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A Dream for a Composer: John Debney on "The Garfield Movie" and "Horizon: An American Saga"

Composer John Debney

Composer John Debney has created scores for just about every genre of film, from “The Passion of the Christ” to the live-action “Jungle Book,” from “The Greatest Showman” to “80 for Brady.” This year, his films include an animated film about a comic strip character, “The Garfield Movie” and parts one and two of the Kevin Costner western, “Horizon: An American Saga.” In an interview with, he talked about being inspired by California cowboys and “How the West Was Won” and combining heart, comedy, and a heist in “The Garfield Movie.”

Where did you grow up and what was the first instrument you played? 

I grew up in Glendale, California, so I'm a Valley boy, born and raised.  The first instrument I played, and still play, is the guitar. That's my main instrument. I was six years old. My mom was a folk music fan, and she played. And then so, you know, by osmosis, I started taking lessons and just never gave it up.

And is that what you still use to compose on, or do you use a keyboard?

I use a keyboard in the main, but I get to play guitar on my scores for fun. Usually I replace it, but nonetheless, it's always there. 

This is a different kind of a story for Garfield. It's got a little more heart, drama, and excitement than we are used to with him.

It was such a fun movie to work on. My good friend Mark Dindle, our director, and I have done three movies together in the  past. We did “The Emperor's New Groove” and “Chicken Little” for Disney a number of years ago. He called me about Garfield at least two years ago, talking about the type of score he's thinking of, and we had a lot of chats about that. He explained that it was probably going to be a bit of everything, meaning that there's a big emotional arc to the story plus a lot of action music and heist music. So, it was fun for me. I got to do a big action type fun animated adventure music and I got to do some kind of spy-ish music and then I also got to write melodic emotional stuff. 

We talked about the characters. We talked a lot about the emotional relationship between Garfield and his dad. That was kind of cool about the story, I felt, was that not only is it a fun sort of romp for Garfield, but you get an emotional scene that would represent Garfield and his dad, and we get to learn what happened and what develops in their relationship.

 One of my favorite genres for film is the heist movie and this one had a lot of mechanics. How was that reflected in the score? 

You're right, there were a lot of mechanics. All of a sudden, midway through, the whole movie becomes a heist movie. And Garfield and Odie have to train, and there's a funny guy they meet that they train with, and then a lot of that middle part of the movie, and through the end, is  all about the heist, and the heist is a very funny, without totally spoiling it. They have to steal a lot  of milk, and so they have to break into the milk factory, which is of course a heavily guarded, top secret kind of place, and there's all kinds of antics that go on in  there when they have to jump a train. And then they get to the milk factory and you find out some interesting things about the history of the milk factory, and then they have to break in. So it takes that turn, but in a funny, entertaining way. 

In a very different category, you also scored “Horizon: An American Saga,” Chapters one and two from Kevin Costner both coming out this summer. What are some of your favorite classic Western scores? 

As I said, I grew up here in Southern California, and people don't realize that there are a lot of cowboys out here. There are a lot of trails, and a lot of places that people ride their horses. I grew up loving horses and fell in love with the Western genre. 

A big western movie for me is “How the West was Won.” I remember seeing that as a kid and it was long, but the stories are so fascinating. And one of the things I really loved about it was the score by Alfred Newman, I believe. I just love that score, the main theme and how it wove its way through all the different the storylines, and to my mind's eye “Horizon” is very much like that. 

What do you think is the enduring mystique of the West?

I'm fascinated with the history of our country, especially the West, be that pre-Civil War, then post-Civil War and the Indian Wars especially, understanding how horribly the native peoples were treated. I think there's a fascination with the good, bad and the ugly of our history and that is what I love about it.  And we’re all a little nostalgic, especially now, with what's going on in the world. 

As he did with “Dances with Wolves” and he does that with “Horizon, Kevin Costner really goes into all sides and shows that many times there were bad people on both sides and there were good, great people on both sides or all sides.  There are a myriad of characters, just like “How the West was Won.” You follow a wagon train and the denizens of the wagon train. There are some wonderful actresses that I think steal the show in both the first chapter and the second one that we're finishing now. 

And there are some great characters. Kevin's character is kind of a rough and tumble guy the kind who just wants to live a simple life but trouble finds him. And so he's sort of a drifter and yet he's fast with a gun. And you know he gets involved in things that are being done.

So, we have a main theme, there's a theme for our Native Americans, very noble kind of theme for them. There's a theme for our ladies who are incredibly strong ladies, with Sienna Miller as the highlight. She's just amazing. She plays a mom and without spoiling too much, there's an attack, sort of a retribution attack by the Native Americans for an attack on them  and settlers that took their land. So there are a hard couple of big set pieces where we see that. And then Sienna Miller's character survives, and her daughter survives, and then they have to wend their way through the West. So, it's quite poignant. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the acting is superb. So, a dream for a composer. 

Westerns have a lot of important and loud sounds. How do you work with the sound designer to make sure the score and the sounds work together?

That is an issue in every movie, but especially this one, because in a western you can imagine there are gunshots, there are wagons, horses racing  down the prairie. So we definitely had to work hand in hand.  There were times when we spoke at length about whether music should take the day here, or should sound effects take the day? We worked very hard to not assault the audience. And it is a marriage, it always is, and especially with something like this, it was, I'm happy to say, a happy marriage. 


Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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