Interview: Henry Jackman, Composer for “Turbo” and “This is the End”
Posted on June 25, 2013 at 8:00 am
It was an absolute delight to talk to British musician/composer Henry Jackman about his two very different assignments in creating musical scores for the comic end-of-the-world movie featuring the Judd Apatow crew, “This is the End,” and the adorable animated movie about a snail who races in NASCAR, “Turbo.” He brought the same commitment to both — to make a score that would showcase the excitement and tension of the storyline, to provide both foundation and counterpoint to the comedy.
How do you create the right tone for a comedy about the end of the world with a meta-narrative that has the co-writer/director and his actor friends playing versions of themselves?
The interesting thing from the film composer perspective is that it was a really unique invitation — as soon as I heard about it I wanted to get involved straight away. Often comedies from a score perspective are not necessarily an invitation to write an epic score. It’s a dangerous concept but they pull it off — self-referential without being pretentious. And the hidden ingredient is the Biblical rapture, the apocalypse that is going on at the same time. And not goofy sinkholes and goofy monsters. It’s like a Roland Emmerich thing. It ends! So we figured out very quickly that I needed to write a full-on rapture theme like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” or “The Omen,” with demonic possession. I told Seth Rogen that my reference should be Jerry Goldsmith in “The Omen” or “The Exorcist” and commit.
One of the quickest ways to ruin this film would be a goofy comedy music. I had to support the apocalypse, this big melodramatic rapture symphonic theme, no holds barred, huge choir, massive orchestra. I was thinking about “Ghostbusters.” It has all this fun stuff, the Ray Parker, Jr. song, but when it comes to the score, Sigourney Weaver being possessed, that’s actually a really high-brow, mystical sounding score from Elmer Bernstein. It elevates the film. If you back off a bit and say, “Well, it’s a comedy. It’s not really the apocalypse,” it would be a huge mistake. It makes the comedy more comedic if every time you get a shot of the burning ruins of LA and the huge sinkhole, it should be no different from a horror film. I’d meet with Seth and Evan every week and those meetings were great. The guys were extremely focused. Because they know each other very well, and have worked with the music editor on a bunch of films, they knew their angle, they knew their shtick, and they were really productive. On top of that, they’re actually hilarious guys in real life. I can’t remember a music meeting being that fun.
Sometimes you can get some dissonance between a producer and an editor or a producer and a director, but these guys have been working together for so long and have such a partnership that it was like working with a band.
So, tell me about “Turbo.”
It’s about a snail who wants to race, which of course is preposterous, and in that respect had a story arc similar to “Babe,” and movies like that. What’s great about it is to get that story arc from A to B it has the classic superhero transformational moment at the end of Act One, like the spider-bite for Spider Man. I don’t want to give too much away, but he has a physical experience which forever transforms him. Even that part of the movie is like a superhero movie. The camera goes inside his body and you see all the platelets and the DNA helixes twisting and morphing into like a turbo creature. Later on he hooks up with a snail posse, heralded by Samuel L. Jackson and one of the other characters is played by Snoop Dogg. And since we had Snoop Dogg, we had him to a song for the end credits.
Animated films take a very long time. Have you been involved for three or four years?
There isn’t a lot of difference in how long you spend on an animated or live action film as a composer. The difference is how much longer you are aware of it. “Turbo” started three or four years ago. With “This is the End,” the first time I got involved I got to see a rough cut of the whole film. With “Turbo,” I met with the director in this big idea room with storyboards everywhere and he basically walked me through the movie, basically outlined the whole film. So by the end of the day, even though I’d only seen a few minutes of actual footage, and even that was not completed, I had a really strong sense of the film. As a composer, the first thing you have to figure out is the themes and the character arcs. You don’t need all the color corrections and final touches. You can be starting to think about the story and the themes.
We needed a dreamer theme, a whole underdog, “Rocky” idea of someone who is dreaming of something completely outside his physical and psychological capability but he won’t let go. It’s aspirational. That’s more of a character theme. Then I had this whole racing theme. We came up with a theme for the snail posse. The director, David Soren, asked for a sort of “90’s hip-hop meets western Tarantino.” And I said, “Hell, yeah! We’ll put all those elements in the mix and see if something decent comes out the other end.” When we finished all the cues we called in this really great D.J. to do all the scratching.
And for the racing, you wanted something exciting.
The other great thing about it being racing was that I could incorporate elements other than orchestra. You’re going to need the orchestra for the story-telling. You can’t just have a rock track. But the racing elements also included dubstep stuff, electronic, a whole distorted drum kit going on, a whole lot of aggressive drums. There’s a whole lot of elements that are not symphonic. But you still need the symphonic elements even during the racing. There’s still a lot of story going on. There are moments of self-doubt and moments of inspiration, and the end is not what you expect. All of that requires story-telling effect. For racing you need the visceral, rhythmic aspect. But for the story and characters you need something else. And the real denouement of the film is not a racing moment but a character moment.
David’s directorial approach was so ruthlessly authentic — you could be tempted to think “oh, it’s just a racing story or a fantasy.” Even though there’s this amazing animation and exciting racing scenes, it’s really all about the story, and that’s what makes a movie satisfying. Because he’s got Dreamworks Animation, he has the best of both worlds, a great story and great animators. And the voice talent is awesome.
If you could go back in time to score any movie ever made, what would you pick?
Maybe “Bridge on the River Kwai,” or “Gandhi.” Or “Alien!” I’m not going to say “Star Wars,” because that’s sacred territory. It’s the reason so many people even care about film music.
What was the first film you scored?
The first full-feature film I did was “Monsters vs. Aliens.”
How is scoring for animated films different?
The rate at which story points are happening is more compressed. In a movie like “X-Men” you could have three minutes when the tone and the feeling and the psychology of the music could stay consistent for maybe two minutes. In an animated film, all sorts of things have happened storywise in that same three minutes so you have to be compositionally more flexible. Three minutes of animated score equals about ten in live-action in terms of the narrative demands. In an animated film you are inventing everything. In a movie like “Heat” there’s an eight minute conversation with just one idea, the hunter and the hunted, two sides of the same coin. It would need to be a abstract, invisible, out of the way, textural kind of a cue. But eight minutes in a movie like “Turbo,” things would have changed, things would have moved, all of which needs supporting in the score, which is allowed to be more demonstrative in its story-telling, where in live-action it can be more like wallpaper to not get in the way of a psychologically credible conversation between two characters.
What’s the best advice you ever got about composing a film score?
it was from Hans Zimmer. When I first met him, I was perhaps indulging myself and waffling on about the intricacies of music. He interrupted me and said, “Let me tell you something about film music. It’s not about can you write music. It’s about can you tell a story. All the composing and mechanics skills you have are important. But they are in the service of telling the story.”