2 buddies, 1 vision, big success
Johm Lasseter and Randy Newman both grew up in Southern California, but they couldn’t possibly come from more different worlds. Lasseter is from Whittier, son of the parts manager at a Chevy dealership. Newman grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles, where he spent much of his boyhood on Hollywood sound stages, watching his uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman conduct studio orchestras.
But when it comes to their work, it’s hard to imagine two masters of their craft more in sync with each other; Newman is one of the great songwriters of our time, and Lasseter is the reigning wizard of computer animation.
Whether discussing the importance of emotion in music or reminiscing about their favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons, they always seem to be on the same page, with one starting a thought, the other finishing it.
Since they met in 1991, Lasseter and Newman have creatively been virtually inseparable. Newman has done the score and written songs for every Lasseter-directed Pixar film, including both installments in the “Toy Story” series, “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars,” as well as “Monsters, Inc.,” a Pixar hit that Lasseter also produced.
They are both up for Oscars again this year: Lasseter for best animated film (“Cars”); Newman for best song for “Our Town,” the ballad from “Cars” performed by James Taylor. (Newman is up for a Grammy for “Our Town” as well.)
At a dinner that stretched late into the night, the conversation ranged far and wide; Lasseter ó earnest, if a bit overpowering ó served as the ringmaster, with Newman, sardonic and self-deprecating, proving the comic relief.
Lasseter remains astounded that Newman has now been nominated for 17 Oscars and won only one, for “If I Didn’t Have You” (“Monsters, Inc.”). Praising “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” a song Newman wrote for “Toy Story,” Lasseter says, “I can’t believe he didn’t win with that ó everyone has recorded that song. I’ve often thought the academy should go back 10 years later and reexamine who won their awards because it often takes time to see how films or songs grow and become absorbed in the culture.”
I asked Newman what he thought of a version Robert Goulet did. “I was at the session,” Newman recalls. “And he kept singing, ‘You’ve got a friend in me, babe.’ ” Newman laughs. “Clearly nobody else was going to do it, so it was my job to say, ‘Drop the ‘babe.’ You could tell he took it badly because he said, ‘Oh, I get it. Get rid of the soul.’ ”
The Oscars are also something of a sore subject for Lasseter. Despite the groundbreaking nature of his work in animation, Lasseter has never won an Oscar for any of his features.
“I was around the Oscars since I was boy ó my uncle [Alfred] won nine of them,” says Newman. “I know it’s not always about merit. But they suck you into it. When I finally won, I saw the orchestra [in the pit] stand up and applaud andÖ.”
Newman wags his head. “I got pretty choked up. I was worried I was going to lose it, like Sally Field.”
Lasseter first met Newman when he began work on “Toy Story.”
“At first we even thought about not having songs at all,” Lasseter recalls. “But [Disney music executive] Chris Montan convinced me of the value of songs to tell the story. I loved Randy’s scores ó I used to listen to his music from ‘The Natural’ and ‘Avalon’ driving in my car. And he appealed to me because he could not only write emotional music but music with a sense of humor.”
Composers and filmmakers speak a very different language. So the challenge for the two men was to find a means of communication. Composers often find it difficult to understand what a director wants from them, especially when the director’s idea of helpful advice is something like, “I want the music to be more powerful!”
Newman says he asks Lasseter to give him adjectives to describe what feeling he’s looking for. “My songs are usually exactly like the instructions I’ve received,” he says. “John will tell me he wants something to feel cheerful and friendly, and I end up with ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me.’ ”
Still, creative misunderstandings occur. Even Newman, who is quick to say, “The director is your boss ó it’s their picture,” has had fallings-out with filmmakers, notably with Gary Ross on “Seabiscuit.”
“It killed me to hear stuff I wrote used in the wrong way,” he says. “It was as if he’d fallen in love with what Ennio Morricone did on ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.’ He loved this lugubrious temp music and he rerecorded my stuff, very, very slowly. We just couldn’t communicate. Your whole job is to do what the director wants, but in that case, it was alien to everything I knew.”
