Composer Henry Jackman Talks Strange World, Needledrops, And More [Exclusive Interview]

Henry Jackman would make for a great music professor. During an hour-long Zoom call, when you throw out an idea or question at the composer, he would run with it until sundown. In our recent conversation, no stone was left unturned by Jackman, the composer behind Disney's latest animated film, "Strange World." For this sci-fi family film, he wanted a rousing, old-school adventure sound that calls to mind the work of titans like John Williams and James Horner.

To do that, Jackman had to create a sense of familiarity but also otherworldliness. It's not the first time he's had to pull off that musical balancing act in his work, which includes "Big Hero 6," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Kong: Skull Island," and the "Kingsman" movies, to name a few. Recently, Jackman was kind enough to talk to us about some of his past and present work, as well as some of his favorite film scores.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'You should remember you've got this giant canvas'

The "Strange World" score sounds gigantic. How did you want to create a sense of adventure in the score?

I was just so happy. I think people might underestimate the extent to which, as a composer, the nature of the filmmaking and the story are the parameters that you're working with. Of course, if you were working on some very grounded, psychologically credible drama set in a small town in America, of course you're not going to get a gigantic score. You might ruin the movie.

Seth Rogen was quite good at sometimes the overblown score was part of the comedy of doing something hugely operatic and dead straight while he's being silly. But generally speaking, some of it is just the privilege of who you are working with and I've been very lucky, obviously, with animated films. "Big Hero 6" was obviously with Don [Hall]. "Winnie the Pooh," "Puss and Boots," all those Dreamworks animated films I did.

But I think possibly more than any other animated film I've worked on in the nature of the story, which of course was written by the directors Don and Qui [Nguyen], it's literally — you've got no excuse. It's the ultimate invitation. Having done "The Gray Man,” which is very production-heavy, has a lot of drum and bass influence, it was like, "Okay. This is a 180 degree turn. It needs a rich celebration of the symphony orchestra." But some of how you get to do that really does depend on the filmmaking.

The fact that this story has the classic trope of adventurers entering a never-before-seen world obviously calls to mind — I think people remember how they felt when they first saw the dinosaurs in the very first "Jurassic Park" movie. Those kinds of huge reveal moments where never-before-seen filmmaking events [were] on screen. These are giant invitations for music, because there's different kinds of score. If you were to take that approach to something much smaller, it would be invasive and overblown and faintly ridiculous. But when you have a style of filmmaking that is epic and explores new worlds and has a sense of adventure in its DNA [...] it has an understanding of the sort of cinematic lineage of all these almost matinee movies where you get to completely move outside of ordinary reality, and for two hours, you're in a completely different world.

If you're lucky enough to have the background to be able to write melodic and symphonic orchestrally redolent music ... if you fail on this, you've really failed, because it's like everything you could hope for.

It also depends on your directors. The great thing about Don and Qui, some of their most celebrated references are John Williams and the late, great James Horner. Sometimes you could work with a director who doesn't want to do that and wants to keep things minimal and finds thematic music invasive and all the rest of it. Absolutely not. In the case of this movie, they could not have been more encouraging in the constantly shifting and narrative — that's the key point — the narrative function of film score.

I'll give you a really good example. If you are slightly less experienced directorially, you may feel like you can't have that much time on screen where people aren't talking or some explanation is going on. Now, obviously it's an extreme example, but if you take someone like Terry Malick, he doesn't suffer from that problem, right? You're going to get a shot of a river for three minutes before anything even happens. The level of poetry you get in Terry Malick, get ready to stare at a river for three minutes before you even know what's happening — which is fantastic, as far as I'm concerned. But generally, there's a feeling you can't indulge that much.

Now, one of the great aspects of the filmmaking of "Strange World" that I'm particularly grateful for as a film composer is the extent to which Don and Qui celebrated the fact that the cinematic experience can have visual poetic explanation and score and doesn't need constant talking. That you can have filmmaking moments that are supposed to take your breath away. No one needs to talk. There are certain scenes where everything you need to know is what you are seeing and what you are hearing in the more abstract musical sense. You don't need everything to be covered in dialogue.

