'The Falcon And The Winter Soldier' Composer Henry Jackman Shares His Creative Process For Writing A Superhero Score [Interview]

If you want to track the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster over the past decade, just scroll through the filmography of composer Henry Jackman. It represents an impressive slice of varied films (dramas, action films, animated adventures, comedies, monster movies), all of them unified in being expensive wide releases seen by millions of people. Here's a select few: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, X-Men: First Class, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Kong: Skull Island, Detective Pikachu, Captain Phillips, This is the End. And, of course, there's his contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.

Jackman's work in the MCU continued this year with The Falcon and the Winter Solider, the six-episode Disney+ series following the latest adventures of Captain America's best buds. With the series now concluded, I spoke with Jackman about creating music for the series, his creative approach to scoring film and television, and working inside a giant blockbuster machine like Marvel Studios.

What makes your score here different from your scores for Civil War and Winter Soldier? At what point did you realize you can't do the same Captain America thing again and have to find a new identity?

That's a really good question. I suppose it's the same in the writing: it's a combination. It self-evidently isn't completely new, because we're dealing with characters we've seen before. So it can't be such a reach from where we've come from that they're unrecognizable. But there're all heading to different narrative places in their journey. I'd probably start there. Obviously, when you see episode one you don't know what's going to happen, but by the time you get to episode six, you've seen the full journey of Sam feeling burdened by the legacy of Steve Rogers. Feeling not up to the task of inheriting the shield. Then the whole conversation with Isaiah Bradley, finding out about terrible things in the past. Not in any way diminishing Bucky – who also has an amazingly important journey trying to resolve the person he used to be when he was an assassin, and that's an incredibly important feature of the show – but I probably started with the track "Louisiana Hero," which is like a motif that I took from when [Sam] was Falcon in The Winter Soldier and then, knowing where this show was going to go, that was just the beginning of something back then. I wanted to take that motif and turn it into a fully realized superhero thing, but also reflect Sam Wilson's background, which is why "Louisiana Hero" – there are versions of it in episodes five and six that are the full regular orchestration, but there are moments when I wanted to get some of the fabric of his background in there. Which is why it has this less classical rhythm and guitars and Hammond [organ] and whatnot. But I think knowing where Sam Wilson ends up was a really good starting point. That meant that that track, "Louisiana Hero," was sort of a destination to get to: the superhero melody is the destination, the Louisiana and the groove part is like where he's come from.

In the case of Bucky, it was a case of finding a musical identity that reflected his de-programmed – there are moments when he has violent outbursts when he gets triggered, but apart from that, Bucky's journey is really well reflected in that very emotional scene in the last episode. He's trying to make amends, confess, and explain what he did in his past. So the main Bucky theme, which probably reaches its climax musically in that scene, was another sort of end point to aim for. Narrative end points are a good indication. If you think where Bucky ends up and where Falcon or Sam Wilson ends up, it's a long way from Civil War and Winter Soldier. Once you know that narratively, [it's about coming] up with musical identity and theme to take us to those places.

Do you approach character first, or do you break it down by scene or atmosphere? Or is it a combination of the two?

Everyone's different, but I guess I would recommend that in a way, the secret hidden weapon of film scoring and composing is actually literary criticism. It sounds very intellectual and academic, but what I mean by that is, I think it's a bit more superficial to get distracted by an individual scene. Obviously certain movies have such a visual tone, so of course they're going to inspire the music. But in a way, you want to put yourself in the mind of a director or a writer, so you really understand the narrative function. Imagine having to do an academic breakdown of: what's actually going on in this film subtextually? What's it about? What are the themes of the film? And sometimes it'll mean that you have to understand the character and a theme particularly pertains to character, but sometimes it can be more conceptual. One of the things I did on Civil War, one of the ways to ruin it, in my opinion, would have been to have like seventeen themes flying around because there are so many superheroes. What was more important intellectually or narratively was the clash. The clash was what was important about it. What you ended up with was two opposing themes. So the big Civil War theme, which shows up a lot in that, denotes that there's something slightly tragic in there. I've used a bit of harmony in there that has tension in it. That's an example that doesn't pertain to any particular individual, but to the veering prospect of what happens when two sets of extremely powerful people disagree over those Accords and beat the crap out of each other at an airport, in a highly entertaining way. So it really depends.

In a way, what you should do is come up with a theme such that you've got the version that you can use right at the end of the movie. It should be so fully realized in your own imagination, and in a way, what you've actually got is probably the version you can only use at the end, and then what you've gotta do during the movie is deconstruct it and hint at it and work backwards. In other words, my recommendation is, instead of having a few pork slices and then trying to assemble a pig, is you should roast a whole pig, even though you don't need that in the beginning. Then you start slicing that and taking bits of it and you've got your full meal at the end. Even though it can be frustrating sometimes, because you can write a complete melody. In X-Men: First Class, I was dying to get that [theme in there], but they're a bunch of incompetent teenagers. For ages, they don't get it together. There's all these processes where they're coming together. It's like, "Come on! Let me get that tune out in its full context!" But it's much better to have the fully realized idea in your head and be forced to deconstruct in the early stages, rather than have a few fragments and then suddenly have to pull out a finished, developed thing. I'd much rather have the full cake hidden in the oven and slice it down if need be, but I've already figured out the full cake.

Do you look at the footage or read the script and go, "I think Sam is this instrument" or "I think Bucky is this instrument?" Do you think that way?

