British composer Henry Jackman is one of Hollywood’s hottest composers. He recently created the exciting score for the Marvel thriller, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which continues the adventures of Steve Rogers aka Captain America who’s now finding his place in the modern world. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the film brings the timeless character into the present day and is a much more contemporary and grounded superhero story this time around. Jackman received a BAFTA nomination this year for his critically acclaimed score for Captain Phillips, and his past credits include X-Men: First Class, Wreck-It Ralph, G.I. Joe Retaliation, and This Is the End.
In an exclusive interview, Jackman talked about his collaborative process with the Russo brothers, how he crafted the sound for the main themes for Cap, Winter Soldier and Hydra, the single note he received from Marvel CEO Kevin Feige, what it’s been like working with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on their upcoming comedy The Interview, what he’s heard recently about the Wreck-It Ralph sequel, how his process changes from live-action to animation, how his roots helped develop him artistically, his musical inspirations, his invaluable apprenticeship with Hans Zimmer, and the art of scoring music to picture and telling a story that images alone cannot. Check out the full Henry Jackman interview after the jump.
HENRY JACKMAN: It’s funny. It’s one of those things where if people just listen to the CD, they have an image of Captain America in their head understandably as a figure of tradition and one would associate it with classic symphonic Americana. Alan Silvestri did a great score on the first one which was more of a period film. If you haven’t seen the film and you just listened to the CD, you’d be thinking, “What the hell is going on?” When you listen to something like the Winter Soldier, it’s a long, long way [from a traditional symphonic score]. I love writing symphonically involved music and I do a lot of animation. It was just a key thing when you said having seen the film that the music worked with the film. The process for this film was really embracing and understanding that Joe and Anthony Russo had taken probably the most traditional superhero that we can think of, with the possible exception of Superman, but I would argue that Captain America even more is a symbol of 1950s American patriotism, and they’ve grabbed hold of it and reinvented it by contextualizing the film in the modern era and putting Captain America in a politically ambiguous environment and against an adversary who’s completely brutal as a soldier.
He owes a little bit to and is almost a cross between RoboCop and Terminator. So, process-wise, it was embracing. Had it been another period film, I would have fully engaged in a traditional symphonic score and that would have been fantastic. However, for this film, nothing would have been more inappropriate because of the nature of the film. If you’ve seen the film, some of those action sequences are serious. I mean, there’s something incredibly contemporary about the film. Even though Captain America still has a basic set of superhero values that reach back all the way to the traditional Captain America that we all know, particularly in the third act of the film that emerges, it’s actually a realistic, contemporary film that avoids a lot of fantasy and there’s very little nostalgia. It’s a lot more contemporary. It’s almost closer to a Dark Knight aesthetic than it is a Richard Donner traditional Superman film, and that gets reflected in the music. For example, the arch villain Winter Soldier is incredibly unorchestral and is very brutal, very electronic, very deliberately harsh, unrelenting and mechanized. That may come as a shock to people.
In Captain America, in the previous movie, the arch villain is Red Skull and has Wagnerian symphonic baddie music, and Captain America is always scored traditionally. And this is just a very, very different movie. But I think it’s a fantastic idea. What they did with the franchise of Captain America shows that you don’t have to keep that character as a nostalgic idea. The character has enough depth and strength to bring it into the contemporary era and make it seem relevant. And judging by Rotten Tomatoes, other people are thinking that because they’re giving the movie 94 percent.
When you’re scoring a large scale action movie like this, how do you balance the energy of the visual effects that we see up on the screen with the humanity of the characters and their story?
