Interview | Composer Henry Jackman Talks Captain Phillips, Captain America & more
It only takes a cursory glance at Henry Jackman’s filmography to realise he’s one of the best and most versatile film composers working today, having worked on animated fare such as Wreck-It Ralph, in addition to superhero blockbusters like X-Men: First Class and more recently, the as yet unreleased Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
On behalf of HeyUGuys, I was lucky enough to speak with the composer on the phone for the home entertainment release of Captain Phillips (which he scored), and our conversation touched on his scoring process, epic superhero themes, a ‘treasure chest’ of music no one has ever heard before, and much more. Have a read below.
Amon Warmann: Was your approach to scoring Captain Phillips any different to your other projects, and what was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
Henry Jackman: That’s a really good question. It was wildly different to anything I’ve done, and that’s mostly to do with the nature of the film. If you think about Paul Greengrass as a filmmaker – United 93, maybe not so much the Bourne movies, but he actually did a film called Bloody Sunday as well which not that many people have seen – he’s a very realistic filmmaker. If you shut your eyes and imagine a Paul Greengrass film it doesn’t have a lot of the standard devices of blockbuster films even though obviously Captain Phillips is a big movie. Weirdly enough he has a journalistic background and all of that comes through in his films so that has a massive impact on music.
Unlike a movie like X-Men: First Class or Captain America: The Winter Soldier where it would be disappointing if you didn’t have a grand theme and there aren’t huge sweeping moments, none of that works and none of that is relevant in Captain Phillips. It’s almost an exercise in self-discipline. Because you’ve got Tom Hanks playing Captain Phillips in a psychologically realistic way and the situation is realistic and the Somali pirates are realistically portrayed and everything is morally ambiguous and politically ambivalent, nothing would ruin that movie more quickly than some big, sweeping theme. Often the purpose of a film score is really to enhance and accentuate key emotions. The classic approach is that you need a key theme for the villain and a theme for the heroes and they’re dutifully deployed throughout the film. Paul was absolutely adamant – and rightly so – that none of that could fly. There’s no way you could have heroic music when the Navy show up and music to support Captain Phillips somehow making out the pirates to be treacherous villains. When you think about pirates you have a clichéd image of villains with eye patches, whereas in fact when you see modern day piracy in a Paul Greengrass film you sort of understand why they’re forced to make that decision economically.
The impact that has on music is that it has to be incredibly un-invasive, un-thematic, un-demonstrative, and minimalist in the extreme. That in itself was the biggest challenge and needed the most discipline because I like doing more virtuosic music, but any time you go into an area like that with this kind of movie all you do is harm the film. So it becomes much less thematic, much more textural…it almost became more like a record in places where it’s not full of complicated harmonies or extravagant themes so much as tension which is mostly textural with pulses and drones and ostinatos. It’s not a grand symphonic statement. To see how far you can push texture and minimalism was a challenge, and it’s a fine line between that and just being really boring (laughs).
AW: Fascinating stuff. Looking back at your filmography you’ve been doing this for a while. What’s the biggest difference between the Henry Jackman who scored that first score with Hans Zimmer and John Powell and the Henry Jackman of today?
HJ: I have more grey hair! (laughs) Hopefully you get better. The great thing about being a film composer, compared to a director…if you look at eight years of a director’s life, even if you’re a fantastically successful director it might very well be eight films, whereas if you’re a film composer it might be thirty or forty films. Also if you’re a director you’re unlikely to direct Captain Phillips followed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier followed by a Seth Rogen film, you’re unlikely to dance around that wildly. The great thing about being a film composer is that you’re almost forced to constantly learn and adapt because you may be working on a film that’s an animated film with a strong Chinese, instrumental and harmonic influence. The last Seth Rogen film I did [This is the End], even though it was a comedy, because it had an apocalyptic element it was sort of gothic and symphonic and was peeling a leaf from The Exorcist and The Omen area of film music. I once did an art film called Henry IV which was set in 16th Century France and was about the exploits of a visionary French King. The other great thing about it is that you’re constantly working with different directors with different attitudes and different visions and completely different ways of making film.
