Henry Jackman has one of the most diverse résumés of any composer working in Hollywood. The UK native’s credits range from animated fare like “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Big Hero 6” to the serious drama of “Captain Phillips” and “The Birth of a Nation,” with three “Captain America” movies in between. For “Kong: Skull Island,” Jackman adapted his versatile style yet again. Culture Crypt spoke with Henry Jackman to find out more about his unique approach to capturing the full scope of Kong through music.
Culture Crypt: I’ve read that your creative process for composing a film score basically begins as soon as you read a script. Was that true for “Kong: Skull Island?”
Henry Jackman: Yes. I mean, it depends from film to film. In fact, for some animated films there isn't necessarily a script. In the case of "Kong: Skull Island," even before I met the director, it started with a script.
Henry Jackman: It's an important experience because even though you're reading words on the page, which is quite a long ways from the finished movie on the screen, you start to get a feel for the fundamental themes of the movie. So obviously, if it's a King Kong movie, you need your head examined if you don't realize you need a King Kong theme. But in reading the script, there are other threads of the story that come to life, like an environmentalist and a military kind of tension between the team on the island. And it's all helpful.
Henry Jackman: Even if you're not yet writing music, just reading the script, you begin to form a really basic sort of musical architecture. Even if it's sort of almost atmospheric, you start to imagine the tone and the feel of it. Of course it makes a huge difference once you start seeing picture, because you're now seeing the beginning of the realization of the director. That makes a huge difference. You can give the same script to two different directors and you know, if you gave the same script to Ron Howard and Terry Gilliam, you'd get two very different movies that look and feel different.
Culture Crypt: How soon did director Jordan Vogt-Roberts begin collaborating with you on the direction musical cues should take?
Henry Jackman: Quite quickly. Basically, I am always given a bit of space to come up with some initial DNA, like I want to write my Kong theme, and I want to write the adventure theme, the island theme. I don't want to be with the director at the absolute outset. I want to invite him out to dinner and have dinner on the table, that kind of thing. So I'll get some of that going and usually the first meeting isn't even about specific cues. It'll be me playing a presentation of my Kong theme or a presentation of Packard and then I'll play the guitar idea for Packard
Henry Jackman: If you've got time, it's great because you can write these suites sort of away from picture. Even if you don't agree about arrangement or instrumentation, or things need to adjust, a director has a pretty good idea of whether they think a theme is appropriate for the film. After that, it's probably a three or four month process of collaborating to get to scoring.
Culture Crypt: What exactly is the first thing you do after seeing the movie for the first time? Do you immediately pick up an instrument and start composing?
Henry Jackman: Depends what it is. It also depends on the state the movie is in. If the movie is in a really good state and everything is clear, I'll probably make my way to the piano pretty swiftly. There are so many interdependencies. If it's a very heavy production movie, and it's all texture and production, then you're probably not heading to the piano. If it's thematic, you're probably heading to the piano. If the cut is in a good condition, so it makes sense, then again you're heading to the piano. If you're scratching your head going, "that didn't make much sense," then you'll probably rewatch it or spend some time thinking. You'll try to figure out what's going on because it depends how early you see a cut. Sometimes very early cuts are very sketchy and rough and the narrative isn't holding together yet, as you'd expect, because it's a long way from being finished. But if the movie is in good condition and it's the sort of movie that needs melodic and thematic content, I'll probably be noodling around on the piano not long after watching it.
Culture Crypt: What does adapting your style specifically to “Kong” entail creatively?
Henry Jackman: The thing about "Kong: Skull Island" is that Jordan is a great sort of natural radical. The cool thing about Jordan is there are always going to be 10 to 12 period needle drops, because this thing is set in the seventies. And because Jordan is pretty cool and not too conservative with the score, he was instrumental and very encouraging in promoting non-orchestral elements. You know, "Henry, don't be scared. Obviously, it's a Kong movie and we've got the history and the heritage and there are going to be huge symphonic moments and of course we need a Kong theme and I know you know how to do all that." Because he knew I'd done "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and other pretty crazy things that aren't necessarily straight up traditional things, (he would say) "we can go a little bit better on this movie because it's set in the seventies and we've got these needle drops. Don't be scared to use some seventies synths and psychedelic guitars and that kind of thing. I think that would be a really cool addition to the musical vocabulary of the score." Which we did.
