Putting Music to Picture: A Conversation with Composer Julia Newman

Posted in News on February 8, 2024
Photo: Larry Mah

BMI is excited to catch up with a new voice in screen scoring, Julia Newman – the composer of the highly anticipated FX series Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans. Coming from a long lineage of composers, including her father Thomas Newman and legendary grandfather Alfred Newman, music was always part of her life and a passion she pursued, earning her master’s degree at USC’s prestigious Screen Scoring Program.

After scoring several short films, documentaries, games, web series and feature films like 2022’s At the Gates, Julia was brought on to score the second installment of Ryan Murphy’s award-winning anthology series Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans. With episodes directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant, and featuring a star-studded cast including Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Calista Flockhart, Chloe Sevigny, Demi Moore, and Molly Ringwald, the series marks a first-time father daughter collaboration for TV music with Thomas composing the main title theme.

Streaming now on Hulu, the series premiered on January 31 to rave reviews. Vanity Fair called Julia’s score “probably the great aesthetic attribute of the series, strains of music that lilt and curl around the characters as they tumble through the years.”

BMI spoke with Julia about the series, her creative process, and what’s up next. Here’s what she had to say:

Tell us about your collaboration with your father, Thomas Newman, and the executive producer, Alexis Martin Woodall, when you were asked to be involved with this project?

I don’t think any of us knew exactly what to expect or what the nature of the collaboration would be until we began. It’s one thing to have an idea of how to collaborate, but another thing entirely to establish working creative relationships in practice. I had started working for my Dad since finishing graduate school at USC, albeit in an assistantship capacity, but during that period, I adopted his methods of organization and presentation, which I found fundamental in helping to establish my creative relationship with Alexis Martin Woodall. How we share ideas may be just as important as the ideas we share. My Dad taught me how to stay flexible and easy when presenting, not just in attitude, but through an actionable approach. I think it was through this that I was able to earn Alexis’ trust creatively and everything really took off from there.

Your father composed the show’s main title theme, and you scored the eight episodes. Tell us about your process and how you incorporated that theme into your overall score?

We allowed the score and the Main Title theme to remain distinct, but of the same world. The Main Title theme acts as a refreshment without abandoning the sonic vocabulary expressed in the rest of the series.

What was your creative approach to this project – a period-specific drama about characters from New York’s high society. What were the most fundamental elements of the story you were concerned with conveying?

The story spans from 1955 through 1984 and I think that was my first hint not to get bogged down by the specifics of the period and instead focus more on character and the broader dramatic arc of the series. I needed to evoke a feeling of elegant refinement that plummets into darkness and underlines the turbulent relations of the Swans and Truman Capote. This story, at its core, is a human one and I hoped the music could aid in bringing that humanness to the fore. I wanted to cry out at the sting of betrayal and feel the lump in my throat as I remembered a good friend lost, so in creating the score, I also tried to be the audience and tap into collective feeling.

You come from a rich heritage of film composers; tell us a bit about your creative journey into film scoring.

My journey into film scoring was serendipitous after spending an afternoon at a friend’s apartment where she labelled me a composer and recommended that I score her roommate’s film. I had no idea the journey I would embark on as a result of simply saying yes.

When you grow up watching your Dad conduct orchestras and spend long hours writing, it gives you a sense of the hugeness and mystery of putting music to picture. Everything changes or can change with music and that I always found interesting. As I transitioned from being an observer into a composer, interest morphed into delight and there emerged a love of process taught to me by my Dad.

What advice would you share with aspiring composers looking to break into this business?

Stay creatively flexible. The fewer ideas I have, the more defensively I guard them, so have lots of ideas and be deliberate about how you share them.

What’s next for you?

I’m thrilled to be continuing my relationship with Ryan Murphy and Alexis Martin Woodall on American Horror Stories.


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