Interview…Film Composer Henry Jackman on Big Screen Heroes and Even Bigger Themes

Henry-Jackman_StudioSince 2009, composer Henry Jackman has been adding blockbuster films to his resume at an incredible rate. And there’s a reason for it – he’s extremely good at his job. Jackman has consistently been providing the modern film world with some of the most thrilling, weighty, and substantive music of the last decade. That’s high praise, but he’s certainly earned his laurels with the likes of X-Men: First Class, and things haven’t slowed down since.

In just five years, the Oxford educated British musician has ascended into the ranks of Hollywood’s elite composers. This year he was tapped to create an epic, futuristic score for Disney and Marvel’s Big Hero 6. Melding together the triumphant feel of Marvel’s superhero lore and Disney’s emotional sophistication, Jackman drew from his experience composing for Wreck-It Ralph, and X-Men: First Class to create a sound that celebrates the comic-book style action, while capturing the emotional bond between inflatable robot Baymax and robotics prodigy Hiro.

Big Hero 6 plays like a love letter to Alan Silvestri, but with enough power anthems, depth, and emotion to make it his own. Swells of strings, a barrage of brass, eclectic electronica and a whole lotta awesome, this score, as well as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is yet another feather in Jackman’s hat.

Enjoy our lively discussion with this highly successful, and prolific film composer.


​GoSeeTalk: Big Hero 6 is a score with equally light and fluffy parts, but then it goes on some very serious and thrilling runs. Like Wreck-It Ralph, it’s a really fun hybrid of symphonic and electronic cues. What were some of your initial ideas, and how did they develop once you got further into the process?

Henry Jackman: Well you’re right. There are a lot of different textures in there. But funny enough, I got to see a preview of the film six months before I started writing – Premiere Of Disney's "Big Hero 6" - Arrivalsand later on you can get involved in a wide palette of sounds – but the fundamental thing I realized seeing the preview is that I needed to write a big, old-fashioned Big Hero 6 theme on the piano. Later on you can figure out what orchestration and electronics you’re going to use, but it clearly isn’t a film where a textural score is going to work.

I spent about a week just writing that “Big Hero 6” theme. The funny thing with live-action films, these days, is that people want a reduced and minimalist score. They shy away from big themes, but the fact that this is a huge super hero film set in an animated film tradition means that you can really go for those colorful tunes.

So I started getting themes together for Yokai, Big Hero 6, Tadashi and all the rest of them, and then, once I got into the studio, it was time to weave them together, especially in the beginning. It’s about all these techie teenagers, so I had fun getting some electronic stuff involved. But the important thing about having those themes is that when you let go of the electronic sections, especially towards the end of the film, you’ve got some real music hiding underneath for when it gets really dramatic. It’s ultimately an emotional film, so you really do need your themes, not stuff that just sounds cool.

Glad you used the word ’emotional’ because the score starts off bouncy and fun in tracks like “Nerd School”, and then later, in something like “Silent Sparrow”, there’s a lot of depth, emotion, and complexity that come across so unexpectedly. It’s like it wasn’t meant for an animated film, if you know what I mean.

Yes, I do know what you mean. By the time you get to a cue like “Silent Sparrow”, it’s much more in the tradition of serious symphonic writing. At that point in the story you don’t need electronica, and the beats, because we are well past “Nerd School” and we’re into some heavy duty revelations, and discoveries, and troubling back stories. That particular cue is much more of a dramatic and symphonic styled theme.

BIG HERO 6

First Flight” is another one about self-discovery. Also it’s an adventurous, and rousing theme which is done in a very big, orchestral fashion.

Very true, and that’s the first time I got to play the tune down from top to bottom. It’s kind of a bit more like a record. There’s a lot of production going at the same time to support it, but it’s where you hear the Big Hero 6 theme realized for the first time with the full A and B section, so that was fun.

Yes, very fun, and great to listen to especially if you put on your headphones and crank it up. As a fan of your work, I have to say that seems to be your forte. There are, so-called, whimsical composers, or dramatic composers, but you compose some of the coolest themes out there. You’re like the Elvis Presley of film composers.

*laughs* Well thanks a lot! But wait, I hope that doesn’t mean I’m going to die in a hotel really overweight. *laughs*

*laughs* No, not all. But, if that’s the case, at least you’ll have a tremendous following and a whole lot of show-stopping Vegas concerts to look forward to. *laughs* But I say that as such a huge fan of what you did for X-Men: First Class. That is one of the most thrilling and energetic themes ever written for a film, comic book or not. That’s up there with the all time greats.

