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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Interview with Storyboard Artist Robert Castillo (X-Men: Apocalypse, Star Wars: Episode VII)

Award winning Director, Animator and Illustrator and Storyboard Artist Robert Castillo discovered his passion for art and illustration at the tender age of five. Nicknamed “Sketch”, Castillo would draw his way through his difficult transition of returning to the US from the Dominican Republic, mastering English, and acclimating to the mostly white environment of Chelsea, Massachusetts.

It was an honor sitting down with one of the more sought out storyboard artists in Hollywood. In just the last year, Robert has worked on “Star Wars”, “Fifty Shades of Black”, “Ride Along 2”, “Keanu”,  “Captain America: Civil War”, “Bad Neighbours 2”, “X-Men: Apocalypse”, and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.

Matthew Toffolo: You have worked as a Storyboard Artist on over 60+ productions in the last 15 years. Do you have a favorite experience?

Robert Castillo: I think that there are a few experiences but the one that sticks out to me would be working on the Ant-Man special features for Marvel. In the DVD extra example, they use my drawing of a Court room scene. It was great to do this job because I am a big Marvel fan and grew up with the comics.

Close second would be working on The Sopranos with Steve Buscemi.

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MT: You are credited many times as being a Storyboard Artist: Promo Team. What does promo team mean?

RC: The Promo team would be whatever company is doing promotional commercials and advertising for the film. networks like VH1, MTV, TRU TV, Viacom etc.

They have me storyboards any advertising for the Film or TV show.

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MT: You worked on three films that are about to being released for the 2016 summer movie season (Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, X-Men Apocalypse, Bad Neighours 2). Three different movies in terms of tone and genre. Did you have a positive time working on these films?

RC: Yes I did! I have the greatest job in the world! I read a script someone wrote and try to visualize what they are seeing in their heads. I get to use my imagination all day, as I am doing this interview I am working on a commercial. I am always drawing everyday and I can’t complain. Some jobs are tougher than others and more demanding but at the end of the day I am drawing.

MT: You have worked on a lot of action films. How important is the creation of the storyboard to the production team for the action and fight scenes?

RC: It is super important and crucial to storyboarding action scenes or fight scenes. It helps everyone to be on the same page. Storyboards also have a psychological effect in that when its on paper its just one step away from being a reality.

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MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director? How early do you meet before production begins?

RC: I wish I could say we always meet early but sometimes they call me a day before its due! It can be a very stressful lifestyle but I try and do the best job possible.

When things go right I meet with the director at least a week or a few days before I start drawing.

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MT: What are you looking for in a director?

RC: I look for a storyteller, someone that has a clear story in their mind and they know what they want to see on the screen but sometimes I get directors that don’t know what they want and it’s up to me to find that something they are looking for.

MT: What advice would you have for people who would like to do what you do?

RC: If you want to do storyboards for a living make sure that is what you want to do! Don’t do it just for the money! Take a lot of drawing classes or at least practice. Watch movies like Citizen Kane and Kurosawa films to learn composition and pacing. and practice everyday. I am still learning believe it or not after all these years.

MT: What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

RC: The one movie that I have watched the most in my life would have to be the first Star Wars movie, because in 1977 when i came back to the U.S. from Dominican Republic it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen on the screen.

Top Five Storyboards

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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 towww.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Trent Opaloch (Captain America: Civil War)

Trent Opaloch is easily the most talented and sought after cinematographers in the world today. He has DP’d for director Neil Blomkamp  on “District 9”, “Elysium”, and “Chappie”,  and director’s Anthony & Joe Russo on “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, and the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War”. It was an honor to sit down with him to chat about his career and the art of cinematography.

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Mathew Toffolo: You first worked with director Neil Blomkamp on the short films “Tempbot” and “Yellow”. How did you two meet? What makes your director/DP relationship so successful?

Trent Opaloch: I met Neill shooting low budget music videos. We shot a handful of videos & short films while I was working at Clairmont (camera rental house) & he had just left a vfx house here in Vancouver.

He used to do all his own vfx work back then so it was really interesting to see the the whole process. That was all happening at a very exciting time for vfx where some pretty sophisticated tracking software was coming out and it really freed up the camera & made it possible to use that hand held energy with extremely realistic visual effects. It was great because it was the first time your imagination wasn’t limited by what you were able to build in reality. It opened up the possibilities for story telling and those shorts and small projects were a great training ground for the big vfx movies that we’re doing now. You can apply those same basic principals on a much larger canvas at bigger budget levels.

