Of Superheroes and Predators: John Debney Returns to Sci-Fi
Comedy has always been contrapuntal to chillers in John Debney’s career. The composer began in the early 1980s scoring Disney television and cartoon shows like SCOOBY-DOO and features such as JETSONS: THE MOVIE. These lighthearted scores were offset against Debney’s darker side, which revealed itself in such venues as the relentless horror music of THE RELIC and KOMODO, the vividly swashbuckling CUTTHROAT ISLAND, and the cataclysmic speculation of END OF DAYS.
Now, after many years during which he focused on comedy films, along with the occasional profoundly heartfelt drama such as THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, Debney has returned to heavy action and adventure with his scores to IRON MAN 2 and PREDATORS, both of which allow his more energetic expressiveness to come to the fore.
Debney was actually was considered for the first IRON MAN, since he had established a working relationship with its director, Jon Favreau, on the films ELF and ZATHURA. Circumstances didn’t work out on the first IRON MAN, but Debney was thrilled to be called in for IRON MAN 2.
“It was a joy to be working with Jon Favreau again,” Debney said. “I knew going in that IRON MAN 2 was going to be a different scoren and it was. IRON MAN 2 is a more complex, layered film than the first one, so the music had to play a different role. There were also many more characters and the music had to highlight these new characters.”
Following the lead, if not the themes, of Ramin Djawadi on the first IRON MAN, Debney’s score thunders with iron and steel – bolstered by heavy metal guitars and a thick, orchestral vocabulary, while also recognizing the beating heart within the metal. Debney’s music becomes the sheet-plated, iron-wrought, clamped-on metallic suit that gives the movie its life, just as the galvanized garb keeps Tony Stark’s heart beating and endows him with enhanced strength.
“I enjoyed the first score but the second score had to be different, per the film. The two scores share a common pedigree but are generally different,” Debney said. “They are different scores with different results.”
What they share is a similar pedigree of rock and roll which is powerfully integrated – like sizzling molten metal dipped into a smooth liquid fluid – through the role of the electric guitar, which continues to evoke the prowess of Iron Man and his metal suite, as it had in Djawadi’s score. Guitarist Tom Morello, best known from the bands Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, came in to perform the shredding for IRON MAN 2’s soundtrack. The score integrates Morello’s electric guitars with Debney’s large-scaled orchestra and choir material to both evoke the characters and support the film’s action – while all the time leaving room for the AC/DC songs that were to be prominently displayed throughout the movie.
“Being a huge fan of Morello, I knew we had to work together on this film,” Debney said. “Jon is a friend of Tom’s and asked if I’d be interested in working with Tom. I, of course, said yes, and Tom was an absolute joy and wonderful collaborator. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.”
The main challenge for Debney on IRON MAN 2 was to compose a theme that captured the duality of the Tony Stark/Iron Man character while providing an original flavor in view of the many large-scaled superhero movies produced recently, each of which needed very dominant, muscular themes.
“IRON MAN 2 was odd in that there were not a lot of places where a true superhero theme could be played,” said Debney. “Tony Stark is uber cool even as Iron Man, so, musically, we couldn’t state a full-blown superhero theme. The strains of Iron Man’s theme are heard only in a few spots by design. I’m hoping with future films, Iron Man might get his full-blown theme played aggressively.”
IRON MAN 2 was followed by an equally aggressive score for PREDATORS (2010). This sequel to the original 1987 PREDATOR used an array of instrumental flavors that includes Tibetan long horns, Shakuhachi flute, a battery of ethnic wooden and metal percussion, and a phalanx of specially-engineered synth sounds and voicings, providing textures of the truly alien and mechanical to this relentless battle music.
“The ethnic instruments create a tribal feel while the metallic sounding motifs represent the predators,” said Debney. “They are both alien yet tribal.”
Debney’s most important decision on this score was to include music from the first PREDATOR, integrating Alan Silvestri’s original conceptualizations and combining them with Debney’s own music to match director Nimród Antal’s vision of the story. The result is a unique partnership of musical ideas spread 23 years apart, yet seamlessly integrated into the sound design as if they were the product of a single composer.
“I knew going in that I wanted to incorporate Alan’s themes for this film,” said Debney. “PREDATORS is a true sequel in my opinion, and thus, I thought it right that we included Alan’s material. I wanted to pay homage to Alan Silvestri’s original PREDATOR score, but I also wanted to add my signature. Alan is a friend, and I feel he is also a brilliant composer.”
Debney said that he enjoyed extrapolating musical elements from Silvestri’s score, and creating his own vision of what the music should sound like for this new incarnation of the story.
“I love scores from the ‘80s and I felt we had a score without the highly synthesized, overproduced scores we sometimes get these days,” he said. “So by design, I wanted to harken back to the days of big scores and much orchestral fireworks.”
In recent years, a man epic action/super-hero/spectacular science fiction films have tended to follow (or composers have been asked to follow) the hybrid rhythm-based example established earlier in the decade by the music of successful films of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the like. A composer even of Debney’s stature cannot help being mindful of this contemporary vogue even while seeking to proffer his own voice.
“There are a lot of truly unique scores out there and some that aren’t,” Debney said. “Of course for action movies, a film may be temp-scored with the type of score you describe. I like to listen to the temp for the emotion the director is trying to convey and, hopefully, write something that is unique. In the case of PREDATORS, I used an approach where I paid homage to Alan Silvestri’s original score as well as incorporated an original score.”
With nearly 140 film scores in thirty years, Debney has explored every genre and every style of music making, yet the fantastic genre continues to raise its growling head on his filmography almost every year.
“It is a joy to work on a wide variety of films,” he said. “If one does only one thing, it can get very stale. I love working in these non-comedic areas, as it is great to explore the darker side of my personality.”
Debney has gone on to add another action notch on the side of his baton with an iconic score for MACHETE, the feature film based on the faux trailer of the same name in the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaboration, GRINDHOUSE, with Danny Trejo as an ex-Federale known for his coat of many scabbards, seeking revenge against his former boss. Another turn for Rodriguez will follow next year with SIN CITY 2.
Thanks to Ray Costa and Andy Perez at Costa Communications – and to John Debney for taking time out of an increasingly busy schedule to chat with me about these scores.