JACKMAN: It’s completely dependent on the film. Imagine if Captain America, the second installment, had been set in the 1950s and been anti-communist and against the totalitarian Russians. The score might have sounded like a semi-Shostakovich (Dimitri Shostakovich) rip-off. But it being set how it is, they had fun with it. Towards the beginning of the movie, he’s a fish out of water. He doesn’t know what the internet is. He’s never seen an iPod. He’s missed out on all popular culture from the ‘60s onward, and because there’s an enormous amount of action in the film, it’s super important to support that. You can’t ignore that. It has to be very visceral. However, I would argue that in the third act – I can’t give away too much about the story – Cap is understandably reticent. The movie to me almost has a sort of military-industrial complex touch about it, reminiscent of that famous speech that Eisenhower gave the American nation as he stepped down from being President. Beware the danger of having so much military technology, that even with good intentions, you can start making wayward decisions and before you know where you are you’ve accidentally created a fascist state. He’s stuck in the middle of that uncomfortable knowing, because being Captain America, he’s got these basic values which may sound corny, but that have to do with the nobler side of American politics, which is to be the land of the free and he’s supposed to be the sentinel of liberty.
So, when he finds his own government doing things that are questionable, it creates a tension. What that means is musically speaking there is an opportunity in the third act when Cap seizes the reins of the film a bit, and people start realizing it was worth listening to his warnings, and his values are the ones worth listening to, and there is a real danger. It means that the more melodic, the more lyrical, the more thematic element can start to come through more. In the first two acts of the film, he’s on the run in a cross between a political thriller and an action film, which means that the music isn’t going to be super rock and sound like John Williams’ Superman film. He’s confused and a bit lost, and he doesn’t know where he stands, and he doesn’t know who to trust. Now when you get to the third act, that changes a bit and he seizes the reins, and that gets reflected musically as he starts to feel his theme come through more. It’s an interesting balance, but the critical part of it is to respect and observe what the film is doing and not superimpose. If I’d covered the first two acts of the film with Captain America’s superhero music, it would go completely against what’s happening in the film.
JACKMAN: Well, I was really lucky. It totally depends on director to director. Some directors are comfortable with music. Some feel comfortable discussing and talking and operating in a musical language. Others don’t engage so much. The great thing about Joe and Anthony is they know enough about it. We had a long discussion about pretty much exactly what we were talking about, which is that it is a contemporary film, but we somehow have to hold onto the DNA of a superhero while plunging him into the modern era. Luckily for me, they trusted me enough to go, “Well you go away and think about that and just do your thing.” So, I wrote three pieces of music away from picture, not even to picture – one for Hydra, one for Captain America, and one for Winter Soldier. And I went, “Guys, come down and I’ll play you three pieces of music. They‘re pretty radical. Let’s see. You may like them and you may not. Let’s just use that as a starting point.” They came down and they really liked the direction of it. They were very engaged after they heard those ideas and liked them. We would hang out once a week, play music, play cues, check everything to picture, and they were super engaged and they were really able.
Some people feel like you need to have a very specialized understanding of music to have the authority to talk about it. They are such good directors that it’s perfectly possible to have conceptual and directorial and storytelling conversations about music without needing to know all the technical pieces. That’s my problem, not their problem. We had a very productive relationship where they would listen to music and say what they liked and what they didn’t like, especially with spotting and should we hold off until such and such a moment before the action kicks in. It’s a myth that you need to understand all the ins and outs of music. The ideal scenario is you have a conceptual, directorial conversation about what you’re trying to achieve in a theme and then trust your composer to go ahead and do that.
JACKMAN: Not really. Kevin [Feige] is great. Kevin is one of those guys who when he needs to step in, he will step in, and when he steps in, there’s almost nothing that comes out of his mouth that shouldn’t be executed. The guy isn’t CEO of Marvel having made all those successful films by accident. It’s really a team. It’s him and Victoria [Alonso] and Louis [D’Esposito]. They really know what they’re doing. Now, in this case, I think it was already a pretty visionary movie. It’s not the most obvious move to hire Anthony and Joe to do this movie, so they were already doing something by getting those guys involved. I can’t speak for their relationship. I’m sure Anthony and Joe and Kevin were in constant conversation, but he is a good enough CEO to respect his directors. He had confidence in them, and once he started seeing what they were doing with the movie, he had evidence of having confidence in them and liked the direction of the film, so that he let them do what they wanted to do as it were and that included me and the music.
