Writing Tips from Toy Story’s Randy Newman
TOY STORY HAS A FRIEND IN ME
This is the 100% true story of my accidental contribution to a classic
Destiny plays a big part.
I didn’t appreciate this at the time, as I was new to Hollywood, but Toy Story would turn out to be one of the most successful films I’d ever have a credit on. And, wow, was my credit amazing! :)
I was Randy Newman’s assistant and we were at Sony Studios in Culver City (the old MGM lot) where he was leading a 500 piece live orchestra in performing the score and songs for Toy Story.
We didn’t call it Toy Story 1 at the time because nobody knew that it would launch a franchise (and Pixar!)
Randy is a talented and kind genius. If he’s your hero, you don’t have to avoid meeting him (you know how they say never meet your heroes…), he’s the real deal.
I thought back on the time and recalled some of the advice and insights he shared. One of the coolest things was when he subliminally asked me for help with a word in “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. Before I delve into this, let me share some other moments we had.
Soon, you too will have a friend in Randy.
Does my forehead look big? Randy asked me.
It feels huge, like it’s growing. Are you sure?
Looks the same.
I started taking zinc. I think it’s increasing the blood flow to my frontal lobe. At least I hope it is.
Looks the same as ever.
Did you know I once went to an eyebrow doctor?
I did not.
It was a referral from an eye doctor. I had issues seeing certain notes when I’d write them — B-Flat mostly — I cannot for the life of me see a B-Flat. I thought it was a vision thing. Turns out it was a zinc thing. Eyebrows are the first place where the body reveals zinc deficiencies. Who knew?
Everyone should have a favorite poet. Favorite songwriter, lyricist, composer, but if you’re not a musician, it’s poetry. And a painter. A composer of images. Who’s your favorite poet?
I wanted to say Walt Whitman even though I had never read anything by him. I wanted to say Shakespeare but felt that would be pretty unoriginal. I didn’t really have a true favorite. I said T. S. Eliot. The Waste Land.
Okay, you’re an idiot. Go home and read some books. Here’s what I’m trying to tell you. What resonates for you? What is sublime for you? When you hear something or read something that feels like it’s coming from your soul, don’t just appreciate it, dig into it. Find out about it, listen to everything that’s come before and after by this artist, read everything, understand the journey that created this work of art, of music, of poetry, of whatever, and this is how you tap into your own journey, your own power. When something speaks to you, widen the conversation. Discovering artists who awaken things inside you is discovering yourself. Learning as much about them and their work that you can is like a self-therapy. And a beautiful kind. It’s healing in a way. You may not get answers about yourself, but you’ll have a sense of connectedness. Belonging.
The best advice I have for a writer, for any artist really, is to bite your ideas, Randy said.
I tilted my head like a confused dog hearing an unfamiliar sound.
Let’s say you’re the kind of person who doesn’t bite their nails.
But one day, in a moment of stress, you do. You let one that needs to be trimmed get near your teeth and you nibble it. Then, you tear it a bit and you peel off a little sliver. As opposed to a big sliver. Slivers are small, that’s my point. Well, my point, my bigger point is that now you have a raw edge to your nail. Let’s say it’s your thumb. It’s ugly, but nobody’s looking at your thumb.
He hid his hands behind his back.
Have you looked at my thumbs today?
See. So, in a couple days it grows back.
He moved his hands back to where I could see them. His nails were fine as far as I could tell. It’s hard to evaluate someone’s nails unless they hold still and put them on display for you, but anyway —
I take biotin along with zinc. It helps with the hair and nails. Zinc for the eyebrow hair. I sound crazy.
Not at all.
What I’m saying is this: Any idea you have, if you don’t bite it, how do you know if it’s any good, if it has any resiliency? Bite your ideas.
My idea is when I do bite off a sliver of nail, is to use it as kind of a toothpick to get the food stuck from between my teeth.
The space was huge, one of the biggest studios on the old Culver Studios lot. 500 musicians, their instruments, the chairs, the stands, the cables, the recording equipment, the trash bins.
The moments before Randy began conducting, it was silent. Pure silence in such a massive space. Then, an eruption of glorious sound.
This was the first time ever that these now famous song recordings were being heard by anyone. Even Randy. The notes on paper had come alive.
The scoring was not being done “to picture” as the animation wasn’t done yet, and would be finished to the score in some cases. This was purely symphonic.
We have over 500 musicians, each of them with at least 10 years experience. That’s five thousand years of skill you just heard coming through and creating those sounds. That’s a moment I live for.
The Last Word
Randy didn’t like how a particular phrase from “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” was working with the music. It wasn’t sitting properly.
He had a line that went: “You and I are meant to be”. Perfectly fine. It rhymed with “You’ve got a friend in me” which was the pattern needed for the lyrics. But, it was a syllable short, or two syllables short, the way Randy recorded it.
Do you believe in destiny, I asked him as he worked and I set down a coffee for him.
Leave me alone he said. Do I need to remind you there are 500 musicians waiting for me to sort this out?
Can’t you record with placeholder lyrics and fix it later?
They are playing to my singing for this one. A single syllable makes a difference.
We spend all this time, countless hours and effort finding the precise and perfect word for each position in a musical phrase, a lyric, and at the end of the day, people hear what they want to hear and mostly don’t hear anything but the song, you know the full bodied finality of it. It’s never made or unmade by a word.
Then who cares?
But, this is the last word in the song. It’s gotta land.
So you’re saying they’ll remember this one?
What did you ask me a minute ago?
Do you believe in fate.
No, you used a different word.
I don’t remember.
You asked if I believe in destiny, he said.
Right. I was thinking how it’s destiny that we met. That maybe it will lead to a lifelong friendship. All because you like how I make your coffee.
Do you think kids grasp the concept of destiny? he asked.
I was having none of it, his little philosophical flight of fancy. Instead, I asked, Why not use the word “stylin’.” — all the cool kids are saying it these days.
He smiled at me and said What?
And I said, the lyric: “You and me are stylin’.”
And then he said something that has always stuck with me. He said, “Son, go see if the third trombone needs anything to drink. He’s sounding a bit flat.”
Then he bellowed: “You’re gonna see it’s our destiny.”
Fine, I’ll bring the trombone guy water.
No, it’s our word, the last word before the final chorus, it fits. It’s destiny!
- And as the years go by
- Our friendship will never die
- You’re gonna see it’s our destiny
- You’ve got a friend in me
- You’ve got a friend in me
- You’ve got a friend in me
Songwriters: Newman Randall S
You’ve Got a Friend in Me lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company
About the author
Stuff from 25+ years in Hollywood trenches. Also producing stand-up comedy tours, mostly in the Middle East and Asia with comedians from LA and NYC (for the most part) bridging cultures through laughter. They say I'm a dreamer…
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
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