Red Stewart chats with Henry Jackman about Jumanji: The Next Level…
Henry Jackman is an English composer who has been working in the film, television, and video game industries since the early-2000s. He is best known for his compositions for projects like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain Phillips, and Ralph Breaks the Internet. His latest work was for the fantasy film Jumanji: The Next Level. Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him, and I, in turn, had the honor to conduct it.
Mr. Jackman, thank you for taking the time to speak with me sir. You’re honestly one of my favorite, what I would call, modern composers, as in artists who gained prominence in the 2010s. So it’s a real privilege.
Oh, no problem.
Now, I know we’re here to talk about Jumanji: The Next Level, but I was hoping I could ask you a few other, more general questions, if that’s alright with you?
I love comic book movies, and you’ve been involved with the genre going back to Kick-Ass. And these days we’re getting 6-7 released a year; back in the day, we were lucky to get one a year. So that’s a great thing.
But one downside I feel to this is that people and fans don’t appreciate the music for these movies as much as they used to. It used to be that Danny Elfman and John Williams and John Ottman and Hans Zimmer’s scores were all memorable. But these days, that recognition isn’t given to every composer, which is disappointing because all superhero movies have great scores. And that extends to Kingsman and Winter Soldier and Civil War.
So I’m wondering, is that something you ever think about? Is the idea of trying to create an iconic theme ever at the back of your mind? Or are you focused on just creating music?
That’s an interesting question. When you talk about an iconic theme, it can come in various different guises. For example, with Jumanji, just because of the style of the filmmaking, it almost has a traditional aspect to it in that it hearkens back to some films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future, you know an older style of movie making and so the use of a symphony orchestra is deliberate move due to the symphonic style. Jumanji is very heavily thematic.
That isn’t something that I would say I was using when I was working with Joe and Anthony Russo. They’re a lot more destructive, renegade-type directors who don’t want a traditional symphonic score. So Winter Soldier had a lot of hybrid elements, and the weird thing, one of the iconic things I guess, was a really disturbing scream that took me about four weeks to come up and mess around with.
I mean, it depends. Some movies require a score to be complimentary. I’m trying to think of an example, like Captain Phillips, I know it’s not a superhero movie but it’s an example of trying to consciously come up with something iconic. Something like Captain Philips is deliberately minimal and subdued because it’s a very realistic story, whereas with a Marvel superhero movie you’re allowed much more narrative musical pace to be more invasive, because that’s what’s required.
But to be honest, as a sound composer, I believe you shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about your own musical mega-theme so much as what other series of musical ideas and moves would best suit that narrative and that movie and best be collaborative to what the directors want. And in some cases that will mean a big thematic or multi-driven or even an iconic piece of sound design, and you’re encouraged to be expressive, and on the other context it’s a case of being complimentary.
So scores come in all shapes and sizes. I see your point though. The fact that there are now loads of superhero movies compared to many years ago necessarily means that. Since Kevin Feige really got going with Marvel there’s a whole universe of stuff and I wouldn’t want to pull back on that just because of people not appreciating individual themes more. I think it’s great that the Marvel Universe kicked off and has produced as much as it has!
That’s a great way of putting it, and it makes sense that, as a composer, you’re more focused on what the individual film requires. I suppose I just feel bad for you guys who are doing the movies in-between the “event movies” like the Avengers, because you listen to tracks like Siberian Overture or Closure or Cap’s Promise, and it’s like, that’s just as good as John Williams and Danny Elfman! But not many people will recognize that.
I mean, to be honest, I’ve got such respect- the Danny Elfmans and John Williams and James Horners of this world have been around long enough and done enough amazing work for their music. Such phenomenal composers.
By the way, I’ve always wondered, when you did Winter Soldier, what was the reasoning behind not bringing back Alan Silvestri’s theme for Cap from First Avenger?
