When it comes to working in the film industry, and if you happen to be a talented and in-demand composer like Junkie XL, 16-to-18 hour days are the norm. Suffice to say, a composer’s work is never done but they also need to carve out time for necessary levity. A bit of a practical joker when it suits him (just ask his then assistant and now good friend Sam Estes about the in-office pranks), Tom Holkenborg has put his stamp on the music world with his bombastic drum kit and adrenaline-themed cues. He also knows how to help the director get to the heart of their story.
Whether it’s a segment or two in The Animatrix, the pair of New Kids films (which he was really surprised I’d even heard, let alone seen – thank you Fantastic Fest!), he gives those, and other films, like 300: Rise of An Empire and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a wholly distinctive sound.
Having amassed a very diverse set of feature credits in a very short period of time, Tom further proves himself to be a very well-rounded musician with his score to the emotional and white-knuckle thriller Run All Night. We got to talk to Tom about Jaume Collet-Serra‘s film (while, funny enough, he was feverishly walking through NYC to find a quiet place to sit for our call) as well as Mad Max: Fury Road and other projects, both past and present. Enjoy our session with Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL.
GoSeeTalk: I’m sure because you work in the film industry you’re familiar with the term “winter doldrums”. Run All Night is pulse-pounding, and composers like yourself really do a lot to take a movie to a much more exciting level, especially this time of year.
What you did with Jaume Collet-Serra’s movie was pretty remarkable and you have some really sustained music cues, so can we start off by talking about how you keep things going for up to 11 minutes at a time?
Junkie XL: I’m a really big fan of having a piece of music that enables you to go over multiple scenes at the same time but ties it all together. That’s really my favorite approach, if I can of course. I’ve worked with Hans Zimmer on films that have a high comedy content and fun aspect, but when you look at the end of the cue sheets, you have a 125 music starts. I would really like to bring that back to 30 or something if it were my own project.
Now with this movie, yes, it’s an action movie, but there’s an underlying story that I found a little more interesting, which is the story of two dads with a troubled relationship with both of their sons. So it became a character score and I began researching these kind of scores that have been done in the last 50 years. What other composers have done, almost to, I would say, halfway through the eighties, was score them in a very emotional way. The best example is probably The Godfather. But I went back as early as the sixties to the film Le Professionnel.
So all these hitmen and mob bosses get emotional themes to not only underscore who they are as a person – they’re sad, and estranged from their families – but hint at the cruelty they bring with their actions. So I thought it was an interesting approach because after the mid-point in the eighties, all the films were scored with a very action heavy soundtrack. Obviously we needed that in this film because when 15 choppers and 150 FBI agents are storming a building, you can’t score it with a piano and a flute. *laughs*
Very true. *laughs* But picking up on what you were saying about the emotion, there were some very tender moments which lead into the action. You had a lot of tonal shifts in your music, but nothing says that like your “sketch book” which is about 55 minutes of material. I hadn’t seen something like that made available to the public before Hans’ sketchbook on Man of Steel. But how much did you play with these themes before deciding on your palette?
I come from a point of view where notes are important and so are harmonies. But for me, production is very important too, like what makes the sound of movie distinct from others out there, and production takes time. You could be working on a cue for the film and then 3/4ths of the way through the process
find a sound that makes you rethink everything you’ve done before. So now you have to go back to find an arrangement for synthesizers and drums that replaces the work you did earlier. It’s so much extra time.
So if you develop all these sounds ahead of time, it doesn’t mean that all of them will end up in the film, or that the notes in your sketchbook are going to happen the same way to picture, but at least you have an idea of what you feel the movie is about. It’s also a great way of convincing a director that you understand the movie. It’s exactly what happened on this one. I have the same exact story with what I did for 300: Rise of An Empire and even with what Hans and I did for Man of Steel.
