Composer Henry Jackman on The Russo Brothers’ The Gray Man

To coincide with the release of the Russo Brothers’ latest, the action packed The Gray Man, we were delighted to get the opportunity to sit down with composer Henry Jackman to discuss his influences for the score and reuniting with the Russos after working with the filmmakers on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War and Cherry. Henry also discussed the transition from working on animation and live action films and what other genres he’d like to work on in future. Check out the interview below…

You started this with a 17 minute suite which then turned into the score, is that a different way to how you’d normally approach scoring a film?

It’s definitely a more extended way. I’ve done suites before, like I did a suite for Winter Soldier.  They’re usually you know, two or three minutes, and you might spend a week or two on them.  My partner had our first kid James, who was born in March 2021. So I kind of wanted to stop working so I could not be a useless father. After I changed enough diapers and has been awake all night from him not sleeping, this was March, and I knew I didn’t really have to start The Gray Man until December so I furtively started coming up with ideas for it.

Funnily enough, given its a massive action film, I remember Joe and Anthony calling me from the set going, ‘Oh, we just spent today doing, you know, one of those six scenes to do with the flashback and you know, his kind of emotional trauma and whatnot’. They said ‘listen, there’s also this other thread to the movie, there’s slightly damaged thread’. And as a result of that conversation, I just went to the piano and came up with that thing that actually ended up being the start, if you listen to the first two minutes of the suite. So I quickly banged out this idea really roughly and thought, ‘okay, well, that’s cool, I’ve got that in the back pocket ready for December when I get going’. But because I wasn’t really doing much else, ‘well, I’ll take that since I’ve recorded it properly and do a nice job on it. Add backwards reverb on it and to get a really cool piano sound and all the rest of it’.

So I finished up this little piano idea to be the sort of ghost in the machine. And just as I finished it, I put in this rhythm that just went dum dum, dum, dum dum, so all that’s going to be handy. I’ll leave it. So I’ve got the ghost in the machine idea and I’ve got a sort of thematic rhythm that I can come back to in six months. I said ‘well, I’ll have a little fiddle with that sound’ and before I knew it I messing around with distorted break beats and recording clocks and slowing them down, all sorts of sounds. I said ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do the piano intro and then I’ll do this fast kind of action groove that’s in this weird time signature, and then I’ll call it a day, that’s enough ammunition’ and it just went on and on and on. It was like the secret laboratory experiment.

I started messing around with the chords. Then I started to come up with these weird tonal kind of jazz chords for Hanson.  Every time I thought, ‘okay, this piece, I’ll knock it on the head, once I get to six minutes, I’ll stop once I get to eight minutes, I’ll stop once I get to ten’, then this baseline showed up, and I had to exploit it. This piece just took on a life of its own. I ended up spending about seven months of arranging, programming, engineering, you know, just going mad on this thing. And I thought to myself, you know, I should play them this, what if they don’t really think this is the right vibe for the movie, you know? I’m going to potentially waste about half a year of my life. 

So I got so secretive about it and finished the 17 minute thing without telling anyone it was like a complete secret, the music editor didn’t know, no one knew about it. And then Joe and Anthony said ‘it’s December you know, we’ve got a cut the movie, let’s start thinking about music’.  I said, ‘actually, I’ve secretly got a sort of nearly 18 minute piece I’ve been working on’. ‘How come we didn’t know about this?’ I said, ‘Yep, I don’t really want to play it. So if I play a tune, and you don’t really think it’s right for the movie, then I basically could have spent the last six months with my newborn and partner in the Cook Islands’. So I played it to them and thankfully they really loved it.  It wasn’t wasted time because so much of what was in that suite was not only the thematic also the sonic identity for the movie. I spent so long on these handcrafted sounds that those are all the sounds that were then used in the score.

You’ve worked with the Russos before on the Winter Soldier, Civil War and Cherry.  How did your process on the last couple of films differ to how you worked with them on the Marvel projects? Did you have a bit more autonomy with this and Cherry?

Not necessarily autonomy because working with Marvel, it’s not as if Kevin [Feige] was executively invasive in any way. But I think, probably by the nature of the movies, that Cherry was really experimental. I mean, it just was as a movie, you know, there are many movies about PTSD and hideous drug addiction, but I think probably Gray Man and Cherry, there’s probably a little more scope for being a bit radical in what you can do with the sound, which is no criticism of Marvel, it is just a different. You’re always going to get the suit up moment with Marvel. If you think about The Winter Soldier suite was pretty radical, and no one banned it from going in there. That was a pretty gnarly, messed up piece of music. But Cherry and The Gray Man, there’s probably a bit more experiment in the fabric of the sound, they both have a lot of sonic experimentation in them.

Were there any sort of spy or espionage films whose scores influenced this one?

