One of the reasons I wanted to do this film was the opportunity to write an almost-classic score. I love electronic, but I really saw this as the kind of opportunity that does not come up too much, to do a hugely thematic traditional orchestral score. This is exactly the sort of movie where theme and virtuoso orchestration and a big symphonic orchestra is to be celebrated all the way and not dumbed down at all. He’s very comfortable with that and it turned out we had the same idea. It’s slightly more modern, but the classic adventure film lineage is there and to be celebrated. It’s a heartwarming film about four misfit teenagers in these avatar bodies going on an epic adventure being chased by rhinos and panthers. If you can’t pull a big symphonic score out of the cupboard for that, when are you ever going to do it?
Middleburg Film Festival: Salute to Composer Henry Jackman
Posted on October 24, 2016 at 9:14 pm
The Middleburg Film Festival had an outstanding line-up of films, many with filmmakers present to answer questions. But unquestionably the highlight of the festival was the concert tribute to composer Henry Jackman. Middleburg is unique in its annual recognition of film scores with its Distinguished Film Composer award, and they do it right. The Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of maestro Jan Wagner, performed the world premiere of suites from films scored by Jackman. The finale included the Freedom Choir singing with the orchestra the haunting score from “The Birth of a Nation.” Hearing the music without the sound effects and dialogue demonstrated powerfully how essential the score is to establishing the mood, direction, and character of the story.
In between clips from Jackman-scored films that ranged from “Monsters vs. Aliens” to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and Seth Rogen’s “The Interview,” Jackman spoke with Middleburg Film Festival Advisory Board member John Horn about the “weird and nasty noises” he includes in some of his compositions. He said that the first film that made him think about the contribution made by the music was, of all things, “Predator.” He was still in school, studying music, and was captivated to hear that the “Predator” score was “very harmonically sophisticated music with tritone chord changes.” He laughed that years later, when he told composer Alan Silvestri how much that music had inspired him, Silvestri responded, “I didn’t even try with that one!”
Despite the fact that his music teacher told him that “Film music isn’t real music, dear boy,” he decided to pursue it.
He said that one advantage to working on animated films is the longer lead time. He often has a couple of years with updates on storyboards and character designs, while with live-action features, he hopes for as much as three months. He is happy when the director has a sophisticated understanding of music (Edward Zwick impressed him by asking whether “the da capo should start here”), what he really appreciates is a director who will be clear about the mood and story. He is glad to have direction with terms like “stress, kinetic, and narrative.” He emphasized more than once that a film composer has to understand story as well as music.
A composer can help a movie’s problems, but can’t fix them, he told us. “Music can sneak you past things” and “when characters are off the screen you can add some narrative.” He said that Hans Zimmer told director Ron Howard that he could convey all of the dense historical background for “The Da Vinci Code” by writing music that “will make the audience feel devastated and know that what happened was really unfair,” and that would be enough.
He talked about working in different genres and with different directors. Paul Greengrass like “ruthless realism.” But in a movie like “Puss in Boots,” there is “no point in trying to be subtle. It’s not often you get to see an egg sword fight with a cat.” And for the provocative satire, ‘The Interview,” instead of going for the comedy, he created a big, pompous classical score, “something Kim Jong-un might approve.” And for “The Birth of a Nation,” he asked “Why wouldn’t Nat Turner get the same compositional and orchestral accompaniment” that Mel Gibson had in “Braveheart?”
He said that matching the score to the film can be “chess-like problem-solving.” The festival’s award, then, was the equivalent of designating him a grand master.
Interview: Henry Jackman, Composer for “Captain America: Civil War”
Posted on May 17, 2016 at 3:37 pm
Henry Jackman is one of Hollywood’s most popular composers, writing scores for films of all kinds, from action films to period dramas to family films, including: “Captain Phillips,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Puss In Boots,” “Kick Ass,” “Turbo,” “This is the End,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,” “Man On A Ledge,” “Winnie The Pooh,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I asked the Russo brothers, who worked with him on “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War,” what they liked about his music, and they said that his background studying literature gives him a unique understanding of the way music shapes narrative. I always enjoy talking to him.
It’s unusual to hear directors praise a composer for understanding narrative.
It’s an interesting remark and it’s something I thought about actually. Sometimes you’ll get asked for the secret of trying to make your way into film music. The question might be to do with technology like what the best software or it could be like what composers to study. What musical background should I have? What orchestration should I be aware of? And the funny thing is, it is true especially in 2016 in order to be a successful or at least a diverse composer you really have to have a pretty decent command of the electronics music, electronic symphonic music, the orchestra. I would say you would want to know must composers from Thomas Tallis right through to john Adams and if you really want to be diverse you should want to know a lot about pop music and rock music and electronic and God knows what else. But that is only 50 percent of it.
