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Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) about scoring Black Mass

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Black Mass was one of my most anticipated movies in 2015.  Directed by Scott Cooper it thematises the true story of James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger who, for more than a decade, was one of the most wanted criminals of the FBI until he was arrested in 2011. On Wikipedia, biography.com, on The New York Times Website and on CNN you can find more info about Whitey Bulger.

To be honest, I was not too familiar with the topic when I heard about the movie about a year ago. I had seen ‘The Departed’ which is also based on the same persons and events but that was about it. Besides the very delicate topic it especially was Johnny Depp’s stunning acting obvious from the very first trailer on. You can watch Aspect‘s trailer below. It gives you a very good idea of the overall subtle horror every person around Whitey Bulger must have sensed:

The music for Black Mass is composed by Grammy nominated and multi platinum producer, musician, and composer Tom Holkenborg a.k.a. Junkie XL. I had enjoyed the massive drums in his score for 300: Rise of an Empire and had listened to his Mad Max: Fury Road score almost 24/7 between the score’s and the movie’s release. So obviously I was delighted getting the chance to speak with him about his score for Black Mass which is quite the opposite to his Mad Max score (you can get a good impression about Tom’s Black Mass score from the official samples on WaterTowerMusic and can compare it to the track Escape from his Mad Max score on WaterTowerMusic’s official soundcloud channel).

The contrasts was something Tom liked very much about the new project:

When you’re a composer you always want to showcase that you’re capable of doing multiple genres. That you’re not only the action, drama or comedy guy. Thus it’s almost perfect to have two movies of that quality in one year that you can work on: Whereas Mad Max is full-on action and it’s wall to wall music, the music for Black Mass is very restrained and very subtle. It’s there on strategic spots. It’s very different and very great.

In the dinner scene you have seen in the trailer there is almost no music in the movie itself. As Tom told me, he and Scott Cooper spoke much more about the scenes where no music was needed than about the scenes where music was necessary. Tom mentioned the dinner scene which is officially called ‘Stake Dinner’, as one of the scenes they talked about the most: “This scene and the one straight after that, we discussed a lot; if music was needed or not. Eventually we thought it was better without music and then we thought the music was really powerful even though it’s really quiet during the scene with Marianne upstairs.”

Establishing a connection to the characters: Humanizing the horror

Without wanting to spoil anything, it is obvious from the trailer alone how much the ‘Stake Dinner’ scene represents the calm and almost casual intimidation that must have given Whitey Bulger the criminal appearance he held. I was curious how you find the right sound for a person like this probably most of us can not at all relate to. When I tried to sum up the character of Whitey Bulger, who was indicted for 19 murders, in my question for Tom, it was clear that I could not really grab it except that human actions could not get much more horrible than what he had done in Boston over about 20 years during the time he worked as an FBI informant. Thankfully Tom jumped in saying, “you’re describing it perfectly because that’s really what it is: You watch a movie like this and I was not only very impressed by the movie but I was also impressed by the film editing and especially the acting of the actors. And then you find yourself behind a piano to come up with ideas and it’s so easy to turn a movie like this into a horror film where everything that’s being done is [Tom elaborates with a generic scary sound]. And that’s why it was interesting. We needed something that felt human. We needed something that felt it comes from a dark place but we also need to feel emotion. So it was a very tricky scope to score this film.”

Very early on Scott had told Tom that it was most important to “humanize” the characters of the movie “and not paint them as criminals right from the start but it’s very important that when you start seeing a movie that you really see these people as human beings so that [only] throughout the film you see that they are capable of doing very terrible things. It goes step by step and that’s what you see in this movie really well: When John Connolly makes that deal with Jimmy Bulger, he thinks that it’s a cool thing to do, and before he knows it he’s in a terrible situation. It’s a quicksand that gets worse and worse throughout the film.”

While I personally was missing some more moments of when Jimmy Bulger is on top of his power, I really enjoyed Black Mass. The movie not only succeeds in creating a daunting atmosphere of subtle horror, that followed me also the week after watching the movie and while listening to the soundtrack again and again, but Black Mass also really gives you the feeling that every one of us can turn into a criminal at one point with all the flaws we live with, “even the old lady in the neighborhood that taps Jimmy on the shoulder saying, “Well, it’s wonderful to have you back in the neighbourhood!“ No, it’s not! Almost every person in the movie has a certain degree of fault in this mess”, as Tom put it.