No doubt if there was something he was really unhappy with in a big, broad brushstroke sense, he’d have no hesitation in stepping in and saying something. There wasn’t a lot of that because he basically liked the film and trusted his directors with whom I’m sure he was in constant communication. I played Kevin the Captain America suite and he was like, “Look, this is great.” I think the one note he gave me was he said, “I understand we’re really remixing the Captain America concept. The only thing I would say is where we can, in those moments that are emotional or historical or nostalgic, we should not hesitate to embrace them.” For instance, when Cap goes to the Smithsonian and there’s this nostalgic flashback, the music is more what you’d expect in a traditional symphonic, almost Aaron Copland-influenced type, a different sort of symphonic style, and when there are emotional beats, those are celebrated. Because you know there’s going to be an awful lot of crazy music when Cap’s having a five-minute fight with Winter Soldier. That’s not going to be the time for things to sound like Superman.
JACKMAN: Well probably all three in a way, all three main themes. Captain America, the theme couldn’t just be pounding action music even though there is lots of pounding action. So it would have to do with a theme that doesn’t sound nostalgic and historical that can still emerge from under the visceral carnage of the action, but still have enough. Especially towards the end of the movie, you start to feel it more. It was how to have enough theme so that you’ve got something heroic to cling onto, but not so much that it’s just becoming nostalgic and irrelevant, so that balance. Winter Soldier was a challenge because I wanted to … Once I’d seen what they’d done with the Winter Soldier and how… It’s a funny character. On the one hand, it’s utterly relentless and violent and brutal, but of course as the story progresses, and I can’t give too much away again, there’s the human element as well. It was me trying to boldly embrace the fact that the music for the Winter Soldier wasn’t going to be symphonically complicated. It’s not the kind of music I’d be handing into my music tutor. (Laughs) It was just really, really violent.
I was reaching more into my record making past and kind of drum and bass and lots of record productions to create a sound for Winter Soldier that’s almost deliberately anti-musical. He’s just a machine. Later on, he’s not just a machine, but when we first meet him, he’s absolutely unstoppable. It doesn’t matter what you put in his way, he’ll just blow it up. He doesn’t care, and he doesn’t feel anything, and he’s completely relentless and totally violent. That’s almost a Terminator type of thing. Obviously, as the story progresses, that changes a bit. But I didn’t think that the symphony orchestra in its traditional usage was the best way to portray that, especially since we’re in 2014, and you think of musical things that have happened since symphonic music. I wanted to go for something [different]. I mean, if someone wants a super [inaudible] Captain America score, they’re going to get an absolute assault of really barbaric, relentless electronic carnage, and that’s what the character is to start with. I think the trick with Hydra was to come up with a sinister tonality that didn’t feel like the muhahahaha of an arch villain, because the sinister nature of the neo-fascist within the film is modern, credible and politically contemporary. It couldn’t feel like the Red Skull dance in the first movie. I had to come up with a sinister tonality that doesn’t feel historical or nostalgic. All of those ideas had challenges to them.
JACKMAN: Seth and Evan are brilliant. I’ve just been really lucky. Anthony and Joe as a unit are seriously talented and they were in complete command of their vision, and with Seth and Evan, it’s the same thing. Seth and Evan are in complete command of what they’re doing, but it’s just a completely different thing. The Interview is absolutely hilarious and obviously the kids can’t see it. (Laughs) It’s definitely R-rated. What I love about Seth and Evan, and what they’re really good at, is not demanding of the score for a movie that’s very funny that funny music needs to happen. They’re pretty good at realizing that in the sometimes ridiculous action scenarios that there are in this movie, you’re laughing out loud, and so the more committed and in fact the more highbrow the music is, the funnier it is. Seth is actually good at that.
We were just talking through it and he was like, “You know those kind of posh action cues you get in Die Hard, like Michael Kamen where it’s symphonically…” and his music is because I’ve just been cranking the other end of the spectrum with loads of production on Captain America. And he was like, “I feel like the scene gets funnier the more seriously we take it.” Weirdly, it’s a bit like This Is the End. You end up writing quite symphonically classy music. For This Is the End, I was busy writing a sort of Carmina Burana-influenced, slightly reaching into The Omen and Jerry Goldsmith-type stuff. As you saw the sinkhole and the demons in This Is the End, far from being Bootsy music, I was sort of going the other way with semi-highbrow, symphonic, mystical and end-of-the-world type music. And it’s not dissimilar in this one. I’m going to have some fun taking it seriously as it were, whilst what Seth and Evan and James Franco are up to on screen is nothing short of ridiculous.
