Thursday, March 08, 2018

MoTR interviews composer Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL on the Tomb Raider (2018): Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

MoTR had the opportunity and privilege to interview Tomb Raider (2018) composer Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL on the eve of the Tomb Raider: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack release - March 9th, 2018. Holkenborg's recent blockbuster film works include 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) & Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Interestingly, the prolific composer also has a history with video game soundtracks including SSX, Need For Speed & The Sims.

As for prior interviews MoTR has hosted with Tomb Raider franchise composers Bobby Tahouri, Wilbert Roget, II & Jason Graves, the floor was open to Tomb Raider community members to submit questions which were consolidated for the interview, kindly conducted by Crystal Dynamics. Unfortunately we ran a little out of time to ask a couple more of them, but have a read of the full transcript below!

We'd like to thank Tom Holkenborg, Crystal Dynamics & Warner Bros. profusely for their time and efforts. The Tomb Raider: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack will release to digital retailers March 9th, 2018, with a collectable CD release launching on the same day as the film's debut on March 16th.

Music of Tomb Raider: Tom, going into a high-profile video game film adaptation must be an interesting transition given your background – from remixing the odd Britney Spears or Madonna track, to writing music for a modest handful of video games and then top dollar film score jobs since – how did your experience until now help you prepare to take on a project such as Tomb Raider (2018)?

Tom Holkenborg: Well, I'll tell you this - every time you take on a reboot of a franchise that's so important - and [Tomb Raider (2018)] is a perfect example - but to that extent when also I did Mad Max: Fury Road three years ago or when I did video game scores, for instance SSX Blur & Need For Speed: ProStreet... these are super [high-profile] franchises that are being redone every couple of years. But in the case of Tomb Raider, it took almost 16 years to do another version of it. It's always scary - there's great versions of the video games being done and they've been highly popular, especially when [Crystal Dynamics] did the game in the new style. It's always scary, but the only thing I can do is [to stay] close to myself - what music does this character need and what music does this film need? And that's the only thing I can do. I can't have outside factors determine what music I should be making. Let's say they do another Tomb Raider in 10 years - that composer hopefully looks back on what I did and says "that's cool what Tom did, but let's just do something completely different - because I want to do something closer to what I am as a person and what I feel the character needs". So it's always scary, but when you start looking close to yourself... then it becomes easier.

MoTR: Did you happen to be a fan of the franchise before accepting the job? Have you played any of the video games since 1996 – especially the 2013 reboot that this film is heavily inspired by?

TH: I was a very heavy video game player from 1992 to 2000. Games like Leisure Suit Larry, FIFA, adventure games like [Tomb Raider] - I played it a lot. 2000 was the end of my relationship at that point because I was spending more time with a game console than my girlfriend at the time... that was the result of that. I basically stopped playing video games after 2000, not because I liked them, but video games were starting to get so good after 2000 that it just got too addictive for me. I was actually wishing for myself a proper career in making music for films and not necessarily to be a pro game player, if you know what I mean, so I had to stop it. What I did do is: watch - one of my assistants is a really heavy game player and he played the reboot of Tomb Raider (2013) a lot. So he showed me what it looked like and what you can do. But then again, I didn't go into it too much, as eventually I have to score a movie. And whatever that movie is, that's what I need to capture. So it's really interesting to study what the video game is doing and what the music is doing, how the story unfolds, but at the end of the day I have to score the movie that's in front of me. That's a very important call. I have to focus more on the film than I actually do with the game. To a similar extent, in the case that I do a movie score that is based on a book - I'll never read the book before I start on the film. I might read the book after the movie is done. Because it's important, again, [that] I need to focus on the film in front of me and not the book that it's based on.

MoTR: How did you land the Tomb Raider gig with Warner Bros./GK Films and how far into the production were you hired as composer? Was Tomb Raider (2018) an exciting or intimidating project for you at this point in your career?

TH: They were still actually shooting the film. They had a version of the film but they were still working on some of the scenes, dialogue scenes and some of the action scenes, when I got approached and [was asked] if I was interested. I think what happened [is], for starters, I had a really good relationship with Warner Bros. and now I also have with MGM (who is the studio who made the film, with Warner Bros. distributing). But I think when they read the script and they knew what they were going to do with the film and that Alicia Vikander was now playing Lara Croft... I think the idea was born rather quickly at Warner Bros. that I would be the perfect candidate to do the score. So the movie is very raw in nature - Alicia is a young character - it's a movie that needs to speak to not only young people but also to older people. That all being said, they needed a score that was very modern in nature, that could capture all the emotion and was very fresh. I think that's the reason why they ended up giving me a phone call. That, and it's of course important that you gel very well with the studio that makes it (which is MGM), and obviously with the director, Roar Uthaug. And that all went great, I went to London and I met them all... pretty soon after that I started making music for this film.

