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Composer John Debney on Scoring The Young Messiah

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"Where words fail, music speaks." – Hans Christian Andersen

One of the great fairytalers of all time understood the power of music and its intrinsic connection to timeless storytelling. In every remarkable film, an intricately crafted score weaves through its scenes, escalating the drama, pulsating the action, and moving the audience. Composer John Debney, whose melodies have filled some of Hollywood's biggest movies (including The Passion of the Christ, Bruce Almighty, and Iron Man 2), knows this all too well.

Debney's latest contribution to film is in his beautiful score for director Cyrus Nowrasteh's The Young Messiah, a fictional, but biblically-based, cinematic look at one year in the childhood of Jesus Christ.

In a recent interview with, the Oscar-nominated composer shared how he developed the score for The Young Messiah and how its unique view of Jesus' life affected his faith. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

How were you introduced to this project and what intrigued you about it?

John Debney: Well, I met Cyrus [Nowrasteh] about four years ago through a mutual friend of ours. There was a film called The Stoning of Soraya M. I was introduced to Cyrus by the producer of that movie, Steve McEveety, who's a good friend of mine. I immediately fell in love with Cy and his passion, and what we wanted to say with that film. We went on a journey on [The Stoning of Soraya M.]. I did the score for that powerful, powerful film; and that's where it started, about four years ago.

Fast forward to maybe about a year or so ago, Cy was saying he was going to try to make this movie. Christ the Lord was the name of it at the time. I was familiar with the Anne Rice book, so it really intrigued me and interested me. What he was describing sounded great and very interesting subject matter, especially for music.

Was there a scene in the script that spoke to you, maybe jarred something musically as you started to see how the score was going to come together?

Debney: There was a particular scene that I really loved at the end of the movie. They described the scene where Mary, Jesus' mother, is sitting with Him under a tree and just talking to Him. He's asking questions, trying to figure out who He is. That was the scene that really touched me. I thought it was really beautifully written; and it touched my heart. It got me excited for the project.

Did you know that Cyrus has said that you are an answer to prayer?

Debney: Wow, if he said that, that's very sweet. He is an answer to my prayer. Finding someone that I could call a very good friend, who is also a very fine director, it's a great thing. The fact that Cy has been on his own personal journey with spirituality, this was just the icing on the cake. We talked at length about what type of score this should or could be, and he just embraced everything that I wanted to try to do. So it was an answer to my prayer, too, just to be a part of something so beautiful and so unique, really.

What would you say personally pulled you in, both as an artist and a man of faith?

Debney: Being a man of faith, what was so interesting to me was the subject, which started, by the way, with Anne Rice's wonderful books.... I thought the books were fascinating in terms of their extrapolating about what this family could have been like, what the times were like. The interesting dilemma of the film is about this little boy who is told different things during his life and he's really not sure what to believe or not to believe. It was very intriguing. Especially being of the faith, I thought it was just a wonderful, wonderful idea to try to explore that musically.

Had you ever thought about Jesus as a boy before?

Debney: I have. I think many of us probably have. I've always found it interesting or strange, maybe, that there's no record of Christ as a child, which is hard, because we hear about His birth, and then all of a sudden He's 33 years old and He's on his mission. This story and these books were pretty wonderful just to make you think and contemplate what that might have been like. It's fascinating; and I'm hopeful that it will generate discussion and interest for a lot of people.

What did you want your score to do or say as it complemented young Jesus' story?

Debney: That's a great question. Being a composer for film and TV as I am, you work on a lot of different things. For this particular one, I knew inherently that I wanted to revisit these musical sounds that I had started to explore in The Passion of the Christ. Obviously, there's a place in time for this music. So, I wanted to number one, make sure it was authentic. I really am a firm believer that if you're going to do something musically, you really need to know what that music would have sounded like, what those instruments would have been.

Unlike The Passion, this score I also knew emotionally had to be very uplifting. It needed to buoy you along in the story with this journey of this child. So, I wanted the music to never get too ponderous and too heavy. I wanted it to bring you along on this quest, this quest to discover what this boy might have been going through. I knew that I wanted to create rich themes, and something that people might really relate to emotionally. That was the quest, authenticity, and then just to make the audience feel something.