MT: You both leaped into the feature film world in the highly successful film “District 9”. How was the initial experience moving from shorts to features? Do you remember the initial cinematic design conversations you had with Neil about the film?

TO: It was a pretty easy transition for Neill & I to go shoot District 9. We had developed a good short hand over the years on the shorts and music videos so it was just a matter of doing our thing with a much larger crew. The challenge is to communicate with the crew so everyone is on the same page. That’s a different dynamic to how we would have worked on the smaller things with just a few people.

The way Neill described the film to me, and to this day this is the best pitch I’ve ever heard. He said imagine there was a documentary made by the NFB (National Film Board here in Canada) that was about these aliens landing in Johanessburg in the 80’s. And someone taped that documentary when it played on tv in the 80’s on a vhs tape and then threw that tape in a drawer for 20 years. And you come along and blow the dust off it & pop it into your retro vhs machine & press play. That was his pitch for District 9 and it instantly communicated everything you needed to get the film. Brilliant.

Now things changed in the process of course so it wasn’t as degraded an image as that. I actually wanted to shoot on 16mm with the NFB doccie esthetic in mind but Peter Jackson bought a boatload of RED ONE cameras so that was nipped in the bud.

PHOTO: Cinematography of the film DISTRICT 9:

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MT: What were your reactions to the success of “District 9”? It must have really changed your life and career path?

TO: Well it was pretty amazing to work on something that was so well received around the world. It was a difficult film to make in some pretty harsh environments but we had a great group of people on it. It sort of felt like there weren’t any ‘grown ups’ around to tell us what to do really. Neill had set things up so that were on our own to make the movie our own way which was pretty amazing when you think it was his first feature.

MT: What brought you to the Captain America movies? How is it to DP a film that has two directors?

TO: I’ve actually worked with directing duos quite a bit in commercials so it wasn’t that strange for me to step into that sort of thing for Winter Soldier. I got the call for the first meeting with Joe & Anthony Russo and I was really impressed with them and their approach and how they wanted the film to feel.

I actually don’t mind the director duo thing as long as they have their dynamic figured out between them. Different directing teams work in their own way that is specific to their combined personalities so you get different approaches. The fact that Joe & Anthony are brothers is great because they have this great bond between them that goes back decades and they’ve worked together on so many things in films & tv shows that they have a good system down.

MT: “The Winter Soldier” was an amazing comic book/action film. Even the Fanboys couldn’t help but give it ultimate praise. What were the broad strokes ideas you had with the Russo’s in terms of the cinematic life you gave the film? It was a different feel to the other Marvel films, but it still was a Marvel film. A fine line to balance one would assume!

TO: It’s funny because I never really planned on ever shooting anything like that but I loved the creative approach that the Russo’s had for the film. Our whole thing was to take the edge off the genre of it all by basing it in reality as much as we could. I really liked the idea of shooting the film like a 70’s conspiracy thriller to ground the whole thing a bit. We referenced films like “Marathon Man” & “The Three Days of The Condor” early in prep.

PHOTO: Chris Evans in Captain America: Winter Soldier:

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MT: You have a big film coming up in “Captain America: Civil War”. How were you experiences working on that film? Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect? It seems like all of the stars of the Marvel Universe are in this film!

TO: It was great to get back with the Russo’s and the team again for Civil War. We had just an amazing crew so that makes the whole experience so much better. The people around you are very important when you’re up against challenging situations. We shot quite a bit of our exteriors on the Pinewood backlot in Atlanta & the heat & humidity can be quite brutal.

On a movie of this size it’s assumed that everybody knows their jobs at this point so it really comes down to having a great attitude under pressure and being there together for the film.

We were also very fortunate to work with a great German crew in Berlin that made our transition over there very smooth.

There were a ton of actors on this film and that was actually quite challenging to shoot them all with their crazy schedules. The tough thing is that you can end up shooting someones close up in another country and weeks after you’ve shot the other side of the conversation so it’s always a challenge dealing with changing weather conditions etc. to maintain some cohesiveness to the scene.

I’m starting up prep on the new Infinity Wars films that we’re shooting back to back with the Russo’s later this year & the scale of those two films combined is a bit mind blowing so it’s good that these last two films have ramped up in terms of scale and complexity because each one prepares you for the next.

