ByVahn Gharakhani, writer at
Filmmaker - Actor - Writer -
Vahn Gharakhani

Hey MARVEL fans! One thing we cannot deny is that MARVEL Studios really cares about everything they work on in the MCU, including their film scores! Captain America: The Winter Soldier is doing amazingly well and one of the contributions is its music! But do you ever wonder how a composer writes and is inspired by such a bombastic film? Well do we have an interview for you! Composer Henry Jackman recently sat down to talk about his score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, how he distinctly wrote different themes for each character, how Cap’s theme has evolved from the first film, working with the Russo brothers as directors, and what inspired him to write such a complicated score for a MARVEL film.

Your score for [Captain America: The Winter Soldier](movie:254973) worked so well with the movie and complimented the story. I was wondering if you could talk a little about how this project came together?

HENRY JACKMAN: It’s funny. It’s one of those things where if people just listen to the CD, they have an image of Captain America in their head understandably as a figure of tradition and one would associate it with classic symphonic Americana. Alan Silvestri did a great score on the first one which was more of a period film. If you haven’t seen the film and you just listened to the CD, you’d be thinking, “What the hell is going on?” When you listen to something like the Winter Soldier, it’s a long, long way [from a traditional symphonic score]. I love writing symphonically involved music and I do a lot of animation. It was just a key thing when you said having seen the film that the music worked with the film. The process for this film was really embracing and understanding that Joe and Anthony Russo had taken probably the most traditional superhero that we can think of, with the possible exception of Superman, but I would argue that Captain America even more is a symbol of 1950s American patriotism, and they’ve grabbed hold of it and reinvented it by contextualizing the film in the modern era and putting Captain America in a politically ambiguous environment and against an adversary who’s completely brutal as a soldier.

He owes a little bit to and is almost a cross between RoboCop and Terminator. So, process-wise, it was embracing. Had it been another period film, I would have fully engaged in a traditional symphonic score and that would have been fantastic. However, for this film, nothing would have been more inappropriate because of the nature of the film. If you’ve seen the film, some of those action sequences are serious. I mean, there’s something incredibly contemporary about the film. Even though Captain America still has a basic set of superhero values that reach back all the way to the traditional Captain America that we all know, particularly in the third act of the film that emerges, it’s actually a realistic, contemporary film that avoids a lot of fantasy and there’s very little nostalgia. It’s a lot more contemporary. It’s almost closer to a Dark Knight aesthetic than it is a Richard Donner traditional Superman film, and that gets reflected in the music. For example, the arch villain Winter Soldier is incredibly unorchestral and is very brutal, very electronic, very deliberately harsh, unrelenting and mechanized. That may come as a shock to people.

In Captain America, in the previous movie, the arch villain is Red Skull and has Wagnerian symphonic baddie music, and Captain America is always scored traditionally. And this is just a very, very different movie. But I think it’s a fantastic idea. What they did with the franchise of Captain America shows that you don’t have to keep that character as a nostalgic idea. The character has enough depth and strength to bring it into the contemporary era and make it seem relevant. And judging by Rotten Tomatoes, other people are thinking that because they’re giving the movie 94 percent.

When you’re scoring a large scale action movie like this, how do you balance the energy of the visual effects that we see up on the screen with the humanity of the characters and their story?

It’s completely dependent on the film. Imagine if Captain America, the second installment, had been set in the 1950s and been anti-communist and against the totalitarian Russians. The score might have sounded like a semi-Shostakovich (Dimitri Shostakovich) rip-off. But it being set how it is, they had fun with it. Towards the beginning of the movie, he’s a fish out of water. He doesn’t know what the internet is. He’s never seen an iPod. He’s missed out on all popular culture from the ‘60s onward, and because there’s an enormous amount of action in the film, it’s super important to support that. You can’t ignore that. It has to be very visceral. However, I would argue that in the third act – I can’t give away too much about the story – Cap is understandably reticent. The movie to me almost has a sort of military-industrial complex touch about it, reminiscent of that famous speech that Eisenhower gave the American nation as he stepped down from being President. Beware the danger of having so much military technology, that even with good intentions, you can start making wayward decisions and before you know where you are you’ve accidentally created a fascist state. He’s stuck in the middle of that uncomfortable knowing, because being Captain America, he’s got these basic values which may sound corny, but that have to do with the nobler side of American politics, which is to be the land of the free and he’s supposed to be the sentinel of liberty.

So, when he finds his own government doing things that are questionable, it creates a tension. What that means is musically speaking there is an opportunity in the third act when Cap seizes the reins of the film a bit, and people start realizing it was worth listening to his warnings, and his values are the ones worth listening to, and there is a real danger. It means that the more melodic, the more lyrical, the more thematic element can start to come through more. In the first two acts of the film, he’s on the run in a cross between a political thriller and an action film, which means that the music isn’t going to be super rock and sound like John Williams’ Superman film. He’s confused and a bit lost, and he doesn’t know where he stands, and he doesn’t know who to trust. Now when you get to the third act, that changes a bit and he seizes the reins, and that gets reflected musically as he starts to feel his theme come through more. It’s an interesting balance, but the critical part of it is to respect and observe what the film is doing and not superimpose. If I’d covered the first two acts of the film with Captain America’s superhero music, it would go completely against what’s happening in the film.

How did you collaborate with directors Anthony and Joe Russo to craft the sound and help them realize their vision for the film? What was that process like?

