Mad Max: Fury Road and Batman V Superman Composer Junkie XL Talks Scoring Blockbusters

junkie-xlDespite not being a traditional, orchestral-style film scorer, Tom Holkenborg, better known as Junkie XL, has been incredibly busy recently, workin gon some of Hollywood's biggest properties and landing some of the most sought-after jobs.

Currently working on Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice with Hans Zimmer, Holkenborg has already contributed music to The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel before moving on to be the primary composer on another comics adaptation, last year's 300: Rise of an Empire with Batman V Superman director Zack Snyder overseeing the production.

Last year, we spoke with Junkie XL about his process, and the difference between various directorial styles and composing needs. When the audio resurfaced just as Mad Max: Fury Road was ready to hit theaters along with the trailer for Batman V Superman, it seemed like a good discussion to share...

Have you been seeking out these big blockbusters, or is it just your sensibility that directors are finding your work suits them?

The music that I make appeals to a broader audience of just pure film scoring and it has something to do with the past that I have for twenty-five years in bands, as Junkie XL, touring all over the world. You learn all these tools that you can later then incorporate into film scoring. I think that's what a lot of these movies and directors are looking for -- they're looking for a fresh approach and not necessarily your standard bread and butter orchestral score. It needs to be epic, obviously, but speak to a younger audience. I think that's one of the reasons why I see something moving in LA, where they're interested  in that new type of composer.

You've seen elements of that for years. Obviously Joe Strummer did Walker years ago. Bigger movies, though, it seems relatively new.

I absolutely agree with you, but this goes in waves, right? We had Vangelis doing the first Blade Runner. Or the first Tron, even. Very revolutionary score. I think it goes in waves but in the '80s at a certain point, every movie you played had a bass guitar and a saxophone and synethesizers and it was like people didn't even want to hear a traditional orchestra anymore, it seemed like.

Ever so slightly, throughout the 2000s up until now, step by step, people are more interested in the hybrid score, not necessarily electronic and orchestral, but proper musical styles that live in the outside world, mixed with the orchestral stuff.

Do you think part of the reason that everything defaults back to orchestral every few years is that there's a concern about being dated?

Oh, totally. I mean, the trick is to use drums, bass guitars and synthesizers up to a point where it's a massive addition to the film score but at the same time it keeps its timelessness to it. That's the really hard part.

If you would now do the full electronic score that's based on an electronic music style that's in right now, obviously that's going to sound dated in five years.

Do you think the danger of that is more when you look at something like Divergent versus 300? I feel like when you look at period pieces, they almost demand a tone that's a little more timeless.

The thing with 300 and why the way I approached the music the way I did is that with 300 I could take a little more liberty with the music style because it's not your typical historical movie. It's more an adaptation of what Frank Miller has done with his graphics and how it all looks and how it comes across and Zack [Snyder] is a master of that. Even though he was a producer on the second one, he was the director when the first one came around and it's his style.

You can take more liberties with the music too, where you feel like it comes from something organic but I can take the liberty to really alter the sounds from something organic to almost synthesized like the picture is, too. Yes, you see things on the picture that could technically be real but how it's altered -- how they play with the colors and the lightning and the scope where it takes place -- is super altered. So I can take that liberty too and I think 300 in its picture style has a unique style and in that style, I think there's a form of timelessness that I think people will go back to and say "Those 300 movies were great because of this and this and this." With the music, you can do that too, to a certain extent, and become a part of that.

With Divergent, yes, it's a futuristic story and the temptation is always there to do something very futuristic with synthesizers and stuff. In this case, because the movie is about a 16-year-old girl that faced all these really big challenges so when the movie starts, she feels very insecure and she feels out of place. She's a 16-year-old girl coming to terms with herself, coming to age, and then over the two and a half hours that the movie lasts, she becomes mature and she becomes the heroine of the film.

The music needed to reflect that, so that's why when the film starts, the score is actually really small -- just a few acoustic instruments. I tried to blend a couple of acoustic instruments together that I think are really unusual. Especially for younger kids that see this movie, it feels quite unusual. That's to underscore the fact that we're not here today. We're somewhere else. We don't know where immediately, but at least somewhere else.

And throughout the film, the music matures with her and then when she becomes the heroine, the music is more epic and has more grandeur.

With these big films that are so dependent on visual effects, do you come in at the script level and develop the score based on what they intend to do, or do you come in when they have a rough cut and you have a general sense of what the movie will look like?

