Thomas Holkenborg, also known as Junkie XL, has made a name for himself as one of the most sought-after modern-day composers. Scoring films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, Batman v Superman, Alita: Battle Angel, and now, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Godzilla vs. Kong, his work continues to impress as he stretches the musical spectrum beyond everything that he’s previously done.
Holkenborg has described his work on Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a “Mount Everest” of film scores. He left the 2017 cut of the film when Zack Snyder exited the project and has since developed many other scores. When asked to return by Snyder himself, Holkenborg was reluctant to revisit his previously scrapped work as it brought up bad memories, so he decided to start from scratch. The final result is something that is obviously very special, to him and to the dedicated fans behind the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut film movement.
Now, as cinemas begin to open their doors around the world, Godzilla vs. Kong is the first and most anticipated title to break open the gates. Moviegoers will be treated to an enormous event, underlined by yet another striking score from Holkenborg. We were lucky enough to sit down with Junkie XL and talk in extreme depth about his scoring for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Godzilla vs. Kong, and more. He even clarifies the status of George Miller’s Mad Max: Furiosa.
To start, I wanted to talk about Zack Snyder’s Justice League. You were originally involved in 2016, what were your ideas for your score back then and how did they develop since the release of the Snyder Cut?
Junkie XL: I started with a lot of positive energy in 2016, on the original version. But that version was way shorter in that time period, it was only two hours. And due to the tragedy that happened in [Zack’s] family life, we were never able to fully realize what we were planning to do – what he was doing with the film and what I wanted to do with the music. Because of his family tragedy, working the last two months on that movie was really surrounded with a lot of negative energy. It wasn’t great.
Then he had to leave at a certain point, which also means that the composer is going to leave usually. If there’s a whole new team coming in, usually all of the old team goes away. So when I found out last year, that we were going to finish the film, I found out that it was four hours long, which is more difficult than two hours. I listened to some of the things back from that time period, and a couple of things happened. First, the negative energy that I felt came back, and if you’re going to finish a four-hour movie, that should be a year of celebration – not a year of like, “Uh, not that music again.”
So I wanted to start over. And on top of that, when I started on Justice League, my film scoring career was pretty young. It was only three years old and in the last four years, I’ve learned so much from great directors that I worked with; Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, Tim Miller, George Miller, there are so many. I wanted to make sure that if I worked on this one, that it was the best that I had in me and represents me as well as possible. So that was another really good reason to start over. That is pretty much where my personal ‘Mount Everest’ began.
It’s by far the biggest project that I’ve completed in my life and even in history, it’s a long project compared to some of the other movies. Also, it was obviously very special, because it was done in complete isolation during the full-on year of COVID. It made it extra intense, to work on it without distraction. But also, the amount of music that needs to be created. I did that on my own and it was a really great feeling to do it. It made me realize how I potentially want to do things differently in the future.
I call myself the ‘full context’ composer, which means I want to be 100% in control of each aspect of the music. A big part of that is playing instruments, turning knobs, and making noise. Normally, in the studio where I work, I have all the equipment that I potentially would want. In [Zack Snyder’s Justice League] because it was done in my house in a small room, it’s almost like full contact and screen, with one guitar, one bass, a few hardware boxes, and my computer system, and I just really dived in to get the maximum results out of those instruments.
As you just said, Zack Snyder’s Justice League was finished in quarantine. So was this overall a shorter or longer amount of time than you would normally do on a big film?
Junkie XL: It really depends. For instance, on 300: Rise of an Empire that I also did with Zack, I replaced another composer and I only had four to five weeks to do it. Mad Max was for instance, 18 to 19 months, and this one was about eight months. So it was about twice the length of a normal movie.
What was your reaction when you got the call from Zack, asking you to return to score this film and that he would be finishing his original vision?
Junkie XL: I was super happy. I knew for a long time this was coming because Zack and I usually keep in contact every month or so just to talk about everything. Also, I just worked with him on Army of the Dead, so that was completely finished before I started on Justice League. So I was very aware that this was coming. But somewhere in April, I got the phone call, and it was like, “It’s definitely going to happen.” So it was really great.
Speaking of Army of the Dead, you’ve teamed up with Zack Snyder yet again. Can you tell us about the relationship and working dynamic between the two of you?