Have you seen a cut of The Interview yet? What are your thoughts?
JACKMAN: Yeah, I haven’t seen a finished cut, but I’ve seen… I can’t give too much away but I’ve seen it.
JACKMAN: I did, to be honest with you. I can’t tell you more, not because I’m being coy, but I believe that it is officially on the cards. I don’t know any more other than a story is indeed being written. I’d be very surprised not to. I’m not blowing my own trumpet. Forget about the music. Just the movie itself I thought was a fantastically imaginative and creative piece of work. Rich [Moore], the director, actually got involved in the writing. There was another writer and I can’t remember his name (Editor’s note: it’s Phil Johnston). Just as a concept, it would be almost remiss of them not to write another one. It’s a great idea and it’s a great character.
How does your process change for an animated film that may take years to make? Do you rely on seeing the script and storyboards and then conversing with the director about it?
JACKMAN: It depends. On Wreck-It Ralph, I was very lucky. My first encounter with Wreck-It Ralph was with Rich, the director, almost in a sort of Minority Report scenario where I went to go meet him down at Disney. He had this really cool room which had storyboards and art and general ideas and concepts, pictures, a little bit of animation, even some physical objects where someone had been asked to make a stadium out of candy just to get an idea. He just guided me through a bit like a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. He walked me through the film by verbally telling me the synopsis while walking around the room and showing me every little thing. It was a real privilege. It really got the creative juices flowing. It can be that. It can be reading a script. It can be storyboards. It can be a super rough cut in animation where hardly anything is animated. There are storyboards and voiceovers and what not. Any of the above can get the creative juices going.
JACKMAN: Exactly. If you’re the sort of person that likes a job where once you know what you’re doing you can keep doing what you’re doing, don’t ever become a film composer. What tends to happen is just as you get to the end of writing the score, you’ve really got it down. You’ve got the vocabulary, the themes, the textures, the instrumentation, the orchestration, the style. You’re like, “Oh I’ve really got this thing under my fingernails now.” And then, of course, it’s over. (Laughs) In a way, it’s like you could keep slinging things at me and I kind of know just instinctively what to do with it now, and I know what the themes are and I know what I’d do. Instead, it’s over and now you’re hanging out with someone else and you go, “Oh wait a minute,” and this person wants a complete reinvention, a totally different sound, has totally different ideas for a totally different kind of film, and you have to start all over again. I haven’t yet done a sequel. I think Wreck-It Ralph 2 might be the first one. Okay. So I know my colors. There’ll be new characters and everything. I have as yet not had the experience of returning to a palette and some themes that are established and I know. Every single film that I’ve done has been like, “Okay, so let’s start again.”
How did growing up in the U.K. influence your music and inspire you? How do you feel your roots contributed to your development as an artist?
JACKMAN: Oh, they were hugely influential. I’m super, super lucky. I started off with the most highbrow, classical education imaginable. I mean, from the age of 8 to 13, I was a chorister at a boarding school that was a sort of borderline Harry Potter experience where we even stayed and sung in the cathedral on Christmas Day. You’ve got to imagine for five years I’m singing ecclesiastical music in the second most stunning piece of religious architecture on planet Earth. Well, I shouldn’t say that because there’s all sorts. The second most stunning Christian cathedral after St. Peter’s in Rome. I thought that was normal, me singing 16th, 17th, 18th century church music in one of the best choirs in the world. And then, I studied classical music at Oxford and la-di-da-di-da. I was very lucky to have all that super highbrow as it were education, but I just thought it was normal. Then I went the other way and got into computers and clubbing and started making house music and Rave music and drum and bass and went completely the other way and started really going into electronics. It was part of being a rebellious teenager. And then, I worked in the record industry for ages. Being in London when the whole Rave thing was kicking off, as well as getting all the cathedral choir tradition in me and the orchestral tradition that I picked up from England, and then there was the whole U.K. club and dance and record scene which was hugely like a Krack Cake — all of that got shoved in my mixing pot so I’m very lucky.