Well, not in the modernness of the sound, but funnily enough, the harmony, the actual use of the chords, which I won’t bore your readers with, but the when you first start hearing the harmony, there’s probably a bit of a lineage,  – there’s Mancini, John Barry lurking in the system somewhere, or even Bernard Hermann and the I’m not even sure that the when you get halfway through the quarter we ended up using for Hanson, which shows up a long way into the suite, that there’s quite a tonal sort of octatonic jazz chords. They’re sort of gnarly and dangerous. In a way. I suppose that kind of thing was almost a bit ’70s. It would remind me maybe of some of the brass writing you might get in something like the original The Taking of Pelham 123, without the saxes. So yes , probably more than anything else not so much the fabric of the sound, but maybe some of the use of the harmony has has an influence from the lineage of espionage films.

You scored The Winter Soldier, which of the work you’ve done with the Russos feels the most thematically close to The Gray Man. Did that influence on this score at all? 

Not in the theme or the melody or anything like that, but maybe because The Winter Soldier Suite has a lot of quite radical home-baked sounds on it. The process of coming up with a tableau of sonically damaged and processed sounds suitable for Gray Man was not a dissimilar process.  You can’t just load sounds, you’ve got to make everything a bit like going to a farmer’s market. It sounds very different, but I guess the process of thinking about the movie and then coming up and spending a hell of a long time on a collection of textures so it’s not just melody and harmony to give it identity, it’s also the fabric that it is built out of.

The pace of The Gray Man is quite frenetic  Did you find it a challenge keeping pace with what was on screen, and making sure the score was suitably in tune?

I think the biggest challenge was probably the Prague section. I remember thinking there’s no way we’re going to end up with like eight minutes of music. There’ll be probably huge swathes where there isn’t music but actually, with a combination just using every trick in the book and changing tempos, changing the thematic structure, you’re really mapping out how to handle that Prague section so that you don’t fatigue the audience too early. It’s the trick of you don’t really want to get to the really big theme till the end. So how do you occupy, from the minute the shooting starts to the minute that scene is over – it’s a long time. So it’s just a case of really pacing yourself and deciding to use each thematic element or each texture or where to change the tempo, where to change the feel of the groove, so that you can survive the distance and match the sequence. The last thing you want is you want to almost speed up the action on the screen. You don’t want to be so frenetic that you make it seem slower either by what you’re doing with the music.

You did the score for Ron’s Gone Wrong last year. How do you find jumping between live action and animation?

I love it. It’s just completely different. Ron’s Gone Wrong is actually slightly different because hat had a lot of production and had a lot of pop influence. If you take a more classic animation – I’m working on a Disney animation, it’s like grass is greener on the other side. If I spent all my time doing more traditional lush symphonic scores, where your biggest influences are Richard Strauss, Debussy and Ravel, then I’d probably start pining for a Gray Man. You can start using all these damaged noises. My misspent youth in the sort of drum and bass field can get exercise. On the other hand, if I spent all my time doing heavy production stuff, I’d probably start pining for using lush symphonic textures and whatnot. As long as I get to do both, they’re just two very different places.  I’m lucky enough to be musically schizophrenic enough to slide between one and the other without it troubling me too much. 

It would be a bit like spending all your time in London, and then being in the jungle in Costa Rica, and then going back to London, and you know, they’re both great. You could have a really cool apartment in London and enjoy your London life and then you could run around and sandals birdwatching in the density of the Costa Rican jungle, that it’s not like one’s better than the other.  That would not seem inconceivable to flip between the two.  I guess they’re sort of as different as that sometimes. You usually find yourself shaking off the aesthetics of the last thing you worked on, and then just head on into a completely different direction, which actually, I think I’m lucky in the way that one could imagine, as a composer, you might get boxed into doing things like Gray Man, or things like Big Hero 6 and Puss In Boots, but possibly not both. So the fact I’m kind of allowed to do both, I’m just very lucky really.

Are there any genres you’ve not scored for that you’d like to dive into? 

That’s a great question. One of my favorite scores ever is Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien. Both the original that no one’s ever heard and the revised one, which is the one everyone of course knows. I’d love to do something grown and serious in space. Basically, it’s sort of a psychological horror movie. It’s got a very classy score. It’s got texture, but it’s also got some very beautiful writing that has definite influences from 20th century concert music. So that would be something I’d enjoy. I’d love to do something in space. I think that’s a little more cerebral. Not you know, not not sort of massive action blockbuster in space. More something out of the the Alien lineage.

Is there anything else you’re working on?

Well, it won’t be long before the second Extraction rolls into view, so that’ll be a case of holding on to all the elements that were working in the first one, and then developing new material  but I’m not going say too much about that.

SEE ALSO: Read our review of The Gray Man here

Many thanks to Henry Jackman for taking the time for this interview.

Chris Connor




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