Tuned in Tuesday: Composer John Debney Talks HISTORY’s Houdini and More [Exclusive Interview]
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.
TV GOODNESS: I was doing some research and it seems like you might be the go-to composer for the HISTORY Channel. Youâ€™ve done Hatfields & McCoys, Bonnie & Clyde and now Houdini. Thatâ€™s exciting.
John Debney: “Yeah. You know someone else mentioned that to me the other day and it is interesting that Iâ€™ve done three of their higher-profile things. Iâ€™m really delighted by it. Theyâ€™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: “Iâ€™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.’ Heâ€™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 Iâ€™ve done for HISTORY Channel. Iâ€™d thought long and hard about this one. I didnâ€™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 ofâ€“ thereâ€™s a little 9 Inch Nails influence, thereâ€™s some very contemporary rock nâ€™roll and synthetic music that is represented in the score and, in addition, there are some very traditional instruments that reflect Houdiniâ€™s background. Thereâ€™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: “Itâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ I wouldnâ€™t say represent him musically…he was, in my mind, quite the adventurer and death-defying guy. So thatâ€™s what the music is representing, that he was this superhero of the gilded age as it were.”
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 â€“ it wasnâ€™t terribly long, but it was a three minute piece â€“ 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 Houdiniâ€™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 Houdiniâ€™s family life, especially his relationship with his mom.
Iâ€™d say my second favorite piece of music is right at the very end of the show when Houdinâ€™s saying good-bye to his wife Beth and thereâ€™s a rather poignant, a very beautifully acted scene between the two of them. Adrian [Brody]â€™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 â€˜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 youâ€™re working on this or any project, how do you work through setbacks? How do you overcome writerâ€™s block?
John: “Great question. Luckily, I donâ€™t experience writerâ€™s block as much as I used to. I think, honestly, Iâ€™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 writerâ€™s block or there are times, certain days where I just donâ€™t feel like Iâ€™ve gotten anything thatâ€™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 itâ€™s very quick, by the way.
Sometimes you happen upon a motif for a theme that just seems to work. And then moving forward itâ€™s always interesting when youâ€™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, thatâ€™s why itâ€™s such a collaborative process with a director. Sometimes they come up with things that you didnâ€™t even really think about when you were envisioning the music. Again, itâ€™s one foot in front of the other and a lot of trial and error and then usually you happen upon it. Then youâ€™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, thatâ€™s correct. Iâ€™ve been lucky really to just be doing movies for the last number of years, but lately – especially next year – Iâ€™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 â€˜cause I love to do especially Americana music, American music from the period and the Civil War. Iâ€™m a big Civil War buff so that should be fun. And then Iâ€™m doing a series called Odyssey, which is a very different series. Itâ€™s a modern thriller and it involves a lot of intrigue in the Middle East and nefarious plans. Thereâ€™s a wonderful heroine in it, which is wonderful to see a woman carrying a show like that. Then Iâ€™m going to be doing some films. Iâ€™ve got Spongebob 2, which is a really fun movie thatâ€™ll be out next year.”
TV GOODNESS: Awesome.
John: “Thatâ€™ll be fun for kids. I think youâ€™ll remember old Spongebob.”
TV GOODNESS: I donâ€™t have kids, but I love Spongebob because I watched it myself.
John: “Oh, cool. Me too. Itâ€™s a very adult cartoon. And finally Iâ€™m doing The Jungle Book for Disney, which should be a real fun journey with my friend Jon Favreau, who Iâ€™ve worked with four or five times. That should be really interesting and wonderful. Theyâ€™re re-imagining The Jungle Book. Itâ€™ll be a big 3D film. Iâ€™m really excited, a lot of things going on right now.”
TV GOODNESS: Itâ€™s great that youâ€™re so busy. I like to hear when composers are working a lot and on a lot of different projects.
John: “Yeah. Exactly. Iâ€™m very fortunate that theyâ€™re quite different from each other. I hopefully wonâ€™t get bored or stale, or whatever the right word is. When you have different things to do- and thatâ€™s why I enjoy doing it. I love different kinds of things and sometimes you have to do them concurrently. It always helps that theyâ€™re different, I think.”
Edited for space and content.
You can watch the Houdini miniseries here.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.
