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Tips for young composers from Tom Holkenborg a.k.a. Junkie XL (Mad Max, Black Mass, Batman v Superman)

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In my interview with Tom Holkenborg a.k.a. Junkie XL about his score for Black Mass, he shared some experiences he made in the industry while making his way from being a producer of industrial rock, hardcore and heavy metal bands producing electronic breakbeats as well as remixes – including his rework of Elvis’ A Little Less Conversation (fun fact: You can watch Tom play the keyboard in the video) – to becoming a film composer and scoring Hollywood blockbusters such as 300: Rise of an Empire, Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Not being a classically trained composer, Tom composes solely on the computer and works closely with his favourite musicians to get as much input as possible on how to get most out of his scores:

There are few composers who still write on a piece of paper but nowadays you have to mockup everything so the studio and the director can approve it. You need to satisfy the studio, the director and the picture editor as well as other people really quickly with what you’re doing. You can’t really do this if you pass a piece of paper around saying, “Here you guys, as you can see, is the main theme.” Everybody would look at each other saying, “Well, it looks great on paper but we got to hear 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 things up in my head and when I’m done with what I want to do, then I switch on the computer and then I actually make it.

Every composer who writes for orchestra needs to do a mockup. Some people are very good at doing mockups, a lot of people are not. I have spent a lot of time over the years to be really good at a mockup because I don’t write with paper; I write with my computer and I come up with all these ideas. Then I sit down with musicians that eventually need to play this to see if we can make it better, 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 players are the real deal and they are really craftsmen in their own world. It would be a shame to not use their knowledge to make things better.

“A lot in film scoring has nothing to do with music.”

When it comes to the collaboration between a composer and the rest of the film crew it then is crucial to really listen to what everyone says about how the music should work – and especially the director’s point of view:

tom-holkenborg-junkie-xl-press-photo-17-downloadIt’s very subtle things [that are discussed in the meetings]. 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.

A lot in film scoring has nothing to do with music. As a composer you need to be very good in listening to the people you work with because it’s a team effort. It’s not you on your own, it’s the director’s movie and you need to listen to what he says and you need to come up with the best solution that you want.

You also need to think incredibly quickly. If there’s a problem with a scene and the director points that out, you need to come up with a solution almost on the spot what is potentially to be the solution to put potential fear or unrest at bay.

Then you need to be a very good manager. Not only a manager of your time, but also a manager of your assistants, a manager of the studio, the engineers that are gonna record the orchestra, the orchestrator, the conductor, the players that you might use.

And you need to be able to deal with a lot of stress. You need to develop tools to deal with stress, whether it’s yoga or it’s exercise or it’s meditation or drinking tea, skipping coffee, eating healthy etc.

“Make the people that you’re working with feel part of that process.”

When it comes to the process of film scoring itself, Tom also had some advices. This also includes writing a suite first, which he also successfully did for Black Mass, and then send this piece of music over to the director to see if he finds his movie in it:

One important thing that can really help the process of film scoring, is to really make the people that you’re working with, the director, the studio, the picture editor part of your process; so they feel they have influence on the outcome and feel part of that process. That’s where the suite comes in: If you make a suite, a piece of music that is not attached to picture and you say, “Hey, do you recognize your movie in this?” Then you create a really open discussion and a nice starting point to take it from there. If I would have scored the whole movie from beginning to end and now would get them inside and say, “Well, here’s your movie with the music,” they would get so overwhelmed with all the new material they are hearing to the picture that they have never heard before. Usually those meetings go really bad.

You should only send music 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 stressful go in and do this and do that and just quickly throw something out. The first piece of music you send out is a very important one because it’s the first calling card.

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.

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