Henry Jackman: There are some pretty far out guitars for Packard losing his mind in the film. He is going all Col. Kurtz. The more he loses it, the more detuned and all over the place the guitars become. It was really a combination of making sure we have the grand symphonic theme for Kong and the full use of the orchestra respecting that tradition that goes all the way back to Max Steiner. But then also recognizing "Kong: Skull Island" is its own movie. Jordan has his own vision and it is set in the seventies. (My task is to) bring in other atmospheric and atonal textures with guitars and electronics and try to put the whole thing together in as seamless of a way as possible
Culture Crypt: How do you reconcile that balance between where your compositions fit into the film versus where licensed music is positioned? Are there ever any conflicts?
Henry Jackman: Not really. To be honest, Jordan and Peter Afterman, the music supervisor, were well ahead of the game and had it already mapped out. Needle drops usually only really work in montages, of which there are a few. But they did such a good job of planning where they were going that when I started the score, they were already in position, which is actually very helpful.
Culture Crypt: Did you ever specifically try to match your music to transition into certain songs?
Henry Jackman: There's a little bit of that. If there's a musical cue that's very close to the needle drop, you sometimes have to be a little clever about what key you're in. But actually, you've got to be careful because it's tempting to say, "if we're coming out of this needle drop and into a musical cue, let's make sure it's in the same key." But very often, the opposite is true. You actually don't want to do that. You want to make sure it isn't in the same key. But there wasn't too much time spent coming in and out of the needle drops. The fact that there were quite a few was relatively straightforward and didn't have a huge impact on the mechanics or logistics of getting the score in.
Culture Crypt: Would it be fair to say that since Kong doesn’t speak, motifs in his music are more important for adding an auditory dimension to his personality than for a human character?
Henry Jackman: Yes, I think you're probably right. I should mention at this point that the special effects did an amazing job where they managed to convey a whole range of emotions. The great thing about Kong is he is presented at first like a monster. The reason why Kong is a successful character is he is a lot more complex than that. He's always a monster to begin with, but variously becomes a protector, a lover even, a guardian. And you know, the guy - (laughs) the guy? - the ape has feelings and that comes across and they've done an amazing job of making that visually apparent.
Henry Jackman: But you're right, in the absence of dialogue, I felt it was important in the somewhat classical theme I've got for Kong in this film, it sometimes has majestic presentations. But there sometimes is almost a twinge of melancholy in there as well because there is always that theme to Kong. He always feels like he is a bit hard done. He's got a lot of weight on his shoulders. He's always getting beaten, challenged by some massive creature. And it always seems to be his job to deal with the problem. And there is a sense of loneliness about Kong. You don't see many shots of a whole family of Kongs.
Culture Crypt: Considering the number of questions you've been asked over the course of your career, what’s a topic you wish you had more opportunities to talk about?
Henry Jackman: When film music first got going in the thirties, forties, fifties, and so on, it was pulling from symphonic classical music. There's a lot of B-list Strauss and whatnot in early film music. Even when you get to John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, James Horner, there's still a significant pull from genuine symphonic classical music. So if you were to have a conversation back in the day with Jerry Goldsmith, you'd be having conversations about classical composers.
Henry Jackman: Cut to 2003, and because we're feeding back on ourselves, there are quite a few film composers now whose heroes, and there's nothing wrong with it, aren't necessarily Strauss and so on, they don't reach that far and maybe don't know that music so well, whose heroes are Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, or James Newton Howard. And that's all great because one of the revolutions that happened is that we're not stuck in just a symphonic idiom. You get influences of electronic music, minimalism, rock music, guitars, all kinds of stuff that would not have been found in film music in the thirties, forties, and so on.
Henry Jackman: Bringing in everything new is fantastic, and I do a lot of that myself, but it's also important not to lose touch with the symphonic source so that you don't feed back on yourself. It shouldn't get to the point where we all believe that the composers who are living today are the greatest composers, and forget to pull from what I would consider the even greater source, which is great classical music. It needs to hang in there in the balance.
Henry Jackman: As the palate gets wider and wider, and as we all enjoy and accept anything from dubstep to rock music, what they're calling neoclassical these days, it's such an eclectic mix that it's an interesting question as to what stays in the bag and what gets pushed out of the bag. Or whether it all stays and we just accept it. We have such wide tastes that maybe we'll accept anything as long as it tells a story.