Junkie XL: It’s a little too early to talk in length about that movie, but what was interesting is that I called Zack two years ago when we were starting on it. I said, “Hey Zack, I’ve just come off five movies that are very happy on the orchestral side. Do you mind if we do something really weird and electronic for this one?” And he said, “Goddammit, yes!” So he was all up for it. The score for Army of the Dead is very sound design-driven and very small compared to what you see on screen. Sometimes the music is way more emotional than you would expect in a zombie movie and it works really well. I’m very proud of what Army of the Dead has become for various reasons. Every movie that I work on is like another baby; you love them all and you hate them all sometimes at the same time.
You’ve said that your score for Zack Snyder’s Justice League encompasses your full spectrum as a composer, how did you manage to fit all of these forms of music into the film?
Junkie XL: Because the movie is so long, it also means that as a composer, you have way more time to tell the story musically. And because the movie is so long, you can permit yourself to step out of what you’re doing and do something radically different for five minutes and come back. If you have a two-hour movie, of which an hour is music, you have to stick more to a rigid plan thematically and with the sounds to give it a very strong identity. I would say that this is 75 – 80% of the case with Justice League.
But there were scenes where the [League] goes out for the first time and Batman jumps out of his Batmobile, and I said to Zack, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did something stoner rock with a blues layer?” He said, “Yeah, let’s try it!” It’s great for that scene because not everything has to be in the same context musically in the film because it’s so long. You have a lot of time to do, if you will, a little remix of your own thematics and then come back. I discovered a lot of techniques doing a four-hour film. I mean, how often are you working on a four-hour film? Most likely, this is the only one in my life, but the knowledge I gained from it was really interesting.
A favorite theme of mine was the one used during Darkseid’s appearances, what was your process specifically creating that?
Junkie XL: What’s interesting with a few characters in this movie, there’s a strong sense that they were always here and there will probably always be here. Steppenwolf, clearly, is not making it at the very end, but Darkseid does. I think the fact that Darkseid picks his moments very particularly to come to Earth – he’s definitely not coming to Earth if it means that he’s not going to make it. He’ll send somebody else like Steppenwolf. I think he was always there and he will always be. There was something that I needed for him that had a feeling of timelessness.
My inspiration for Darkseid was orchestral music between 1880 and 1930. Some Mahler pieces, Wagner, Bruckner, the Russian composers; Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky. It gives us a feeling of, “Woo, that guy’s old!” At the same time, because the music has proven to be timeless from that time period, it always says something about the future. If you combine that with very modern sound design, and the other major elements of Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and the Mother boxes, also a choir was used. Which was really a developed technique by composers like Górecki. I combined that orchestral music with that choir approach and then with very modern sound design, and it became something beautiful in itself, but scary as f*ck as well! Zack immediately loved it, when I played him the first demos of that.
Another notable musical element was the use of Wonder Woman’s theme. It’s played several times as she goes into battle, that specific sound cue. How did you go about scoring her bits?
Junkie XL: Wonder Woman was developed for Batman v Superman that I did with Hans Zimmer. That’s the first time that we hear her theme. Wonder Woman is a character that is introduced in Batman v Superman, but then her major place to shine would have been Justice League. So Justice League, in the way that Zack envisioned it, was always going to come out before the Wonder Woman film.
I see this Justice League movie as part of the trilogy: Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and this movie. For those three movies, two themes were completely warranted to take them into Justice League. One is the Man of Steel theme because I wouldn’t call [Superman] a two-dimensional character, but he’s a character that is to a certain extent, predictable. He always wants to do good, he wants to help people, and he is loyal. Batman, you never know and some of the other characters you never know. For that reason, the music of Superman is also the most consistent in all three movies. So in this movie, the five moments that he has a feature, it’s pretty much the sound thematics that Hans designed for Man of Steel.
Wonder Woman, when we meet her in Batman v Superman, it’s very mysterious and we only find out like three quarters in who she potentially is, but we never know. It’s in this movie that we really see where she comes from. Of course, there are the first and second Wonder Woman films, but this one was supposed to come out first. So in this movie, we see a lot about her tribe and her background. Very similar to Darkseid, it’s a tribe that always was here, and they will always be here because they’re immortal. I felt we needed music that reminds us of a really old, civilized empire. That’s where this world music came from. The use of world music percussion, world music plucked and stringed instruments, and mostly the inner voice of Diana.
