine in it, which is wonderful to see a woman carrying a show like that. Then I’m going to be doing some films. I’ve got Spongebob 2, which is a really fun movie that’ll be out next year.”

TV GOODNESS: Awesome.

John: “That’ll be fun for kids. I think you’ll remember old Spongebob.”

TV GOODNESS: I don’t have kids, but I love Spongebob because I watched it myself.

John: “Oh, cool. Me too. It’s a very adult cartoon. And finally I’m doing The Jungle Book for Disney, which should be a real fun journey with my friend Jon Favreau, who I’ve worked with four or five times. That should be really interesting and wonderful. They’re re-imagining The Jungle Book. It’ll be a big 3D film. I’m really excited, a lot of things going on right now.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s great that you’re so busy. I like to hear when composers are working a lot and on a lot of different projects.

John: “Yeah. Exactly. I’m very fortunate that they’re quite different from each other. I hopefully won’t get bored or stale, or whatever the right word is. When you have different things to do- and that’s why I enjoy doing it. I love different kinds of things and sometimes you have to do them concurrently. It always helps that they’re different, I think.”

Edited for space and content.

You can watch the Houdini miniseries here.

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