Well, it's funny you mention the pre-film stuff. There's a massive difference. 300, I came on board six weeks before the final-final deadline. So the film was completely shaped, the sound effects were in great shape, the special effects were in great shape and in six weeks, it needed to be done. So it was like a rush run 'til the end.

On Divergent, I came in on the script level, I would say five months before we wrapped up the film. I started making pieces of music based on the script and the conversations I had with the director, Neil Burger. Eventually, I saw the film and that led eventually to what the score became.

Now, Mad Max, I got in way early. I got in August of 2013 and we [didn't finish] until August 2014. So three different scenarios and they're all great for certain reasons. When you're so early in the game, you have so much room of experimentation. You can go back and forth with the director: "Hey, what do you feel about this? What do you feel about that?" But when you have to do something in six weeks, there's not a lot of time for that, you just need to deliver.

That seems like it would spawn a totally different creative process. Is there one that's easier? Is it easier to have that lead time or do you think the pressure of that looming deadline can inspire some greatness?

Yes. You nailed it on the head -- both things at the same time. With Mad Max, it's fantastic to brainstorm for the longest time and just take a night and drink some really nice wine and try writing all these crazy ideas down and trying them out. It's fantastic. You spend a lot of time creating new sounds, creating unique samples. With 300 you go in for the meeting with Zack and I saw the film, and I come home and I go, "Holy s--t, I've got to deliver." And that rush takes your brain to a whole different level.

Eventually, the end of a movie is similar to all of them, whether you have a long time leading into it or a short time. The last three weeks is crazy no matter what. So it always ends up in those crazy weeks; it's just what happens before that.

Certain filmmakers have different processes, depending on how close they are with their composers. Hans Zimmer is said to have a temp score playing over the set during Christopher Nolan shoots, for instance, so that the music can actively influence the film. Is that something you've done before?

Yes, absolutely. I've done that before on a couple of alternative films that I did back in Europe.

Let me elaborate a little bit on what you said, though. It's important you develop a relationship with the director. Not every director is interested in working with the same composer over and over again on different movies, because it's not their concept. Their concept is, "let's work with a fresh team every time we start." 

On the other hand, we have situations like Ennio Morricone with Sergio Leone, or Spielberg with Williams and that is, don't change a winning team. We did this great thing together, now let's move on together and at a certain point, I'm working on this and this film. Without even reading the script, John [Williams] added in ideas because they know each other inside and out. Spielberg would say to John, "I'm going to make this movie," and Spielberg already knows what John's going to say. That's a really interesting relationship. But for that to happen, you've got to build a relationship with a director over many, many years.

Now to go to the second part of your question, the creative process, that's a really interesting one, too. If you make music just for picture, you tend to get lost just in what needs to be done for that specific picture for the movie. Sometimes you focus just on music on its own, like a director does when he writes the scripts. He's not writing with a score behind it or knows what the special effects are doing, it's let's focus on the good story first.

That's somewhat similar to music, too. You can talk about picture, you can talk about what the characters will really look like, but you actually don't really know and because you don't know, really, what's going to happen, your head takes you to a different place and you can really focus on music, on proper musical phrases, on proper music production. Sometimes in a movie, you have a couple of seconds to play this piece of music and then you have to switch to something else because the picture demands that. And if you're making music, pure music, you can actually work on all of those things and get a proper composition. If you're done with that and you send it to the director and he's really happy with the musical routes that you've taken, you've got this really interesting dynamic between the director and the composer.

In comics, you have something similar: You can write full script or "Marvel style," which gives the artist the chance to draw before you write the dialogue. It almost seems like that's what you're talking about.

Yes. I think eventually the combination is golden. Only a few examples there. If you make music beforehand, usually that's not the final product. That's how you start. That's the palette.

There's a beautiful documentary about Ennio Morricone where they're talking about Once Upon a Time in America, where he would write all the themes and play them for Sergio while he's reading the script, and he would say, "Oh, this theme needs to be a little shorter," or "you need to extend it." And then they would play the music at the set and the actors would act on top of the music and therefore get a more emotional response in their acting.

Then when the movie is done, the whole movie goes back to Ennio Morricone and he looks at it again, how things can be altered or changed. It's a unique way of working. I think for every production you work on, when notes go back and forth between the director and the composer multiple times, that's when you get better results.