Exclusive: Henry Jackman Talks Scoring CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Composer Henry Jackman is no stranger to giant blockbuster movies and superhero flicks. The BAFTA nominated film score composer and keboard player has worked on films like Monsters vs. Aliens, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, Puss in Boots, Wrek-It-Ralph, This Is The End, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and Captain Phillips to name just a very few of the impressive works off his resume. Jackman‘s next big project that is getting ready to take the box office by storm is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The composer made the music for the highly-anticipated film and created some impressive suites for the titular hero and the subtitular villain. I was lucky enough to speak with Mr. Jackman late last week about his work on the film and how he went about creating the soundscapes for the film that has been getting overwhelmingly positive buzz. We also talked about his next project, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg‘s upcoming R-rated comedy The Interview. We covered a lot of ground, so strap in and read on!
CBT: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is being screened for critics now, and the buzz is overwhelmingly positive not only for the Russo brothers’ direction, but also your score. What are you thinking and how are you feeling now that you’re currently on the other side of the process?
That’s a really good question. Well, with no credit to myself, I’m not surprised there’s a great buzz about the film. I feel like I got super lucky. I mean Marvel superhero films are consistently super entertaining and well-made anyway, just as a baseline. I’d argue…maybe I’m not objective because I worked on this one, but I’d say this one is unusually good. They’ve combined everything you expect to get, that’s entertaining from a superhero Marvel film, but I would argue they’ve pushed the Marvel franchise into new hitherto unexplored and thoughtful/thought-provoking and interesting areas. I’m not making this out as some sort of high-brow art movie or something, it’s still jam-packed with action, it’s visually spectacular, it’s visually entertaining, but it also has some really interesting, credible political themes to it.
You never know with these things. You never know if you’re drinking the Kool-Aid while you’re working on it, but I’m really happy for the guys that the response to the film is kind of what I imagined people…they’re responding to it because it’s exciting, it’s entertaining, it’s well made, and it’s also got some substance to it.
CBT: And what was it like working with the Russos? What was the creative process like with them while you were working on the themes for the film?
Again, I was really lucky. Sometimes you can get really overwhelmed as a director. You’ve got all this footage, you’re spending all this money, and you’re trying to put your first assembly together then the composer comes in going ‘Hey guys! Let’s hang out and talk about music!’ and often it’s like ‘Oh no! I can’t really get my head around music yet. We don’t know where we are with the film blah blah blah.’ These guys had such a clear vision of what they were doing with the film. Their very first assembly was already so focused that they were very available quite early in the process to start a discussion about music. It sounds like it would be a crazy thing to talk about music. Why don’t you just crack on and just start writing music?
When you’re dealing with people who have a consistent vision about the film and they’re articulate, and they trust you creatively, it’s actually really valuable. I think I was talking to them maybe a year before I started writing while I was working on other themes. I had read the script. Straight off the bat we had a conversation about how we all know Captain America’s origins as a Sentinel of Liberty and an All-America hero. That legacy is still there, and it’s obviously the atmosphere of the first film. The political environment of that kind of film is Captain America dispatching the Nazis. It’s morally unambiguous. They were keen to talk straightaway how in their film Captain America is now marooned in 2014, he’s a fish out of water, he doesn’t even know what the internet is, he’s questioning the motives and the operations of the U.S. government. Musically this has a knock-on effect. The music is not going to be a fully traditional, nostalgic, historical, symphonic score. It’s going to need the pedigree of the symphony orchestra because you have the history and the origin of Captain America, but he’s kind of trapped in a dangerous political thriller where he doesn’t know who he can trust.
It has some of the legacy, musically, of what you would expect from an Americana hero, but then by the same token you have an arch-villain who’s sort of a semi-terminator/Robocop/relentless mechanized sort of brutal machine. That’s a real invitation, musically, to do something radical and electronic and not necessarily reach for the Wagnerian/orchestral approach. Straightaway we were having a discussion about how it could combine a lot of things. It’s a contemporary film that needs the history and the pedigree of thematic and orchestral material, but you shouldn’t hold back on anything radical or electronic or taking influences from non-orchestral music. That was where the conversation started and I was super lucky. I said to the guys, look, why don’t we do this? I’ve seen the first cut of the movie. I’m going to go away and I’m going to do two things: 1.) I’m going to write a big Captain America piece (it’s like 8-minutes long) away from picture, just of how I see Captain America. You’ll hear the theme, you’ll hear the arrangement, you’ll hear the orchestration. In fact, that thing that I very first wrote for Captain America is on the soundtrack. It’s on the CD. It’s simply called Captain America. 2.) By the same token, I’m going to go ahead and write a piece of music again away from picture called The Winter Soldier about how I feel the Winter Soldier should be. It’s not even specifically to picture yet, it’s just going to be these two pieces. Let’s see how you respond. If you like them then we’re moving forward. If you hate them, I guess I’ll come up with something else.
