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'Pixels' & 'Captain America: Civil War' Composer Henry Jackman Talks Movies' Music [EXCLUSIVE]

by Jon Niles   Jul 24, 2015 10:25 AM EDT

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Composer Henry Jackman recently spoke with us in an exclusive interview about the highly anticipated blockbuster movie event Pixels directed by Chris Columbus, in theaters now! Though the movie is full of giant 8-bit 1980s video game characters attacking the planet, Jackman's music sets the pace of the film's story, suspense and action with a full orchestra towering over the out of this world story! The talented composer also spoke a bit about his next project, Captain America: Civil War, which marks his return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Check out Music Times' exclusive interview with Henry Jackman right here!

How did you get involved with Pixels?

I remember reading a script, and this would've been, I think six or seven months before the music even needed to happen. I remember reading a script and really enjoying the concept of it and then I was very lucky in that Chris Columbus had been listening to a few bits and pieces that I'd been doing I think. Maybe the fact that I'd done Wreck it Ralph, which even though it's completely different as a sort of thematic relation in that it involves video games. But I think I was on his radar. So we just started talking and he was really up for it and we were really excited to work with each other.

How involved was Chris Columbus in this process?

Well very much but the great thing about Chris is he's - my favorite directors are not musical micromanagers - and we spent a lot of time together in the beginning. Because it's sort of a symphonic, traditional score I really set about writing the themes so they would work on a piano, old-fashioned style kind of thing. So I came up with these themes, I played them for Chris, and we talked through the whole movie, we spotted the movie... And once I started writing and he liked the style, he liked the orchestration, he liked the feel of it, he was a very musically non-interfering director and then would give filmmaking notes. So we'd play through music and then his notes would mostly be guidance as to the story or how I can enhance certain things. It was really my favorite kind of film director; meaning enough involvement to have a really coherent, creative discussion but not such an invasive desire to control everything that it starts cramping the evolution of the music. So he's right in that sweet spot of knowing what we wants and being able to have a coherent dialogue without invading too much musical space. I think you get the best out of people that way.

Is creative freedom like that important to you when you're working on a project?

Well it's not really about me, it's more the movie. Generally speaking, I think the most successful scores are when you let someone - within reason, as long as the composer is along the right lines and is helping the story...it's really the initial period of writing a score is where you're trying to find exactly the tone and you can often have some creative exploration in that period. But having found the overall thematic tone for a film and the approach, whether it's orchestral or production, whatever's going on, it's usually better.

It's probably the same with everything. If you've got a cinematographer you believe in and you like what he does then within the bounds of some creative discussion that pertains specifically to that movie, it's probably a good idea to let him to some extent do his thing. Some of the best music I've written, like Big Hero 6 is a good example, John Lasseter knows when to step in and say things. His policy is more that he's very picky about who he works with and then having found a creative team he trusts, he lets them get on with it and then steps in as and when necessary as opposed to being a constant micromanager. I just think that's a good process in general. I mean that doesn't work when things are going wrong but I think in general if you trust someone's vision or you like what someone does in some aspect, whether it's music or special effects or even costume design or whatever, then it's good to allow people enough breathing room to bring something to a film that you otherwise might not have anticipated.

One of the great things about if you're a good producer or director is if you find the right people and you trust them, and especially if you have the creative maturity to let them breathe, then you often will end up with extra contributions that you may have not necessarily have anticipated but have now come about because of the creative space you've afforded other people.

Was it hard to keep the 8-bit '80s video game sound away from the score?

Well not really because it didn't work. First things first, Chris loves orchestral score. And if you're staring at a huge cinema screen with representations of Frogger and Centipede and DK and you're hearing, admittedly amped up and beefed up, sound effects which also relate to those iconic games and then if on top of that you're also hearing 8-bit music you've got a hat on a hat, on a hat on a hat on a hat. In the early stages, there's a training scene where Brenner is explaining to the US army, [laughs] who are a little bemused about the whole thing, instead of the usual military training they're now getting arcade game training courtesy of Brenner and Ludlow. And I actually did a version of that early on that was more produced in a 1982 needle drop pop record, we used that in the end credits I think. It's on the CD as the last track. But it was then generally felt when we want to go for songs we'll do iconic needle drops from the '80s, like in the montage when Brenner and Ludlow are fighting Centipede. But the score, you know similar to Ghostbusters, the score in Ghostbusters is straight, high-brow symphonic by Elmer Bernstein and then Ray Parker Jr. comes in for the song stuff and I just thought it's so much classier. In the beginning when you see the invasion, even though it's a mother ship with '80s video characters coming out of it, it feels so much classier when it feels like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So if you saw the alien mother ship and then you start seeing these graphics coming out of it and it's going [imitates video game sounds] and then the music was also being 8-bit, you'd be completely missing the storytelling part of it being an invasion of Earth. And that's why it's treated much more like the kind of key you might get in Close Encounters where it's more grand and more symphonic. Otherwise you just end up with everything...it's a bit like that rule of comedy: if someone's being funny and you've got funny music as well then it's too much. So if you're already seeing iconic video game characters and you're hearing the sound effects from it, if you're also hearing something a bit literal in the 8-bit music it's too much.

Were you a fan of these video games growing up?

Yeah, I'm at that age where I won't pretend otherwise [laughs]. Not only did I have all of these games on floppy disks for the BBC Micro, which is a computer that you didn't get here that was in England, but I had the Nintendo the original Game and Watch - the little flip screen ones that came out. I even had DK and I think Donkey Kong Jr. the single screen one. I played all, it's not like, "Oh I better go do some research into '80s arcade games," because sad to say I could remember almost everything about them.

What was it like seeing them come to life almost literally on the big screen?

