Junkie XL on the Insanely Stressful, Highly Addictive World of Film Scoring
By Katie Bain
“The perfect film music draws the viewer in without them realizing it’s happening.”
As a producer, Junkie XL toured the world playing for crowds of thousands. As a film composer, he reaches a vastly larger audience, albeit anonymously—unless you’re the kind of moviegoer who stays to watch the final credits.
In 2002, the Dutch artist born Tom Holkenborg relocated to Los Angeles with the goal of breaking into the world of film composition. He started as an intern, gradually building his network and going on to work with industry legends including Hans Zimmer. In the past 14 years, Holkenborg has written scores for movies including 300: Rise of An Empire, Mad Max: Fury Road, the recently released Deadpool and the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
This weekend, movie stars and other movie industry so and sos will descend on Los Angeles for the 88th annual Academy Awards, with film composition icons John Williams and Ennio Morricone both nominated for best original music score.
In celebration, Holkenborg discussed the insane stresses and unique thrills of making music for the movies.
What’s harder, producing as a solo artist or composing for film?
I would say film composition demands the most out of you, not only in knowledge of music, but also dealing with the stress. Extremely long working days for months on end, dealing with egos; you’re managing what the music needs to be, but also managing people. At the peak of a project you’re managing around 200 people. It’s not only the orchestra, but the conductor, the engineer, the music editors. It’s really a lot of work.
Your job is interesting in the sense that you have the power to affect the mood and meaning of a scene with the type of composition you use. How do you determine how to play things?
That’s usually up to the director to say what he wants. You can play a very sad scene very sad, but you can also play it very aggressively. You can play a very sad scene very happy, and it really affects the people who are watching.
A good example is in Deadpool; we looked for a song for a scene in which he gets tortured pretty gruesomely, and instead of playing some aggressive or sad music, we just picked Emmylou Harris’ “Mister Sandman,” and it’s beautiful. It almost makes you smile as he’s getting tortured. It takes the heavy weight off the scene, instead of underscoring it with dark, sad music.
When I scored the Johnny Depp mob film Black Mass, there’s an action scene at the end where everyone gets arrested and you find out how many years they get in jail. Instead of playing that as an action scene, we played it super emotional. People really get sucked in because of that. You feel the tremendous suffering these guys caused to all of their victims. This is something you try with the director, who’s always the one calling the shots. But yes, as a composer you have the opportunity to show the director what the potentials are.
What was it like collaborating with George Miller on Mad Max, which leaned heavily on your compositions because it contained so little dialogue?
George Miller was very serious when it came to creating the world in which these characters lived. In that world, they’re all so incredibly serious in their roles, and because of that, we look at it as a world that has spun completely out of control, and it becomes funny to an extent. When we see these young girls dressed up as brides, and these warriors, it becomes humorous too. It’s so clever how George did that.
In that sense, I wanted to create a rock opera that was so incredibly over the top that it would fit the insane world that had been created. We did a lot of thinking and talking about that, and George is also someone who really loves to talk for days on end about the synopsis behind certain things and the philosophy of why the music sounds the way it sounds. It was really great.
Of all the films you’ve worked on, are there any scenes where you feel you did something particularly inventive or evocative?
I’m really proud of the film Divergent with Shailene Woodley, where I wrote a theme on electric guitar with Ellie Goulding singing on top of it. It works so well; we definitely hit a nerve with all of these young people who went to see that film. It’s not music you would expect from a dystopian future world where a young woman turns into a warrior, that her theme is actually an electric guitar with Ellie Goulding singing. The fact that we did do it made that character so much more human, understandable, and relatable.
How do you know when you’re on the right track with a project?
There’s a very fine balance in compositions. Sometimes the music you play against a picture actually pushes people away from the picture, instead of inviting them in. The perfect film music draws the viewer in without them realizing it’s happening.
The optimum film music for me is music that does that, but at the same time, when you play it without the film there, it’s still interesting to listen to. That’s the most important thing from an artistic point of view when you’re a film composer.
What are your favorite film scores of all time?
That really depends on the moment of the day, but a few that always come back are Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and Blade Runner by Vangelis.
What’s the payoff of what seems to be a massively demanding job?
It’s really going to a theater on Sunday night and sitting with a hundred other people who have no clue what they’re going to be seeing, and they’re screaming and yelling in the theater because they’re so happy to be seeing the movie. When I walk out of the theater and people have no idea who I am and they’re talking about how the music was cool, that’s my payoff.