The Winter Soldier I treated almost like a record. I said I’m going to go ahead and make a 7-8 minute record that owes as much to drum and bass, dubstep, and radical electronic production techniques as it does orchestra. Then meanwhile, In the Captain America suite I wrote…it still has contemporary elements, but that has a strong theme that emerges toward the end. That’s really how the process started. I wrote these two long pieces. They came and heard them, and they responded really positively. Then we had the basic two building blocks musically. That proved a very valuable experience. To be honest, an awful lot of the score is kind of taking the DNA of those pieces. That was the starting point from which to write all of the cues. Those two pieces I just mentioned, those original pieces, are in their original form on the CD.
CBT: So is it fair to say that you’re ‘in’ for writing the score was sort of marrying the square-jawed, daring-do of Captain America with the seedier and modern Winter Soldier and giving it the electronic edge like you said?
Yes and no. It’s not like Cap’s theme is completely symphonic and traditional while the Winter Soldier is all electronic. Even within Cap’s theme there are a lot of textures that are contemporary. The funny thing about the movie, given that he is sort of an idealistic character, he’s in a tricky situation. I can’t give too much away about the plot, but the situation he finds himself makes it difficult to make judgments about what’s going on. He can’t even trust the intentions of some of the operatives in the U.S. government and it’s difficult for him to know who he should trust.
In the first two acts of the film his natural superhero thematic material is sort of subverted into a political thriller where he’s trying to find his feet and he’s suspicions about what’s going on around him. It’s really in the third act that’s his values rise to the fore and the suspicions he had are being proved right and people rally to his cause. So then the shift in the later part of the film you start to have a more overt use of his theme. It’s reaching into those original values that he has. Up until then, there’s also quite a lot of material that’s electronic Cap as well. There he is trying to find his way in a contemporary world. They have some fun with that as well. Again, I can’t give too much away, but the fact they have a character that hasn’t seen Star Wars, doesn’t know what an iPod is or the internet, you can have a few jokes with that.
CBT: The Russos have named movies like Three Days of the Condor as influences for their political thriller. Did you pull any inspiration from other films or different genres for the music?
Not specifically, no. We had a lot of conversations. They love a lot of 70s movies and a lot of grown-up, intelligent thrillers and political thrillers. You can’t reach too much literally into that musical genre because you’d end up in a slightly ironic self-referential place if you go there. I feel like maybe some of the material for Alexander Pierce reaches a little…I occasionally had a vision of Gregory Peck setting behind the desk like the good American, you know the good statesman. But at a subconscious level. I think with things like that if you get too specific and too literal, you head into a slightly artistically dishonest place. You’re absolutely right there are those influences, but unless you’re on a very specific mission that needs research like you’re doing a movie that has to specifically refer too…I don’t know, Korean or Indian classical musical where you have to figure out scales and specific things without winging it, I think it’s best to let those thoughts hover in a subconscious space. What tends to happen if you don’t specifically do the research and you’re influenced by how you remember something or what you feel something was, it tends to not actually be the thing it is. It’s always good to let influences from the past just hover offstage if you know what I mean.
CBT: Do you have a particular favorite piece of music from the film? Maybe one that gave you a particular challenge or one you were surprised with how it turned out when all was said and done?
Yes, probably in different ways. There’s a cue called The Smithsonian which if anything is the throwback to the nostalgic. The movie didn’t have that many times when it’s the full, straight up saluting American Sentinel of Liberty old-school nostalgic music. There’s a certain area of the film where those values are recalled. The reason I enjoyed The Smithsonian, funny enough, given that the movie is more of remix and reboot of Captain America, The Smithsonian was one of those rare occasions when a good old-fashioned symphonic piece of Americana was exactly what was needed. So I enjoyed it for that reason.