For Lasseter, the importance of the score is that it captures, better than anything else, the underlying emotion of the film. When he was developing “Toy Story 2,” Lasseter knew the film revolved around the idea: What if you were a toy and your kid outgrew you?
“When you’re outgrown, there’s no coming back to it,” Lasseter explains. “But whenever we tried to convey that through dialogue, it never worked. So we went to Randy and said, ‘Let’s do it through song.’ I remember what I told Randy: ‘This song doesn’t have a happy ending.’ ”
The result was “When She Loved Me,” which was performed by Sarah McLachlan. Lasseter says he burst into tears when he watched McLachlan sing it at a recording session with Newman at the piano. The song had such an indelible effect on the film that Lasseter went back into the movie and recut the sequence to Newman’s lyrics.
Newman’s “Our Town” is a great example of how a song, when paired with the right images, can propel a film into deeper emotional territory. Propelled by James Taylor’s soulful vocals, it evokes the sense of loss that the town of Radiator Springs feels when the new interstate turns the burg into a backwater. After interviewing residents of similar dying towns, Lasseter told the stories to Newman, giving him photos to inspire him.
Newman’s song is full of yearning, gently balancing a sense of hometown pride with a sense of loss. Its lyrics are simple and direct, yet tinged with laconic Newman-isms, especially in the tale’s opening line: “Long ago, but not so very long ago Ö”
This wasn’t the way Newman wrote as a singer-songwriter ó any hint of yearning was overwhelmed by sly satire or a gruff cynicism. “Back then I wrote some of the roughest songs anyone had heard before rap,” he says. “It was because I believed in indirection. I could only write love songs for other people. Working on these movies with John has allowed me to be more emotionally direct.”
Newman playfully complains that Pixar has been “kind of phasing me out” as a singer, noting that though he sang three songs in “Toy Story,” he’s down to “none” in “Cars.”
Not that’s he’s insulted. “The verdict on my voice from the American people is not positive,” he says. Lasseter says he sought out Taylor because he wanted a voice for “Our Town” that had the feel of folk Americana.
“It was no disrespect to Randy,” he says.
Newman laughs. “I thought, ‘Hey, it’s a beat-up town, why not a beat-up voice [like mine]?’ ”
Hearing Lasseter reminisce about his youthful love for muscle cars only emphasizes something that most academy members have somehow managed to miss: Animated films can be just as personal as any auteur-driven drama. When Lasseter was a boy, he spent endless hours ogling ’69 Camaros, especially the ones with orange racing stripes, at his dad’s Chevy showroom.
Lasseter learned to drive in his father’s ’55 Chevy pickup. “My favorite memory is my dad taking me to the local dump, putting me on his lap and letting me drive. I’ll never forget that feeling of freedom I had.”
Newman’s youthful driving experiences were more like Keystone Kops outtakes. “What I remember is how many accidents I had ó 15 major wrecks altogether,” he says. “When I got my learner’s permit, I drove down Sunset with my mother in the car and spun out on Dead Man’s Curve and hit a guy in a Morris. I got so professional about it that when I’d get into a wreck I’d run and get a witness.”
Apparently it ran in the family. Newman recalls riding home after school with his late Uncle Emil when he was working on “The Great Sioux Massacre.” “He’d drive me home and he used to have a little vodka and milk, and anything could happen. They had these shrubs on the road just past Beverly Glen ó he’d hit them every time. I was just as bad. I hit so many different cars that the right side of my car was like a mural with all the colors of the rainbow.”
When Lasseter and Newman got up to leave after dinner, I jokingly asked the crash-prone Newman if he thought he could make it home safely. “Oh, I’m only eight minutes from home,” he said. “But you never know. My wife says it’s not a trip unless there’s a close call.”
It is superb when two friends succeed together.
2 buddies, 1 vision, big success