I would say "Strange World," one of the great successes of Don and Queen in their achievement in directing the film, is a very mature, masterful understanding of how much you can let a movie breathe. When people put together a movie and they put temp [music] in, they panic a bit like, "Oh, we better cut this scene down a bit because..." It's like saying, "Well, wait. The score can do some of the heavy lifting that we need and we don't need a dialogue line, we don't need to make it shorter. We can let it breathe, and once the score's in, it'll be a highly enjoyable experience and we don't need to trim and cut all the time or insert explanative snippets of dialogue when how you're supposed to feel will clearly come through in the music."

In fact, I remember a couple of occasions where they had some dialogue lines, and once I'd written — particularly when you first see "Strange World” and you get these giant orchestral reveals with the "Strange World" theme, which by then had been established in the movie, Don would turn to Qui and go, "We should just get rid of the dialogue. Now that this music's in, the dialogue lines just make it smaller. Let's just get rid of it and we just go for the visuals and the music." Obviously, I'm going to appreciate that because I'm the composer. But quite aside from the selfish reason of wanting to celebrate music, which I'm always going to want to do, I feel that it's not just selfishness. I know a lot of people stream, but we are starting to get back to the cinematic experience and you should remember you've got this giant canvas and sometimes it really is art where you see beautiful imagery and you hear music and you don't need the sort of detailed mechanics of explanation. And there's plenty of that in "Strange World."

'The refreshing power of needle drops is precisely that they are nothing like the score'

It's strange how much we now appreciate when a movie shows us instead of tells us the story, even though that's what movies are supposed to do.

I think it's just a maturity that Don and Qui have. Obviously when you're first cutting a movie and you've got previews and pressures and you're ramming it full of temp and you don't have the real score yet, you can sell yourself short and not let a movie breathe because the quickest way to solve a problem is to trim things and just let it crack on as fast as possible. You need a bit of filmmaking confidence to let things breathe before it's finished.

I always used to give the example of "Batman Returns." It has the backstory of the Penguin character at the beginning. Basically, it's an excuse for a three, four minute Danny Elfman overture. A lesser filmmaker than Tim Burton probably might have, under pressure, gone, "Look, it's a Moses story, basically. He gets dumped in some basket. We don't need to spend forever on this Penguin backstory. We can't just sit here watching a basket go through a sort of sewer tunnel for two minutes." But it's like, "No, no, no. Wait. Wait until Danny's done his glorious Penguin overture. This whole thing's going to be a sort of operatic piece of cinematic brilliance. It's just, you've gotta be patient because Danny hasn't done his thing yet." So, that's my sort of go-to example.

If ever I'm trying to sell directors, "Go on, give me a bit more space or try and clear out some dialogue," that's always my go-to example of you can watch a three or four minute explanation of a backstory with hardly any talking and an overture running in the background and everyone gets to understand everything they need to understand and it feels classy, because it's not full of clunky dialogue just in case you didn't understand what was happening.

I'm hugely grateful to the directors for having the confidence, more than anything, to allow the movie to breathe and to understand the power of imagery and music. Of course there's important dialogue all through the movie. You have to understand what's going on. But it's understanding where you need exposition and where you don't need exposition.

What other filmmakers have given you that space?

I think a movie like "Cherry," with Joe and Anthony Russo, was a good example. The last scene in "Cherry” is a nine minute cue, basically. It's a montage. That's probably the longest piece of real estate I've ever been given in my life. There's a funny story to that: I mistakenly believed that there was a needle drop that was going to come in the end credits that was some sort of immovable object. So this last queue of "Cherry" that was building and building to what was about to be the huge emotional climax I brought to what I thought was a semi-elegant, semi-convincing conclusion to allow the needle drop to come in. And I think it was either Joe or Anthony, it was probably Joe who said, "What are you doing? Keep going! Just keep going through the whole end credit. It should start where it starts and just go on forever." I was like, "Yes!"

What's your relationship with needle drops? When you score a movie like "Kong: Skull Island," how do you keep them in mind?

