Composer Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class, Captain Phillips) recently talked with me about music, movies and his new score for Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran: In your score for Captain Phillips, you’ve said that you strived for moral ambiguity. Do you strive for moral absolutism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
Henry Jackman: Yes. When a heroic beat in a story is unfolding, I don’t hold back. There’s no moral ambiguity to defend freedom and [individual] rights. The music should be absolute. This translates to a theme that has to encapsulate aspirations and heroism, so it couldn’t be a traditional symphonic score. There is a leap of intervals—something is launched. Also, the use of harmony can evoke chest-swelling pride as opposed to melancholy. I was reading a lot of the original [Captain America] comics and it’s hilarious how it’s a tool for U.S. government propaganda. It makes hilarious reading. In the really early [comic books] he’s a two dimensional mouthpiece. In the later ones, with the Vietnam War era, he has stubble and he has doubts. It’s a journey of the American political consciousness. I love Alan [Silvestri’s] score on the first one [Captain America: The First Avenger] but the most important aspect of this score is that it doesn’t follow the lineage of most superheroes. One of my favorite ever is Richard Donner’s score for Superman. You’d laugh at something like that for Winter Soldier. The tone of this film is different.
Scott Holleran: Would you rather have dinner with Captain Phillips or Captain America?
Henry Jackman: This is such a tricky question. [Pauses] They would be very different dinners. I don’t know. It depends on what mood I’m in. Both couldn’t be more different and they couldn’t be more different in terms of music. Whereas [Captain Phillips director] Paul Greengrass makes morally ambiguous movies that need almost handholding to all audiences to form their own opinions, Captain America is a superhero movie and you’re supposed to deliver heartfelt emotional beats. If I could only have dinner with one it would probably be Captain America, though dinner with Captain Phillips would be more cerebral and minimalist and involve small plates.
Scott Holleran: Do you see man as a heroic being?
Henry Jackman: Without getting too academic or pretentious, the reason why superhero films work for those who enjoy them—and it’s a quite a lot of people judging by Marvel’s success—is that there is something about a person who is basically the same as us but some part of them is outside what we’re normally able to do. Without offending Christians, the origin of primitive gods is that they’re very similar to us and superhero movies in a secular sense offer something about seeing man as a type of god or superhero – and some are complicated and dark like Batman – they protect the weak and fight for justice even when there are enormous threats. There is something culturally stimulating about that. Whether it’s Thor or Batman or Captain America we’ve always wanted to look up to someone superior in some way.
Scott Holleran: Did you have a hero as a boy?
Henry Jackman: Between the ages of eight and 15, I had posters of Gustav Mahler in my room. I really got into Batman later. I think it was the atmospherics. I wasn’t too keen on Spider-Man. I got into the character Judge Dredd as a kid in a kind of dystopian way—I think that he was part of a comics series called 2000 AD in Britain—but I was really into classical music and reading books by [J.R.R.] Tolkien. I read [fiction by] Arthur Conan Doyle and C.S. Lewis. I went to posh schools where I studied classical music in my formative years, so I grew up in an environment where the legends of art were composers—DeBussy, Ravel—or Shakespeare. Right now, [my heroes are writer] Hiruko Murakami or John Adams, the American concert composer. I probably grew up revering the pillars of western civilization.
Scott Holleran: After you score a film, do you go out and watch the movie in theaters when it’s released?
Henry Jackman: I love watching the movie in a theater to get perspective. There’s no replacement for actually seeing the scene in context. You reconnect with why people enjoy the film. Even when I know a movie too well, I enjoy seeing it in its proper context. I think I did that with X-Men: First Class. I snuck into the back of the theater at [Pacific theaters at] the Grove. You can really learn something as an artist.
Scott Holleran: When did you first become aware of a film’s score?
Henry Jackman: I was watching Predator when I was a kid—where Arnold is skewering people—and I was thinking ‘this music is borderline concert music’. The post-2000 scores, from Batman Begins to now, are not big on levity and romanticism—they’re big on darkness and realism and psychological toughness and I’d be very surprised if it stayed like that for 50 years. It wasn’t that long ago when you had a cop movie and you’d hear funk music. There’s a general trend at the moment to be [dark and] serious and you only have to look at Tim Burton’s playful Batman versus Chris Nolan’s hard-hitting Batman. I don’t think anyone should be forced to choose between them.
