John Debney’s career seemed destined for Hollywood, the son of Disney Studios producer Louis Debney, John grew up in nearby Glendale, California where he got early inspiration for film and music growing up on the Disney Studio lot. The child of two musicians, John showed an early aptitude for music and began guitar lessons at age six, later playing in rock bands throughout college. Debney earned his B.A. in Music Composition from California Institute of the Arts in 1979, and after four years immersing himself in the business at Disney Studios, Debney made a professional entry into the industry, composing for TV, working with Steven Spielberg and Mike Post on shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Tiny Tunes, and Sea Quest DSV. Debney continued his hands-on training, working with Hanna-Barbera composer Hoyt Curtin, and went on to score major television projects such as which he won an Emmy for Best Main Title.
Debney’s first big film break came in 1997 with an offer to work on Liar Liar with director Tom Shadyac. With the success of this blockbuster comedy under his belt, Debney went on to work on a variety of different major films including Elf, Iron Man 2, Spy Kids (1 & 2), and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Debney and Shadyac continued to collaborate, going on to do Bruce Almighty in 2003 and the spinoff Evan Almighty together. In 2005, Debney formed a successful partnership with director Robert Rodriguez, creating scores for his movies Sin City and Machete.
Although Debney was widely known within the industry as a versatile and talented composer, the world wouldn’t discover him until he composed the landmark score for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Enticed by the idea of working on a project that held deep, spiritual meaning for him, Debney’s score, which blended symphonic orchestra, a wide range of world instruments, and the beauty of the human voice, connected on an emotional level with viewers and listeners, and rose to #1 on Billboard’s charts for Soundtrack and Christian Albums, and #19 on the Billboard Top 200. The record was certified gold by the RIAA and won the Dove award for Best Instrumental Album, as well as garnering Debney an Oscar nomination.
Shortly after the movie release, Debney premiered “The Passion of the Christ Symphony” in Rome, Italy, a highly successful performance featuring an 83-person choir and a 96-piece orchestra, plus solo musicians and guest vocalists from both the film and the classical worlds, which received a 15-minute standing ovation from the audience. In the tradition of classical composers, John Debney enjoys conducting his own work and has conducted some of the world’s greatest orchestras. “A big part of the joy in what I do is that I consider it an honor to stand in front of live musicians and have the opportunity to hear my music played by these talented people.”
Debney’s most commercially successful work to date is Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, released in 2016. Debney credits the success of the movie to the fact that both the film and the score, “Embraced the history” of the original. Long-time collaborator, Jon Favreau and John Debney have worked on a variety of films together including Elf, Zathura, Iron Man 2, and The Jungle Book. Among John Debney’s other most recent works are scores for Draft Day, Stoneheart Asylum and HISTORY’s Emmy-nominated Hatfields & McCoys as well as the HISTORY’s most recent mini-series Houdini, and A&E mini-series Bonnie & Clyde.
Considered one of the most prolific and successful composers in Hollywood, Debney has won 3 Emmy’s and been nominated for 7, he is also an Academy Award nominee, and the youngest recipient of ASCAP’s prestigious Henry Mancini Lifetime Achievement Award.
Q&A With John Debney
Q: You mention a connection with Disney studios, even before Jungle Book, can you tell us about that?
JD: It’s so deep for me with Disney because I was basically born into it. My dad worked for Disney for 40 some odd years and I grew up on that lot as a kid, playing with the Disney kids and their Go Karts and all the greatest toys in the world. We’d go to the studio on weekends and we’d bump into Walt Disney—it’s in my DNA. That extended family was also my family, it’s ingrained in me, every bit.
Every weekend my dad would bring home Disney films to look at, and we’d have movie night at my house, the neighbor kids would all come over and we’d watch 16mm prints of Bambi, Pinocchio, and films that had just come out. We had a projector and my dad taught me how to thread it, I was the one putting up the reels—Disney films, true life adventures, nature films—that’s how I got interested in film. I was fascinated at an early age with the music with the moving images.
When I was a little older, maybe 6 or 7, my dad knew I had an aptitude for music (I was starting to play guitar), and he asked Dick Sherman if he could meet me and Dick said, “Bring him in and let the kid be with us for a day.” I was the shyest kid in the world, and I sat there in the studio office watching the Sherman brothers banging away on that little upright piano for hours writing songs, like a fly on the wall. I think I said maybe two words the whole time, I was so quiet that when lunchtime rolled around, they forgot I was there in the back.
Working on Jungle Book was personal to me, like a coming of age with the DNA of Disney. It integrated everything about me, my history, the relationship with the studio and with my dad—it was a huge personal journey. The last couple pieces of Jungle Book, the orchestra was in tears, Dick Sherman came out, and there was a huge round of applause, it was a big coming home.
