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.”

 

 

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Interview: Composer Angelo Badalamenti of “A Late Quartet”

Posted on November 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Composer Angelo Badalamenti, who describes his music as bringing “beautiful sadness” to film, was kind enough to answer my questions about his work on “A Late Quartet,” the story of a classical string quartet starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Catherine Keener.

What are the special challenges of writing a score for a movie about music and musicians?

“A Late Quartet” was certainly a challenging opportunity as a composer. It’s a film about music and musicians, so we had classical music and on-screen performances to consider. Given that, the score needed to serve the drama in key moments, without clashing with the pre-existing music. You have to know where you’re coming from and where you’re going. It’s a challenge that I enjoy.

How does the score work with or contrast with the quartet’s performance pieces featured in the film?

The orchestra we recorded for the score is still quite classical so it doesn’t take you out of the mood of the film. We hear a chamber string ensemble with a woodwind quintet; and harp, classical guitar, etc.. The strings are like a blown-up string quartet with a more diffuse sound and the winds represent the souls of the characters. I also tried to incorporate some motifs that were inspired by the Opus 131. So, the score keeps us grounded within the world of music that the quartet members inhabit.

Does it make a difference in working on a film when the director, Yaron Zilberman, is also the writer?

It’s actually quite helpful. The insight that a writer has is special, and this understanding can be very productive in working with a composer. When we sit together and discuss where to place music (we call this “spotting”) the director may have very specific notes to give.

When you first met to talk about this film, what did you discuss about the mood and the goals for the score?

Yaron and I agreed that the score should emote passion and pain. The characters are beset with a series of hardships which are all very personal. We needed to feel this.

Of the directors and performers you’ve worked with, which one taught you the most?

David Lynch is a creative genius and a dear friend. I’ve learned more from him than any other single person in film, tv, or music. But it’s a great mutual relationship.

How have movie scores changed since you began working on them?

There’s less melody these days. I still write music with a beautiful sadness, and with a memorable theme at its heart. I think that’s a timeless approach.

What movie scores from the movies of the 40’s and 50’s do the best job of telling the story?

Laura is a fantastic score with a single, outstanding theme. Brilliant.

 

 

 

 

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Interview: Composer Alexandre Desplat

Posted on December 16, 2011 at 8:00 am

One of the most versatile and distinguished composers working in film is Alexandre Desplat, who composed the evocative music for “The Queen,” the two Harry Potter “Deathly Hallows” films, “Twilight: New Moon,” “The King’s Speech,” this week’s release, “Carnage,” and three of this year’s biggest films, “The Ides of March,” “Extremely Long and Incredibly Close,” and “The Tree of Life.” He generously took time to answer my questions:

Tom Hooper told me it was your idea to use the Beethoven for the climactic scene in “The King’s Speech.”  Can you tell me what made that music right for that scene?

It was my idea not to replace it! The editing was so perfectly shaped to the 7th Symphony and the dramaturgic build was so strong that I would never have improved it with my music. Always stay humble, especially in front of the Masters!

What is the first thing you look for when you read through a script to help you formulate your ideas about the score?

When I read a script, it is necessary that the story speaks to me on some level. If I feel this, then I know that it is a project that I am capable of writing for. But I am most inspired by the images, when the words come to life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ElrspWJTKY

You have worked on the biggest and most epic and special-effects-filled studio films and on smaller, more intimate, independent films.  Beyond the budgetary issues, what are the other differences in the way you approach the scores?

In fact, I approach them all in the same way. Granted, the music can be quite different, but my approach does not vary greatly between movies and I think there is continuity in my work. I take great pleasure in working on a variety of projects as it keeps me fresh. You will notice that I never write for the same type of film twice in a row.

What is the best way to introduce the audience to the world of the movie with the music?  Or what is a good example?

I think a newcomer cannot go wrong by listening to the greats of the film music world – John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Nina Rota, Georges Delerue, Maurice Jarre and Bernard Hermann. But also any type of scores, not only symphonic: Miles Davis’s score to “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud”, Angelo Badalamenti’s Straight life…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8in96kB48eE

How do you make sure that the music enhances the story without distracting from it?

There is a fine line in judging which emotional direction to go in and also how far to go. I rely on my instincts and search to add to the scene, rather than simply mimicking what is already there. I always seek for this mysterious “vibration” between the images and the music.

What score from another composer do you wish you had written?

Rota’s “Casanova,” Takemitsu’s “Ran,” John Williams’s “Incidental Tourist,” Herrmann’s “Taxi driver”…the list is long!

Which director taught you the most about how movies work?

Oh, there are so many that I have learnt from! I always dreamed of working with the masters. Stephen Frears was one. To me it was incredible when he called me to work with him on “The Queen,” as it was with Ang Lee, Roman Polanski or Terrence Malik. They are incredibly talented artists and each pushes me in new directions. I have just finished working on Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.”

What was the biggest challenge in working on “Extremely Loud?”

The story is an emotional one – a young boy coping with the death of his father, which in itself is very challenging to express and reflect upon. Sorrow can be rather inspiring when writing music. The fact that this is based around the 9/11 attacks pushed everything up a level, so writing the score was a very intense process.

What’s your next project?

I’m currently working on a Florent Emilio Siri film called “Clo Clo” – a biopic about Claude Francois, the composer of the song “My Way”, brought to international fame by Sinatra. I would like to strike a balance between my American and European projects. I have written for a Spanish movie, I’ve never made German movies. I’d love to explore these tracks. I’d love to do Japanese movies, because I love Japanese cinema. I’m a very multicultural person and I’m excited just talking about it. I’m excited about making movies with foreign directors, could it be Greek or Italian. I would love that.

 

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BDK interviews Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer

Posted on August 20, 2008 at 8:00 pm

Kevin McCarthy reviews films as “BDK” and hosts a weekly radio broadcast. Check out his interview of Hans Zimmer, whose score is one of the defining elements of the year’s biggest movie, The Dark Knight. Zimmer’s discussion of the development of the music for that film and others, including the Oscar-winning score of Gladiator is fascinating and highly entertaining as well.

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