Composer Henry Jackman is no stranger to writing music for animated and superhero-themed films, so when he was asked to merge the two together in a score for last year’s hit Disney film “Big Hero 6,” he thought it was the best of both worlds. Along with his work on “Big Hero 6,” Jackman, 40, worked on the most controversial film of 2014, “The Interview.” During our own interview, Jackman and I talked about the difference between writing for animated and live-action films and what it was like creating music for a fictional version of reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
What kind of sound were you going for with “Big Hero 6” and what kind of conversations did you have with the directors about the music you wanted to create?
Well, that’s interesting because we started our conversations quite early on. The thing with animated films is that they take about four years to complete – from the very first idea to the finished film. So, for “Big Hero 6,” I actually saw a rough version of the film about six months before I actually started working on it. The first thing that was clear to me was that it has this superhero element that definitely had to be embraced. I really wanted to write a strong “Big Hero 6” theme. Although that might sound obvious, I’m saying that because with a lot of contemporary, live-action superhero movies, a lot of directors shy away from that. They’re shy about having an actual lyrical melody. The good thing about “Big Hero 6” is not only is it a superhero film, it’s an animated film. So, you’re into more of that tradition of orchestral, melodic, harmonic music. The other thing that was clear to me when I saw the film were the characters – these aspiring kids, who are using their scientific and technological skills. Instead of just making [the score] symphonic, I wanted to add more beats and make it electronic, so we added electric guitars and other things to describe these characters. I guess the most important thing for me was to have real themes and melodies because it’s an emotional film.
You also wrote the scores for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier, “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick Ass,” so even though “Big Hero 6” is an animated film, you weren’t a stranger to superhero movies. Did you use elements from those films or other superhero movies or did you want “Big Hero 6” to be completely different?
The great thing about any superhero movie whether it’s animation or live-action is that unlike a film like “Captain Phillips,” where you have to stay super realistic and minimal and hide behind the movie, is that [these characters] are reaching beyond themselves. So, there is probably a bit of crossover in terms of me celebrating characters with qualities beyond average human skills. (Laughs) Heroic music in the wrong context could be a way to completely ruin a film, but when you have superhero characters it’s great because you can just unleash it all.
On that note, do you feel animated characters can project the same kind of emotion to help your music resonate as much as real actors would on screen?
Definitely. If you had a “tissue test” to see how many people were tearing up during “Big Hero 6,” I would guess it was more than “Captain America.” (Laughs) There are two or three big emotional scenes in the film. I think it’s a mistake to think that just because something is animated that [the production] will pull their punches so that the heroism wouldn’t be as big as a live-action film or an emotional scene wouldn’t be as profound. Especially with Disney, I would argue that the story and the characters are even stronger.
Flight sequences in films are always interesting in terms of how composers write the music for audiences to feel what it’s like to be swooping through clouds. How did you confront those specific scenes, especially with a track like “First Flight?”
Well, I started out with this fully fleshed out “Big Hero 6” theme. You can’t write a track too early because, for example, Hiro (the film’s main character) hasn’t mastered his technology yet and his relationship with Baymax is still forming. So, that particular piece, “First Flight,” is the first time I was able to use the theme from beginning to end. It felt appropriate to marry it with the electronics. Hiro is super excited to be flying around. Hopefully, inside the melody, it feels like it has more of an aspirational quality to it. Then at the end of that piece, it’s a much more emotional, quieter piece where [Hiro and Baymax] are just sitting there in the aftermath of their successful flight curling their toes together.
This is so silly, but I love the track called “Hiro Hamada” at the beginning of the film during the bot fights. When Hiro’s bot’s face changes from red to yellow at the end of the piece, there is a short electronic accent that hits perfectly that I found hilarious. Are those little details something you pay special attention to while composing?
