Composer Henry Jackman On Scoring The Morally Complex Story Of “Captain Phillips”

Henry Jackman talks about scoring a layered thriller and about the creative collaboration between director and composer.

Composer Henry Jackman On Scoring The Morally Complex Story Of “Captain Phillips”
Henry Jackman at his studio [Images courtesy of Henry Jackman]

“You could give that movie to a completely different director, and Captain Phillips would be a sort of working-class American hero story with a full-on Aaron Copland heroic theme.” Henry Jackman is talking about composing the original score for the critically and commercially successful Paul Greengrass-directed film which stars Tom Hanks as the captain of a Maersk container ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. “The Somalis would be hideously evil pirates with a suitably dark, kind of ethnic and loaded style that would make it really clear that they’re the bad guys, and the U.S. military would show up with a full-on testosterone-fueled rescue schtick.” As it is, the story, and creating the music for it, was a much more nuanced affair.


Captain Phillips was Jackman’s first experience working with Greengrass, the English director whose previous films–including Bloody Sunday, United 93, and Green Zone–all contained a moral ambiguity around complex subjects. To hear him tell it, it was quite an education.

Jackman began making music for film in 2009, when he composed the score for the animated Monsters vs. Aliens. In the ensuing years, he split his time largely between animated kids movies–Winnie The Pooh, Puss In Boots, Wreck-It Ralph–and action blockbusters like Kick-Ass and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Captain Phillips is his first stab at what might be called “Oscar bait,” and Jackman is clearly thrilled to have had that experience under a director who values subtlety and layered storytelling the way Greengrass does.

“The whole trick with the Paul Greengrass scenario is that everything is much more ambiguous,” says Jackman. “Everything’s more subjective and more open to interpretation, and it’s a much more thoughtful film, where you can end up not necessarily condoning what the pirates do, but you sort of understand how and why they’ve ended up in that position, and thinking, ‘If I were born near Mogadishu, maybe I’d be one of those guys on the beach queuing up to get in a boat, because it’s the only way you can make any money.’ He takes away all the crass moral simplicity and presents you with something a little more thought-provoking,” Jackman says Greengrass’s approach taught him how to change his approach as a composer, as well. “What that means from a musical point of view is to subjugate your obvious tendencies, and not have grand and informative themes that tell the audience what’s going on. That’s exactly not what Paul’s all about.”

The result, for Captain Phillips, is a subtle score that uses Western instruments in ways they’re rarely used in the West, and that highlights the ambiguity the film calls for.

The Benefits Of Creative Parameters

“It would be false to think that, because a score like Captain Phillips isn’t in that category of sweeping symphonic and thematic scores, that somehow that makes it more restricting, or that the director’s aesthetic has caused any restriction–I look at it as defining creative parameters, and once you know where those lines are, it’s just a different kind of creativity,” Jackman explains. “It was like, ‘Okay, let’s try some interesting experiments. What happens instead of using really obvious ethnic instruments?’ Tristan [the cellist Jackman worked with] is a very interesting and thoughtful cellist, and despite being a brilliant technical player in the Western tradition, has also studied in Africa. We sort of misappropriated his cello to see how many weird and non-Western sounds we could get out of it. We were getting an almost ethnic-type approach, but by using a cello, it made it more ambiguous, and hopefully helped the film by not making the Somalis feel obviously exotic and making the Americans feel like the blue-collar heroes.”


Not every film that Jackman composes for defines those creative parameters in the same way. How does the experience of working on a movie like Captain Phillips and collaborating with a director like Greengrass compare to scoring a Hollywood studio picture like G.I. Joe?

“Something like G.I. Joe, by the very nature of it, it’s based on a toy franchise where you have fantasy baddies called Cobra, so they’re all the sort of things that would be completely out of place on a Paul Greengrass film,” Jackman laughs. “Musically, like, really dark and, if not heavy-handed, pretty heavy-duty, badass music for the bad guys, and heavy-duty badass music, indeed, for the G.I. Joes. All of that is exactly what’s needed–when the boys leap into action on G.I. Joe, it should be feeling like testosterone-fueled military music, whereas obviously the portrayal of the Navy SEALs and the Navy in a movie like Captain Phillips is more procedural and objective and realistic. Those two are kind of a good comparison: they’re really at extreme ends, where one is uber-realistic and the other is… you could almost classify G.I. Joe as a military-fantasy film, really.”