Q: What was your first big break in film?
JD: Liar Liar was a big break for me and it came in 1997. My friend, a composer Jason Howard, was going to do the movie and couldn’t do it. He was great about it, he not only recommended me, but took the first few meetings. Tom Shadyac took a leap of faith on me with Liar Liar, and it was a huge movie. After that I did I Know What You Did Last Summer, so I had a big comedy that year and a big thriller. Of course, as artists, we think, “I’ve made it.” It was a good year. That led to many things, Elf, Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty (the spin off), it was a really rich period in my life, the late nineties. I was a workhorse, doing all sorts of stuff.
Q: You have a huge body of work, across many genres—comedy, thriller, adventure—how did you get involved with Passion of the Christ?
JD: It was 2003 or 2004, and I was busy doing comedies, and one day my producer friend Steve called. He had been working on Passion of the Christ. He said, “I’m working on this thing, it’s kind of heavy and kind of deep, we don’t know what to do with the music. Would you watch it?”
So, my wife Lola and I sat in here in the studio and watched it and we were just terribly moved by it. I didn’t know what to make of it all, there had not been a film like that ever, it was so visceral and in your face and graphic and yet so deep, faith-wise.
I called my friend Steve and said, “This film is unbelievable, what do you want me to do?”
They had temp music in it, and I hated the music, but loved the film. I thought, maybe I’d write something. I spent a weekend coming up with stuff, and I called a friend to come over, a singer, and a couple other people and we created this trailer, a three-minute piece of music that was aggressive and percussive and ethnic, but in a contemporary way.
I did three or four more pieces, and then Steve said, “Mel wants to come over.” And all of the sudden, there he was, Mel Gibson showed up at the studio. I think he came on a motorcycle with a backpack. I played the music I’d written for him, and I had no idea if he liked it or not. A day later or so, Steve called and said, “Mel loved it. When can you start?”
That began a journey with Mel that was wild and wonderful. He came over every few days and we would work. We recorded the score in London. He had no idea it was going to be a massive hit. And it was massive.
Q: Talk about how you got started working with Jon Favreau?
JD: We started on Elf together. New Line was making Elf and by then I’d become known for comedies, and Jon had never done a big studio movie, this was his first. I met him briefly, and I got the feeling it went well. I got hired. This was Jon’s first major film with an unlimited budget, and he’d never had a composer before, he’d always done needle drop stuff, which is great. The first couple meetings we had, he asked, what do we do? I told him I’d write pieces and he’d come over and I’d play them for him mocked up. I remember I wrote a piece early on for a scene in the movie where Elf has to travel to New York, it’s a big moment, a sort of montage. I came up with a tune, and played it for Jon and he immediately went, “What’s that?” I said, “Well, it’s Buddy’s theme.”
It was that song that broke the ice with us, and it became a great working relationship. We did Zathura, which is a really good film, and Iron Man 2, and then he went away and did Cowboys and Aliens, and came back to me and wanted me to do Jungle Book. We’ve done four films together.
Q: Were there any special moments while you were working on Jungle Book?
JD: So many. Getting to the place of recording the score was huge, it was two years of my life, and there were some unorthodox methods. We actually recorded New Orleans jazz musicians playing Bare Necessities, it was so organic and real. We were in this teeny tiny studio, practice started at 10am, and the musicians strolled in at 11am. By 1 or 2pm, the band was warmed up, and then Chris Walken and Bill Murray came in to do their songs, and Bill was running around joking with everybody. I rarely get to work with actors while recording music, but we had to do it early on because they were so integral to the film. Next I went to New York to work with Scarlett Johansson, and she’s a total pro, very sweet. I was like, pinch me—it was that kind of job.
One day Favreau called and asked me if I thought Dick Sherman would be willing to write a new lyric for I Wanna’ Be Like You. He said, “Should I call him?” I said, “Yes, I think he’d love that.” So, Dick came in to the studio and Jon explained what he wanted to do with the new lyric that had the word “gigantopithecus” in it, which was an ape that lived sometime during the Ice Age. Dick just started scribbling madly on a piece of paper, and we sat there watching him write lyrics—the man that wrote Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious—and by the end of it he had three or four rhymes for “gigantopithecus.” Jon and I just looked at each other and were like, “Wow…did that just happen?”
Q: What are you working on currently?
JD: I have exciting film and TV projects coming up in 2017 and 2018, including some live performances that I’m really looking forward to, like the Passion of the Christ oratorio, and the 200th anniversary of the writing of Silent Night, where I’ll be writing and conducting a piece for the Austrian National Opera Orchestra that tells the story of how the song was written.