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The Middleburg Film Festival had an outstanding line-up of films, many with filmmakers present to answer questions. But unquestionably the highlight of the festival was the concert tribute to composer Henry Jackman. Middleburg is unique in its annual recognition of film scores with its Distinguished Film Composer award, and they do it right. The Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of maestro Jan Wagner, performed the world premiere of suites from films scored by Jackman. The finale included the Freedom Choir singing with the orchestra the haunting score from “The Birth of a Nation.” Hearing the music without the sound effects and dialogue demonstrated powerfully how essential the score is to establishing the mood, direction, and character of the story.
In between clips from Jackman-scored films that ranged from “Monsters vs. Aliens” to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and Seth Rogen’s “The Interview,” Jackman spoke with Middleburg Film Festival Advisory Board member John Horn about the “weird and nasty noises” he includes in some of his compositions. He said that the first film that made him think about the contribution made by the music was, of all things, “Predator.” He was still in school, studying music, and was captivated to hear that the “Predator” score was “very harmonically sophisticated music with tritone chord changes.” He laughed that years later, when he told composer Alan Silvestri how much that music had inspired him, Silvestri responded, “I didn’t even try with that one!”
Despite the fact that his music teacher told him that “Film music isn’t real music, dear boy,” he decided to pursue it.
He said that one advantage to working on animated films is the longer lead time. He often has a couple of years with updates on storyboards and character designs, while with live-action features, he hopes for as much as three months. He is happy when the director has a sophisticated understanding of music (Edward Zwick impressed him by asking whether “the da capo should start here”), what he really appreciates is a director who will be clear about the mood and story. He is glad to have direction with terms like “stress, kinetic, and narrative.” He emphasized more than once that a film composer has to understand story as well as music.
A composer can help a movie’s problems, but can’t fix them, he told us. “Music can sneak you past things” and “when characters are off the screen you can add some narrative.” He said that Hans Zimmer told director Ron Howard that he could convey all of the dense historical background for “The Da Vinci Code” by writing music that “will make the audience feel devastated and know that what happened was really unfair,” and that would be enough.
He talked about working in different genres and with different directors. Paul Greengrass like “ruthless realism.” But in a movie like “Puss in Boots,” there is “no point in trying to be subtle. It’s not often you get to see an egg sword fight with a cat.” And for the provocative satire, ‘The Interview,” instead of going for the comedy, he created a big, pompous classical score, “something Kim Jong-un might approve.” And for “The Birth of a Nation,” he asked “Why wouldn’t Nat Turner get the same compositional and orchestral accompaniment” that Mel Gibson had in “Braveheart?”
He said that matching the score to the film can be “chess-like problem-solving.” The festival’s award, then, was the equivalent of designating him a grand master.