Interview with Composer Henry Jackman (Birth of a Nation, Captain America 2 & 3)

henry_jackman_1.jpgWhen I called up composer Henry Jackman’s office to do the interview, I was put on hold. Fittingly, while I was waiting I got to listen to the music of Henry Jackman. It was a great way to start the interview as his music is moving even when it’s “on hold” music from the phone.

Henry’s list of credits is already legendary, and he’s just getting started. He has composed Captain America 2 & 3, X-Men: First Class, Kinsman 1 & 2, and the upcoming Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, just to name a few. And I didn’t even mentioned his Animation movie composing (Go to his imdb profile).

In this interview, we centered on his score on “Birth of a Nation”, which should definitely lead him to his first Oscar nomination.

Matthew Toffolo: When did you first come aboard “Birth of a Nation?

Henry Jackman: The very early stages. My agent was friendly with Nate Parker (director of the film) and he introduced us. He initially suggested Nate get in touch with me, stating that I’m not just a big budget composer.

I read the script and I knew this needed to happen. Nate was a man consumed with purpose and whatever was needed to get this film done, he was going to do it. So I was in right away. There was no financing completed, and he didn’t even have a studio on board yet, but I knew that Nate was going to make it happen.

The story of Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation”:

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MT: How did the process work with you completing the score of the film? Did you receive a rough cut at first?

HJ: By the time I got the picture, it was about 85% completed. He didn’t have the luxery of doing an extended cut where I score the music and they cut that. He knew what he wanted in production and shot it. So when I began working on it, it was almost already done.

MT: What kind of direction did you get? What kind of thematic were you told to create?

HJ: Nate just told me that he loves the human voice and it would be a great way to connect with the audience for this story. I had the budget contraints on my mind and thought we could get really creative and use a solo singer, and a solo celloist and just a few other intruments. But to Nate’s credit, he said to create the score like we have all the money in the world, and he’s figure out the budget. And that really helped me. By the time we got to the ending, I knew we needed a big musical score with lots of singers and Nate got it done. We ended up with what we needed.

MT: From a practical and creative standpoint, working on this film must have been apples compared to oranges in comparison to you working on the Captain America films?

HJ: It’s funny you say that. Ultimately, yes, there are differences, but the differences are only surfaces. The process of coming up with the thematic score, writing the music etc… is the same on both films. The budget is there and of course I had more financial freedom with Captain America, but the creative process was exactly the same.

MT: I was at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) screening of “Birth of a Nation” and the energy was amazing in the cinema. When the film ended, it received a standing ovation. But of course there is a controversary with the director (if you do not know, please Google it) that the media keeps bring up that, and some can say, has tainted the film. Do you have any opinions of the conversary surrounding the film? How “Birth of a Nation” is probably not getting the attention it deserves?

HJ: The only thing I can say is that I encourage anyone to go see this film. Speaking about myself growing up in a European heritage, I didn’t even know about this part of history and the story of what happened in 1831. Everyone knows the basic history, but this film tells a story, without being heavyhanded about it, about what happened then and the legacy this time still holds for us today. That’s such an important thing. So if anyone has any hesitation, please keep that in mind.

MT: The controversary is kind of a 2016 problem. The film itself is never just the story and promotion now. It’s the social media influence and how the personal lives of everyone part of the film get mixed into what the film is trying to say. So Nate’s personal history, some can argue, taints what this film is trying to say.

HJ: That’s true. People make their own opinion and judgements. Whatever tweets that are flying around now is part of our present day communication and there’s nothing wrong with that. The story of Nat Turner is definitely something people should also be talking about – and going to see this film.

MT: What type of working relationship do you like to have with your director?

HJ: I think the best relationship is a consistent vision and they are never flip-flopping. An overall vision that’s in the costumes, editing, acting etc…, but with sufficient space that allows each artist do what they need to do.

For example, all the conversations with Nate were about the film and it’s themes. What each scene is about. So all the little conversations, like what’s not working etc…, is about the overall vision. So there isn’t any conversations that are NOT about the film and its visiion. Which makes for the best working relationship.

Edward Zwick (just finished working with him on Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is an example of a great director/composer experience. He brought the tranquility to the process. Everyone is pulling on the same rope to create the vision. When films get in trouble is when the vision changes.

MT: Tell us about the CAPTAIN AMERICA experience? Working for MARVEL?

The Russo Brothers are also great directors to work with. It is different because we’re working on a franchise and all of the films in the Marvel universe need to connect. What makes the Russo’s amazing is that they can do their own film and make it connect with all of the other films. They are masterful directors in capturing their own unique voice in this massive franchise.

Captain America: Winter Soldier was such an amazing experience and many regard it as the best comic book movie made.

MT: Because it wasn’t a comic book movie. Tone-wise it was a spy/thriller?

Exactly. But they didn’t go so far in that direction and leave the fans behind. They mastered the circle. So by the time we did the 3rd film (Captain America: Civil War), Marvel left them completely alone to do their thing as they trusted them. And I have to say they nailed it.

MT: And you nailed it with the score of that film?

Thanks. I am proud of that film.

MT: From a technology standpoint, where do you see the future of composing in the movies?

The future is always a guess. If you go back 30 years in music in film, the tolerance then is different than it is today. There is more variety in music in film today. Film scores are now a broad church. Producers are less freaked out by a wide score of music composed in a film. People now listen to a wider range of music so in relation there is more freedom for the composer to add a wider range. So the future is probably going to simply go wider as access to all kinds of music that people listen to become less judgemental.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go tohttp://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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