Well, I was really lucky. It totally depends on director to director. Some directors are comfortable with music. Some feel comfortable discussing and talking and operating in a musical language. Others don’t engage so much. The great thing about Joe and Anthony is they know enough about it. We had a long discussion about pretty much exactly what we were talking about, which is that it is a contemporary film, but we somehow have to hold onto the DNA of a superhero while plunging him into the modern era. Luckily for me, they trusted me enough to go, “Well you go away and think about that and just do your thing.” So, I wrote three pieces of music away from picture, not even to picture – one for Hydra, one for Captain America, and one for Winter Soldier. And I went, “Guys, come down and I’ll play you three pieces of music. They‘re pretty radical. Let’s see. You may like them and you may not. Let’s just use that as a starting point.” They came down and they really liked the direction of it. They were very engaged after they heard those ideas and liked them. We would hang out once a week, play music, play cues, check everything to picture, and they were super engaged and they were really able.

Some people feel like you need to have a very specialized understanding of music to have the authority to talk about it. They are such good directors that it’s perfectly possible to have conceptual and directorial and storytelling conversations about music without needing to know all the technical pieces. That’s my problem, not their problem. We had a very productive relationship where they would listen to music and say what they liked and what they didn’t like, especially with spotting and should we hold off until such and such a moment before the action kicks in. It’s a myth that you need to understand all the ins and outs of music. The ideal scenario is you have a conceptual, directorial conversation about what you’re trying to achieve in a theme and then trust your composer to go ahead and do that.

Did Marvel Studios give you any notes?

Not really. Kevin [Feige] is great. Kevin is one of those guys who when he needs to step in, he will step in, and when he steps in, there’s almost nothing that comes out of his mouth that shouldn’t be executed. The guy isn’t CEO of Marvel having made all those successful films by accident. It’s really a team. It’s him and Victoria [Alonso] and Louis [D’Esposito]. They really know what they’re doing. Now, in this case, I think it was already a pretty visionary movie. It’s not the most obvious move to hire Anthony and Joe to do this movie, so they were already doing something by getting those guys involved. I can’t speak for their relationship. I’m sure Anthony and Joe and Kevin were in constant conversation, but he is a good enough CEO to respect his directors. He had confidence in them, and once he started seeing what they were doing with the movie, he had evidence of having confidence in them and liked the direction of the film, so that he let them do what they wanted to do as it were and that included me and the music.

No doubt if there was something he was really unhappy with in a big, broad brushstroke sense, he’d have no hesitation in stepping in and saying something. There wasn’t a lot of that because he basically liked the film and trusted his directors with whom I’m sure he was in constant communication. I played Kevin the Captain America suite and he was like, “Look, this is great.” I think the one note he gave me was he said, “I understand we’re really remixing the Captain America concept. The only thing I would say is where we can, in those moments that are emotional or historical or nostalgic, we should not hesitate to embrace them.” For instance, when Cap goes to the Smithsonian and there’s this nostalgic flashback, the music is more what you’d expect in a traditional symphonic, almost Aaron Copland-influenced type, a different sort of symphonic style, and when there are emotional beats, those are celebrated. Because you know there’s going to be an awful lot of crazy music when Cap’s having a five-minute fight with Winter Soldier. That’s not going to be the time for things to sound like Superman.

What character or situation in this film was the most fun or challenging for you to create some music for?

Well probably all three in a way, all three main themes. Captain America, the theme couldn’t just be pounding action music even though there is lots of pounding action. So it would have to do with a theme that doesn’t sound nostalgic and historical that can still emerge from under the visceral carnage of the action, but still have enough. Especially towards the end of the movie, you start to feel it more. It was how to have enough theme so that you’ve got something heroic to cling onto, but not so much that it’s just becoming nostalgic and irrelevant, so that balance. Winter Soldier was a challenge because I wanted to … Once I’d seen what they’d done with the Winter Soldier and how… It’s a funny character. On the one hand, it’s utterly relentless and violent and brutal, but of course as the story progresses, and I can’t give too much away again, there’s the human element as well. It was me trying to boldly embrace the fact that the music for the Winter Soldier wasn’t going to be symphonically complicated. It’s not the kind of music I’d be handing into my music tutor. (Laughs) It was just really, really violent.

I was reaching more into my record making past and kind of drum and bass and lots of record productions to create a sound for Winter Soldier that’s almost deliberately anti-musical. He’s just a machine. Later on, he’s not just a machine, but when we first meet him, he’s absolutely unstoppable. It doesn’t matter what you put in his way, he’ll just blow it up. He doesn’t care, and he doesn’t feel anything, and he’s completely relentless and totally violent. That’s almost a Terminator type of thing. Obviously, as the story progresses, that changes a bit. But I didn’t think that the symphony orchestra in its traditional usage was the best way to portray that, especially since we’re in 2014, and you think of musical things that have happened since symphonic music. I wanted to go for something [different]. I mean, if someone wants a super [inaudible] Captain America score, they’re going to get an absolute assault of really barbaric, relentless electronic carnage, and that’s what the character is to start with. I think the trick with Hydra was to come up with a sinister tonality that didn’t feel like the muhahahaha of an arch villain, because the sinister nature of the neo-fascist within the film is modern, credible and politically contemporary. It couldn’t feel like the Red Skull dance in the first movie. I had to come up with a sinister tonality that doesn’t feel historical or nostalgic. All of those ideas had challenges to them.

Pretty awesome interview right? It’s rare to get so much insight from a film composer, especially for a film of this size! So what did you guys think of the interview? What was you’re favorite thing Jackman talked about? Have you heard the score yet? If so, what did you think of it. For those who haven’t heard the score yet, what are you looking forward to hearing in the score? Whatever you have to say; comment below, let me know!

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Soundtrack
Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Soundtrack

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