Bringing A Director’s Vision To Life

“Military-fantasy” is as good a description of G.I. Joe as any, but while the end product for the two films is wildly different, the process of working on a movie with an intensely focused director like Greengrass and a bigger studio picture isn’t necessarily all that different. Certain elements remain the same: The composer will still have to watch the movie countless times, for example. “When you’re working on a film, you’ll see individual scenes literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times,” Jackman says, “I can shut my eyes and run sequences through that will last about nine minutes, where I know it frame-by-frame.” And, if you’re lucky, get as close to a final cut of the film to work from as possible. That was the case on both Captain Phillips and the movie that could probably fairly be described as its tonal opposite, the Seth Rogan apocalypse This Is The End, for which Jackman also composed the score. “Sometimes you’ll see a cut that’s way off, and they make radical changes and the length changes hugely, and even story aspects change, so it can be a bit of a moving target sometimes,” Jackman explains. “But Captain Phillips wasn’t a moving target. It’s a real luxury, same as with Seth Rogen’s film.”


The process changes a bit for animated movies, which take years to make, but Jackman says that working to compose for a film that may not exist yet carries its own benefits, too. “A movie like Wreck-It Ralph or Kung Fu Panda, these kind of movies, they take about four years, so you have this sort of double-edged sword-slash-privilege of getting involved really early,” he says. “You might see a script, you might see storyboards way before any animation. Often that’s actually very useful, because with a good director with vision and some good storyboards, you don’t necessarily need to wait for actual animated scenes to come through to understand the tone of the film and the nature of the themes required. Often it can be quite inspiring just to have a picture or a storyboard, or to remember a conversation, to just write a theme. That’s often the case with animation.”

While the process changes dramatically depending on whether the project is live-action or animated, or how much of the film is being shaped during post-production, there’s also another factor that can have a dramatic effect on what the experience of collaborating with a director is like: namely, if that director is a musician him- or herself. That’s not to say that Jackman fears the busybody director who fancies himself an armchair composer–in fact, working with directors who have a music background can have very positive results.

“Matthew Vaughn, for instance, using his own self-effacing words, ‘thumps around on the piano a bit,'” Jackman says of his Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class collaborator. “He’s a real music lover. Matthew will be in iTunes blasting some tune, ‘Oh, man, you’ve got to hear this, it’s awesome.’ I think he once said to me, ‘It was only because I wasn’t good enough as a music producer that I ended up having to make films instead.’ So he’s got a real passion and a love and he’s really hands-on with music. He’ll send mp3s and say, ‘I love this bit in the middle. It’s awesome. What chords are those?’ He’s interested in the harmonic and the production minutiae of why things are cool.”

That’s a very different relationship than the one Jackman had with the director of Wreck-It Ralph, Rich Moore, whose own vocabulary for music is very different from Vaughn’s. “There’s a completely different and equally competent and inspiring kind of director’s relation to music, where you meet up and you play music and you discuss it, and you get noted–the way you interact with your director is through the language of filmmaking,” Jackman explains. “With Rich, we would play music, and he would have a different approach, where he would talk about the emotions and the theme, for instance, and wouldn’t see it as his role to start telling me exactly what kind of instruments or anything like that.” The process would spend little time dealing with the chords the director heard, and focus on the emotional quality that Moore wanted the music to convey, Jackman explains, quoting Moore: “‘This is great, I wonder if some of the fragility of Penelope could come out a little earlier in this theme? Is there some way of doing this so that it accents how torn Wreck-It Ralph feels?'”


Regardless of the approach, though, Jackman says that as long as he’s collaborating with someone who has a strong vision as a filmmaker, the experience tends to go well. For the composer, the key to creative collaboration is to have someone he can communicate with effectively, to ensure that his musical imagination is utilized in realizing the director’s vision for the film.

“If you’re a good director, you will understand the reasons why you have a director of photography, or a film composer, or a head of CG, and all these different things,” he says. “It’s these people who are all experts in their field, and if you can get your vision across without necessarily getting under the bonnet, you’ll get the best of both worlds: You’ll get your vision realized without having the constraints. It’s not limited by the imagination of the director. Most good directors do exactly that. Every director’s different, and I think that’s partly what’s so beautiful about it. Everyone has a different vision and a different way of working.”

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club.