We got this incredible Persian classical opera singer, she’s constantly singing pretty much when we see her, whether it’s very emotional or if it’s a very bravura moment. People have also asked me, “Why did you make the action music for her so aggressive?” And I say, “Well, look at her!” She’s likely the most lethal of all of them! She could take out an army on her own if she had to. I never felt, when scoring her theme, that I needed to soften the music up to make it more ‘feminine.’ She is ruthless when she fights, and I really wanted to put more of a ‘sword and sandal’ quality into her theme.
Moving onto your next film, Godzilla vs. Kong, how did you approach making music to really highlight the sheer scale of the clash between these two icons?
Junkie XL: I was brought up with Kong and Godzilla, I have all of Godzilla and Kong’s movies and especially with Godzilla, it’s more so a secret pleasure. It’s so comedic, some of the films like Son of Godzilla, Mothra vs Godzilla; like he’s sometimes fighting like a massive roach. I mean, come on! But the point being is that both characters have a really long history in Hollywood as films and in pop culture outside of that.
When you score a movie with the two of them involved, and don’t forget that the last one [King Kong vs. Godzilla] was made in 1962. It was roughly 60 years ago. Godzilla vs. Kong is so much more than any other big anaconda and big dragon just fighting it out in a movie, who cares? It’s Godzilla vs. Kong, so it’s like Japan vs America, which was obviously a hot topic in the 40s and 50s. Again, it turned into Japan vs America when it came to the development of the tech sector and who’s going to be the best at this and the best at that.
There’s so much more at stake with these two characters. Whereas Kong and Godzilla have hardcore fans from all around the world, there’s ‘Team Godzilla’ and ‘Team Kong’, who’s gonna win? It’s a special movie. To approach that musically, you have to do that in honor of everything that we know about this. So pretty quickly, I suggested to the director to write themes for both of them that are new, and they’re very cutting edge in what they’re trying to do, but they are rooted in a rich history of Hollywood films all the way back to ‘33 and Godzilla all the way back to 1954 when [Gojira] came out.
An interesting thing was when the first Kong movie came out, they wanted to make a movie that was very scary, and it was. But the whole audience fell in love with Kong. They were like “Aww, it’s so sad, they’re taking the monkey!” It wasn’t quite anticipated. To this day, that is still what people feel when you talk about Kong, especially the 2005 Peter Jackson movie, I’ve seen that one like 20 times, it’s so adorable.
What was your main instrumental approach for Godzilla vs. Kong?
Junkie XL: For this movie, I had a super big bass drum made to do the percussions. I found an incredibly huge bass amplifier, it was like 10 meters high. I was like, “Let’s make some basic instruments with that amplifier”. What I did do, which makes it very modern – especially with Godzilla who is an artificial character, he’s like half reptile, half nuclear science – his theme is a little bit more synthesized. And obviously with this movie, we have Mechagodzilla, [who’s theme] is 100% synthesized. So those were very interesting things to play with.
With Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Godzilla vs. Kong, it was never my intention, or Hanz Zimmer’s, to revisit the themes of John Williams, or Danny Elfman, or in my case, the few Godzilla themes written by incredible Japanese composers, or to use stuff from Max Steiner or from James Newton Howard, that’s not the point. The point is that it fits in the language that was designed over the last eighty years.
Now recent reports said you would be returning to score Mad Max: Furiosa. How does it feel to be able to jump back into that world with George Miller?
Junkie XL: There is a slight misunderstanding there, I am currently working with him on a smaller movie. So I know that Furiosa is going to be made, but I haven’t talked with George about that at all. We are talking about this movie that we’re currently working on, it’s called Three Thousand Years of Longing.
Talking about working with the same directors, like George Miller, does it excite you to build those director-composer relationships?
Junkie XL: I really do. Most directors that I work with, I also develop friendships with. So it’s more than just like, “Oh, I’m your music guy, what do you need?” You talk about things beforehand, you have talks and discussions about random different things that you’re just interested in. It’s really great to have a relationship like that with people. George is very special to me, he has a unique personality, he’s very intelligent. So subtly spoken. I always learn things from him.