As we enter the second half of Marvel’s epic six-episode miniseries The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which follows the global adventures of Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes in the wake of Avengers: Endgame, Nerds and Beyond had a chance to chat with the man behind the iconic music that carries not only the show, but the monumental films that came before it as well.
Composer Henry Jackman first left an unforgettable mark upon the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He later went on to score the subsequent Captain America film Civil War, which brought a consistent and cohesive feel between the two movies and their related characters and events. He most recently scored the Russo Brothers’ film Cherry, and his lengthy list of composer credits also includes the likes of the Kingsman films, X-Men: First Class, the new Jumanji films, Big Hero 6, and much more.
Jackman’s score has thus far effortlessly carried The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, as it feels appropriately reminiscent of the films that these characters made such a huge mark in and yet also skillfully exemplifies how they’ve grown and changed in the years that have passed.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Nerds and Beyond: There have been quite a few film franchises where you’ve scored multiple films for them. When you return back to a franchise after years in between working on different projects, what is your process for getting back in the zone for that specific world?
Henry Jackman: That’s a very good question, because I had that exact feeling. I’ve been working on so many different things. I’ve been working on Cherry, which is such a wildly different aesthetic to the Marvel Universe. I think the very first thing I did was sort of create my own kind of audio care package. I went through all The Winter Soldier and Civil War and chopped out all these audio fragments of the different themes, orchestrations, and harmonies to remind myself of the Winter Soldier scream, the Winter Soldier clangs, the Zemo theme, the Captain America theme, and the Falcon motif. Because you’re right, you work on so many different things, it takes you a second to remember that universe. So I think I quite practically went through all the audio and kind of organized it a bit.
Nerds and Beyond: So The Falcon and Winter Soldier, it’s action-packed like the previous Captain America films. But it also has more extended, quiet, emotional moments as it dives into the personal lives of its characters. Can you talk about your approach in putting together this score? And how did it differ from your process with the films?
Jackman: It’s a good point. I mean, it’s not like you don’t get character development scenes. But when you have a two and a half hour movie, you can’t have too many of them, because the whole thing’s got to squeeze into two hours, 20 minutes. The point about this type of structure — whilst it’s not a six-hour movie, the time is like six slots of 55 minutes — given that you have that amount of time, even though it’s more episodic, it isn’t played down like a movie. You’ve got more real estate. If you analyze, the amount of minutes of music is probably two lots of Avengers: Endgame. So you’ve got this big piece of real estate. And what that doesn’t mean is that everything is constantly hammering away with endless high stakes. It means more what you’re talking about, which is you’ve got more room — or Kari [Skogland] had more room — to explore. It’s inherent in the script, the backstory, and the characters. And that does affect the music.
So whilst you do have these big set pieces, like in the first episode there’s that massive action sequence and Falcon is zooming through all those canyons. You’ve got more time for Bucky hanging out with a shrink trying to get his head together, and Sam back in Louisiana trying to get a bank loan and dealing with the boat and everything. Those kinds of cues, it means you’ve got a little more time, you can be more patient. The instruments that lead the stakes aren’t so high, so the instrumentation can be lighter and thinner. So unlike the Winter Soldier, which is really intense with the wailing scream and the clangs, the civilian Bucky is more simple strings and piano and a bit of guitar, and it’s stripped out. The rate of narrative progress within the music is slower, so it has time to let it breathe because it’s not super quick exposition or action. It means that you can have a slightly more patient approach, and don’t be so invasive in those kinds of scenes. Having said that, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier also still has the massive set pieces. So you actually get to do both. It’s a really wide range, musically speaking.
Nerds and Beyond: What we’ve seen so far of the show, it presents a nice mixture. It’s bringing back what audiences are familiar in hearing from your score, but now it just kind of gets to be expanded upon with the different runtime of the episodes.
Jackman: Exactly. And also, some of it is to do with the DNA. Some of it is inherited, and then some of it’s new. Episode three, Zemo showed up, so you get that spidery, kind of fractious Zemo theme. We’ve had a few Winter Soldier explosions, where all that barbaric, gnarly, dissonance comes in. We’ve had sort of recapitulations of the Cap theme from Winter Soldier, but sort of a little off-key for John Walker. There’s been those kind of callbacks, but then there’s new stuff like the Flag Smashers. They’ve got a new tonality and a theme that will develop more as the show progresses. It’s an interesting combination of taking ideas that existed in the previous scores and then marrying that with completely new stuff.
Another really good example I’m particularly pleased with is actually … in the original Captain America: The Winter Soldier score, Falcon did have a little heroic motif, but it never got fully developed. Because he would steam into action, it would go [music sounds] and then it was over, you know? I never got past that first melody. So when I came back to it I was like, “Instead of starting from scratch, I really think that melody is the beginning of something.” And if you listen to the end credit piece [“Louisiana Hero”], I took that Falcon motif from The Winter Soldier and then finished it up.
