Little Women: A 20th Anniversary Conversation with Thomas Newman and Gillian Armstrong

Little Women is one of those scores that just sounds like liquefied Christmas. You put it on and snow starts falling, the smell of pine and burning wood fill the room, and you’re suddenly transported to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord. The music tells its own story—about growing up, family bonds, painful losses and reunions, the passing of seasons and the unforgiving march of time—all set in the particular period of 19th century New England.

Australian director Gillian Armstrong made a name for herself with the aptly titled My Brilliant Career, the 1979 period drama starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill. When she was approached by a quartet of women developing a new adaptation of Alcott’s beloved novel for the screen—Amy Pascale (then a junior executive at MGM, and named after the book’s Amy), Denise Di Novi (Tim Burton’s go-to producer at the time), screenwriter Robin Swicord, and actress Winona Ryder—Armstrong was reluctant.

Gillian Armstrong 1994

“My initial reaction was completely negative,” she says. “My very first feature [My Brilliant Career] was about a young writer set in the past. I’d found that I was so quickly put in a box, that basically I was a ‘woman director who would do women’s films that were all period.’ I fought very hard to not be pushed into that box.”

Di Novi persuaded her that Little Women was a chance to tell a uniquely female story for a new generation, and the deal was sealed once Armstrong met with Ryder to discuss the project. “Casting, I think, is 70 percent of your film,” Armstrong says, “and music’s probably the other 30 percent. I had to feel that Winona could be Jo. Everything I’d seen of her work, she seemed to be more delicate—you know, she played the mysterious, fawn-type character. But when I met her, I realized she had a much greater range as a human being. She was bright and smart and funny and passionate.”

For the next six months, Armstrong finessed the script with Swicord. “I re-read the book,” she says, “which I hadn’t read since I was a child. I said, ‘There’s got to be a reason why people are still reading this book.’ And I realized that it was incredibly contemporary. It actually broke with the whole thing of romantic children’s stories, because [Alcott] wrote about these young girls in a way that was very real. It was quite observational. They weren’t nice to each other, and they weren’t sweet all the time, and they had fights, and they were jealous of each other and did mean things. I realized: that’s the heart of it. That’s why this story is still being enjoyed. She wrote truthfully about human beings.”

Armstrong cast her other little women—Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst—and filled out the ensemble with Susan Sarandon as Marmie, Christian Bale as the boy next door, and Gabriel Byrne as Jo’s eventual suitor. She shot the film in Vancouver with her trusty cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, who gave the picture a cozy warmth, and the cast just gelled. “It was one of those lucky things,” says Armstrong. “You can’t really force people to like each other and become friends. Little Women Jo and BehrBut they did. I know Winona was quite a mentor to Claire Danes, who was a few years younger.”

After screening a rough cut for MGM executives, Armstrong was given extra money to shoot autumnal and wintry exteriors in Connecticut to really sell the changing of the seasons. (They also increased her music budget).

“I’ve got to say that my most triumphant moment as a filmmaker was when we screened the film at the studio for all the executives—and they were all male, except for Amy [Pascale],” says Armstrong. “When the lights came on, all the men were wiping away tears.”

For the final emotional and tonal “30 percent,” Armstrong looked to composer Thomas Newman. Newman had gradually, quietly emerged from his famous father (Alfred’s) shadow to establish a quirky and distinctive musical voice that wed electronics and small instrumental ensembles. Armstrong was motivated by Newman’s 1991 score for Fried Green Tomatoes, she says, “because the challenge was this: I’ve got this huge emotional story, and I wanted someone who would be able to reinforce that emotion, but be very delicate with it, and very tasteful. I didn’t want a corny, over-the-top soundtrack. And I thought that, in Fried Green Tomatoes, he managed to pull that off. There was a lightness as well, and I could see that he could do humor as well as the emotional stuff without it being corny or sentimental. And that’s really tough.”

Thomas Newman old

1994 was “kind of the beginning of me, in a way,” says Newman. He wrote what many would consider his defining composition—the imprisoned-turned-triumphant score for The Shawshank Redemption—earlier in the year. And Little Women, which has also endured as one of his masterpieces, marked his first time writing for full orchestra without electronics and recording at Abbey Road with the London Symphony Orchestra. (“It was all very intimidating to me at the time,” Newman says. He felt like he was leaving his “bag of tricks” at home.)

Newman flew to Australia to watch a rough cut with Armstrong and her editor Nicholas Beauman, then came back to Los Angeles to begin writing. “I was apprehensive, I guess, because up to that point I really hadn’t done full orchestral scores,” he says. “I mean, I had done Shawshank, but that had a fair amount of electronics and small ensemble players, and time to try things out and experiment—which was a style, a process of working I’d gotten good at and working on for maybe a decade.

“I knew it was going to be one of these things where I would be sketching a lot of orchestral music, Tom would be orchestrating it [Thomas Pasatieri was Newman’s right-hand orchestrator since the 1987 film Less Than Zero)], we’d end up in London with a group of players that were great but who I didn’t know, and I’d be on the podium with these people. I remember thinking, was I going to have to speak in ‘semi-quavers and quavers’ as opposed to eighth notes and quarter notes, and stuff like that. It was a challenge, and I don’t think there was a lot of time either, so it really tested me.”

Newman’s composing method at the time, which remained constant all the way through his final film with Pasatieri (2008’s WALL-E), began with sketching ideas using pencil and paper. “Then he would give me the sketch, a piano sketch, and I would orchestrate that,” says Pasatieri. “After a while, we knew each other so well that we didn’t have to really talk very much because we knew what we were gonna do.”

Thomas Pasatieri

For a composer working in the early ’90s, and one who actively used MIDI samples for mockups and incorporated electronics into his scores, it seems almost anachronistic for Newman to have done his full sketches on staff paper. “He didn’t have to,” says Pasatieri. “But he always felt he was really getting in touch with his own music by putting it by hand.”

“I don’t anymore,” admits Newman, “and I can’t quite figure out why—other than, you know, as the speed of computers has just skyrocketed, so have the needs of people. It’s kind of tragic, because it was a way of checking harmony, and really getting to know the music, just to be able to look at it as I notated it and tried to interpret it in my own way from my computer mockups. Tom would come over and we’d talk about it, and he would orchestrate all by hand. When he stopped [Pasatieri retired after WALL-E], that process seemed to stop too.”

Continued in Part II.