I think the great thing about Black Mass is that first of all it’s a really good film. Secondly it’s really good to see Johnny Depp act the way that he acts. It has nothing to do with ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and I think a lot of people out there would be very happy to see him act the way that he does. It’s really of another level. And then thirdly why, is that I’ve always been a fan of gangster movies, but all the great gangster movies like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Goodfellas’, when you’re done with these movies you want to move to Sicily and apply for an Italian passport because it’s so glorifying. When you see Black Mass there’s none of that. You see the really gruesome truth of being a gangster in that position and how terrible you have to be as a person to even be in that position. There’s nothing glorifying about it and it’s just a really dark place for a human being.

How to humanize Whitey Bulger: Finding a theme

Besides the humanization of the characters, Scott also enabled Tom to write very strong themes for the two main characters; Whitey Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly. Referring to his former career as a solo artist and producer that “you would never write a melody like that if you work on an artist album and even for film scoring, it’s unique nowadays because a lot of directors shy away from very strong melodic content.”  (N.B.: As an example of Tom’s prior work you can watch his remix of Elvis Presley’s ‘A Little Less Conversation’ here which also features himself on the keyboard.)

After finishing Mad Max: Fury Road last February, followed by the remake of Point Break and the British dark comedy Kill your Friends, Tom started writing the score for Black Mass in the second week of May 2015. Throughout our conversation Tom compared Black Mass with Mad Max: Fury Road every now and then and while both movies seem to be very different, the keenness for themes was something that both directors, Scott Cooper and George Miller, had in common: “They both love strong melodical statements, they really like to see the score as an extra character in the movie.”

For Black Mass Tom decided to have a piano and a cello as the main instruments for his themes as well as some sound design to give it the right cinematic feel. Here’s what he told me about the instrumentation as well as what he focussed on regarding the two main themes for Whitey Bulger and John Connolly:

tom-holkenborg-junkie-xl-black-mass-official-posterAt first I wanted to picture Jimmy more like a street bad guy. He has some shady business going on, he’s got a girlfriend and he’s got a son. Yes, he’s violent but not over the top. Then throughout the film this character becomes more and more paranoid, more and more terrible and more and more violent. The more as he stands on his own because even his own gang is turning their backs on him, his music gets more gruesome and darker. Where on the other side [FBI agent] John Connolly’s theme is very open when the movie starts. It’s like, “The world is an interesting place, I’ve made some career, let’s make a sneaky deal with Jimmy Bulger. Nobody is gonna find out, this is all gonna work out.” And then it gets really, really dark for him too but the music for him then throughout the film gets more and more emotional. So we feel a difference in these characters: Yes, John Connolly and Jimmy Bulger were both bad people and they did terrible things but the height that Jimmy is growing to as a bad guy is a different one than John Connolly is going to.

The themes are very closely related to one another. Jimmy has a theme that then gets sprinkled down all over the guys that work for him, the Winterhill Gang, and John Connolly has a theme that gets sprinkled down on all the other FBI people and eventually the victims. Both themes are played on two different instruments but they switch. The reason for that was that Jimmy and John knew each other from way back; they grew up together. So they were active together as kids doing small stupid stuff. That’s why the initial theme for Jimmy is played on a cello but it’s also played for John on a cello and vice versa on piano. That was an important element.

The main instrumentation for Black Mass was a combination of piano and cello plus the string group with woodwinds; a pretty traditional setting. At the same time there’s a lot of sound design going on in the film, though, but it’s really subtle. I did a lot of sound design on pianos, on cellos and on strings and I used these software programs to treat the sounds. I used my Modulus synths to treat sounds, filter sounds or do weird granular synthesis with them. It’s really great for that. It sits behind the real instruments and it creates a really nice 3D-environment when you’re in the theatre but it doesn’t pop out prominently, it’s just there.

The sound design is especially apparent whenever we see Bulger’s hitman Jonny Martorano: “Everytime we see him, we hear this really dark percussive loop that was played on pianos with sound design.” You can listen to the track Bulger Burial Ground for reference. As a side note Tom also told me that “if you’re listening to the soundtrack on iTunes you can hear those elements better because I was able to mix them in a different level than I would have for the film mix.”

In addition Tom told me that apart from the main themes there were two cues he spent a lot of time on: There first was How could you be so cold that underlines the the hospital scene where Jimmy and his girlfriend learn that their son is incurably sick: “That was a difficult scene because it went from almost feeling sympathy towards him, to him being despicable to his girlfriend and then to anger and then back to very light emotions.” Another difficult part to score for Tom were the last 15 minutes of the movie that is accompanied by just one piece of music (“That took me quite some time to write it properly.”)

Hands-on learning from the best: From an idea to the recording session

Director Scott Cooper had approached Tom after enjoying Tom’s different scoring approach for Mad Max a lot. Scott was interested in Tom’s view on Black Mass and after being very impressed by the screening he got, Tom sat down and created a suite to see if Scott would find his own movie in it: “When I saw Black Mass, I came back home and I had some ideas but I had them play in my head before I really started making music. I’m pretty good at playing music in my head that technically doesn’t exist, so I just make stuff up in my head and when I’m kind of done with what I want to do, then I switch on the computer and actually make it.”