Nerds and Beyond: I mean, the end credit song is beautiful. I think it’s a really great song to carry the show. So that worked out nicely.
Jackman: It’s also satisfying because it didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s taking something that was sort of pregnant with potential from eight years ago, this Falcon motif, and letting that melody sort of unfurl and develop to complete itself. It was good to be able to do that.
Nerds and Beyond: You already touched on this a bit, but can you give me insight into your thought process over the years for how you’ve developed the themes and motifs for Sam and Bucky? They’ve come so far, and they’ve changed so much.
Jackman: Bucky, for example, in The Winter Soldier … you really first saw him as the Winter Soldier. So “The Winter Soldier,” if you listen to that track, it’s not an easy listen. It’s like a tortured soul trapped in a mechanistic, technological … it’s really disturbing. There’s screaming, there’s wailing, there’s like metallic clanging. It’s profoundly disturbing. You wouldn’t want to it play to a three-year-old. It’s not a lullaby. And then in The Winter Soldier as the story progresses and Steve Rogers starts to click and go, “Wait a minute, I feel like it might be Bucky,” there’s a sort of nostalgic 50s Americana, Copeland-esque Bucky theme.
When we get to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, I didn’t use that sort of nostalgic Bucky theme, because that’s not really where he’s at. It’s not really Bucky from the late 40s or early 50s. It’s a sort of civilian, psychologically struggling Bucky, who’s just trying to deal with … He’s been deprogrammed. He’s 106 years old. He’s just trying to go and have some sushi and hang out. Make amends, try and get his head together. Without getting too geeky, the civilian Bucky … It’s very buried, but listen really carefully to that Winter Soldier track right at the end, all the carnage and the screaming and the banging and the wailing, there’s actually the string line that appears at the end, which — in the context of that original track — is very disturbing and unsettling. But I sort of straightened out a bit of that string melody and kind of manipulated it, and that became the civilian Bucky melody. I changed all the instrumentation, so gone is all the banging and the screaming, and it’s now piano and strings and guitar. It did arise from the DNA of another part of his musical heritage.
Sam, it’s the difference being he appeared as Falcon for a few sort of heroic outbursts. If you listen carefully to The Winter Soldier, you will hear the [music sounds] theme, and that’s the thing I got to develop. But more than that, in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier TV show, I managed to get kind of a layer of Louisiana instrumentation into it. So whilst Sam/Falcon is heroic, and you get that traditional orchestration, there’s also some guitars and Hammond. There’s a few cues where you can tell it’s playing into his Louisiana roots, none of which was in The Winter Soldier because we didn’t get time for the backstory, the boat story, and the sister. The music has just gone on a journey which reflects the presentation, the characters, and how much more we know about them and how their their story is evolving.
Nerds and Beyond: The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, it really takes viewers on a global adventure. When I saw the synopsis for the show, originally, I was like, “Okay, yeah, sure.” But the first three episodes, we’ve gone so many places already. How did you, on your end, incorporate a worldly feel into the soundtrack?
Jackman: Some of it is sort of derived from character in a way, but some of it is environmental. Like when Sam goes back to Louisiana, and you get the whole discussion about the boat and the bank loan, there’s definitely a kind of Louisiana set of textures that come in. You start getting a certain kind of blues guitar and Hammond and this sort of thing. And then, whereas other environments like Madripoor, it’s not so much that it pertains to a person. It’s more like a metropolis environment. I was probably reaching more into my dubstep, drum, and bass chops for that. When you first see Madripoor, it’s not really something for the strings, the brass, or the woodwinds. Madripoor is like Shanghai meets Hong Kong in a crack den. It’s really techie, and it looks really slick, but it’s somehow really scuzzy. At the same time it’s kind of gnarly, but also really advanced. It feels like a grungy rave scenario. There’s quite a lot of electronic stuff in there. You just sort of go with whatever the environment is asking. Sometimes it’s character-driven, sometimes it’s driven by the environment, like Madripoor.
The Flag Smashers have their own tone that’s more of a dystopian vibe. It’s got a melody, and that’ll develop more in the show. The nature of the show just ends up naturally pushing you into all these different places, which means you have different tonalities, different melodies, different types of sound. Some are more organic, and some instrumental, and some are way more clubby and electronic. You’re just sort of driven by the picture, really. It’s great fun. I guess that’s what the Bond films always used to be known for. Inevitably, Bond needs to go to like Sri Lanka and then Australia, and it’s similar. It’s got a really wide range. It’s a long way from the lobster pots of Louisiana to drinking some crazy cocktail made out of like snake heart and guts in Madripoor. It’s not shoehorned in, they need to go there because they’ve got to find out about this doctor, and they’ve got to meet Shelby. The environments are a necessary consequence of the narrative structure. I think it works really well. It adds a sort of epic, diverse dimension to the whole show, because you’re just seeing all sorts of different environments as a result of the story.