Obviously you're mindful of them, but very often, the refreshing power of needle drops is precisely that they are nothing like the score and very often, you're pretty close to them having been chosen and kind of locked down. So even when I get the first cut of the movie, the key needle drops are usually in it. So there are occasionally important issues of how to hand it over elegantly and sometimes create a little comma before you get to a needle drop, so you don't have that slight car crash as you smash into a song and how to get out of them.

Once you know that they're there, in the cases that I've had, stylistically, there hasn't been a huge need to mirror what they're doing musically. Because very often, the whole point is, in the case of "Kong: Skull Island," you've got this big semi-romantic Kong score and then you've had enough of that for a while. Bang, '70s needle drop, totally different feeling, totally different flavor. That finishes and then you sort of, next cue, elegantly move back into the score. It's often a mistake to try and carry over the musical influences of a needle drop into the score, because precisely some of the great refreshing power of them is their cultural specificity. You suddenly get a funk tune that's just doing everything that the score doesn't do. And you enjoy that for all the reasons that you would enjoy that and then return to the score later.

But often there's a few crafting issues. You'll listen to the temp and see that there's not much they could do. The temp sort of dribbles into nothingness and smashes into a song in a highly inelegant way, because there's not much they could do. There's often ways you can play with score to nicely handover, whether it's to do with timing or the key. There's sometimes occasions where you have a slightly odd thing where the needle drops in there and the score sort of carries on in an unrelated key, and it's sort of mixed into the dub. And there are occasions where you're kind of working in tandem, but more often than not, you want the power of the song — especially if you paid a fortune for whatever this needle drop is.

'Gone are the days where a film composer gets a three and a half minute piece of real estate before anything's even happened'

You mentioned James Horner and John Williams. Composers such as them, and John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith, have created this expectation for adventure, musically. When you're creating music in this genre, are there rules or elements you have to deliver?

I hesitate to say there are rules, but there's no denying with such titan composers like John Williams and the late James Horner, perhaps not rules, but a heritage to respect is what gets created. And it's a combination. There are a few ways you want to push things into the future, but you would be arrogant and misguided to ignore the heritage from adventure films handed to us. I know it's more like a superhero thing. I kind of got to do it, funnily enough, in the end credits of "Strange World." There's this big piece of real estate, it's about two and a half minutes, three minutes long where it shows up on the soundtrack. I think it's like the second to last track. It's just called the "End Credit Suite," where it's just every theme in the movie in a swashbuckling, three minute suite.

I've always thought that the intro to "Superman," the first thing that happens is you just get a load of swooping credits for about three and a half minutes while John Williams gets to blast through every single tune of "Superman." It's like, we haven't even started yet and we get a full operatic overture. I guess that's kind of what I'm talking about in terms of Don and Qui. Gone are the days where a film composer gets a three and a half minute piece of real estate before anything's even happened to blast through a staggeringly well-orchestrated series of incredibly effective themes.

Now, I didn't get to do that at the beginning, and I'm certainly not as good as John Williams, but at least I got to do my overture in the end credit titles where you get every theme in the movie in a sort of medley that would be the kind of thing you might do, like the concert hall version. If someone said, "Hey, have you got a medley of all the 'Strange World' themes?" Yeah, it shows up in the end and credits.

I know that's not necessarily a great example because it's more like a superhero movie, but I guess going back to your question about rules — maybe not rules, but in this heritage of adventure music, firstly there's incredibly committed thematic material. There's no attempt to sort of be endlessly minimalistic.

If you think of Indiana Jones or "Jurassic Park," they are giant themes unashamed of their narrative invasiveness. You're not supposed to be hiding in the corner. When Sam Neill finally gets his head turned around by Laura Dern, it's not pulsing away with a drone. And it's turned way up. There's no hiding. It's like, here we are. This is the time-honored classical use of score, where the narrative power of score is being absolutely maximized.

I guess along with that tradition is, given that there are all kinds of ways you can use an orchestra, some of which are pioneering in their sort of modernity, Hans [Zimmer] being a good example. The way Hans uses an orchestra in something like "The Dark Knight" is almost a Philip Glass-y, Steve Reich-y re-imagination, which is fantastic in its own right. I guess for the kind of thing we're talking about, it's more the full, for want of better words, classical use of a symphony orchestra in all of its coloristic variation.