John Griffin and Harold Perrineau Talk From on EPIX Season 1 Finale
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] How are we doing, #FROMily? In case you missed it this morning, the very good news is that that cliffhanger will be followed by a second season, which was gifted this morning ahead of the linear broadcast of the finale. I always legitimately appreciate when we…
Elizabeth Saunders Talks EPIX’s From
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] One of the things that makes EPIX’s From such a fun ride is the abundance of Canadian cast members. Elizabeth Saunders, who plays Donna, is a favorite from her turn on the third season of Mary Kills People, which US audiences still have not been able…
Corteon Moore Talks From “Broken Windows, Open Doors”
[Warning: Spoilers for tonight’s episode.] Tonight’s episode of From had us all in our feels as we learned through flashbacks about the Sophie’s Choice Boyd had to make to save his son, and back in the present as Boyd said his piece with Ellis before heading into the woods with…
Pegah Ghafoori Talks From “All Good Things…”
[Warning: Spoilers for tonight’s episode] Tonight on From, Fatima’s anniversary celebration turned into a Colony House of horrors when a misguided Kevin let his monster bae in and she promptly killed him and left the window open for her crew. While the party devolved into terror and sent everyone running,…
Shaun Majumder Talks From “Book 74”
[Warning: Spoilers for tonight’s episode.] Tonight on EPIX’s From, Father Khatri made a bold move, kidnapping Sara instead of turning her in, and then recognizing her as a vessel for some big messages. That startling realization speaks to him on multiple levels–as a man of faith, a man trapped in…
Avery Konrad Talks About Sara’s Struggle in From “Silhouettes”
[Warning: Spoilers for tonight’s episode.] Over the course of the season so far on From, we’ve witnessed Sara’s battle against the voices telling her to to do terrible things, and tonight we saw her unravel further, threatening the Matthews and lashing out in a moment of terror with horrifying results….
Hannah Cheramy Talks From “Choosing Day”
[Warning: Spoilers for tonight’s episode.] Tonight, on EPIX’s From, the Matthews participate in the show’s version of the sorting hat, choosing where to call home–the town or Colony House. At the end of the episode, Julie makes the decision to split from her family and instead settle in with Fatima…
Ricky He Talks From “The Way Things Are Now”
[Warning: Spoilers for episode 102 of EPIX’s From.] Epix’s new series From is two episodes in and it’s already laying the groundwork for a seriously spooky season. Tonight’s episode demonstrated the careful balance of relief and horror that the show hits, with our characters’ worst fears realized, just not when…
Catching Up with Ted Lasso and Previewing Season 2
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] The not so dirty little secret about how I approach a new series is that I sometimes make a call based on the headspace I’m in at the time. It’s been a minute since I’ve picked up a show after the first season and then binge…
What They Said: Three Revealing Conversations from Survivor’s Remorse “Closure”
WARNING: Spoilers for Survivor’s Remorse “Closure” The latest episode of Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse featured conversations that showed characters really digging deep into their thoughts, emotions and motivations.
Two Takes: The Catch “The Knock-Off”
Who can you trust? If this episode of The Catch was any indication, the answer is just about nobody. Betrayal was running rampant as Felicity (Shivani Ghai) arose from the dead to seduce-con Margot, Gretchen (Maria Thayer, Gotham, The Mindy Project) played gold-hearted Alice 2.0 before swindling Ethan, Tessa jumped…
What They Said: Top 3 Quotable Moments from Preacher “El Valero”
Both Quincannon and Jesse refuse to give up on what they each think is rightfully theirs. While Jesse is struggling to face the consequences of his actions, Quincannon has laid his past demons to rest and is hellbent on moving forward and putting Annville on the map again. Despite a…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Supergirl “Worlds Finest”
Oh, Supergirl. That ending was cold. But I can’t hate on you because the latest episode has quickly become one of my favorites.
What They Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Black Sails “XXIII”
The dialogue in “XXIII” is phenomenal. It’s always a fun ride when Black Sails carries its viewers along without giving them the chance to catch their breath. When an episode moves at this unforgiving pace, there is no chance for a breather nor is there a respite from the information…
What Lucifer Said: Favorite quotes from Supernatural “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Supernatural episodes are almost always funny but thanks to the dialogue and a certain man speaking said dialogue, I laughed a lot during “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” You know, when I wasn’t busy fearing for Sam’s life or wondering what in the world was going on with Dean and…
What They Said: The Flash, “Legends Of Today” and Arrow, “Legends Of Yesterday”
Two nights of Arrow +Â The Flash = what more could we ask for?! I don’t know what it is about blending these shows, but I canâ€™t help but feel that every time they come together, they somehow become greater than the sum of their parts. And thatâ€™s saying a lot…
What they Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Graceland “Little Bo Bleep”
Shoot outs. Fake outs. And long-awaited revelations. “Little Bo Bleep” was a jam-packed episode that wrapped up some loose ends and totally frayed others. Â It finally gave us one Sarkissian in jail and pulled back the curtain on Briggs’ master plan, but it also set up Jakes for a world…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Poldark “Part 4”
â€œWhat have I told you, I don’t require my wife to crochet and sip tea, but I do require her to remember she’s not a beast of burden.â€ No, Iâ€™m not talking about The Rolling Stones! I have to admit though, just for a second, the lyrics popped into my…
3 Moments of Goodness from Brooklyn Nine-Nine “Johnny and Dora”
The most satisfying part of this season’s finale has to the Jake and Amy kiss. Well, they kiss three times but the last one is the best one — and it means something. The Charles and Rosa dynamic was also great. I love how she’s convinced he doesn’t know anything…