Well that’s another one that even though the X-Men score has production behind it, the main thing I worried about, and worked on the most, was that main theme. Once you’ve got that theme, you can dress is up a million different ways.

Aside from maybe Patrick Doyle, you get the most out of your string section. There’s a part of the Big Hero 6 theme where you can imagine the orchestra needing a rest. You did a number on them, but got some fantastic work in the end, just like “First Class”.

Heny Jackman-composer_HeaderI’m very flattered you mentioned Patrick Doyle because he is a totally legit symphonic composer. Now funny enough, with the character of Yokai, he just seemed very operatic. There was something about the visual style that was so grandiose and operatic that I got to use quite a virtuoso orchestration which was nice. Disney and the directors were on board for that especially considering today’s current vogue of more post-modern and minimalist use of orchestra, it was very nice to indulge and do so in a more historical style as well. It was justified in the picture but yes, if you were in the first violin chair you definitely had your work cut out for you. *laughs *

Earlier you said you went to the piano for the Big Hero 6 theme. Is that your go-to instrument, and then you figure out what stems you need after that?

I do, but mostly in the cases where it comes to actual composition, especially if it is something that is thematic. You can get in a loop where you start getting too deep into electronics, and then you start orchestrating, and you can ultimately deceive yourself into thinking you’ve got something because it sounds orchestral and impressive. So if you are coming up with the theme, the piano is where I try to find all the thematic material.

I have to ask this question simply because I’m a fan, and, after hearing you talk about him on The Hollywood Reporter’s Composers Roundtable (click here to listen to that amazing session) when you were being praised for Captain Phillips, I know you are too. Is Big Hero 6 a love letter to Alan Silvestri?

*laughs * I don’t know if this film is a love letter to him, but I have always been a fan of his work from about the age of 14 or so, like I said in that round table. When I first heard his score to Predator 2, I was at some posh school studying classical music and hadn’t really given film music much attention. While watching it, I thought “wait a minute, this is like decent, proper concert music. What’s going on here?”. It had some really interesting harmony in it and I waited to see the end and saw this name. As soon as I read Alan Silvestri I said “I’m going to have to remember that”.

THR_Composers-2013Banner

The other thing that people forget about Alan is that these days, everybody is doing scores with loads and loads of production, but he was off doing cool things way before everyone had all the technology that we have now. He is someone who wouldn’t go “okay this is going to be orchestral” and leave it at that. He’s super well-known for films like Back to the Future, but if you listen to scores like Predator 2, there’s always something interesting, like a wailing saxophone that sounds like an animal, and of course that iconic kind of weird Bongo rattle that signifies the Predator.

He’s always someone with an idea up his sleeve that isn’t what you’d expect in a symphony orchestra. Sure, we are all used to that now because everyone’s got some sort of plug-in and what not, but it’s worth remembering that he was doing that when it wasn’t really the norm.

He also builds tension like few others can. Those strings and brass cues are equally iconic.

Exactly. The other thing is that it’s nice to write orchestral music for an animated film in the lineage of John Williams and Alan Silvestri and Danny Elfman because you can’t do that most of the rest of the time. You can’t have a symphonic, florid style in something like Captain Phillips.*laughs* That’s the last thing the movie needs, and you’ll ruin it by covering it in a virtuosic, symphonic sound scape. So when you do get the chance, in a track like “Silent Sparrow”, you can play with things that are more like the palette of Silvestri and Jerry Goldsmith and James Newton Howard, and it’s nice to be able to go there.

We’re talking about huge scores today but, oddly enough, I first picked up on your work when I was reviewing a screener for Winnie the Pooh. There was certain bounciness to it, as you’d of course expect, but there was also something smart and complex. It’s amazing to see, and hear, your career grow. Films like Wreck-It Ralph and Captain Phillips are vastly different, but allow you to branch out and showcase your depth.

In animated films there’s this overt celebration of fun, and your music becomes very reflective of that. If you’re doing something like Captain Phillips, there’s nothing fun happening, it’s a very realistic and very psychologically credible film. And what it isn’t is a scenario in which the score should be florid and drawing attention to itself. Quite the opposite in fact. It has to enhance the everlasting tension. It’s just a completely different type of score.

Okay, on that note, when you are creating your themes or writing supplemental music, is there a point where you say “no I’m getting this too on the nose, it needs to be more overarching”, or conversely that you need to dial in to start hitting certain beats and find a rhythm that way?