Maybe one of the biggest differences between me in 2008 and now is just the accumulated experience of working with profoundly talented people on loads of different things that are all so wildly different.
AW: I’m a big superhero fan so I love all those big epic scores that you mentioned. I listen to them a lot, and I’ve always been curious to know; when you find that heroic theme, what does that moment feel like? Do you just innately know?
HJ: In the case of X-Men, it was a painful birth. I hadn’t worked with Matthew Vaughn before and he was very excited for me to write music way before I saw anything which I wasn’t quite sure was a good idea but he’s super enthusiastic. I had a very different idea of X-Men from the script to what was actually being shot so I actually went ahead and wrote a bunch of music that I’m super proud of that no one has ever heard. We got together and realised quite rightly…there’s a huge difference between the script and what’s executed. Once I started seeing it I realised it wasn’t quite right. So the birth of the X-Men theme, which is really one of my most heroic themes took a while because I had headed off in a slightly different direction.
The thing about heroic themes is that when you’re writing them the most important part of the theme is just a single line. It’s not the type of thing where you go “OH MY GOD THAT IS THE SINGLE GREATEST THING I’VE HEARD IN MY LIFE, IT’S AMAZING AND IT’S GONNA CHANGE THE WORLD!” (laughs) Once you start fleshing it out and getting the orchestration going you discover if it’s powerful enough or not. To be honest with you it is actually one of my favourite things which is why I talked about the self-discipline and the almost quasi-repression needed on Captain Phillips, and that’s not a criticism by the way as it’s absolutely appropriate and a compliment really for that type of filmmaking.
There’s a bit of me which always has loved Oslo-Germanic tone poems like Richard Strauss and Wagerian stuff as well. I love dance music and pop music and I spent ten years of my career doing it and I love stuff that sounds cool. But there’s also one aspect of music that’s difficult to achieve in any sort of club music or rock music, electronic or whatever, and that’s when something is profoundly heroic. Funnily enough the history of that music connects more to grand symphonic music. I spent my time listening to all kinds of music and there is one aspect of symphonic music and that is very difficult to reproduce just with electronics and that is hugely aspiring, heroic thematic music which really delivers on an orchestra. When you go and see a movie about a superhero, what’s really happening is that people want to project onto a character whether it’s Captain America, Batman or Iron Man. They’re all different – some are quirky, some are dark – but people like to attach to something outside of themselves, attributes that are a little bit God-like and a little bit beyond what we can achieve. Everybody loves that feeling of something being slightly beyond the limits of normal human behaviour whether it’s strength, stoicism, endurance or whatever it is. When the music supports that it makes people feel outside of themselves and uplifted. Everyone has their ordinary day where they wake up and do whatever it is they do and everyone is always searching for something a little bit outside of that pedestrian experience that everyone has regardless of what their job is or life is. I think that’s why a lot of the superhero movies, if they’re done properly are successful and if you’re lucky enough to write the music for it there is something really satisfying about having a heroic theme. When you think you’ve found it, it works and it delivers that sensation I’m talking about, that people are looking for.
Because you’ve got a superhero in the film you need music that is slightly superhuman and not realistic and slightly outside of being completely, psychologically credible…The score I’ve done recently, Captain America…The reason I like it particularly is because it’s 50% production and all the tricks I’ve learnt from spending years in the record industry but then it’s also got a 50% injection of symphonic, thematic, heroic music that all kind of merges into one musical, and hopefully coherent piece. I do like superhero movies as long as you’re done well which this one is.
AW: I’m nodding my head profusely at much of what you’re saying! You mentioned that initially for X-Men: First Class you went in a different direction. Regarding all the music you compose which doesn’t make it into the film; do you keep it and can we expect to hear it someday?