Uthaug & Holkenborg recording Tomb Raider in London

MoTR: Did you work closely with director Roar Uthaug?

TH: Yes I did. I mean, Roar is pretty hands on when it comes to music, which I really like because I like working with directors that are clear on what they want. Basically I would do initial versions of the cues and also elaborate pieces of music that I thought captured the film. And then I would email [them] to him and he would give me notes back over email... we had multiple Skype sessions where we would just talk, I would fly to London etc. - it's important that we could sit in one room and just discuss all this kind of stuff. And that's how we did it. Worked out great.

MoTR: It’s difficult not to draw comparison between Lara Croft and Wonder Woman...

TH: This is like a completely different character to other superheroes. You can tell when you see the movie. Whereas, Lara Croft in the past... she's a very iconic character that obviously went through all these different types of renditions - the very first in 1996. It then developed, over the years, and now we have a Lara Croft who's much more natural. She doesn't do all these supernatural things, she doesn't have all the snazzy guns and the tricks - she's just like a normal girl that is able to fight and is able to run really fast and shoot a bow. But other than that, she is a very normal person. I think that's what sets this movie apart from something like Wonder Woman, another iconic character, but she comes with all these superhero powers. With this movie and this version of Lara Croft, since the reboot, we're just talking about a really tough girl that takes on a really tough task. But it's still a girl, you know. And I think that's one of the reasons why people are really going to like this film because it actually sets a more natural example for young girls - that they can be a hero and they can be very powerful, but in a very natural way and not because they have superpowers. That's one of the reasons why I like this film so much.

MoTR: ...that's a really good point, Wonder Woman being a superhero while in later iterations - including this movie - Lara Croft is a lot more relatable and very human. However, following such an empowering theme you created for Diana in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, utilised by Rupert Gregson-Williams in Wonder Woman and Danny Elfman in Justice League, how did that difference play out in creating a thematic motif for Tomb Raider compared to Wonder Woman? Were you able to create your own theme for the iconic Lara Croft?

TH: The basis of her theme is all rooted in the past - she misses her dad. She's been growing up in her teens on her own... dad was missing - he's gone. That same theme needs to go through all these iterations of getting to that island, the survival of the fittest, and eventually [Lara] become[s] a hero or a Tomb Raider herself. That's quite a different approach than if you look at Wonder Woman - [she] has a lot of superpowers and the themes are very epic. For Wonder Woman, it only makes sense that you go really big, orchestral... with a choir and everything that comes with it because all these things she does are super epic and major. Whereas Lara Croft is a 21-year-old girl that can run really fast, shoots a bow and can wrestle - a completely different vibe. The movie has a really big scope - there are beautiful shots, scenes of landscapes and the island and it looks fantastic. But the scenes themselves where she does action are way smaller in nature - it's [just] her fighting another guy - which is really much smaller in approach than Wonder Woman when she fights a whole army on the road. It's a different approach.

MoTR: Did you explore prior musical entries in the Tomb Raider franchise? If not Graeme Revell’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Alan Silvestri’s The Cradle of Life (2003), then perhaps the original video game soundtracks by Nathan McCree or the rebooted thematic motif by Jason Graves? Were you tasked to the utilisation or incorporation of the thematic motifs belonging to the video game(s) in any capacity?

TH: I actually did not. We're going back to the answer I gave a few questions ago - I have to deal with the film that sits in front of me. I cannot be bothered to really look into what has been done. I make sure that I do something in the same line or something similar. If you see the film, you will know why, but there's certain elements in this film that already dictate to you what you should be doing as a composer. You cannot be too locked in with what the earlier video games did. And I have to say, as I did score a huge amount of video games myself, a video game is such a different animal. You might be playing that game maybe 8 or 10 hours a day - I mean, that's what I used to do when I was younger. I played video games... sometimes more than 8 hours a day. So the music has a completely different character to it. Usually [for] video games that last really long and that have adventure as a quality to them, ambient music works really well. It doesn't bore you... it has a lot of development. If you would have 10 hours of action music, like I've done for the Tomb Raider (2018) score, you would be so tired - you wouldn't be able to play a video game for 8-10 hours - it's just too much information for the senses. For your ears... for your eyes. So that's why video game music in nature is quite different to film music score because you go to a theatre and leave after one hour and fifty minutes. A video game you can spend 8-10 hours if you want, or even more, so the music needs to be different to accomplish... that you can actually play for 10 hours.

MoTR: How long did it take you to complete the score and where was the music recorded?