PHOTO: Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War:

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MT: How much of the Captain America films are storyboarded? Are you a part of that process in pre-production?

TO: These films are heavily boarded & pre-vised, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. The pre-vis process starts very early in the film’s development so that’s when you have to get in there to help start guiding the process along with the directors so that it fits in with what everyone is aiming for and what the production team is going to do on set.

The Marvel films are incredibly collaborative and that’s a huge part of their success I think. We have worked with the vfx supervisor Dan Deleeuw on these last two films and he is in charge of building the pre-vis sequences so that is an invaluable resource to start the discussion with the whole team before you get out there on the real-time clock burning production money.

MT: You have obviously mastered the cinematic artform of the intense action/thriller film. Is there another genre that you like to work in?

TO: I don’t have any specific genre goals as far as the types of films I’d like to work on really. I’m always just looking for scripts that I enjoy and that hopefully have something to add to what’s out there already. I shoot a lot of commercials in between film projects so I don’t mind turning down things & waiting until something interesting comes along. Feature films have such a long development period & then you’re away from home for most of the year prepping & shooting so you have to choose your projects carefully.

MT: What advantages/disadvantages do you think you have had starting in the short film/indy world in comparison to other DPs who worked through the Unions to become a cinematographer?

TO: The biggest thing I feel was missing from the early days was the opportunity to see how other cinematographers worked. That’s the nice thing about working your way up through the ranks. You’re in the front row watching how the big boys do it. I used to do set visits when I worked at the rental house & it was always cool to see the different lighting approaches or specific rigging that someone had done.

Also my step dad had a subscription to American Cinematographer so I had read every single page of every issue since I was 16 years old. That was invaluable, of course this was years before the internet and the behind the scenes special features on dvd’s & blu rays that we have now so that was the best way of seeing how things were done at the time.

I think the advantage of starting the way I did is that you’re doing what you want to do from the beginning so you start developing right away. The trap in working your way up through the different crew positions is that you can get trapped there. All of a sudden you’re 15 years into working sets and paying off a mortgage so it’s tough to make the leap & reimagine your career as a DP. I think if you want to do something than you should just start doing it at whatever level you can.

MT: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

TO: I don’t have one individual really but there are countless people that I learned from when I first started shooting. I started working at Clairmont Camera in Vancouver after film school so I was around professional camera crews full time & just tried to learn everything I could, just hoover up as much information as you can. Why that lens over this one, when to use a fluid head vs. wheels etc. Just tons of little details that you absorb over time. I think that was a great introduction to how things worked on set but at the same time I wasn’t that interested in working on tv shows or MOV’s at the time so I shot my own stuff or with friends on the weekends & was able to develop over time and make mistakes in a safe environment where there wasn’t a ton of money on the line.

MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

TO: Well it’s an exciting time as far as what’s out there already & what’s coming out. The camera technology just keep getting better every year and LED lighting is really coming into it’s own so it’s great to have options available to you to choose from the toolbox for different scenarios. I’ve really been enjoying running our lighting setups through DMX lighting consoles and media servers for the last couple of years. You just have almost infinite control over the quality and the dynamics of the light as far as movement and colour.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

TO: That’s a tough question. Probably “Blade Runner”, “Heat”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Jaws”, “Godfather 1&2”, “Stalker”, “The Conversation” “Apocalypse Now” all the classic iconic movies. There’s a ton more for sure. There are just some films that you come across on tv and it’s impossible to stop watching even if you’ve seen it a hundred times. My parents had “Das Boat” and “Fitzcarraldo” basically on infinite repeat in my house when I was young too which drove my sister and I crazy at the time.

MT: Where did you grow up? Did you always want to be a cinematographer?

TO: I was born and raised in a place called Thunder Bay in Ontario Canada. It’s quite a small town and I moved away for high school but went back to film school at Confederation College so it was great to be back in my home town, starting a new chapter of my life. I was more into music as a kid and played in different bands growing up so I never really thought of film as a career until my early 20’s when I went to film school.

My step dad was a nature cameraman when I was a kid so he took me out on his shoots and taught me how to load film and thread the camera etc. Of course it was more documentary work so there was no lighting at all but it was a good introduction to camera and sound equipment. I used to go into the post production offices where they cut his films and would see shots that we had taken cut into the edit so it was almost like pre-film school for me as a kid.

 

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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 to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.