Randy Newman: 22 Oscar nominations later, it's still 'special every single time'
Like the rest of us, Randy Newman is just trying to catch up on movies before Oscar night.
From what he's seen so far, "'Parasite' is the best picture, along with 'Marriage Story,' ” Newman, 76, says by phone last weekend. “And I saw a bit of that Jennifer Lopez picture, 'Hustlers.' I’m surprised she wasn’t nominated. What do you have to do? I mean, she was really good.”
If anyone knows how to score a date with an Oscar, it's Newman. The beloved singer/composer is going into this year's ceremony with not one, but two nominations: best original score, for Noah Baumbach’s poignant divorce drama “Marriage Story” and best original song, for the playful “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 4.” They’re the 21st and 22nd nods for Newman, who’s won two Oscars for songs written for “Monsters, Inc.” and “Toy Story 3.”
USA TODAY caught up with the music icon ahead of Sunday's show (ABC, 8 EST/5 PST).
Oscar nominations 2020:See the complete list of nominees
Oscar predictions: Who will win Academy Awards – and who should
Question: Congratulations on your Oscar nominations this year. How did you hear the news?
Randy Newman: My son, who’s my agent also, sent me a text. I’ve been nominated a number of times and I always like it. I’ve never minded much, believe it or not, not winning for 10, 15 straight times. But when I finally did win (in 2002 for “Monsters, Inc.”), I was happy.
Q: At your 21st and 22nd nominations, is there a point when you stop counting?
Newman: No, it's special every single time. It's recognition by your peers – I like it, it’s a nice feeling. But if you don’t get nominated, it’s not devastating. It’s just the way it goes.
Q: Most of your film score work the past two decades has been in animation. Did you miss doing a live-action drama?
Newman: Yeah, I didn't have the opportunity to do it. Or if I got offered a picture, I was often doing something else. I think I do a good job on those animated pictures but they're difficult to do. Probably what I do best is drama or romance.
Q: How did you approach “Marriage Story” differently than other scores you’ve done? I understand you used a chamber orchestra, for instance.
Newman: I did use a chamber orchestra, but cut down. It didn't seem like (Baumbach) wanted it to be overwhelmed with trumpets and trombones, so I didn't use any. There was no big stuff – there was no call for it, it wasn’t “X-Men.” With (Scarlett Johansson’s character), I used more piano and strings, whereas with (Adam Driver’s), it was a little more forceful and we had a couple French horns in there. But it was different for me writing for that size orchestra. “Toy Story” orchestras are really big – like 100 guys, maybe more – and this was about 40. So when you write something for an oboe, you really hear it.
Q: Your cousin, Thomas Newman, is also competing for best original score for “1917.” How does that feel?
Newman: If I don't win, I hope he wins, but I got a feeling neither one of us will. It’s a pretty good field. I have a feeling (Hildur Gudnadottir for) “Joker” will.
Q: Have you seen “Joker?”
Newman: Yeah, I have. I liked it. It was all right.
Oscar nominations 2020:'Joker' leads with 11 nods, including best picture
Q: The last time you and Thomas were nominated in the same year for original score was 1996. (Randy for “Toy Story,” Thomas for "Unstrung Heroes") Is there some family rivalry between you guys?
Newman: I think we're both competitive, but don't admit it. I love it when I see him and I love him, but we don't see each other a great deal. It’s a funny family.
Q: Along with “Marriage Story,” you’re nominated for best original song for “Toy Story 4.” Did you have any initial reservations about coming back for another one?
Newman: Yeah, I thought, “Well, what are they going to do?” They ended it when Andy went away (to college). But they came up with something, and it got better and better as they worked on it, and they made another good picture. They have every time. It has been all animated for me for years, but they’re good pictures and they have everything: cowboy stuff, space stuff. Everything but a Woody and Buzz romance.
Q: The song, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” comes early in the movie when Forky is having an existential crisis about whether he’s trash. Was that scene inherently funny on the page, or how did you go about writing a song for it?
Newman: At that point, (the animators) just had drawings but they had the timings down, so I knew what was going to fall where. Often what I do is just very literal: “You’ve got a friend in me, you’ve got a friend in me, you’ve got a friend in me.” It’s what they wanted in the first picture, to emphasize the friendship between Andy and Woody. And in this one, it was clear: Woody was trying to (stop) him from throwing himself away and that’s what I wrote. I’ve written songs for pictures where they were all right, but I like this one. It’s catchy.
Q: What did you think of Forky, watching the movie for the first time?
Newman: I thought he'd be a star, which I guess he is. I thought he was very funny. The sort of obstinate stupidity he showed really appealed to me.
Q: Outside of your work in movies, many of your songs as a singer-songwriter are political and satirical. What do you get out of film scoring that’s different? Is it like stretching another muscle?
Newman: It's half of what I do. It's an opportunity to get out of myself, to not be writing in the style I’m usually writing, which is a character who’s often a little bit off or wrong or doesn't know so much about himself. In these, sometimes it’s straight ahead. I was happy to write that Sarah McLachlan song (“When She Loved Me” from “Toy Story 2.”) Somehow, I don't write those for myself very much, but I'm glad I wrote “You’ve Got a Friend” – I never would’ve written it just for myself. I also like working with an orchestra very much. Those four, five days recording are the best days I have in general.
Q: Do you find much crossover between the fans who enjoy your solo work and Pixar music?
Newman: Most of them are all sort of familiar with the movie work, one way or another. There are definitely people who start with the movie stuff and then find the (solo work). But there’s no way that I'm going to have a success that matches the success the “Toy Story” pictures have had. So inevitably, songs from these pictures are going to be the most popular stuff I have, which is fine with me.