I guess the other thing about adventurous music is that a lot of contemporary film music harmonically might be like a bit more pop, "Strange World" has quite a lot of otherly, more 20th century concert music harmony to produce that slightly Dagobah system. The whole sort of, "What's going on here?" strange and otherworldly harmonies that are much closer to concert music. It's nice to be able to deploy, not for pretentious academic reasons.

My go-to example that I just absolutely love — it reminds me of a great Italian composer I'm really keen on, probably quite underrated composer, [Ottorino] Respighi — is "Empire Strikes Back." It has the ultimate version of what I call harmonic dissolve, meaning at the beginning of the movie, you get through [the opening crawl] and you feel safe with those themes. It's in a harmonic context, it's diatonic, it's rousing, it's heroic. Then you get, "Oh wow, what happened there?" And just as the credits finished rolling and the text is finished and the big ship comes out, suddenly the harmony dissolves into some seriously complicated atonal harmony. It all starts sounding like Stravinsky. The little podule comes out, goes into the Dagobah system.

Never has there been such a good job where you don't need any talking. The music is giving you that, "The story begins." Such is his craft and talent that the podule coming out of this Imperial ship, rather than feeling in any way mechanical, it's almost mythic. This investigative probe is coming out and going onto the planet, and the way the harmony completely dissolves in this incredibly highbrow piece of music that quite frankly, you could put up against Stravinsky and you'd go, "Is it Stravinsky? Well no, it happens to be John Williams, but it's basically as good."

It dashes the hope from "A New Hope" and gives you the dread of "Empire Strikes Back."

Yeah, exactly. It feels a bit like jumping out of a plane and going, "Oh, there's nothing under my feet," because the harmony is so unsafe. In my own much more humble way, "Strange World," on the soundtrack there's a piece called "Strange World Overture," which is this piece that I just wrote completely away from picture to try to evoke the underlying thematic DNA for this other world. It's got quite a few unusual harmonies.

Talking of rules, there is a certain heritage for mysterious scenes and mysterious music. I'm thinking of other John Williams examples, so if you think of a cue like, for example, when Luke Skywalker goes into that Dagobah cave and has that semi-mystical experience of seeing his own face in this sort of surrealistic scene, if you check out what's going on in the harmony and orchestration, it's just off the scale in terms of being a million miles away from safe, diatonic chords.

Even a movie like "Jaws," you know when they're telling all those stories? There's some cue in "Jaws" I've always found heavily influential, a lot of string harmonics in it. But the real key to it is that the harmony is so unsettling. Of course, as an audience, you shouldn't really be thinking about it, but what it does is it just puts this exoskeleton over the movie without you realizing it, just tilting you a long way from feeling home or safe or in any way grounded.

Alan Silvestri's another one [who's] brilliant at that. "Predator" is full of that. "Predator" has got a constant use of harmony that just makes everything work. Even though you hardly ever see the creature, you're constantly put in mind of something from another world hunting them down because the music is constantly using this alien, kind of odd octatonic harmony that just makes the entire movie — it doesn't feel like anything on this Earth because of what the score's doing. A lot of that is the harmony and the orchestration.

'Oh yeah, he's going to jump off this building and fly'

Like you said, there are less rules, it's more that this music is in your subconscious. Now, when you work with directors who are very referential, like the Russo Brothers, do you, say, try to more overtly emulate the sound of paranoia thrillers for a movie like "The Winter Soldier?"

Well, that's a good example because "The Gray Man” is both not that at all and also that in a paradoxical [way]. Meaning that giant, never-ending "Gray Man" suite that's about 17 minutes long, after that weird piano intro for six minutes, it's all more influenced by electronic drum bass and it's nothing to do with a symphony orchestra. However, by the time you get to the sort of big, semi-jazzy, slightly atonal theme that was used for the intro and get to Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), that almost had a touch of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." It had a touch of that. Then by the time you get to the huge theme at the end of that suite, say the last three minutes, it's got a touch of Mancini and Barry. The theme, those big blaring horns, that's got a touch of "Goldfinger" in it.