Scott liked the suite and so they went on working together. It might have helped here that coincidentally the cello is Scott’s favourite instrument without Tom knowing about it beforehand. Here’s how Tom approached the recording session next:

The cello is an instrument that immediately makes a personal situation very organic and very human. So it was really a go-to instrument for me for this movie together with the piano. But in order to get the cello lines really right, I wrote demos and then invited Steve Erdody [main cello] and Bruce Dukov [Concertmaster] to go through the score. I don’t write with paper, I write with my computer and I come up with all these ideas. And then I sit down with [players like Steve Erdody and Bruce Dukov] to see if they have suggestions on how we can take it to a new level. It’s always good to listen to these people because these are the real deal, and they really are craftsmen in their own world. It would be a shame to not use their knowledge to make things better.

So I talked with them about how to get the best out of the players and how to get the best out of the arrangement. They were really helpful in giving me a lot of information that I could then put into my writing. Then when we did start recording the score it sounded really gorgeous in the room and that was really important.

Only six weeks to score Black Mass: How to work around short deadlines

While more insights into Tom’s general creative approach and his tips for young composers will be released in a separate article next week, here’s some more info about how he handles short deadlines in general, just as for Black Mass where he only had six weeks to score the whole movie:

tom-holkenborg-junkie-xl-bio-1aI think you should always send music out [e.g. to the director]  when you think you’re ready. Sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out what I want and sometimes it goes really quickly. But if I have a stressful situation and I need to come up with a music solution for it, I usually tend to step back and just think about it for a day or two before I start working on it instead of immediately stressfully going in and meddling around to just quickly throw something out.

If I start with a theme, I put it in the computer, then bounce an mp3 at the end of the day and I play it on my laptop in bed with a headset on. Then I often think, “I should change this or I should change that.” You’re constantly chiseling the music and then at a certain point when you have something you feel confident with and really ready, only then you should send it out. The first piece of music you send out is a very important one because it’s the first calling card.

On a final note: Always listen to the director

Overall Tom told me that he learned a lot during working on Black Mass as well as on Mad Max: Fury Road, also thanks to the directors Scott Cooper and George Miller:

I’ve done a lot of action movies, I’ve done some lighter dramas and I’ve worked on animated movies but I’ve never worked on a movie like Black Mass, and with a director of that sort. It was such a great experience with both of them [Scott Cooper and George Miller]. They’ve been making films like this for many years. So it was really great, as with the players, to learn from these guys. In film scoring every movie you work on, you learn: You learn new things of yourself you’re capable of. You also learn new things you’re not capable of and you need to find help or you need to study or you need to dig deeper into yourself to get these things out. [Scott Cooper and George Miller] have been really great to guide me through the film, about what was necessary and what was not necessary.

What we talked about the most was not where to play music but where not to play music. It’s very subtle stuff. It’s subtle in a sense where a conversation is going and the music comes in, how the music should creep in and when the music should take a turn because something happens in the story or when a person gets more and more threatened and the music needs to follow that or the music goes the other way. So it’s always a very interesting discussion. It’s purely subjective. There are many different ways that you can score a movie but the only one that counts is the one the director wants to achieve.

While both movies Black Mass and Mad Max: Fury Road are very different on first sight, Tom mentioned that “why George [Miller] is so great, is that if you look through Mad Max you see so many analogies of things that are happening in the world right now. It’s a fiction story and in a post-apocalyptic world but if you see the movie multiple times it’s another really gruesome thing.” At the same time Tom also mentioned that if instead of just one movie, Black Mass would have been produced as a six part franchise, “so that we would really see what Bulger did in his life, the music would be completely different because he did so many gruesome things, so many people were killed. It would have turned it into something else.”

2015 has been a very busy year for Tom Holkenborg a.k.a. Junkie XL and it was a great pleasure to talk with him about his projects. Watch out for another article once we have spoken with him after the release of his score for Marvel’s Deadpool as well as DC’s Batman vs. Superman (which he scores together with Hans Zimmer).

Our article about Tom Holkenborg’s tips for young composers you can find here. You can watch Black Mass via iTunes as well as you find the original soundtrack on iTunes. You can follow Tom Holkenbork a.k.a. JunkieXL on Twitter and Facebook. You can find more information about Tom you find on IMDb and his website. There is also a very good video interview done by SoundWorks Collection you can watch here.

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Based in Berlin, Germany. Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief. Music Producer at Eon Sounds Productions. Founder of Composers for Relief. Keeps Moving.