That’s a very difficult question to answer because a lot of times, when I start writing my cues, I don’t know what I’m doing. I kind of go into a bit of a trance actually. *laughs* If anyone comes in and talks to me, I actually don’t hold Big Hero 6_OSTconversations very well. Sometimes, somebody will come to me and ask “so are you going to go to this meeting ?” about such and such. And I’ll go, “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. And they stare at me and go “what do you mean? I called you about this, today, we had a whole conversation about it!”. And I’ll go “really? I’m so sorry, I have absolutely no memory of that at all”. *laughs*

I think while you can maybe intellectualize afterwards, and make some changes having written something, when I’m actually writing to picture, if you’ve got a vocabulary going, and the directors and producers are on board with what you’re doing, once you’ve got a theme, and everyone is happy with it, then as soon as you really launch into writing the cues, it actually becomes quite instinctive. Then if you get into a snag, there can be a little bit of time set aside to assess and ponder and analyze and what not. But a good movie secretly asks you to do what you need to do. I know, that sounds very pretentious, but often, if you just lock into the picture it sort of tells you what it’s asking for.

Well how much is that is based on what historically were used to seeing? Aside from say, a bad guy having big loud drums or horns, and a smaller creature being characterized by flutes or something like that.

Yes, there are some unavoidable conventions, but I’m always trying to do the unconventional thing to be honest. In any given story, there are known arcs and you can always feel where Act I is, Act II, and Act III, and where the high and low points are. But if ever you are assessing a character, I usually try to not write the very first thing I think of. *laughs* It’s usually good to try and stretch it a little bit further than you would expect. If I were to play word association with you, and then give you a word, you might come up with a very expected response. When you’re writing, it’s good to try to consider it a bit and find an extra depth to something, or a new angle, and it’s a good policy just so you don’t end up having the most generic thought you can.

Speaking of that, when you do get in a haze, and become so focused on something, do you find film scoring in general is more of a sprint, or a marathon? Do you find that you have the time to develop themes properly, or is it just you reacting to picture because there’s a hard release date?

Well I definitely have the luxury of time on most projects. There are definitely Henry Jackman_THR_OSCAR_COMPOSERS_RTtimes when you join something really late, and time constraints are pretty apparent. But with Big Hero 6 for instance, I definitely had enough time. I got to see the film a long time before I started working on it. Because animated films these days take about four years, and the process is very incremental, you can see it developing as you jump on board. Unlike TV – where there is no time for beard stroking, you just have to get it out the door – the film industry is a little different, and I can say I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in which I’ll say is “artistically luxurious”. There’s no time to dawdle, but there’s no compromise due to time. Three months is a good amount of time to get the project out, and luckily I’ve been able to get that on most of my projects.

We’ve covered Marvel, and we’ve covered Silvestri which both kind of a lead into another big comic book movie you had this year – Captain America: The Winter Soldier. What’s it like taking the reigns from another composer? I realize this question probably isn’t valid because the score to the Russos’ film is completely new material.

Exactly, and I would never do a project if they wanted to hold on to the previous score. I just wouldn’t do the film because I would say, “well why on earth are you calling me? If you want the previous score, you should be bringing Alan”.*laughs* But it almost wasn’t even the same film in millions of different ways. Instead of a period film, where Captain America’s adversaries are Nazis from the late forties, this was set iCaptain America_The Winter Soldier_OSTn 2014 and had completely different directors and just a completely different aesthetic. Right at the very beginning, there was one Alan cue to sort of link us to where we left off, but thereafter, it was its own score. Forget about me, mostly what the directors have put together, Joe and Anthony Russo, was just a different animal.

Same as the X-Men, when Matthew Vaughn did First Class, it was just a different animal. Not only was it a reboot anyway, but it was just playing by its own rules. And in fact, the other ones prior to Matthew directing had been done by different composers anyway. But if I were ever asked, I just wouldn’t do a movie if I couldn’t put my stamp on it. Imagine the circumstances if essentially they wanted to use the music from a previous score.

Well I just had to get that out there. Everything about this film was gritty, pensive, and driving. Even the “Captain America” track was so far removed from the patriotic cues in Joe Johnston’s film. That track is intense and the whole album is brooding, like a sensory assault at times. It’s got great string work but, then, in tracks like “The Winter Soldier” it goes on these electronic and techie spy thriller runs. And the Russos based this on a ’70s spy thriller anyway right?