How was it stepping back into the musical world that you explored for The Passion?

Debney: It was great stepping back into that world, honestly. It's a place that I love to go. It's music that has a world sensibility—at least that's what we created on The Passion. It wasn't just instruments of the time. There were instruments of all time and place; and this was a similar thing. I called back some of my secret weapons, those people that I've worked with before that I know bring great love and artistry to their work.

The Young Messiah has a few antagonists, including a mysterious, malevolent character. How do you score darkness?

Debney: Good question. Scoring light and know, they're really the same coin, the flip side of each coin. These films are all different. The Passion, Mel's depiction of evil was much different than Cy's depiction of evil. So, they have their different sounds although they're related, I would say.

In the case of The Young Messiah, without spoiling it, you have a seemingly very attractive person playing the role of The Demon. That has its own challenges because we all imagine things the way we imagine as humans, but what I tended to do in this movie was just to pull exotic sounds out of the air.

For instance, I took animalistic sounds. This may sound funny, but I took the sound of goats bleating, making their noise. I changed their pitch and I slowed it down. It came out effectively, as you don't know what the sound is, but you know it's probably not a good thing. It may sound simplistic, but sometimes you really have to go at a visceral level of, 'Oh, does that make me feel good or uncomfortable?' And so that was what I was going for, was to try to come up with sounds that hinted at that you knew this wasn't a good being, that this was a dark guy, a dark being, and that's what we did. I think it's kind of effective. It's subtle, but nonetheless I think it's effective. I hope it's effective.

Composers are musical storytellers. Thinking in terms of the film score you composed and produced, what do you hope audiences take away from this movie?

Debney: I hope the takeaway with audiences for The Young Messiah musically is that they can hear the love between the mother and the Son, and the family. That's really what I'm going for in this film, to be quite honest, is the representation of this family unit and what they're going through in their trials and tribulations, in the traveling from here to there, always on the run, as it were. They really were, traditionally, from what we understand and what has been written. So I wanted to in the main convey this plight of the family, but also I wanted to hint at the goodness of this child and the divinity of this child.

I told Cy very early on in the process that my opinion is what the movie should highlight is this child's divinity. And he goes, 'of course, what do you mean by that?' I said, 'well, what I'm hoping is that the idea of forgiveness, that this little boy of seven can forget the most horrific acts, and forgiveness is divine.' But that's sort of what I got from it.... This wasn't just a seven-year-old child who people tell him who he is, but I felt we really needed to musically and dramatically feel that there was something special about Him. I think it does that.

I think the ending of the movie, without spoiling it, you really see that interplay. You see that in the end; you get a glimpse of it. That's what's great about the film, by the way, is that nothing's terribly overt, but it's implied. That's a great thing. We know the rest of the story, but he's just discovering it as a boy. So musically I wanted it to highlight that. I wanted to highlight the family and then His emergence, and His realization of who He is, just the beginning of it.

In that sense, The Young Messiah feels like it could be approachable for all moviegoers no matter their faith background… just to see this family, how they're growing, and how the Son is discovering His identity. Don't you think?

Debney: You've just described the way I would sell the movie. I would sell the movie that way. There's sometimes a little bit of a trap to limit yourself for an audience. To me, this is a story about any family. It's about this story specifically, but it could be about any family, and any family at any time that is going through these pretty extraordinary things. It's not every day that people rise from the dead, but I think it's grounded. That's why the film is so special to me…is that it's grounded in these familial, these every day issues that they have to deal with, at that time, and yet these extraordinary things occur.

Some of the best interplay, for me, is between Mary and Joseph and their discussions of, 'do we tell this kid? What do we do?' Mary [says] 'I'm not ready.' And that's pretty powerful and wonderful stuff, that they're actually tap dancing around the fact that the child may be who He is and who we believe He is. That's a pretty wonderful thing. It's done in a very deft and subtle way. And I think that's all due credit to Cy. He handled it really, really smartly. I'm hoping audiences will realize that. By the way, all audiences, I hope that they might embrace it and give it a look, and give it a chance.

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