John Debney on The Jungle Book and Mel Gibson’s “stunning” Hacksaw Ridge

John Debney conducting a live performance of his score for The Passion of the Christ.

In his long career as a composer, John Debney has written the scores for Hocus Pocus, Cutthroat Island, Liar Liar, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Elf, The Passion of the Christ, Sin City, Zathura and Iron Man 2. Most recently Debney has worked on The Jungle Book with Jon Favreau and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

I know you’ve worked with Jon Favreau before, but in The Jungle Book you must have been writing the score with nothing but green screen as your guide. Does it make a difference to the process?

It certainly does. I think this was our fourth film together. It was wonderful but it was a challenge. All told it was two years of work, and at the very beginning it was green-screen and stick figures, as it were, so it was a little bit difficult to get a handle on the tone and what the music should be. But Jon's steady hand guides you through it. He would tell me the story every step of the way and that was invaluable because he could explain to me what was going on. And then of course as scenes started coming in you’d really get the gist of what was going on. You’d be able to see the expression on the tiger, on the wolves, and it just became more and more fully rendered and magical, especially the last six months. So it was a process. 

Was it two years full-time for you, or were you on other projects at the same time?

Definitely on other projects at the same time, because there would be vast stretches of time where there wouldn’t be anything for me to do. They’d be filming and then rendering. I’d say every two to three weeks there’d be something new for me to jump back on and do. It was pretty wonderful in hindsight because it enabled me to take a few cracks at some of these pieces. Sometimes time is so limited, but in the case of The Jungle Book the time looking at it paid off because we were really able to get in there and analyse every beat. For me it was really helpful.

Is Jon Favreau quite prescriptive or does he give you free rein?

He’s kind of the perfect director. First of all, he really envisioned this whole movie. He had the whole movie in his head, and that’s an amazing thing. He knew really instinctively, storytelling-wise, what he wanted to say in each moment. So he would guide me through things even if what I had written wasn’t working for him. He would be very calm and go: well, you did what I asked, but let’s try this. He was calm and collaborative. The best thing I always hope for in a director is, even if I misstep, he’ll guide me back in the right direction. He’s very steady, which was wonderful on a long project like this.

What’s the difference between someone like Jon Favreau and Mel Gibson, who shot Hacksaw Ridge here last year?

They’re both brilliant. I think Mel approaches things like an actor. Jon’s also an actor; maybe that’s what they have in common. There’s a commonality to their understanding of what the emotion should be and I think that’s crucial. They have a handle on what it is they want the audience to feel.

Were you doing those two films simultaneously?

No, I’d finished Jungle Book a few weeks before Hacksaw. They’re still working on Hacksaw as we speak. 

The Passion of the Christ is arguably your most acclaimed score. What’s your second collaboration with Mel Gibson been like?

Working with Mel is always great. I can’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil anything. But I think he’s truly back in his best form. I think he’s created something very spectacular. I’m not allowed to say too much because we’re right in the thick of it but I think people are going to be very impressed and [will] see again what a brilliant director he is.

Hacksaw Ridge is much buzzed about as an awards prospect. 

It was our second time together and it was stunning. Again you’re just beset by these incredible images that he creates and these beautiful set-pieces. I’m always struck by the way Mel has movement in his films, and what he does with movement. It’s quite stunning. I think it’s a tremendous piece of work and I wouldn’t be surprised if awards season comes around and many people involved in the film are there. 

It feels like the sort of film studios would have made twenty years ago but aren’t any more.

I think that’s probably right. It is a bit of a throwback in the best sense. It’s a great story, it’s a true story, and when you have a master filmmaker like Mel at the helm, great things can happen. It’ll be interesting to see if it generates more films like that, that are a little more story and character-driven. I hope that happens. 

It must be fun for a composer to work on films that are as sweeping as Hacksaw and The Jungle Book.

In the case of The Jungle Book, it was kind of a different process in that the music almost had to take the place of dialogue, because there isn’t a lot of it. There’s a lot of long scenes of scenery and Mowgli’s journey, so Jungle Book was unique in that sense. I’d never really worked on a film where the music quite frankly played such a large role in it. Jon always told me the music had to do more [in Jungle Book] than in other films.

Is Hacksaw's score a bit more subdued?

Hacksaw’s different. Hacksaw’s a drama about real characters, and the pathos of the film is so deep and so human. So the music plays a different role. That’s true for any film. The music has to find its place.

I wrote an obituary last year for James Horner, who I know was initially slated to score Hacksaw and who gave you your first break when he recommended you for Hocus Pocus (1993). Like him you’ve had an incredibly varied career. I’m interested to know which other composers you particularly admire?

Well you’ve named one of my favourites. James Horner was an uncommon talent. What amazes me most about James was just how good he was at such a young age. This guy was 28 or 27 when he wrote Wrath of Khan and a couple of those early ones. That’s pretty stunning, that somebody of that age was doing that kind of work. And he just got better and better. Up until the end he was writing beautiful music. Wolf Totem was a beautiful score. I can’t say enough about James. He gave me a break or two in my early career which I’ll be eternally grateful for. A couple of my other favourites: of course John Williams, he’s on everyone’s list. Jerry Goldsmith was a particular favourite of mine, and I was able to work with him a little bit towards the end of his life, which was wonderful. I also love the new guys, my contemporaries: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard. Trent Reznor, [who’s] doing some wonderful avant-garde electronic music. 

The huge success of The Jungle Book must have been very gratifying, given your history with Disney and how long the film took to make.

Very gratifying, and a little surprising. When a film reaches those numbers, it’s sort of humbling. I’m sure Jon would admit that it even surpassed what he’d hoped. I do remember at the end of a playback, we were just finishing the film on a dubbing stage, and the lights came up and I remember a big smile on Jon’s face and he went: well, it’s pretty good. And we all felt that. It was something we hadn’t seen before. The visuals in that film are just really groundbreaking. 

What’s next for you or are you still on Hacksaw?

Just finishing touches on Hacksaw, and then I’m doing some fun things for Disney. I’m doing ride music for the new Iron Man ride in Hong Kong Disneyland. We were just in London at Abbey Road recording that last week. So I’m going to take about a month off after that and see what’s next.