(Laughs) Yeah, sometimes I can’t help doing little things like that, especially in an animated film. It’s like you’ve got more permission to do little charming gestures and jokes. There’s no harm in supporting stuff like that in the score. There is more of a tradition in animated scores to do things like that. Often you have to change emotion and style quickly because the story happens faster in animation. You often find yourself turning on a dime and throwing in little jokes. But you don’t want to go too far. What you don’t want to do is find every single joke in the film and try to use musical gags to support it. But you can get away with it once or twice.
There is a scene in the film where Hiro is about to start brainstorming for ideas for the tech competition he’s entering and a few seconds of “Eye of the Tiger” start playing. Of course, most people think of “Rocky II” when they hear “Eye of the Tiger” and the idea that a character is gearing up for a big challenge or fight. Do you think that is something all musicians and composers aspire to create – a song or tune that is so ingrained into peoples’ minds as the “go to” melody to play during a certain theme?
I think that might be the ultimate accolade for a songwriter or a record producer or a band, but not so much a composer. The thing about “Eye of the Tiger” is that is has this sort of hard-working aspiration to it. The other accolade people would be super happy to get would be that a song is so descriptive of its time; like if you’ve got an 80s movie with a really strong song that immediately denotes the 80s. I’m wondering how many times “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees has been used in movies. I wonder how many times The Doors’ songs have been used to instantly call up the 60s or how many times a song like “I’m Walking on Sunshine” has been used. There are a lot of songs out there that can describe things like loss or effort or challenge. Then there are certain songs that are so descriptive about an era, that it will immediately transport someone back into a certain time period.
I would argue that composers do that, too. I mean, think of the theme to, say, “The Godfather.” Often times it’s used for comedic effect, but it’s called upon when a character is being introduced to someone of high status. Also, every time I see someone riding a bicycle, the instrumental theme from “The Wizard of Oz” pops into my head – the scene where Miss Gulch (The Wicked Witch) is riding her bicycle.
(Laughs) Or “E.T.” and the bicycle scene there.
I guess I only say that because with songs you have more of a direct connection with the actual lyrics. But, yeah, I can definitely think of several iconic scores like [Jerry] Goldsmith’s “Alien” that call upon certain themes. To an average listener, it might not be as catchy or memorable in the same way as “Eye of the Tiger” because it doesn’t have a direct, sing-song melody. But, personally, I think “Alien” is just as iconic. It’s just a little harder to sing along to it, you know?
You also wrote the score for “The Interview,” which, of course, has had some major controversy behind it over the last few months. We both know Kim Jong-un probably won’t watch the film, but do you hope he might listen to your soundtrack?
It’s so funny. I had worked with Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] before (for “This is the End”). Because I always treat writing the score as an artistic process, I didn’t give the political implications a second thought. I’m always thinking about script, story, theme, who I’m working with, etc. So, when [the controversy] came I thought, “Why is this causing such a fuss?” But, of course, the way I think and the way the North Korean regime thinks is probably different. (Laughs) I come from England where vicious political satire has always been part of the culture for hundreds of years. The first track on “The Interview” soundtrack is called “Suite for Kim Jong-un.” My approach to the music was that in order for this film to be funny, I didn’t want to write lampooning, mocking music. It was like my job in “This is the End” where I took the theme of the Apocalypse very pompously serious and did a sort of cross between “Carmina Burana” and “The Exorcist.” So, the music I wrote for Kim Jong-un was a straight-up concert piece. I mean, I really wanted to use my classical chops. My pitch to Seth and Evan was to write music that Kim Jong-un would actually like to hear. I wanted to take it incredibly serious. I wanted the music to be a cross between Beethoven and [Dmitri] Shostakovich. It’s far from music that is goofy or silly. It’s actually quite high-brow. I don’t know what [Jong-un] would make of it though.
Oh, it would be so funny if he started using your piece like the U.S. President uses “Hail to the Chief.”
(Laughs) Yeah, the harmony is a little slanted in [“Suite for Kim Jong-un] so it feels like the imperial entry for a slightly off-kilter person. But, you know, for all we know, Kim Jong-un might very well listen to Katy Perry.