Themes and advice from ‘Captain America: Civil War’ composer Henry Jackson

When the prologue 1991 scenes of “Captain America: Civil War” begin, you might feel something somewhat familiar even before you even see the Winter Soldier, brainwashed Bucky Barnes, best friend of the titular superhero.  Your intuition won’t be wrong.

Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes has his own motif, a musical symbol that was created by Oxford-educated and former EDM musician Henry Jackman.  Jackman composed the music for the grimmer second Captain America film, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” working with directors Anthony and Joe Russo. This third installment brings the Russos and Jackman back together. While our superheroes might be having a civil war, this threesome has developed a good working relationship according to Jackman.

In a recent telephone interview Jackman said, “The very first time I spoke with the Russos, I was in London. It was a phone conference.” They sent him the script for “The Winter Soldier.” As he recalls, “It was a very open, general discussion about the kind of tone the movie should have. It should have a contemporary flavor, a deliberate departure from the first which was a period piece and very nostalgic. The second movie dragged Captain America into the 21st century as a fish out of water.” That movie has a more “sonic vocabulary” whereas “Civil War” is “more symphonic” and has more orchestra.

From Jackman’s perspective, working on a movie makes “changes in a way that is sort of invisible” between people. Having gone through the whole experience when everyone’s happy with the score, “you don’t think about it; you sort of form a team and develop a way of working.” And when they trust you enough, you have room to make your own musical innovations although they will come with musical ideas. “It’s like a known territory. Once you’ve driven there a few times, you know.”

However, because the two movies are tonally different, “Civil War” is a completely different journey. “You can’t pick up a lot of the music from the second film” as a result. That means the “whole creative journey will be different.”

While Jackman’s process varies from movie to movie, with “Civil War” he explained, “I actually got to read the script eight months before I started to compose the music.” He was able to get a few ideas, worked out on the piano.  Then he was able to see the first rough version minus a few special effect shots. “The script can be very inspiring,” Jackman said. “From that, you’ll know what you’ll need to write.” In some ways it is better to read “the printed page away from the distractions of the special effects.” It’s like viewing “the architectural blueprints before the building goes up.”

“At the very end of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier,’ right at the end of that is the beginning of the motif.” Because the Winter Soldier was “such an angry machine” there wasn’t much that could be done during the second Captain America movie. In this movie, however, “the motif then got picked up and developed orchestrally at the very opening of the movie after the flutes.” Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier isn’t the only one with a motif.

Listen carefully, especially if you see the movie for a second or third time. When Tony Stark goes after that new young recruit, Spider-Man, toward the end of that segment is “the DNA of his motif” and that appears a little more heroically at the end, when he’s fully in the fray. The motif is “expanded into a grand orchestral version.”

For aspiring composers, Jackman noted that there are not basic guidelines for working with a director. “Each director is so wildly different. Some are incredibly hands on; some incredibly trusting.” Some directors even have “quite an advanced musical vocabulary to express themselves with.” Yet others “don’t engage in musical specifics, giving directions in a more filmmaking sense, talking about characters instead of half-diminished chords.”

At this point, Jackman, who followed up scoring “The Winter Soldier” with a BAFTA-nominated score for “Captain Phillips,” doesn’t have to audition. When he started out, he did audition and do things on spec. He attended a “harry Potter incredibly strict musical school” where he “sang six hours a day” (St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School) and became well-versed in religious music from the 16th and 17th century. Jackman studied at Eton College,Framlingham College and Oxford according to Wikipedia. His father was a musician and helped build Jackman’s knowledge base and enthusiasm for music.  Some days, his father would tell him, “You have to listen to this” and it could be anything from opera to Paul Simon–anything and everything if it’s worth listening to.

Jackman advises that people who want to score for the movies must have “an open-mindedness musically.” He explained, “As a musician and a composer, you have to be artistically flexible and be able to do a number of different things, from superhero film huge and symphonic and operatic classic music.” And then three months later, you might be scoring a film “about the stock market” which is “quirky and electronica.” Then “four months after that, you’d have a film set in 16th century France.” Film composers need to “inhabit wilding different musical landscapes” that are “almost like different countries or wearing different clothes or eating different kinds of foods.”

This is different from a recording artist. “They aren’t wildly jumping around,” he noted. One doesn’t expect Beyoncé to be composing 16th century harpsichord music. Listening to scores one must consider the purpose of the music. “There really aren’t rules,” he commented for judging scores as critics often do. “A very quirky film where the music is sort of willfully at odds with the film” is obviously problematic, he stated. “In general, the purpose of the music of the film is not to counteract but to complement. People should not be taken out of the dramatic experience.” When the music “is so out of sync, you’ll be feeling a tension” or if the music is “so badly done that its distracting” then the film’s composer has failed. However, Jackman also added, “If you’re hearing something in the music which appears not to sync with the theme such as a thriller, it might be deliberate. You might think, ‘I feel confused: He appears to be friendly, but why is the music telling me something is wrong?'” In such cases, the music is foreshadowing, but also developing the character.  Jackman contends that counter intuitively, “The two most important skills that they don’t tell you in college are political skills and literary skills. Film composer must understand literary criticism, character development and narrative structure.

To be a successful film composer, Jackman stated, “You need a spectacular amount of perseverance. I started at 19 and didn’t get noticed until my thirties.” Then there’s physical endurance required for the hours required to complete a project on deadline.

While Jackman claims he avoids listening to his own work because “when I hear it, I just remember all the work,” he does say the upcoming “Birth of a Nation” has “a level of musical honesty to it that might be the truest.” “Birth of a Nation” will be released this fall.  Otherwise, Jackman chose the “Alien” score as “one of the most influential” and recommends the double CD that has the original “more gorgeously romantic” version and the reworked new version with “spooky, innovative orchestrations.” He also found the “Predator” score music had  “very sophisticated harmony.”

One thing Jackman is sensitive about is that “very often music of an outstanding nature has been written to a movie that is appallingly bad.” Think the Adam Sandler movie “Pixels.” Jackman scored for that one as well. Conversely, he added, “Music which is quite average attached to an average film gets a lot of attention.” Then there “are very average music attached to outstanding films” that go on to win awards because award voters are “wrapped up in an overall experience.” Jackman jokes, “I want to set up my own musicological Oscars to give due credit to scores that were completely unnoticed because they were attached to awful movies.” For him, Ennio Morricone would be the recipient of “at least 15 retroactive awards.”

With “Captain America: Civil Wars” doing well both at the box office and with critics, Jackman’s scores might be in the running for a few awards, too. If you have the chance, review the second movie, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” before you go and let your subconscious pick up some cues that you might later, on a second or third viewing, deliberately listen for. Who knows? In the future, there may be a compilation album of the motifs of Marvel movies and Jackman’s scores will surely be on it.

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