Like I say, I’m very proud of The Winter Soldier suite. People may not like it, but I think the one thing no one can accuse that piece of music of is being a generic villain piece we’ve all heard before. At the very least I think it’s definitely something you may not necessarily expect to find in film scores. I’m proud of that. Like I said too, that Captain America piece I’d put in that category.
The other piece I felt I may have achieved something vaguely interesting was this piece called Hydra, which obviously represents the sinister political elements in the film. Historically, Hydra relates to the fascist and the Nazis. If it was a period movie, that would be quite Wagnerian and classical because the Nazis were semi-Wagnerian in their whole getup and the way they dressed. It’s the same thing. What we’re dealing with now is a political movement that relates to that but it is set in 2014. I remember setting down and thinking I somehow needed to invoke ‘malice,’ and ‘sinister’ but ‘thoughtful.’ We’re not talking about Hulk or giant clumsy beasts, we’re talking about a sinister political force which is in fact thoughtful. It still needs to be contemporary and almost kind of seductive. I spent a while coming up with a tonality for Hydra that was a little bit contemporary but still off kilter with just enough kind of history to the sound because of the use of a symphony orchestra. It’s quite a minimalist way of doing it. I think the Hydra piece had some interesting ways of going about how to do something that has the malice and the sinister aspects you expect from the darker force in the film you’re working on without the obvious devices and it feeling like a throwback.
CBT: You’ve talked about The Winter Soldier suite, but when you were reading the script how did you see him as a character? You touched on how him being kind of a Robocop/mechanized-human figure. How did that influence the music?
Well I’m very lucky to have that villain. You have millions of kind of villains. Villains come in all shapes and sizes. Some are just relentless and evil, they need to be dispatched. They form the jeopardy of the film and that’s why the heroism feels heroic since they’re up against such a titanic force. The great thing about the Winter Soldier, without giving too much away, is that the arch-villain himself has a story arc that pertains to Captain America and has depth to it. We start off with something that’s completely brutal, violent, and nihilistic. He has no emotion at all. It’s just literally a creature designed for destruction. Then on the other hand, under that mechanized suit, there is in fact the remains of a human being that can still just about remember who he was. That becomes more poetic later in the film because who he was is quite important to Captain America. It forms an emotional component of the film. Suddenly you get this greater layer of character and emotional depth to what would have otherwise have only been this brutal figure. That’s interesting to have in a villain. That means that an emotional beat creeps into the Winter Soldier approach throughout the film. It’s not often that happens.
CBT: We know the Russos have already been invited back for Captain America 3, but would you like to give it another go as well?
Are you kidding? Absolutely! Joe and Anthony are just really self-evidently talented. It was a good script. When you make a Marvel film you have all of those professional forces and services at your disposal, but that doesn’t count nearly as much if at the helm you don’t have people or a person with a strong vision. I feel like whatever they turn their hand to, I’d be pretty surprised if it wasn’t really good. I would jump on it in a heartbeat.
CBT: Do you have a particular dream project you’d like to work on? A particular movie or type of genre you’d love to compose something for?
Well this is going to sound slightly counterintuitive because often I’ve done movies where the fact that I have a background…I’m a slightly schizophrenic character who admires profoundly well written orchestral music. I’m just as much a fan of Brahms as I am modern electronic music in one form or another. It’s very often the fact that I can dabble in both that people ask me to do things and I’m totally happy with that. Funnily enough because I’ve done things like X-Men [First Class], G.I. Joe [Retaliation], Captain America, and all the rest of it, I think that I probably have a secret craving or a guilty pleasure for a full-on fantasy or Merchant Ivory style thing. Or like an English Patient where it needs an out-and-out, no-holds-barred symphonic orchestral score. In other words, I’d almost like to do a score where they tempt it with Chopin and go ‘What are we going to do? Should we license all of this Chopin music?’ I’m not saying I’d be as good as Chopin, but just let me have a go! [Laughs]
CBT: Just the challenge of it.