I think you never want to get into pastiche, but you also want to be aware of heritage. Another composer I should mention in terms of just great orchestration and otherly kinds of harmony would be Jerry Goldsmith, even though, of course, he was in a terrible mood about the eventual score for "Alien," because he wrote one ... it's a long story. There was an original score, which is fantastic. And then the second one, the one that's actually in the movie, was heavily adjusted, not entirely to Mr. Goldsmith's liking. But they're both fantastic. I'm not going to get into which is better.

But the point is just the, what's that [sound]? The trumpet theme and how that harmony works. There's a great little two-part flute phrase that becomes very iconic in "Alien," that's really suggestive, harmonically. I've always found that really inspiring. So, it's definitely another composer who's hugely delivering bang for back on just, it's the harmony — because there are certain moments in "Alien" where, to be honest, it's mostly a couple of flutes with tape delays on. It's like, "What are you going to do with that?" But because of what they're doing and because of the unusualness of the harmony, it suggests the kind of infinite existential angst of space. That's not so relevant for "Strange World," but it's not irrelevant because there's some unusual harmony in "Strange World."

The Avalonia theme in "Strange World" is much more the feeling of home and even the instrumentation, there's like a bass player and some guitars and things that. It feels safer and more like home. But you need that as a sort of foil, you need a sense of the safe world before you go on your mad adventure into the unknown. So, for the first reel of the movie, there's a bit more of this Avalonia DNA, it's less epic, it's less symphonic. It has more pop instrumentation, more safe harmony.

It's a bit like the Shire. You have to feel safe before you kind of start encountering Black Riders and dealing with the whole epic tale of "Lord of the Rings." You need to start with a nice, safe-sounding Irish tune for the hobbits before you go into the crazy world. It's similar, in the very beginning of the movie you get to see the safe world that they created. It's almost like a sort of agricultural utopia that they created. And then, of course, the epic journey and the mythic quest must begin.

With "Strange World," it's very sincere music. When you have gone ironic, though? Would you say for "Kick-Ass?"

Although "Kick-Ass" is a very irreverent film, because there are a lot of needle drops, the score elements are actually pretty sincere. There are a few exceptions to that. For example, the very opening of "Kick-Ass" sets you up with what you think is going to be like, "Oh yeah, he's going to jump off this building and fly." And of course, he jumps off the building and smashes straight into a car and kills himself just at the epic climax. So, there are certain tropes to be played on in that sense.

Generally, even though Matthew Vaughn is bold, irreverent, and sometimes outrageous, thinking about "Kingsman" and "Kick-Ass," I think there is a deep sincerity in it as well. Because sometimes the more playful stuff comes through in a Prodigy needle drop. So for example, when Big Daddy's getting killed in "Kick-Ass," it's a proper committed adagio. We're not joking about it. So yeah, there are a few more playful tropes for sure in a Matthew Vaughn filmmaking experience. But once you're down into the nitty gritty of the score, often it is pretty sincere.

I'd say the most ironic use of music ever would definitely be on "This is the End." It's completely ridiculous what's happening on the screen, but I shouldn't be ridiculous. I'm not writing silly music. I'm being influenced by Jerry Goldsmith's "The Omen" score. I'm playing dead straight the mythic Satanic end of the world in a massively overdramatic "Carmina Burana" gone Satanic score that's taking itself ludicrously seriously and standing that up against what's happening on screen. I'm the straight man in that score. Had it been some sort of movie in the '70s that was Satanic, that score would work. It's a dead straight, massive, overblown [thing]. So, that's probably the most ironic use of score.

'It's probably not the first piece of music I would've played Kevin Feige'

When you're scoring for these worlds, not only standalone movies, like "Kingsman" or Marvel productions, does it change how you work at all?