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-promoExactly right, and “The Winter Soldier” (listen to the track below) is a perfect example of me wearing a completely different hat. When I saw the movie, unlike the more Americana themes, nostalgia and theatricality running through the first film, The Winter Soldier is much closer to Terminator or Robocop gone wrong. So I told them, “why don’t I not use orchestra and go back to my chops from all those years spent in basements in London banging out drum and bass? *laughs*. I should do something completely nihilistic, brutal, and viscous. Almost anti-musical.”

There’s nothing musical about him, he’s a tortured human being trapped in a machine and all he knows how to do is just plow forward and destroy everything in his path…and that doesn’t call for flutes and bassoons.

How is it working with two directors? The Russos had a great vision for this fish-out-of-water character continually coping with a world he doesn’t understand. When you’re not getting input and direction from just one person, how do you meld differing opinions?

This, Big Hero 6 and even the upcoming film The Interview has found me working with two directors, but I’d say I’ve been lucky that Joe and Anthony Russo kind of operated as one organism. I think there would have been problems if there were some sort of fundamental disagreement, but in both cases it was like two sides of the same coin. You may get different insights, but because the vision was shared, they saw eye to eye on almost everything.

Earlier you said “word association” so, before we wrap up, I wanted to get a few off the cuff thoughts about some diverse projects you’ve taken. Give me the first word, or phrase, that you feel describes your experience on the film…

Ok, shoot!

…Wreck-It Ralph…

*laughs* Fun. Old-school, orchestral and bleepy! *laughs* Bleepy, but with a strong Disney heritage.

…Kick-Ass…

Pure Matthew Vaughn! Anarchic, hilarious and irreverent.

…Captain Phillips…

Ruthlessly realistic. Unbelievable tension. Incredible performances, and an invisibly supportive score.

Awesome! So now tell us, what does the non-studio Henry Jackman like to do? Do you hang out with other composers? Do you say “hey I’m off the clock, no music for me“? Or do you go back and listen to your old work just for fun?

Oh, no, no, no! If I were to do that it would feel like work. *laughs* If I listen to anything I’d done I would be consumed thinking about all the things I would want to do with it now that I didn’t get to do in the mix or something like that. I’d end up just picking holes in everything. I can’t really relax if I’m listening to my own music.

But if I’ve been working really, really hard, I like running away to the Cook Islands and staring at the horizon or going spear fishing or running around the English countryside. It’s also nice to get a break by just reading about and listening to music, but not making it.

Last question. You’ve worked with Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen on This Is the End. What makes you want to go back to working with them on The Interview? It’s a ballsy picture, and you know North Korea is not going to be happy when it comes out – anyone associated with this is going to be on their hit list.

I really didn’t really think about that when I took this on. *laughs* I’m not comparing them to Matthew Vaughn, but Seth and Evan The Interview_Theatricalshare a level of irreverence, yet in a totally different way. Funny thing about them is that they make these completely ridiculous movies that are goofy but they’re also incredibly smart. It’s sort of an exercise in lunacy, only the secret is that the films are made by very witty people. They are great fun to be around, especially Seth who is hilarious in real life.

They are both extremely good at their craft. The business of filmmaking and directing finds them so on top of their game. Just because a film seems kind of wacky and juvenile, with humor that’s all over the place, you might be tempted to think that the whole process is like that. But they know how to achieve what they want to achieve because they have a lot of leadership and focus. That’s refreshing despite them being two very hysterical guys. It’s almost like they have two sides to them. seth-rogen-evan-goldbergYou can leave them in a room together, and they’ll just start jamming and being hilarious, but when it comes to our music meetings, we just knuckle down and figure out what music is going where, and why, and they are totally on their A-game.

Plus the fact, like you said, they keep making really ballsy films. I can’t see them ever making a movie in which they aren’t just completely committed to it.

Safe” is not something they’re known for.

No, you’re right. The don’t pull their punches, at all. But the funniest thing is that even though everything they do is R-rated, and it has to be because of the content, I think there is a lot of warmth to what they do. Even if each film seems completely inappropriate, it’s not R-rated because it’s disturbing, nasty, or gratuitous. There’s actually a sweet underlying warmth to everything they do, and it’s enormously friendly.


Thanks to Henry for his time. Big Hero 6 is currently in theaters. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on Blu-Ray and VOD platforms now. Expect The Interview to be released on Christmas Day, and Kingsman: The Secret Service in February of 2015.