Yeah, it was such a different movie. That was one of the real headlines from Joe and Anthony actually. To me, it’s a great theme- I mean Alan’s one of my heroes. But the first Captain America movie is set in a politically-unambiguous era in which Captain America is the traditional, late-1940s early-50s, all-American hero. The baddies are doing stuff obviously bad and are related to the Nazis and it’s a simple world of good and evil. And the great thing that Alan came up with perfectly consists of a world of American patriotism and Captain America being a symbol of liberty and battling the evil Nazis and doing good wherever he goes.
But you get to Winter Soldier and it’s completely different. It’s set in the modern-era, Captain America is a fish-out-of-water, having to deal with a contemporary world, a world completely unrecognizable from the one he grew up in where those political certainties of America being a force for good are suddenly in question, because he is extremely uncomfortable with Fury’s preemptive defensive policy, an amazing computer that can figure out attacks before they can happen and can exterminate people.
So it’s like a modern-political thriller, and that world of unquestioning patriotic themes that is completely inappropriate for the old Cap wouldn’t fit in the storytelling and the narrative and filmmaking of Winter Soldier, other than right at the beginning! We found one place to get it done, right at the very beginning of Winter Soldier just before all the complexities and the political shenanigans start. It was the one opportunity to recall that more naive and simple patriotic world before all hell let loose.
That’s why that’s a good example of how you can have something that’s fantastic, like Alan Silvestri’s theme, that suits the nature of their film but doesn’t sit well in the new world.
No, that makes sense. It speaks to something another composer I talked to, Austin Wintory, said, which is that themes should evolve. And ironically I guess it’s similar to how you created leitmotifs for Spider-Man and Black Panther, but when Michael Giacchino and Ludwig Göransson did their scores they created their own motifs.
My last random question – on The Da Vinci Code and The Dark Knight, you’re credited as a music programmer. What exactly did that role entail?
Uh, very little. The Dark Knight was an epic masterpiece with Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. I think I did almost nothing- that credit is literally a legacy note. My contribution to The Dark Knight is basically nothing to be considered to what James and Hans did.
It’s good to hear that you still got a nice IMDB credit! Now let’s talk about Jumanij: The Next Level. This is the sequel to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. You know, my first interview ever for Flickering Myth was with Jumanji sound editor Julian Slater. I remember him telling me how they had to be creative sound-wise with recreating video game sounds because of how expensive licensing would have been. I’m curious, because of the video game setting of the two films, was there anything you did to help with the video game sound?
That’s a really good question, and, funny enough, it turns out all projects are different. For example, Wreck-it Ralph, not only was that an animated movie but it involved video games as well: the actual storytelling goes with the concept that the actual characters are characters from video games and it plays on the whole 8-bit thing and the Pixar-Disney thing of the characters being inside the arcade and when the humans aren’t around they have their own world, a lot like Toy Story.
But on Wreck-it Ralph, that was more appropriate to use. In fact, on the first one, there were a bunch of 8-bit namco styles: there were a few pieces that were in the 8-bit video game style, kind of like what you would get from early Nintendo. Whereas the video game aspect of Jumanji is very different. Its avatars are being sucked into the other world and they emerge in the adventurous Jumanji world. It doesn’t have lots of tropes from arcade games, you don’t see mouses or cables or coins- it doesn’t have that aspect. It’s more like Indiana Jones.
Now ironically, the thing that’s most like a video game in Jumanji is the structure of the movie. They meet characters who keep repeating themselves, and their quest is structured a bit like how you would work your way through a video game to get to the end of it. Whereas the mechanics are much more like once you’re in there it feels like a Raiders or Temple of Doom-type reality.
So the music itself in terms of orchestration, color, it doesn’t have construction elements like Wreck-it Ralph that are playing on an 8-bit or video game world. It’s more like a classic adventure. The fact that it’s also following the path of a video game means that you’re often helping the story with cues that sort of help the exposition. But the music itself is closer in style, orchestration, theme, and vocabulary to a kind of grounded action/adventure movie that you might have had in the past.
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