It's a really good question, but I don't know how conscious I am of it. I think in the really early stages of reading scripts, I want – to go back to that remark about literary criticism – I want so to get underneath the skin of the writing that I think I almost willfully read it as if I'm a writer. Imagine a writer going, "Hey, I've got this script. Will you read through it and give me [notes]?" Maybe subconsciously things are starting to brew in the back of my head, but in the first couple of reads of the script, I'm really going for the mechanics of what's happening in the story. At least consciously. Maybe some rumblings happening. Then when I go into the studio, I feel like as I start to explore, which is a very instinctive thing, I think the discipline of having really focused on what's going on in the story, especially subtextually, you're more likely to [create] material that's hitting the sweet spot because you've had the discipline not just to have a brief read and then launch into action with some piece that you think is cool. Have you really understood what's going on? Film music isn't just about, "Hey, I wrote this piece of music! I like it. Do you like it?" It's more like, I've got this idea of a fracture in music, which was useful for Civil War. And I've got this idea of manipulation for Zemo, which is why I used a very serpentine scale. You've gotta know why you're doing something. Otherwise, you could do something interesting that actually doesn't benefit anybody.

I'm curious about the collaboration aspect. I spoke with both [creator] Malcolm [Spellman] and [director] Kari [Skogland] a few weeks ago, and they both said that they really tried to respect each other's space and distance. Who do you collaborate with? What's the creative process between the three of you making sure you all share the same vision for this score?

It depends completely on different projects. There is no law about how that works. Sometimes you have super interested and invested producers who are obsessed by music. Sometimes you have producers who so trust their director that they don't even say anything. There are a million and one permutations of this. But in the case of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I had very detailed conversations with Kari, and early on. What was great was Kari and I were talking way before the music was being written and having discussions about an African-American Captain America, discussions about Flag Smashers, idealism, capitalism – all sorts of heavy duty conversations way before we got into the music. Then once you get into the actual score, despite the efforts of Covid to disrupt everything, there's pretty slick technology going on. It's pretty easy to present music, and we can all be [on video] and talk together. Really, the brain trust was [editor] Jeff Ford and Kari and [producer] Nate [Moore], and other producers were really important. I mean, Kevin [Feige] is also really important.

I've been really lucky to work with some legends – to be in the same room as, and to work with the Katzenbergs, the Bruckheimers, and the Kevin Feiges. And I think one of the biggest geniuses I can see in these people who are operating on a stratospheric level of logistical creativity is they're really good at putting something together, finding the right people, and having confidence in them. Almost like a family. Giving people sufficient space that he gets the best out of all of their inherent creativity. And then having just enough note giving and entry into the process to come up with some of those critical far-reaching things that sometimes only he can see. So the day-to-day collaboration would be with Kari and Nate and [producer] Zoie [Nagelhout] and Jeff, the picture editor. And the creative watchful eye of Kevin comes in at these key moments to see sequences and patches of things. Trust me: if something isn't working, you'd never get it past Kevin. Even if everyone else had deluded themselves that something was working, you'd never get it past Kevin. Because he's got that overarching judgment call and instinct that, if you look at the whole universe created thus far, the Marvel universe has been pretty flawless.

When you're writing for a Marvel movie, you're not just writing for a standalone project – you're contributing to that larger universe you were talking about. You're serving not just this TV show, but possibly themes, motifs, ideas that will continue onward. Knowing that Captain America 4 has been announced with Malcolm writing it and knowing that these characters will continue, what is it like to serve not just this project, but the larger franchise? Do you think about that when you write? Or do you just focus down on this one project or it gets too overwhelming?

The latter is true. You just don't know. Even though you've said [Cap 4] has been announced, but I think technically it hasn't. I think it's a leak or something. Meaning, with the best will in the world, you really don't know, and there's been so many twists and turns that your best bet – if you think of Winter Soldier, Civil War, this six-episode show, they have so many aesthetic, creative, and musical demands, that your best bet is not to get distracted by guessing what may or may not happen in the future. I mean, for example, I was just delighted that the motif of Falcon, eight years later or whatever it was, became the basis of a superhero [project] that's emerged as Sam Wilson being Captain America. I could never have known that for a fact, and had I speculated, I could have been wrong or it could have been someone else. Like a dog chasing its tail. When I came up with that motif in Winter Soldier, I was really busy and the score was really important. I did for a second think, "Wow, I love that tune. I should develop this because I might need it – it could go somewhere. But I don't have time. I need to finish the score for Winter Soldier, and maybe I can come back to it one day." Then you start working on other projects. It's just something you know is pregnant with musical potential, but it's only when it comes around, now eight years later, that we've seen the show as it is and it becomes creatively clear that this is something that could be resurrected and transformed into a full theme.

But trying to guess? Good luck. Trying to second guess exactly how the Marvel universe plays out is a bit like trying to guess what Apple's new thing is. In a way, you don't want to know. You know what I mean? Part of it is unexpected. If you rewound to Iron Man, and then clicked your fingers to where we are now with WandaVision and this show, you'd be like, "How did they get there?" You just have to be patient and see. It's sort of a minor miracle. I mean, there are graphic novels. It's not a complete miracle – it's [based on] material. But nothing like this has ever been achieved in filmmaking. I know people say Star Wars, but it's not true. In terms of the breadth of the universe and how it links, I honestly don't think there's anything comparable.