TH: The whole process took - pretty much on and off - 5 or 6 months, roughly. Obviously all the music was written in L.A. and then I went to London to record it then, all there.

MoTR: How much of the soundtrack consists of real instruments vs. electronically produced timbres? Tomb Raider (2013) composer Jason Graves created “The Instrument”, a percussive sculpture for his score, so fans were very interested to find that you had crafted custom Tahitian drums for Tomb Raider (2018). Did these instruments become integral to the sound of your music for the film?

TH: A lot of it is live, even though it might not sound like that... typical of the things that I do. We recorded a lot of strings and brass in London that later was treated electronically to give it a really weird sound. So you might not even necessarily recognise those things as being live instruments, but they are. Secondly, because this movie takes place on one of the Pacific Islands, I had unique Pacific drums made for me. It was really hard for me to find a builder, but eventually I found a music instrument builder to build original Pacific drums for me. A whole set. And we flew 'em out, and just recorded them. And that is the backbone of every rhythm you hear in the score. And then there's a lot of sound design instruments also happening in the score where it came from animals, like monkeys and lions... all kinds of different animals - I created instruments out of them. So there's a lot that you hear too. I just wanted to create sounds that are very uncomfortable to listen to and when you see the film you will know why. But that was important.

Junkie XL's custom-made Tahitian drums

TH: These drums come from these Pacific Islands, made out of trees and they have animal skins on them. They have a really unique sound. They really sound like island drums. It doesn't sound like normal drums or the kind of thing that you would hear at a rock concert, or classical drums like timpanis or a gong or something. It also doesn't sound like the Indian drums, like the tabla. It also doesn't sound like the Japanese drums - the taiko. It has a really unique sound. So that's why I needed them. It took me 3, maybe 4 months to find somebody that made these instruments, because you cannot just go into a store and buy them. It's very specific. So eventually I found this instrument maker in San Diego, and he made the instruments for me. It took him 3, 4 months until they were done, so it was quite an experiment. But when I got these instruments... they sound so incredible. Amazing. All hand made, customised. Exactly how I wanted them... I'm a drummer myself. We took them to London and we recorded them, the whole score.

MoTR: Did you have a clear vision of how you wanted the final recording to sound from the start? It seems you sought these drums out and that they are so integral to the music, giving a very distinct sound. Was this something that you had envisioned very early on or did it evolve over time?

TH: It always evolves a little bit, but with this movie I would say that the end result is 80% of what I figured out beforehand and the other 20% actually happened after I started developing everything. But that's one of the things I always have when I work on a film score, I spend forever thinking about it - what to do before I even start. So when I say I have 3, 4, 5 months to do the score, I was already hired for this project way earlier. So I have months and months to think about it - what I wanted to do, and look for these drums, and create these sound design instruments, figuring out in my head what the total sound needed to be and the concept... And I constantly went back and forth with the director to say "Hey, I'm thinking about this!" and I'd send him a YouTube link or something... and that's how the whole score was actually developed, before I even started writing one note. By the time I started, we kind of had it completely boxed off, more or less.

MoTR: Was there anything particularly different in your process for Tomb Raider compared to previous projects?

TH: No. They're all the same. But they're different in details. What I mean by "they're the same" is that I come up with the music concepts, and from that point on it's teamwork until the movie is done. The director always has the strongest voice when he wants, but the studio also has ideas. They want to try me too with what they feel needs to happen. And that's exactly what film scoring is all about. Yes, you hire the composer, he comes up with the score concept, he comes up with all the themes and everything... but then from that point on it becomes a collaborative process between the director, the studio and the composer.

MoTR: One last question as we are running out of time - is there a particular track on the Tomb Raider: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack you are especially proud of?

TH: That's a tough one for me because there's so many different... can I pick two?! There's two that I think are great. It's a completely different vibe for both of them. I think it's called "Let Yamatai Have Her", which is a crazy ride cue and it happens in the heat of the moment where everything goes wrong on that island. It really has the sound of the island, it has the crazy drumming, it has everything that was scary and awkward about that island, even to get there. That one, and then the second one is almost the last cue of the film which is called "Becoming The Tomb Raider" which is a very iconic piece of music when Lara Croft really becomes the Tomb Raider. That's really the payoff of the hour and fifty minute film that you're watching. And that last massive scene is the payoff for her to become the Tomb Raider. Those two cues really capture what the sound of the movie is.

MoTR: Thank you very much for all of your time Tom! We know you're really busy and we really appreciate the opportunity to chat to you. Welcome to the Music of Tomb Raider discography and we wish you success with the album release.

TH: I really enjoyed the chat and I wanted to thank you for the time and the time that we got from Warner Bros. to chat so extensively. Thanks a lot man!

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