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Exclusive Music: Tom Holkenborg Interview: Terminator: Dark Fate

Tom Holkenborg Junkie XL Photography by Dirk KikstraDesk

Back in 1991, James Cameron concluded his original vision for The Terminator with T2: Judgment Day, which is widely celebrated as one of the greatest action movies of all time. Of course, Hollywood isn't one to allow a creator's vision to prevent them from churning out more sequels, and so 2003, 2009, and 2015 brought further sequels, which generally suffered from the law of diminishing returns. However, Terminator: Dark Fate looks to reverse that trend, and with original creator James Cameron back in the producer's chair, as well as the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, hopes are high that the Dark Fate will fulfill its destiny as the true successor to the greatness of the original two films.

Composer Tom Holkenborg, known to many by his stage name, Junkie XL, composed the score for Dark Fate, and spoke to Screen Rant at length about his work on the long-awaited sequel. He discusses his approach to handling such sacred material, as well as getting his hands dirty as a "full contact" composer. He also speaks briefly about the nigh-mythical "Snyder Cut" of Justice League, for which his music was completed, but never released. Finally, he talks about how his work on 300: Rise of an Empire led directly to his being hired to compose Mad Max: Fury Road.

Related: Screen Rant's Terminator: Dark Fate Review

Screen Rant is excited to debut an exclusive track from the score to Terminator: Dark Fate. This reimagining of the original Terminator main theme borrows the iconic melody from Brad Fiedel's original score and puts a modern spin on it while reflecting the film's Mexican setting and characters. The addition of traditional Mexican guitar strumming adds an emotional warmth to the oppressively metallic instrumentation. The entire Terminator franchise has always been about the relationship between man and machine, and this piece of music represents that struggle with style and kinetic momentum.

The last time we talked was for your score to Mortal Engines, and we discussed your transition from being credited as Junkie XL to your proper name. This isn't your very first movie as Tom Holkenborg, but do you feel like you're knee-deep in the next phase of your career? Do you feel like you're in Tom Holkenborg: Phase 2 or Phase 3?

You know, to be honest, we've always been struggling with the idea of, how do we give this a proper place, my artist/producer name, which I've been using now for 25 years or so. And so we came to the conclusion of, I should be scoring movies as Tom Holkenborg. Junkie XL is an important part of my past, and I'm very proud of it, but I don't see a necessity to keep it going for the movies that I'm now scoring. The definition of Junkie XL is too small for what I'm doing right now. It's really like, high-energy electronic music, which I've been making for 20 years or so, but the film scoring career goes through all these different elements, whether it's Sonic the Hedgehog or Terminator. They're very different movies, and I didn't think my producer name was covering everything I was doing at this point.

Right, like if people don't necessarily know who you are, they might just assume that it's an electronic dance score.

Yeah, which it's not! (Laughs)

Exactly. So the Dark Fate theme we're sharing on Screen Rant right now, it's differentiated by a wonderful Mexican influence, with those acoustic guitars and that brass. Does a lot of the score have a similar Latino flair?

Not all the time. I really wanted to save the Latino influences in the music for one of the main characters, Dani, who is the heroine of the movie. She is from Mexico City, so I really wanted to save that for her. Whereas the Terminator coming from the future, even though he's played by a Latino actor, he's still a robot, so I thought it was less appropriate for him. And the same with Sarah Connor and the Terminator character, Carl. In this case, that's the name of Arnold in this movie. He renames himself Carl. So I thought it was less important for them. I was able to really show, on the score, the roots of where this girl is coming from.

I love the way a film score can tell the story alongside the dialogue and visuals.

That's the plan, usually! (Laughs)

When did you first see The Terminator? Did you see the original movie back when it first came out? What's your relationship with the franchise?

I think I was 17 when it came out. Around the same time, we had a bunch of movies coming out that were dealing with this post-apocalyptic aspect. Obviously, Blade Runner, with its score from Vangelis, was in the same era. So was The Road Warrior, the second Mad Max film. Then it was Terminator. There were a few others; Aliens also came out around that time. It was a very special time period for me, seeing these movies as a teenager and really seeing how, at that point in time, the movie industry ws really embracing fully electronic scores. Terminator was one of them. There was a question that was being asked a couple of days ago, the question was: "The first Terminator was made on a shoestring budget, so if they did have all the money in the world, they probably would have used an orchestra." But I said, "Probably not!" I think it was a very obvious choice. Brad Fiedel knew those colors really well, and it fit so well with The Terminator aspect of it. The second one, from '91, just absolutely blew me away. But I was a little older then. But I remember the first one really well when it came out.

Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9 in Terminator Dark Fate

Me too. I saw it when I was much too young and it scared the hell out of me when I was a little kid! But it's funny, you mentioned Mad Max and Alien alongside Terminator. You had done Mad Max: Fury Road, and now you've done Terminator: Dark Fate. Are you suggesting you want to do the next Alien movie?

I didn't say that! (Laughs) I think the excitement is... On one hand, to work on something that's really new, that doesn't have a history, a culture. A good example of that is Deadpool. To be part of that first entry in a franchise. The same with Alita: Battle Angel, and when I worked with Peter Jackson on Mortal Engines. These are fresh new ideas. It's so great to be part of that. On the other hand, there's the fanboy aspect. The way I love the first two Terminators, to then be able, with that same group of people, more or less, to do it again in 2019... Obviously, it's like a trip! To be able to score the fourth Mad Max with George Miller... It's really incredible to do these things. I've worked on a few other franchises that are based on older material. Like Tomb Raider, for instance, but that was like a whole new group of people. Different actors, different director. So you're rethinking how to give the movie shape and musical shape.

Right, and Terminator isn't a reboot, it's like a direct sequel to T2.

In this case, it was the return of James Cameron as a producer. He was very influential on what the movie was going to be, and the casting and the script. And this is my second movie with Tim Miller. And it's the return of Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and also the return of John Connor, even though he's computer animated. So you have the original cast of the movie, and James Cameron. You know, this movie is supposed to be the third movie in the series. It also made sense for me, knowing all this, that I had to look at the original score and see, okay, what would be really great from the original score to reinterpret for this movie? So not so much little quotes, but more about taking the ideas that made those first two ideas so iconic and finding what would be the natural progression of that in 2019. Linda and Arnold are older, so the music needs to progress. Like, what's the 2019 version of that idea? For me, it was really important to pay a proper homage to the original idea that was behind the first two Terminators, but also homage to Brad Fiedel.

When you have access to all that music, do you feel a pressure, a fear, to not stray too far from that iconic main Terminator theme, or to put your own spin on it? What's that process of bargaining with yourself like, of doing your version?

I thought that was very important, obviously. Since we live in this new electronic world, the technology development over the last 20-odd years has been insane, compared to where we were in 1991. I remember that really well. I was making music in 1984 and in 1991. I remember how limited the capabilities were to really explore electronic music. But now, in 2019, the only limitation is your fantasy. There's so many things you can do, musically, in the electronic landscape right now. For me, it was important to pay homage to the original score of Brad Fiedel, but at the same time, I am hired as the composer. It's not a matter of doing it literally the same as he did it. It was very important that I put my stamp on it. The track that is featured on Screen Rant, it's my interpretation of the main theme, with a different instrumentation. It's way more aggressive than the original one. It has a whole different exploration into what electronic sounds can do, but at the same time, there's all these Latino elements. The brass is very prominent. The trumpets that play a little bit of a mariachi counter-line against the main theme. And then, obviously, all the Spanish guitars that were added. And very aggressive drums, even more aggressive metal sounds than the original Terminator score had. It's really my take on it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate

Is that an actual anvil?

Absolutely!

That's so rad.

I record it, and then resample. I used a lot of the same techniques that were used back in the day, and the other thing I added to it was, I actually sampled a lot of organic instruments. So an anvil, technically, it sounds horrible to listen to when you're sitting in the same room where someone's playing that thing, but it's still a natural, organic instrument. I sampled my own basses with bows, my cellos with bows, bass guitars, electric guitars, my own drum kit, the kitchen sink, the washing machine. I mean, everything was sampled and treated to re-purpose sounds that we know in our daily lives into musical instruments. That made it very special; when you listen to the score in its entirety, you would think, "Oh, this is all done with synthesizers," but that's not the case. The idea was, how do we take these organic instruments as we know them, but re-purpose them in a new way? I call myself a "full contact" composer, and this was one of those movies where it really came alive. I was able to play 14 or 16 different instruments on the score. That makes me so happy that I can sit behind my drum kit and play stuff, and then bang on a couple of oil drums, and play around with the bass and the cello, and then grab the bass guitar with distortion pedals, and then I start making noises with my electric guitar, and then we start banging on a washing machine and record that. It's so much fun to make music like that, instead of sitting behind a piano all day, writing down notes on a piece of paper.