No, it's funny. You don't actually think of it consciously. In fact, usually the reverse. What I'm usually trying to do is accept that my left foot might have to in some way respect, as you are putting it, the more macro world that I'm entering. But I'm usually seeing how it could be pushed or subverted or how far you can go. "The Winter Soldier" suite, when I did that, it's probably not the first piece of music I would've played Kevin Feige. He'd have a heart attack, poor guy. It's like, "This is what I intend to do." You know what I mean? That would be an example of, "Let's just see what happens if we push the 'Winter Soldier' sound into the most radical area." But to answer the question, I think it's probably more the extent to which you inhabit that collaborative aspect.

You're not on your own, you're doing a Marvel thing. You're not on your own, you are entering a Matthew Vaughn universe. Some of that is just inherent almost subconsciously in the collaboration, and it's sort of invisible. You don't really see it happening. That's a great positive force when you're lucky enough to work with imaginative directors who create that slight umbrella without you realizing, but also give you the freedom to operate within it and push it wherever you want, which I would say that's very true of say Joe and Anthony and, in many cases, Matthew Vaughn.

It is slightly invisible in the same way that if we were talking and we were walking down Oxford Street in London, we'd probably be kind of shouting because there's a lot of noise going on. But if we carried on talking and then we opened the door and went into a church and started talking, then we'd suddenly just, without anyone having to say anything, we'd just respectfully lower our voices and become influenced by the environment we're in. And then we might even end up kind of whispering. "Why are we whispering?" "I don't know. It's a big religious building. I just don't feel it's appropriate. We were shouting 30 seconds ago." It's not like you went, "Now, don't forget, when we enter this religious building, you must speak more quietly." It's just something that happens.

Unless we wanted to make a big introduction in the church.

Yes, exactly, but that would be an example of just reading the space, as it were. And yeah, I feel like some of that is just a natural and welcome part of the collaboration. The only time when it's not a welcome part of the collaboration is you're unlucky enough to be working, maybe in the much earlier stages of your career, with an inexperienced filmmaker who might have some well-meaning but bad ideas for music or may have too much micromanagement tendencies where inadvertently they stop the supposed golden goose from laying some eggs without meaning to by strangling the process.

I'm lucky. If I think of the Russos, Ed Zwick, and Matthew Vaughn, these are people who fully understand that magical combination of having that directorial vision, which is the most important responsibility of a director. And there are so many technical things and logistical things, issues of endurance and all that. But the key factor for a director is vision and how to hold onto it despite the craziness of everything going on and the pressures of a studio or things going over budget or sets being blown away in a hurricane, God knows what. 

Holding onto whatever the idea is. That's the umbrella role. But then also knowing that, to get the best out of people, if you're lucky enough to collaborate with people you trust, it's that weird combination of the vision just expressed and the freedom to let people who you trust do something creative so you get something that isn't what you are expecting.

Let it be pure.

Yeah, it's difficult. I remember Ed Zwick talking about the sort of ... what's the word? Entropy. He said, "When you're trying to make a movie, when you're just shooting one scene that lasts two minutes, every force of the universe is doing everything it can to ruin it. Between the lighting, the continuity, someone missing the line, not quite nailing the performance, the shifting movement of the sun that's no longer coming through the window, the passing airplane. Every factor of the universe is pulling in the opposite direction to what you are trying to do as director, which is to focus every single element into just trying to get these two minutes to be what they're supposed to be." So you can understand why directors are desperately trying to rein in all the chaos of the world in order to execute their vision.

But it's those directors who, on the one hand, have that capacity, which is almost like a dictatorial, autocratic instinct to do with, "I will control all the factors and I will determine the universe." But simultaneous with that is a sort of weird, "Yes, I will do that in an umbrella sense, but there will also be huge breathing room for my actors, for my cinematographer, for costume people to come up with ideas and all these unexpected, surprising extra elements that are outside of the jurisdiction of one single mind." That's what the best directors have. They understand that you need 50% autocracy and 50% chaos and democracy to allow the invitation of all these disparate talents that can offer things that you could not imagine, but that are collaborating with you, understand your vision, and can express it in a way that you wouldn't be able to. No one person, man or woman, can do everything. They can't be the production designer and nail the costume and imagine what the music should sound like. There's so much to think about.

"Strange World" is now playing in theaters.