HJ: Maybe one day. I actually made a little folder in my iTunes called ‘Treasure Chest’, which is all the music that only belongs to me which never got used in any films. A lot of it isn’t just little sketches, it’s things I really committed to and finished properly. They don’t have a real symphony orchestra all the time but they’re really well finished pieces. I didn’t really give it much thought. The other day I looked in my treasure chest folder and there is about four and a half hours of continuous music in there (laughs). The thing is people go “Oh if you have any stuff that you don’t use you should license it” or do this that or the other but I feel quite protective about it, I don’t really want to sell it off or anything so it’s just sitting in my iTunes folder right now. Some of it is definitely better than others, there’s a good reason why some of it is sitting around not going anywhere! The X-Men thing I described where you have a legitimate idea and pursue it musically is actually pretty good. It’s just that it was not synchronous with the intention of the filmmaker. Part of me thinks that it might come in handy on a rainy day.
I wanted to ask before I ran out of time about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I’m assuming that Winter Soldier has his own theme. How did you go about approaching that?
That’s like the perfect question! I used to spend a lot of my time when I was about 19 going to raves a lot and then I used to make white label, drum & bass records, two-step, that kind of stuff…and then I was lucky to work in the record industry and I was lucky to work with Trevor Horn. Quite frankly, you’re not going to be able to do a lot of that if you’re working on Puss in Boots, the last thing anyone needs to hear is a dubstep remix unless it’s in the end credits.
You need a sort of perfect storm of circumstances to allow something radical to work in a film where you’re not just being self-conscious, where you’re not just trying to show off or whatever, and this [Captain America] was it. I can’t say too much because I know Marvel will shoot me, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a brilliant film that is part of the Marvel franchise but the directors John and Anthony Russo are geniuses. It’s a Marvel film that’s taking it one step further. They’ve made Captain America much more contemporary. The story is set in 2013, so it’s not a period film and it doesn’t have Indiana Jones style Nazis running around the place, it’s all set in the modern era and it’s a cross between a superhero and a modern political thriller so that’s already awesome.
What’s great about that is because it’s a Captain America film you need these traditional, thematic elements which eventually come through in act three of the film, but also the film is super-contemporary. Plus, Winter Soldier is this crazy, dark, RoboCop-type figure who is somewhat human but mechanised, completely messed up. Slightly human but really tortured and completely manipulated, but crucially mechanised.
So I said you know what, I’m gonna do something completely crazy and dark for the Winter Soldier, and I’m just gonna go for it. I hadn’t worked with these directors before, and away from picture I just wrote a suite for the Winter Soldier that was about six or seven minutes long that I spent ages on and treated it like a record. The idea being that if I get this vibe right, if I nail this six or seven minute thing which I think is the essence of the character and it’s super radical and it’s not that traditional and not completely orchestral because I want to save some of that for Captain America, let’s just see what these guys say. I played it for them really loud, and after they were finished there was a bit of a silence, and then Joe [Russo] went “I love it! Awesome!” (laughs) What was really cool about it was that he said that piece was so great and unique and it doesn’t sound exactly like film music, do me a favour and don’t do that thing when once we start working on the movie it gets sanitised or watered down. Whatever it is I just heard, I really want to hear that in the movie and not just 20% of that in the film, and that gave me all the information I needed about how creatively brave these guys were and it works in the film, and I’m really proud of it. And this track that I’m talking about will be on the CD in it’s original form.
AW: Wonderful, can’t wait! I’m curious to know how you pick your projects now. Is it who you’re working with? What the project is? What you’d like to do?
HJ: It’s a mixture of all of it. A famous film composer once told me if you were lucky enough to be in a position to ever choose which films you don – which is already a very privileged position to be in – there’s the magic three rules; director, cast, and story. You have to have 2 out of 3 for it to be worthy of consideration. So if it’s a good director and a good cast and the story is slightly off it might be worth it. If the story is great and the cast is great but it’s directed by some new guy you don’t know too much about that’s fine, but you have to have 2 out of those 3. I think he had a Will Smith clause, which is that if it features Will Smith you should just do it anyway! (laughs)
Captain Phillips is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. You can read my review here.