Since he was a child, music has always been essential to composer Henry Jackman’s identity. From his early classical training to his exploration of electronic music production to his experiences working with Hans Zimmer, Jackman’s diverse educational background can be credited as the basis for the complex music he has since created. His work can be heard in almost every genre of film, from the animated comedy adventure Wreck-It Ralph to the action thriller Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and he has received well-deserved acclaim in the form of a BAFTA nomination, Annie Awards, and a World Soundtrack Award nomination, among others. His most recently released film is the Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson-led Kong: Skull Island.
Earlier this week, Blast Magazine had the opportunity to chat with Henry Jackman about the challenges of working on a film that centers on one of the most notorious movie monsters in history.
Blast: During your career, you have had the opportunity to score some of the most impactful and memorable modern films, including Captain Phillips and The Birth of a Nation. While there is a plethora of content for you to choose from, can you name one specific project that you’ve enjoyed working on the most?
Jackman: That’s a tough one because the grass is always greener on the other side. When you’re working on an action blockbuster, you want to be working on something like The Birth of a Nation and vice-versa. However, if I fell under a bus tomorrow morning, I think I would be proudest of my work on The Birth of a Nation. It represented a type of music that I’d like to write more of and the content was so important and such a long way from being entertainment. I was committed to the subject matter and it was an opportunity to write a quieter type of music that I don’t get as many chances to do.
Blast: Looking at your previous work, it is evident that the films you have scored have scenes that run the full range of human emotion from pure happiness to horror. Do you have specific instruments that you like to use to evoke certain sentiments?
Jackman: Instrumentation is definitely important and some generalizations can be made. For example, if you’re working on an emotional movie, it’s more likely to be brass-heavy. However, there are no set rules for anything and I’ve written emotional pieces that are electronic and action pieces that are string-heavy. It’s more based on the specific content. Music is very flexible and when you think there’s a rule, the discovery is usually that you can break it.
Blast: You recently completed your work on the newly released film, Kong: Skull Island. What was the process like scoring that movie?
Jackman: I was super excited. The great thing about King Kong is that he is a monster character with a huge Hollywood history. I felt a great sense of privilege. I tried to combine two elements in the score, a grand symphonic use of an orchestra in a traditional sense and elements of psychedelic guitars with weird electronic sounds. I took the best of both worlds and married the two together. It’s the classicism and formality of an epic creature from the orchestra with enough twistedness and unusualness from guitars and other synths to represent the film’s time period.
Blast: Was there a particular scene in Kong: Skull Island that was exceptionally difficult to score or posed a unique challenge for you?
Jackman: Towards the end, there is a giant Act 3 finale which was challenging to work on because it’s a seven-and-a-half-minute cue. I set myself the task of keeping it thematic with no bits just chugging along without integrity. It was a challenge to keep it going for that long. I had to respect all the work on the screen while maintaining a compositionally cohesive piece. It’s a piece I’m fully proud of.
Blast: Kong is such a well-established character in the monster universe. Were you influenced at all by the existing King Kong franchise? If so, how did you make sure that you brought your own individual style to this reboot and didn’t get overshadowed by the pre-existing material?
Jackman: I wasn’t really influenced by the existing franchise because it’s about the director you’re currently working with. You’re not creating a year zero with Kong, but this film was a bit like working with the Russo brothers on the Captain America films. It’s so different in tone that your permission for new territory comes from the directors. Jordan [Vogt-Roberts], the director, was an obviously new voice to the franchise and I got my lead for charging forward from him. I was very keen to make sure that the grand symphonic theme and semi-classical theme fit the heritage and history of this character.
Blast: You mentioned how you got your lead for the theme of the project from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Because of that, was this film more of a collaboration or were you given more freedom and encouraged to work on your own?
Jackman: I had lots of freedom but collaboration is important too. I would write and meet with Jordan weekly. I played him everything I was writing and he would give me notes. I think too extreme on either end is bad because if you do your own work and no one else has an opinion, it’s arrogant and unhealthy but micromanaging can also lead to disaster. The sweet spot is enough freedom to perform the task for which you are appointed to with sufficient collaboration to present your music and interpret where it should be changed with notes and comments.
Blast: How long did it take to complete the entire score for Kong: Skull Island?
Jackman: I believe that it takes a minimum of 3 months for most action movies. For this one, it took me 4 months but that includes the first month of exploring.
Blast: Music has such a large influence on the way an audience interprets a scene. Have you ever written for a film and then watched it in its entirety and wished you could have given the audience something different?
Jackman: That’s a great question. Once I finish a movie, I’m not in a great hurry to watch it. I love watching something that I haven’t done so I don’t think about all of my work and deconstruct it. One of my regrets is that sometimes a director has given a note and was very insistent about it and I wish that I had done what he or she meant rather than what he or she said. The older and more experienced you become, the more confidence you have to understand the gist of what the director is saying but not actually do what he or she is describing. You need experience to do that and save them from themselves. It’s also quite common when the final audio mix of the movie is put together that there is a bit of a vogue for a constant barrage of sound effects. Sound effects are important and the guys are so good. However, sometimes directors and filmmakers don’t have the courage to put together an edit with breathing space knowing that music will carry the day. Sometimes I have a regret that there was a break of audio and that it was really a music moment rather than a sound effects moment. I also feel that in some situations, music should take a back seat and let the sound effects have their moment. I have watched particular scenes which could have had more emotion with a little more bravery about understanding that music could carry the scene and not sound effects and I’ve watched other scenes where the sound effects should have carried the scene.
Blast: Since you enjoy watching works that others have created, what is your favorite film score that a fellow composer has written?
Jackman: That’s tough because they are all so different. I have a weird soft spot for Predator because I was studying classical music at the time and didn’t take film music seriously. I remember watching it as a teenager and noticing how sophisticated the harmonies were. In my life, it was a moment in time that propelled me to realize that music for what seemed like not a high art could actually have a really strong effect. I also love the score for Alien, although it was a controversial one. I own both of the scores for that film and they’re both fantastic. I really like the score for The Revenant as well because it’s a very different style.
Blast: In the near future, audiences will be able to hear your work in Kingsman: The Golden Circle and The Untitled Wreck-It Ralph Sequel. Is there anything you can reveal about either of those projects?
Jackman: I’m going to leave that one because the last time I did that in an interview about Wreck-It Ralph, I got into trouble. I’ll just say that if you were a fan of Kingsman: The Secret Service, I would bet the mortgage on you loving this one. It is as good, if not better.