Composer John Debney has an incredible quantity of film and television credits to his name. A few months back, he was nominated for an Emmy for his work (with co-composer Tony Morales) on the miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys”. But if you take a moment and sift through his work, you may notice he has a penchant for scoring holiday-centric films. He’s found voices for Halloween, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and even New Year’s Eve. But some of his most beloved holiday work is for his Christmas films, which include “Christmas with the Kranks,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “Elf.” Read on, as we get in the holiday spirit and spend some time with Mr. Debney!
You have a pretty decent track record of writing scores for films for holidays that do not necessarily have music associated with them. When you compose a score for Christmas, which already has an incredible volume of music attached to it, does it ever become challenging to find a new voice within that genre?
They are all a little disparate, but I think the thing they all have in common is that you need to tip the hat to the Christmas sound of sleigh bells. All of those films are quite different in story and tone, so I always let the characters and the story dictate what the music is. It can be challenging, but by the same token, I enjoy doing light, comedic holiday fare, so it’s not as much a challenge.
I’ll tell you what a real challenge would be – if and when they decide to make an “Elf 2”. That would be a challenge, because I would have to go back and reuse those old themes while trying to create new ones. That’s always kind of hard, when you have to revisit you thought you had done well, and it has its own voice.
How often, during your run-ins with Christmas films, do you find yourself wanting to underscore a particular scene, only to have it usurped by a licensed, popular song?
It’s hard to compete with those tracks. I know, in the case of “Elf”, we had exactly that, but it was really a wealth of riches. There were some really well-chosen, classic holiday songs in “Elf”. If the filmmakers have the budget to get those kinds of songs, it’s always great. And my job then becomes to bridge in and out of those songs. It’s a bit of a puzzle sometimes, but it’s fun.
Whenever I’m asked to do a version of a Christmas classic song, it never ends up being as good as the original. You just can’t compete with an original. So I usually either shy away from it, or recommend to the director to go with the original.
Since Christmas is rooted so much in tradition, does it ever weigh on you the difficulty of attempting to make a film that measures up to that canon of “holiday classic”?
Oh, it’s definitely difficult, and I think out of everything I’ve done, the only one that really measures up is “Elf”. And I’m really thrilled by that! We kind of knew when we were working on it that it was a pretty special film, an lo and behold, I think it finally has become a modern classic, and I know that Jon Favreau is thrilled about it, too. It’s really gratifying seeing the movie crop up every year at this time, because you work really hard on so many projects, seeing even one that stands the test of time is wonderful.
I really wish a score for “Christmas with the Kranks” was commercially released, because the music was in the same family as “Elf”. I look at them as companion pieces, musically. And even though it wasn’t the greatest movie in the world, it had some great people working on it, like Joe Roth, who directed it. And the score I ended up writing for it was very much my homage to John Williams’ “Home Alone”, pretty much blatantly so, because of my love of John and those scores he did. I really wish it had gotten out, because it’s a nice score; the orchestra played beautifully, and we had a lot of fun doing it.
But it’s always based on the success or lack of success of the film, and someday I’d really like Bob Townson [Varese Sarabande] or somebody to give a look at it and release it. I think people would like it; it’s a nice score with nice themes. Hopefully, someday it will be out there…I hope.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you remember from making “Christmas with the Kranks”? We watch it every year in our house, but it is a rather odd film, so I understand why people didn’t immediately react favorably to it.
Yes, it is an odd movie, but it is also a lot of fun, too. It had a nice heart to it, as well, but weirdly enough, it never seems to play anywhere during the holidays. And I don’t exactly know why, but I guess it is one of those films that people just never saw or remember. Again, I loved working with Joe Roth. It had all the trappings of a great holiday movie, but it just never took off.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of fun score in there, and I thought the idea of an internal community war over a couple who didn’t want to celebrate Christmas was a cool concept. I think it’s intention was to be a little “Home Alone”-y, but it never quite got there.
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