JACKMAN: Well, the thing is, I’ve been a bit schizophrenic. I could give you loads of those. When I was young, I remember my parents who were rather highbrow dragged me to a Benjamin Britten Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood) which is part of the Aldeburgh Festival. I must have been only seven and I literally could not believe it. When you’re that young, you don’t think about what is or isn’t cool, and you don’t complain about being dragged to some sort of classical concert. I just sat there as a 7-year-old listening to Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and it absolutely blew me away. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t really know why it felt amazing because I was only seven, but this thing just unfolded in front of me that was both acting and music and an orchestra and the rest of it. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. Compared to the sort of daily experience I had, I couldn’t understand why I just witnessed something that was completely profound. And then, obviously being a kid at St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, I would be in absolute awe of composers like Palestrina (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina), Thomas Tallis, and a not very well known English church composer called Herbert Howells whose music was so powerful I sometimes reached the point where I couldn’t sing it because I got a bit overwhelmed by how amazing it was.
But then, of course, once I started growing my hair long and bought a computer and started being all rebellious, like wanting to be a DJ, then I started thinking other things also completely amazing that were just completely polar opposites. I used to think about Goldie (a British electronic music artist, disc jockey, visual artist and actor). When I first started getting involved in all that kind of stuff, there was a certain drum or bass or a certain production and I’d be like, “Wow, that’s amazing,” and not just hard core electronic music but also amazingly well produced pop music. I was very lucky to work with Trevor Horn (English pop music record producer) and I’d be in admiration of some of the processes in pop music that make incredibly well produced pop music. So, I’m a bit schizophrenic. I’ve been in admiration of Thomas Tallis and John Adams, and I’m going through a little John Adams thing now and just remembered why he’s the greatest.
I’ve been listening to John Adams non-stop for the last two days and I can literally feel myself getting more intelligent and more inspired. The guy is out of control. He and (John) Corigliano must be the two most talented concert composers alive at the moment. I’ll get inspirations like that, but by the same token, I’ll hear some remix. I was listening to something the other day that was just some girl I’d never heard of who was Mr Little Jeans, and it was some kind of club remix, and I was like, “Wow, that is absolutely brilliant.” It’s weird. I’m lucky I got that from my father who sometimes would summon me from whatever I was doing upstairs because he was listening to Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and insisting that I follow it up with a score because the orchestration was just amazing. By the same token, the following week I might be summoned because he was in the middle of listening to the bass line on You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon, and just going, “This bass player is completely out of control. You have to check it out.”
You’ve collaborated with Hans Zimmer in the past and I wondered if you could talk about that experience and if there’s a possibility you’ll be working with him in the future?
JACKMAN: I don’t think so. That’s another influence I should have mentioned. It’s all very well knowing about making records and being classically trained and knowing all this stuff about music. Then, of course, there’s the art of music to picture. I was hugely lucky. Having mentioned Trevor and all these other influences, it would be absolutely remiss not to mention Hans, because I was lucky enough in a very junior capacity to see how it all works and get a kind of apprenticeship which is a whole thing in itself. It’s one thing to write music that stands alone and you think it has some kind of worth, but there’s a whole art and science of music to picture of which he is an out and out master. To spend any time with someone who is among the top five film composers of the last 50 years is pure gold dust. I mean, not necessarily stylistically, because everyone is different in what their music sounds like, but the approach and how to look at a film, how to think about a film, how to decide what you want to do, how to think about characters, how to think about art, how to think about narrative, how to liaise with producers, how to liaise with directors. There’s a whole gamut of things to do with film music that don’t apply when you’re making a record or if you’re writing a concert piece or something. I can’t think of any luckier scenario than having witnessed that with Hans. So, there’s yet another piece of massive good luck that I’ve been fortunate to have.