Scott Holleran: What is the first movie that made an impression in terms of music?
Henry Jackman: It might have been The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I think I had all the toys but the music was such a prevalent part and it’s the first time the Darth Vader theme appears. It’s really an orchestral overture against that rolling text in the beginning. It’s seriously loud in volume. It’s done incredibly well as a super highbrow virtuoso mind-blowing experience.
Scott Holleran: Who is your favorite composer?
Henry Jackman: Oh no that’s impossible. In the 19th century, it’s Brahms or Wagner. In the 20th century it’s either – no, it’s impossible. [Pauses] Stravinsky or Benjamin Britten. In the 21st century, John Adams.
Scott Holleran: What is your favorite movie?
Henry Jackman: Now that’s just unfair. You know what I really like is [Terry Gilliam’s] Brazil. It has definitely stood the test of time. I’ve seen it 14 times. I also like Batman Begins. I know everyone loves The Dark Knight but I really appreciate Batman Begins. I’m 39. I’m a bit of a sucker for weird, guilty pleasure films like Predator. Being There  is interesting. I also like The Exorcist . I’d have to put some classic family films in there—Star Wars, ET—and I also Wolf of Wall Street and The Mosquito Coast (1986). Understand, I’m a real sucker for Alien and Blade Runner. Early Ridley Scott is out and out classic.
Scott Holleran: What’s the last movie you paid to see in theaters?
Henry Jackman: It might have been The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I was with my friend taking the kids out in Marina del Rey and we went to see The Hobbit—with Benedict Cumberbatch turning his voice down and sounding like a dragon. I’m probably more of a Lord of the Rings guy. The Hobbit is aimed more at kids.
Scott Holleran: Do you like larger than life films?
Henry Jackman: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Do you have a driving principle in scoring a film?
Henry Jackman: Not really. It’s a bit like getting married every four months. The wife is my film. The thing I’ve learned is that your master is the movie and story—there is one golden rule that’s self-evident: your entire purpose is guided or influenced by or tethered to the narrative in the story. If you find yourself wishing something that’s not synchronous to the story, you’re wasting your time. In the honest attempt to find out what does work for the film, you may find it. Helping the film is precisely the point.
Scott Holleran: Does the composer have to be objective?
Henry Jackman: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that your grandfather played clarinet on a Beatles record?
Henry Jackman: Yes – that’s him playing saxophone on “All You Need is Love”. He was from that era of hardworking British [culture]. He showed me a photo once and there was my grandpa having a beer with Charlie Parker on the QE2. He came from an era of BBC live broadcasting when you get 12 minutes to look through two hours of music and play flawlessly live and make no mistakes and I don’t think he was convinced by four chord rock songs. When he showed up to play, Lennon and McCartney hadn’t even written the song yet.
Scott Holleran: What is your next project?
Henry Jackman: A Seth Rogen film that’s hilarious called The Interview—then a Disney animated film called Big Hero 6.
Scott Holleran: What is the purpose of motion picture music?
Henry Jackman: Telling a story through sound. That’s the fundamental idea. There’s a functional part of the job to support the film. That’s not to say you should not elevate with the music.
Scott Holleran: Should music stand on its own?
Henry Jackman: It totally depends on the film. If you do a Harry Potter film where we’re assuming people like orchestral music, yes. If you’re doing Syriana and Captain Phillips where everything’s moody and very minimalist, not necessarily. Then you’re doing atmospherics. Jon Brion [ParaNorman] is good for that. Hans [Zimmer] is really my mentor. The most important thing about film music is that it has nothing to do with music at all—it’s all about telling the story—that’s in one sentence what was the beginning of my lesson from Hans. I got really lucky being able to hang out with Hans and understand the mental approach and the purpose of music; it was a great conceptual head start at handling telling the story through music.