You make these elaborate sweeps that you feel captures the mood of the movie, and in this case, I didn’t even know I had the job. I was making a demo for it and I talked to the vice president of music at Warner Bros. and he said, “I think you have a good shot at this film, maybe you could make a demo.” And I got so inspired by it that I ended up making something like 55 minutes. When I met the director for the first time I just said, “By the way, here’s this USB stick with 55 minutes of music.” And he said, “What?” So I told him, “Yeah, I got carried away a little bit.” *Laughs* He called me back later that night and said, “It’s awesome. It’s great. I feel this is going to work.” And so I got the job.
So when I work and do something like that, it’s not only to write great music for the film — I’m also trying to take the load off the director’s back. He’s got so many things to worry about, and if music is one less thing to concern himself with, then that’s a great mission to have accomplished. So when I gave him that USB stick, that let him very quickly assess and see if that’s what he wanted for his film. The result of that was that we only had two music review meetings and that was it.
I was really drawn to what was in maybe the last third, maybe the last forth, of that demo which became your main theme and the base for several cues in the film. Do I have that right?
Sort of. Actually one thing that was used for most of the score were the really emotional piano themes. That music at the end of the suite, where it becomes really big and compelling, is actually used in the middle of the film for a scene that is actually very big. But after that, it becomes smaller again. The action in this film is very personal, so yes, people get shot and get killed, but it’s between two guys who know each other, it’s less about collateral damage that’s seen in these gangster movies. But this is very personal and the music had to be very personal too.
It’s interesting the route you took given your wide range of experience scoring films. Of course you have Mad Max: Fury Road, and both of the Snyder Superman films, but you also did the utterly insane New Kids Nitro, and New Kids Turbo. Can we take a minute and talk about those?
Wow, I’m so surprised you even know about those! I know they were seen by underground college crowds, but how do you even hear about that? It’s just a ridiculous film! Both of them!
I saw it at a film festival here in Texas called Fantastic Fest in 2012 and it blew my mind! I haven’t seen anything like that before or since. It’s incredible.
Those guys wanted a really big, over-the-top Hollywood score, and I like the guys. I knew them from Amsterdam and it was really fun to do. They’re really, really funny aren’t they?
It was so over-the-top, but then I’m also really impressed with your score to 300: Rise of An Empire. That film told a comparable story but one that stood proudly from Snyder’s 2006 film. Better, the music didn’t try to emulate what Tyler Bates did. There were some wonderful orchestrations there. How did you approach that?
I’m actually going to quote Zack Snyder on this. When Hans and I met him on Batman V Superman, he said something very interesting. He said that “all these stories, like 300, likeBatman, like Blade Runner and Alien, are bigger than we are as people. So when you make a film and do a score for it you try to do it as good as you can. But you do it with your interpretation of what do you think the story is, because in 15 years, somebody is going to remake it.
So I think it’s foolish that anyone thinks that what they’re doing right now is a one of a kind thing, is completely unique, or never will be done again. I think Run All Night is different, because it is a unique story, it may not be redone, or rebooted, and it’s a unique one-off movie, whereasBatman, or Superman or 300, or Alien has such strong source material, and such a strong following that someone will do another version of it.
I think it’s important for those kinds of movies to to be approached like Zack was talking about. You have to do it how you think it should be done and really identify yourself with that particular movie at the time and that’s it, it’s over. After that, somebody else will take over and do something else great with it.
One of the things I set out to do with 300: Rise of An Empire was to not use short strings or ostinatos, which were so overplayed at that point in action movies. I focused on using long strings, and long brass and the rest was percussion and new creative ways of using those Persian instruments. I went through a lot of efforts to find cool sounding scales that were used back in the day in the Persian music culture, and I had the luxury of working with one of my assistants, who is Iranian, so he knows a lot about that music style and how it developed over the last 2,000 years. That was a really interesting asset to have on my team.
When Run All Night gets to the track, “The Projects“, the drums really take the reins of the score. It reminds me a lot of how bombastic Man of Steel was at times. But when a movie is running on pure adrenaline, are the ominous “tribal drums” the go-to sound for situations like that, or did you try other things?