I think the point the Russos were making is that I’ve only retroactively appreciated one of the secret weapons with my literary criticism classes. I had an extremely disciplined and intellectually demanding tutor at school. Funnily enough it turns out that you can have a selection of people who are all fantastic at writing music, the act of writing interesting or creative music. But the secret to filming is that you are presented with a story and so you have to deconstruct the story and understand the story and figure it all out. There is a surface of the story and then there is subtext of the story and there is the structure of the narrative. How’s it working? Where’s the exposition? Where’s the motivation? Where’s the recapitulation. Where does act two begin? Where does act three begin? What’s the dynamic shape of character arcs. All these things are actually almost literary structural thoughts. It’s the sort of thing you did if you were at college and you were reading “The Crucible” and instead of just enjoying it you are sitting around talking about how you would put it together. If you are reading a novel not for enjoyment but in a literary criticism class it’s like taking apart a Swiss watch so you’re not just looking at the time you actually know how the cogs are put together to produce the time. Sometimes it can be very frustrating to a director to get the score and have to say, “It’s not that I don’t like the music. It’s that it’s not helping or enhancing the story. You’re missing the point of what supposed to be happening at this moment in the movie.”
Obviously music should be as well written as humanly possible but not only should it be well written music it should be music whose purpose fully understands the significance story-wise of what’s happening and act as something to enhance the story. When you do that the whole music experience suddenly goes up a gear. It is totally possible to write outstanding music that doesn’t help the film in the slightest, in fact it can even harm it and still be a fantastic piece of music but it’s not paying any attention because it’s wrapped up in itself instead of understanding the mechanics of the scene or indeed how that scene plays into other scenes and how you can even help the filmmakers enhance parts of the story that might not even be finished on screen and that you can complete with music.
That must be a challenge in a film like this where there are so many different characters, many of them with their own movies and memorable themes. I was thinking it might end up like “Peter and the Wolf.”
One of the quickest way to dissipate and dissolve this movie into an endless and unhelpful fabric of constantly different things would be that approach. But in fact, going back to my literary criticism point, if you really break the movie down even though on the surface we have loads of superheroes so what you don’t want to do every time you see one you get a different theme for each one because that’s not what the story’s about. What the story’s about is that extremely powerful entities who have the capability to cause collateral damage to the scale of thousands of dead people who ought to be answerable some sort of institution and the proposal that was put on the table splits the team right down the middle. It’s “Captain America: Civil War.” So the movie is about the big argument. Funnily enough, it turns out one of the most useful theme in the movie was the Civil War theme which does not pertain to a specific character but is a narrative theme toward which all the characters can gravitate. It wrapped them all up and it helped to bind the movie together rather than do endless disparate themes. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a Captain America theme in there, or a Spider-Man theme, or a Black Panther theme where appropriate but there’s a bigger story going on, the major conflict within the two teams of superheroes. And so you find with music you can help the directors bind things together narratively. It turns out that Civil War theme was actually very useful for that purpose.
It’s great in terms of visual spectacle. I know the fan boys and girls can go crazy about what happens when this character hits that one and the vibranium is hitting, all that kind of stuff. But on a deeper level what the film is about is consequences. Tony Stark he believes it’s not such a bad idea to have some oversight. He’s wracked with guilt and he’s questioning his relationships. It’s a tricky one. You can invent all sorts of amazing technologies but you can’t quite control who’s using them and what sort of damage and how many lives might have been lost as a result of your very clever technology and all the characters they are dealing with consequences. And we ended up having quite an intense philosophical discussion when I was working on the movie with the Russos because one of the reasons the movie is good is a genuine disagreement about that issue; it’s a genuine argument. I know it’s a Captain America film so people might feel inclined to side with him immediately but it’s a decent argument because there aren’t many structures in the world that can cause that much damage that have absolutely no accountability. It’s actually not a bad argument to go, “Well, maybe there should be.” But simultaneously it’s not a bad argument that Cap has, that his moral compass is so sound he will always rely on his version of what is the right thing to do and that some sort of structure even if it’s the UN and even if it contain the opinion of the entire global community is not be as good as his own internal compass because it will get bogged down in agendas and bureaucracy, which is true. Sometimes the UN is great but sometimes the UN takes about five months to decide whether to use the word “genocide” in a document because if they do they’ll actually have to go into a country and do something. So there’s lot of bureaucratic politics about even using a certain words because it means they’ll actually have to do something which could be controversial. But you can also say to Captain America, “You’re saying you are incapable of error and that you’re never going to make a wrong call.” So you don’t want to play all the different character themes. You want to keep the focus on having to cross the line or stay the other side of the line and it had consequences and it had musical consequences in the score which was the prevalence of that Civil War theme. If you take Captain America’s heroic theme for everything you’ll be telling the audience, “You don’t really need to watch the film because Cap’s right from the beginning and this whole augment doesn’t even mean anything.”
There’s a lot of action in the movie, of course. How do you work with the sound guys to decide what’s louder, the sound effects or the score?
By shouting a lot at the dub staging saying the music is not loud enough. No, it starts off as our own civil war and ends up in harmony. I mean fortunately because I had so long to work on it there are a lot of the cues written in demo form and the sound guys already had them so there could already be a strategy. There’s a lot of “Ok, the scene really kicks in here, so maybe we can find holes in places,” and it’s a balance. You get to the dub stage to do the final audio mix and when the sound effect guy been in there all day the music guy is going, “Wait a minute, you got to get some of the music too,” and when the music guys finish their part, it’s their turn to say, “Wait a minute….” And you get there in the end. It reminds me of parliamentary politics. As long as you have a healthy opposition by time they finish arguing it out you’re just about in the right place. If I were in charge of all of the audio for the film I may very well miss some very important sound effects cause I’m too focused on music and it’s the same with the sound effect guys only vice versa. So you sort of put us all in the room and at the end of it you’ll have everyone’s interest defended to the very last.
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.”