Being "full contact," as you say, must be so affirming at the end of the process. I mean, I'm sure it's great to conduct a piece that you've written, but to hear every note that you played with your own hands while watching the movie, that must be amazing.

It's so much fun. It's so rewarding. Don't get me wrong; every time I record a full orchestral score and hear it for the first time being played by 80 or 100 people, that never gets old. That sound is so impressive, especially when you stand in the same room, it's so impressive. But it's a different experience when you listen to it back and you hear these 80 or 100 people play what you wrote on the piece of paper behind the piano. But in addition to that, it's also now the Spanish guitars that I played, and the drums that I played, and the anvil, and the washing machine, and all these other things. It makes it an even more special experience to listen to everything back when it's done.

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator Dark Fate

Oh man, I bet! So, this is your second go-round with Tim, with Tim Miller. What is your creative relationship with him? Do you have a shorthand at this point? Or do you have to begin at square one every time?

No, you definitely have a shorthand. That's pretty much with every director that you work with for a second or a third time, or, for that matter, a picture editor, who is also very important to the process, and producers and studios. I wouldn't say Tim knows what he's going to get. That would sound too familiar. That's not what's happening. But he knows to expect the unexpected from me. Let's put it that way. So that's good! And I know how he works. I don't always know, when I come up with concepts, if he's going to like the concepts or not, but what I do know is what he likes to see for certain scenes. When we see some emotional scene, I know he doesn't want to hear a soaring cello melody for those, because he doesn't like that. I know how he wants to play certain scenes. It's a major advantage when you score a second movie with someone.

Did you get to go to the set? Did you get to meet Arnold and Linda?

I wish! You know, yesterday... I was so looking forward to yesterday, because that was supposed to be the premiere in Los Angeles, but it got cancelled because of the fires. I actually live in a voluntary evacuation zone. And the fire hasn't come any closer in the last 24 hours, but the winds are supposed to pick up... I have a suitcase packed. It's in my car. If we need to leave with the kids and the dog, we might need to get out of the house. I don't know. Yesterday it looked really scary, but then it averted a little bit. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the danger was not averted, and people lost homes. A lot of people that were supposed to be there yesterday were impacted in one way or another by these fires. And that's why they decided to cancel the premiere. So, unfortunately, I couldn't geek out on Arnold and Linda Hamilton, but I'm sure there will be another occasion that will make up for it. Maybe some party next week somewhere, I don't know. But I'm definitely going to see the film myself. I usually go on opening weekend, just to sit among ordinary Americans, you know, to see how they respond to the movie I just worked on. It's always so great!

At Screen Rant, we are obsessed with the Justice League "Zack Snyder Cut..." If you know what I'm getting at.

Of course!

Is that music off-limits to you? You did the score for the movie before it was changed, and I'm sure you're really proud of it, would love to put it out somewhere, somehow. Can you do that?

Well, I definitely could, but I won't. The full score is still there. It's a really great score, and so thought Zack, and it's just there. It never goes away. We'll see what happens in the future, you know?

So, uh... Do you think we're ever gonna get to hear it? (Laughs)

I have no comment on that. But I'm just saying, it's there. The full tracks.

Tom Holkenborg Junkie XL Mortal Engines Photography by Dirk Kikstra

Fair enough! Man, I just have to say, before I let you go, I'm such a huge fan of your work. I think your score to 300: Rise of an Empire is one of the greats.

Oh, thank you so much! It's so funny you point that one out, because it really is the precursor to Mad Max. It was like, "okay, how much noise can we make to score the picture while still keeping track of the storytelling?" And it was also done in four weeks, five weeks. It was definitely daunting. It was my first big Hollywood score. It was my first movie alone with Zack Snyder, even though we knew each other from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. It was really an incredible time period. A lot of the experiments there that I did... There's only so much you can do in four weeks. But then after that, it was like, wait, that idea is not fully developed, so I carried it over to Mad Max. On Mad Max, I had all the time in the world to really perfect the idea. But all the seeds were planted in the score to 300: Rise of an Empire.

Oh man, that's so cool. I'm thinking about it right now and I can totally see that through-line. Absolutely.

It was also the reason why I got hired! Apparently. I mean, I don't know this first-hand, but George (Miller) apparently had no interest in talking to any other composer after he heard 300. He was like, "That's what I want, but even more!" And I said, "Okay, George, let's do it."

More: How Violent Is Terminator: Dark Fate?

Key Release Dates
  • Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) release date: Nov 01, 2019
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