Tom Holkenborg has had quite the journey.
Starting off as a member of various Dutch bands, playing everything from the drums to the guitar to the bass, Holkenborg decided to go it solo as Junkie XL in 1997, reaching a global high with the 2002 remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation,” which became a number-one hit in 24 different countries.
But it was film that ultimately pulled at him; after seeing some of his music being utilized in various movies’ soundtracks in the late ‘90s, the idea of writing his own scores took hold and wouldn’t let go. He put his own musical career on the backburner and moved to LA, interning and assisting established film composers for several years – yes, that’s several years – until he managed to break through in Hollywood.
And break through he has. His recent string of releases reads like a greatest hits of film scores, ranging from 300: Rise of an Empire to Mad Max: Fury Road to Black Mass, but it’s his just-arriving projects which promise to make him a household name: this month is Deadpool, the raunchy, hilarious assassin with a mouth, and next month is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which promises to jump-start the fledgling DC Extended Universe for years to come.
What’s it like to tackle a new kind of superhero film with Deadpool – and to do it while simultaneously helping to launch a rival shared cinematic universe? What does Batman’s future look like, sonically? And will the man formerly known as Junkie XL be shepherding any further superheroes through the musical landscape?
Below is our conversation, edited only for clarity.
What do you think is the most difficult emotion to communicate in a score?
Actually, I don’t think one emotion is difficult – it’s when they get combined that things get really difficult. And that is something I really dealt with on Deadpool. It’s like, how do you go from something that’s extremely funny to something that’s extremely serious, and then to action and back to comedy? It’s the sequence of emotions that makes it really hard in film scoring, not necessarily just one.
I’ve heard that, when you took the assignment for Run All Night, you went back several decades and you researched the evolution of gangster scores. I was curious if you did the same thing when you started tackling superhero movies.
No, actually, I did not, because I think superhero movies are bigger than we are together, and it goes back to Greek mythology, you know? Half-god/half-man, people that have extraordinary powers – it’s always fascinated people. I think when you attack a superhero movie, you should just do it as well as you can at that specific point in time, because you know, when you’re long dead and gone, somebody else will have a go at it, too. So, I think, when it comes to superhero movies, it’s very good that we’re rooted in time and just do it – what, in your opinion, is the best thing to do at this point.
Returning to Deadpool, it seems like it’s such a different take on the superhero genre, with his sarcasm and his breaking the fourth wall and all that fun stuff. Did this inform you that much at all in how you approached the music?
Yeah. For me, it’s important that when I start a character, I need to come up with something that is very unique to this character. I knew from the start that I wouldn’t get away with a melody line of horns and some strings. After weeks of experimentation, I just came up with this idea to combine instruments that we all know from the early ‘80s, whether it’s TV series like Miami Vice or bands like George Marauder or The Art of Noise or Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Michael Jackson, and just combine that into one thing that becomes funny – not necessarily funny music, but fun. What’s interesting is that, back in the day when these records or TV shows came out, it was meant to be all very serious. But now, when we look back at it, we can’t help but get a smile on our face. For me, it was important to make something that was meant to be serious, but when you watch it against the film footage, it becomes out-of-the-blue very funny.
I know you’ve been tight-lipped on Batman v. Superman, but I did want to ask you specifically about that. Can you speak to the challenges of developing a new score for such a long-lived character as Batman?
All I can say is that it was a long, really intense process where Hans [Zimmer] and I had a great collaboration together, and it turned out to be a really fantastic score. We’re both very, very happy with the music.
Is there any truth to those rumors that you might be doing Wonder Woman?
No, there’s not. What I tried to point out, and it got taken the wrong way, was that I was really welcoming the fact that there is now gonna be a superhero movie release staring a strong female character. And I compared it with some of the movies that I had scored – Divergent with Shailene Woodley, 300: Rise of an Empire with Eva Green, and Mad Max: Fury Road with Charlize Theron – and I didn’t even think about that, but people had made the conclusion, “Oh! Tom’s gonna do Wonder Woman.” But it’s not the case, so it was explained wrong.
Well, speaking more generally about superheroes, you have Deadpool, which, obviously, is part of the X-Men universe, and you have Batman v. Superman, which is clearly part of the DC universe – do you have any conversations with the directors or producers or anyone at all about, maybe, longer-range plans for the musical themes and how they might develop over time, or is it just strictly project by project?
No. I think with DC Comics, it’s always been a conversation between Hans and Zack [Snyder] about how to create something that would grow into whatever comes next. Deadpool, for me, is a different movie; it’s such an animal of its own, thanks to the style of how it’s being made, but also the fact that it’s R-rated, the humor that’s in it – it’s very hard to compare that with the five X-Men movies. Really hard to compare. It’s such a different animal. So, when we did Deadpool, there was not really a conversation of, like, “What does this mean for the future of the X-Men and their music?” because it’s such an isolated topic at this point.
Was it strange at all to be working on these two different shared cinematic universes with two different studios with two different voices and tones?
You know, it’s funny, because I don’t look at it like that. I used to be a very, very extreme comic book fanatic, but once I got more into music, and once I got more into film, I started to separate the two a little bit from one another. I mean, every now and then, I have to pinch myself; I just go nuts realizing that I’m working on these movies, movies and themes and characters that I idolized as a boy. It’s fantastic to be able to work on them.
But I also look at it objectively, and when you get asked to do a score for a movie, you’ve got to come up with the best possible work at that point in time, and also according to the wishes of the director. In that respect, when Hans did Man of Steel – the first one – there was no discussion whatsoever of, like, “Oh, we need to reuse the old music from the old Supermans.” That was then, this is now.
Was there any last thing that you wanted to say about Deadpool or anything in general about your future work?
I just want to say about Deadpool that it was such a welcoming superhero movie to interact with. It’s really refreshing to see a movie like that, that completely stands on its own, whereas the normal Marvel movies have a really strong history – you can see the line where it’s developing, and you can see that with the DC Comics movies. But Deadpool is just on its own; it’s a unique animal. And I’m very happy to have been part of this.
Deadpool opens in theaters February 12, 2016; X-Men: Apocalypse on May 27, 2016; Gambit sometime in 2017; Wolverine 3 on March 3, 2017; and an unannounced X-Men film on July 13, 2018. The New Mutants is also in development.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice will hit theaters on March 25th, 2016, followed by Suicide Squad on August 5th, 2016, Wonder Woman on June 23rd, 2017, Justice League on November 17th, 2017, The Flash on March 23rd, 2018, Aquaman on July 27th, 2018, Shazam on April 5th, 2019, Justice League 2 on June 14th, 2019, Cyborg on April 3rd, 2020, and Green Lantern Corps on June 19th, 2020.