Junkie XL on His 'Dark Tower' Inspiration, Mentor Hans Zimmer & Advice for Aspiring Composers
Tom Holkenborg also gives us an exclusive look inside his supercharged production studio.
As The Dark Tower slings into theaters this weekend, the science-fiction western film -- led by Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey -- is brought to life not only by its leading cast, but the rapturous cinematic score as well.
Critically acclaimed composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL -- who created all the music for the $60 million blockbuster based on Stephen King's novel series of the same name -- has aligned himself with some of the most lucrative big-budget features over the past two decades, scoring films including Blade, The Beach, Resident Evil, 300: Rise of an Empire, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool and Divergent. Furthermore, he also created collaborative scores with friend and mentor Hans Zimmer for Inception, Madagascar 3 and The Dark Knight Rises, which became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
Holkenborg exclusively invited The Hollywood Reporter into his studio -- which happens to look more like a spacecraft -- for a private tour of his hitmaking labyrinth and to give us a behind-the-scenes look at his creative inspiration for The Dark Tower's emotive soundtrack, as well as offer up some advice for producers looking to venture into film composing.
"Why this movie is different from some of the other movies that I've done, it's very thematically driven, whereas some of my other film scores are very sound-driven," states Holkenborg of Dark Tower. "In this case, it's a combination of how melodies and harmonies are used in combination with sounds."
The summer blockbuster, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, primarily takes place in two distinct worlds: New York City, aka the normal world, and Mid-World, which is where Elba and McConaughey's characters, gunslinger Roland Deschain and the "Man in Black," duel. Deschain's mission is to protect the mythical Dark Tower located in the End-World, which supports all realities, to save the planet from extinction.
"I had to fall back on a lot of different types of instruments that don't really exist; you make them up as you go," Holkenborg excitedly detailed of creating the sonic aesthetic of Mid-World. "One of the things we used extensively was a guitar and a bunch of really outlandish guitar pedals."
He continued: "I made these really weird ambient sounds, and then we turned that in samples and in hardware to play them a certain way. That created a really unique ambiance that you can't really tell what it is. That combined with a cast of colors really made a nice atmosphere for the other world."
Bringing Roland "Gunslinger" Deschain's character to life became Junkie's first creation in the scoring process. Inside the gun-toting, stoic badass is a damaged man whose demons are layered for ultra-emotive champion theme music.
"It's a theme that needs to be emotional. He's the last one left," he explained. "He also lost his dad a long time ago, so it needed to have an emotional quality, a sad quality. At the same time, the theme needed to be able to develop to something really heroic, when finally at the end of the movie, he really stands up to what he was meant to do in the first place -- and that's being a hero and a gunslinger and protect the world."
Meanwhile, the Man in Black's devilish comportment attracts the complete opposite musical treatment, sounding more like a clash of distorted noises that painfully stab the ears. "The sound approach to Matthew McConaughey's character is not necessarily melodic-driven, it's sound-driven," Holkenborg said, "which I actually made with modular synthesizers and other sounds and programs. These really eerie sounds that make you extremely uncomfortable when you listen to them."
According to Holkenborg, the process of constructing the soundtrack was a "collaborative" one with director Arcel. "He is so involved in the creative process of all the different areas in making a film -- not only directing, but also with the music," he remarked. "We massaged the score constantly, then the picture would change and we need to change things here and change things there."
Arcel even used Junkie's elaborate production studio as a mental break from long production hours on the set. "He was here almost once a week for the last couple of months, and the last month or so he was here two, three times a week," Holkenberg noted. "He really felt it as a breakaway from the production office. So many people needed his attention. For him, it was just a great break to hang here in the studio and just play music, enjoy music, and work on it together. It was a really lovely experience."
Originally a music producer in the electronica sphere, with focuses on trance and big beat, Holkenborg gained attention with projects like 1997's Saturday Teenage Kick, Radio JXL: A Broadcast From the Computer Hell Cabin and a world-renowned remix of Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation." He attributes his transition over to film scoring to his production skills and stresses the importance of apprenticeship with established composers to learn from.
"I think it really helped me to create more colors to score instead of just being a composer," he emphasized. "Then I would have to rely on a lot of session players and other people that would come up with ideas regarding that. The most successful road to become a film composer is actually assisting other composers for a really good amount of time. "
Most notably attached to Hans Zimmer as a compositional mentor, Holkenborg believes his most valuable lesson learned from the Oscar winner is connecting and relating with everyone working on the project. "What I learned from Hans -- and this was the final information that I really needed to do this on my own -- was how to talk to directors, how to work with studios, how to guide through the whole process of filmmaking and everything that comes with it," Holkenborg told. "The job as a composer is that you are a moviemaker together with the director and other people that work on it. The director is steering the ship where it needs to go, but you're all storytelling with sounds and melodies and harmonies to help emphasize the characters in the film and the drama as it's unfolding."
The Dark Tower, released by Columbia Pictures, is in theaters now. Watch Holkenborg's private studio tour above.