Nerds and Beyond: Out of what audiences have seen so far, can you single out a particular track and talk about your creative thought process behind it? Maybe one that you were really excited about? Or one that was particularly challenging?
Jackman: What I’d probably say, because the soundtrack hasn’t come out yet, but one track has, that end credit track [“Louisiana Hero”]. I’d say that for now, just because then people will be able to hear it. And it’s because several things all happened at once that I thought were quite satisfying. We’ve discussed how I had this little Falcon motif in The Winter Soldier. Because it’s an incredible sequence, I got to play down the whole tune. But it’s also where I got to define something else. If you listen to that end credit track for about the first minute, it’s more of a groove bass blues sort of a thing, and it doesn’t have the traditional superhero orchestration yet. I feel like Sam’s relationship with the shield … the way Sam’s coming at heroism compared to … there’s a certain classicism to Steve Rogers, a kind of ethical simplicity and a sort of upstanding … I mean, that’s not quite true. There’s a lot of ambiguity by the time we get to Captain America: The Winter Soldier compared to The First Avenger, because it’s just a more shady world.
But Sam’s Louisiana background I just didn’t feel should be ignored and had to be reflected in the music. So I wanted to get this whole non-classical blues element in. You think about it, blues is really ultimately African and then African American. It’s not from the concert. It doesn’t come out of Strauss and Bogner and Aaron Copeland and everything. So I wanted to do the big, aspirational, heroic theme, which uses the orchestra (which you associate with the origins of symphonic and classical music), but then combine it with the Louisiana vibe, which is not at all classical. It’s much more groove-based and blues-based thing. Which is what that end credit track is, an amalgam of those two things. Meanwhile, I got to finish the Falcon tune, so that was a bit of a work of trying to make many cogs all smash into each other and create a kind of functioning Swiss watch that didn’t grind badly together. I think I just about got there.
Nerds and Beyond: What advice can you offer to aspiring composers that hope to make their way into the world of film and television?
Jackman: Don’t give up. You need ridiculous amounts of perseverance and endurance. But funnily enough, if I just had to give one piece of advice without waffling on for too long … If you really want to get serious about film music, you could take it as read. You need a certain amount of musical and compositional skills and skills with orchestration, writing, and arrangement. Let’s just take all that as read, otherwise you’re wasting your time. I think one of the secret ingredients that is sometimes overlooked in all the expectations that the idea of being a successful film composer will always be musical attributes, the kind of hidden secret ingredient along with all the necessary musical skills is actually a skill of sort of literary criticism. Think how many people are good at writing music. Many, many, many. On this Earth right now, how many people could string together a tune? Hundreds, thousands, right? What is particularly helpful to filmmakers is not someone just randomly writing music, but someone who, when given a project, can break down what’s happening in the filmmaking and the narrative structure, the characterization, and figure out why we need music, and what is the purpose of the music and what it’s for, and then translate that. Because it’s quite possible to have someone who’s brilliant at writing music, but the music that they’re writing is simply not helping the show.
The magic bridge to enable a composer to not only write music, but write music that significantly enhances the filmmaking, the narrative, is actually the sort of literary criticism skill of understanding (at a root level, like subtextually) what is going on in the movie. We all like to wear a watch. But if you’re a composer, you’ve sort of got to be like a watchmaker where you rip it apart and understand all the cogs of it. A lot of it is instinctive as well. But having a conscious ability to do a little mini critical analysis. After that, you know, you just crack on with writing, and it’s very instinctive. But being able to have discussions with filmmakers where you can sort of get under the skin of what it is they’re trying to do at that point is not necessarily musical, it’s a bit like literary criticism. And then once you’ve got that, it means that if you imagine your musical creations as darts, you’re now throwing them at a dartboard that’s probably the right place as opposed to just throwing darts all over the place and hoping some of them land.
So slightly counterintuitive because, of course, there’s all sorts of musical skills that are required, but I’m just giving that advice on the assumption that someone already has the vast majority of those musical skills. The thing that might give you the edge over someone else is that the music you’re writing is particularly particularly locked in to the project. And that’s what filmmakers really respond to, because they’re like, “Oh great, the scene was good, but I don’t know what you’ve done. Somehow the scene is way more tense, and you really demarcated this.” And it shows that you’ve understood what the purpose of the scene is.
Make sure to tune in for our weekly coverage of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.