Well, I’m a drummer by nature, and it was the first real instrument that I started playing when I was seven years old. So using the drum kit in my film scores is always very important. It will be one of my stylistic marks, and I just love them. In every movie, there is almost a need to have something like that. *laughs* Unless it’s Bridget Jones 3, I couldn’t see having tribal drums chasing Renee Zellweger. *laughs*
The movies that I work on, if I want to create propelling percussion, I won’t use taiko drums, or any of the other instruments that have been overused. I will use my drum kit and tune it the way I want to and record it 9 or 10 times to get that big feeling of the drums. It gives me a real rock ‘n’ roll, in-your-face quality which is direct and doesn’t beat around the bush.
For instance, with Man of Steel, we brought in 10 drummers and just went nuts in the sessions. So, for me, it’s not necessarily a concept for just one movie, it is part of my sound, just like strings are part of my sound, woodwinds and synthesizers. But it’s kind of mellow, like 10%. Man of Steel, on the other hand, had a lot.
Well that is one thing I wanted to say. The drums really are the thing I remember most about the Man of Steel score. It’s so indelible. But conversely, you’re right, you did bring a lot of heart to Run All Night. The piano motifs are amazing and quite unexpected. The duality of the emotion and the action really work to make this unique.
That really sticks with that character. I really tried to prolong and downplay the action as much as I could to the point where I told the director, at a few points in the movie really, that “I don’t think we need music in here at all.” I was at the premiere yesterday, and I saw the final result, and I’m so glad that we did that. There are a few scenes in the movie with car chases and they really feel like the old fashioned car chases, like Bullitt, and The French Connection, and you don’t need music for that. You don’t need fast drums or fast strings. You just need to let it play with cool sound effects and it’ll be awesome.
The other scene is a chase scene through the train tracks that leads to one of the high points of the movie. We cut the music and it allowed the sound designer to do this really atmospheric mix of train sounds and wind and it’s nice to see how that works. The balance between sound design and score is so incredibly important that I think it’s a very successful exercise to change color by having one of us drop out and the other come in so it’s not all wall to wall music, or sound – that can make it tough to distinguish between the two.
Another thing is that music is so powerful when it comes out of nothing. It has an impact when it presents itself in a quiet scene. But if there’s all the music noise going on, and sound effects, and we come in with the piano motif, it has less of an impact. We were able to hit the piano theme multiple times and nail the emotional notes we were going for.
I talked to Henry Jackman recently and he said that a good movie secretly asks you to do what you need to do. You’ve been doing this long enough you can feel your way around the film, but do you think young composers should be open to that kind of thinking?
Well I agree, but I’d like to add something to it. A good movie will dictate what music it wants, yes, but on top of that, what the director is looking for. Sometimes, your initial feeling of what the movie is does not necessarily co-exist with what the director or what the studio wants. So sometimes your initial gut feel may be at odds with the director or what he’s after.
A very good example, and I’m not going to talk too much about Mad Max – we should be talking in 3 months when that comes out – but when I started on Mad Max, a week before I got to work, George [Miller] had said to the studio that he didn’t want any score in the movie. He wanted no music at all in fact. He just wanted the sounds: the sounds of the vehicles, and sounds of nature. He thought that would be great to have in the movie. Now, 18 months later, we’re talking about a wall-to-wall score. See what I mean? So the idea of what the movie needs, or wants, can change depending on what the director wants.
Okay, then we will plan to talk 3 months from now about Fury Road. Deal. But before we get out of here, can you answer me one question? I bet you can’t say much, and it may already be public knowledge, so you just have to give me a one word answer – yes or no.
I will chose my word carefully.*laughs*
You and Hans Zimmer are working on Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. So is Hans taking Superman and leaving you to write a new Batman theme?
Yes. The plan is that he is taking Superman and I am taking Batman. That’s all I can say. *laughs*
Thanks to Tom for his time. Run All Night is in theaters now. Mad Max: Fury Road will be released on May 15, 2015 and expect Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice in March of 2016.