Exactly. The grass is always greener. If you said to me you need to write legit, constant music influenced by everyone from…my musical education started at Gregorian chant, went through Baroque, Classical, Romantic, all the way to John Adams. Then in the midst of all of that I was making records and doing German bass remixes and all the rest of it. It’s all in there somewhere. I feel like there’s probably fewer opportunities in the current vogue of filmmaking. There’s plenty of need for hybrid orchestral action scores and there’s plenty of need for sort of soft and gentle orchestral post something sympathetic like a Philomena. What I think I would fantasize about is something that is still as ambitious as a superhero movie…like a Harry Potter! There you go. Harry Potter would be a good example. It’s grand, it’s full of music that’s taking center stage, and it’s full symphonic. I think I need to get one of those out of my system.
CBT: You’ve worked on a lot of big films, but you’ve also done several comic book movies and big blockbuster pictures like you’ve said. Do you enjoy the genre? Does it let you stretch a different set of muscles than say a something like your BAFTA nominated work on Captain Phillips?
Definitely. I mean it’s horses for courses. The thing about a superhero movie is the mission is not to be minimalist, just supporting the characters as invisibly as possible while doing a textual, understated score. The whole point is when you have a character who is a Sentinel of Liberty, who is superhuman, and is singlehandedly trying to correct the catastrophic decisions and mistakes of the U.S. government that are potentially leading to world destruction [laughs] that is an invitation for ambitious, forthright music where you can be as imaginative as you want within reason. It’s a call to arms for a composer. Once you’ve got superheroes involved, you’re dealing with aspirations that go outside and beyond the normal human condition. A lot of what helps support that and legitimizes that is ambitious music. It’s definitely the case that compared to like a situational comedy, or a documentary, or an Argo, superheroes movies are a bigger invitation to let a composer to rip open the cupboard and get all the paints out and get really stuck in.
When I mentioned I was getting to talk to you, a lot of readers wanted to know if you’d be interested in working on a DC movie. I know you were the music arranger on the Dark Knight, but would you like to compose all the music for a DC movie? Those are generally a little darker and grittier than the Marvel movies.
Absolutely. To be honest with you because I’m not an absolute aficionado, I know who owns which characters and such, I tend to look at these projects as I’m not wedded to a certain superhero or studio (one of the lucky things about being self-employed). It’s more about the story and the characters. So yeah, in a heartbeat. Where there’s a good story, a good cast, a good director, and enough money to make all of that work where you can do a decent job, there’s an opportunity, if you’re lucky, to write some ambitious music for what someone is trying to achieve. In a heartbeat.
Finally, what’s next for you? What can we look forward to hearing from you in the near future?
In my usual style of not doing two similar things back to back, I’m coming straight off Captain America and plunging straight into the vortex of a hilarious, irreverent, and semi-ridiculous Seth Rogen film. It’s a massive jump and a really enjoyable one. Clearly the kind of music that will emerge from that will sound absolutely nothing like Captain America. It’s a different skill set and a very different aesthetic. I love working with them.
I did the music for This Is The End. It’s fascinating when I really think about it really. I just worked with Joe and Anthony Russo, who are profoundly talented, and now I’m working with Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] who are profoundly talented and completely different. It’s the privilege of being able to do entirely opposite and different situations. They all have completely different merits. I’m looking forward to that. Not only are they [Rogen and Goldberg] really funny, they’re actually really good at making films. I shouldn’t say that like I’m surprised, but it’s because I’ve seen Seth so many times in comedic films [laughs]. It was real eye-opener for me. This Is The End was his directorial debut, and when he and Evan strolled in, it was like they had been making movies for 20 years. They were so on top of the whole post production thing. It was as if they had done it 15 times. They’re really funny but they’ve also got a very scrupulous understanding of their craft. They don’t wing it. We watch it and a lot of things are improvised as if this whole thing could come about without the crafting, but what’s interesting about Seth and Evan is they have a very meticulous understanding of how to get to the result and how to achieve what it is they do in their film. They know their craft.
We again want to thank Mr. Jackman for taking the time to speak with us about his work. If you’ve listened to the soundtrack, or even just the samples available online, you know he has really done something special with the music for the film. The Captain America and Winter Soldier pieces we talked so much about truly are some astounding sections of music. It will be very nice to hear them played in the context of the film when it hits theaters April 4th. The composer also sounded incredibly enthusiastic about Rogen and Goldberg‘s next film, so that’s definitely something to keep an eye on. What do you think about Jackman‘s comments? Do you like what he had to say about the film’s score?
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