I knew what to expect because I'd read the script but it's great. It gets better and better. When you first work on a film, a lot of the special effects are placeholders; they just put stuff while they're busy working on it. And then each update I get of the film, you start to see what it's going to be like as the special effects are getting better and better and better. It was interesting because it's not your usual style of special effects because they're very well executed but they're sort of deliberately in an 8-bit style, which is sort of an interesting proposition for the special effects guys.

I do have to ask about Captain America: Civil War. Have you started working on it yet?

No, I've honestly got nothing to say about that because, A) I can't and B) I really don't have anything to say because I started it or seen any of it.

Well, they are introducing the new Spider-Man in it as a cameo...

Oh well you're ahead of me. I honestly, well you never know what's in a film until you see the film. I nearly, very shortly that will be on my purview but I'm excited about it because what I think is special about Joe and Anthony Russo is what they achieved so well on The Winter Soldier was they obviously have made - it's a superhero movie and it's within the Marvel universe and didn't make any sort of anarchic attempt to smash its way out of it, it's proudly in the Marvel franchise - but they really got their own angle on it by introducing some political substance into the story. So you get all the action as well as some thought-provoking content and regardless of how many characters, that's probably what's tough as a director if you've got an ensemble of characters and they all need time on screen and they're superheroes and whatnot, I've no doubt that they'll find a way to both satisfy how awesome it is to have an action sequence with all of your favorite superheroes involved at once but then still maintain the integrity and substance of a story. That's what they did so well in Winter Soldier and I have every confidence they'll do it again. They're really smart guys.

As a composer I know you would get the first chance in this rebooted franchise to give Spider-Man a theme, is that exciting to you or is it a little scary?

Well not really. Honestly I can't really tell at this point because it depends what the film is. I think the issue I imagine would be if you've got lots of superheroes you've got to be careful that you don't have loads and loads and loads of themes. The trick will be to figure out what the story is about and make sure that the themes are a unifying force. You don't want to be too literal sometimes, where every time you see a thing you hear a thing. What your real job as a film composer is to understand that that particular story that is specific to what the directors are actually doing and what that story is really about and then make sure that the themes reinforce that story. Which may or may not mean that certain characters get certain themes but the priority is figuring out what is the movie about and you may find that you're doing a better job for the film by unifying certain characters into a narrative thought rather than fragmenting characters out so that they have their own individual themes.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I'm very fortunate to be working on a - talking of video games, it's sort of come full circle because unlike Pixels and all the video games that were involved that were around at that time, the opportunities to do music in video games back in those days was pretty limiting because you could only make little bleeping noises [laughs]. Whereas that's not true anymore so I've been going crazy, not going crazy like I don't like it but meaning I've been doing nonstop film work. And so when I was approached by Naughty Dog productions, who have done some really cool and groundbreaking video games, I was a lot more interested because these days doing the music for video games is a completely different proposition than 1982. They've got time and a budget and you can record orchestra properly and it's not that dissimilar to doing the score for a film. And the director of the new Uncharted, it's released by Sony, the director [Neil Druckmann] I thought was a really interesting creative force and he did the game The Last of Us, so working with him has been a really pleasure. So that I've been really enjoying and it's different to a movie- it's super intense and you work like crazy for 3 or 4 months pretty much all the time whereas on a video game it's kind of spaced out over a much longer period of time. So it's just a different experience, which I also enjoyed. That's been good.

The gaming community is very excited about Uncharted 4.

It's great, it really is. They're not going to be disappointed, I can tell you already, they're not going to be disappointed because I've seen loads of it.

Do you have any advice for those trying to get into your field?

Don't do it! [laughs] I always say that, it's terrible. I just recently did an interesting panel where I was just one of several members - not least of whom was the head of music at Disney [Mitchell Leib], and I was just doodling. They gave you a little notepad and a pencil, completely absentmindedly I was just doodling and I wrote don't become a film composer [laughs]. I don't mean that negatively. All it is, when people ask that question because it must seem, and indeed it is really exciting and it's fun and it's great and it's creative and it's really really fulfilling, and if you're standing on the sidelines looking at it you must think, "Oh wow that would just be great all the time." The only thing I will say is that you need a ridiculous amount of endurance and determination just because of the nature of the job.

So I don't really mean don't become a film composer and don't do it. What I really mean is unless you are ludicrously committed and semi-obsessive, almost slightly unhealthily so, it may not be the job for you [laugh]. If you're always concerned to have a balanced life and lots of time to do other things, I strongly advise you to do something else. And if I'm speaking to someone and I try to put them off and go well there's this and the hours...and they still really want to do it then they're the right person. It's an almost unfeasibly committed type of job. And I love it, because that's just the sort of person I am. But it's peculiarly absorbing and as long as you've got a massive amount of endurance...and there is something slightly obsessive about it. I mean it's just the nature of the job; you really get inside a film nonstop, almost obsessively, for 3 or 4 months and unlike normal jobs you live and breathe it like it's your baby. And then it's over and then you do it again for something else, it's just a level of crazy commitment that comes naturally to me.

I know I'm mostly talking about psychological things and what I mean by that is that of course, you would expect me to talk about musical things if you want to be a film composer, I'm taking that as a given. The point I'm making is that from a group of people, all of whom have very significant creative and musical skills, I would argue that the defining characteristic which would make some of those people but not all be suitable for film composing is actually some of these psychological aspects that I'm talking about. It's a given that if you want to be a film composer you should have a decent and full command of all sorts of musical skills. But it's often unconsidered or overlooked the other aspects of it, and that's maybe what would come as a surprise to a student or someone thinking about it. And that's what I would mostly make them think about.

For more information on composer Henry Jackman, check out his Facebook page right here!

Jon Niles is a contributing features writer for Music Times. He is the Associate Editor for MStars News as well. Follow Jon on Twitter right here!

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