Gray Man composer Henry Jackman explains how he created an epic 17-minute sequel [Interview]
How did you come to the 17 minute sequel?
The origin of this track is that it’s something I’ve done before, but never to this extent. For example, working with Joe and Anthony, as I have done on many films, you get a real trusting collaboration. And so quite often I’ll write a sequel away from the picture because I’m a big believer, if you dive right into a movie and pick a scene and start writing you’re going to be distracted by the individual demands of that scene and not necessarily think big. With the general tone of a movie and a general theme, you’re almost better off developing ideas away from the picture, the type of lab work or research and development for a company or something.
I’ve already done it. There is a track on [“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”] called “Winter Soldier”, and it’s basically the sequel. I first wrote this simply saying, “I think ‘Winter Soldier’ should sound like this, then worry later about how it works.” I did several four minutes [suites] and probably spent a week or two on it and making sure the director or Joe and Anthony hear it along the way. Now it’s slightly different. What happened with that 17-minute epic that nearly killed me was me and my partner had our first child, James.
Thanks a lot. So James was born in March 2021 and I knew I wouldn’t have to get into the nitty-gritty of writing lines specifically for “Gray Man” until, say, December 2021, because we were recording in April 2022 I thought I’m going to try, instead of being the classic busy dad, who’s useless and never around, I’m going to change diapers and be like a good dad. I thought I’d kind of say no to work after James was born until I started “Gray Man,” so I could actually see this beautiful little creature grow up.
Joe and Anthony called. They were shooting ‘Gray Man’ saying ‘Hey, just a little thought for you, obviously ‘Gray Man’ is a huge action movie, but today we were shooting with Ryan [Gosling] and it was one of those flashback scenes where he’s traumatized by his past. As an artist, also think of a slightly damaged and internalized broken emotional state. [aspect] I went to the piano and had this little thing that I called the “ghost in the machine” kind of idea. I quickly tapped him on the piano saying “Oh, that’s cool.” in bed and after changing a few diapers, I was like, “You know what? Let me come back to this idea properly. I’m going to record it. I’m going to record it well and process it and put some of this upside-down reverb on it and make it a real thing. At least I have this great idea of a two-and-a-half-minute emotional ghost in the machine that I can play Joe and Anthony.”
So, between two diaper changes, I finished that. Sonically, everything was well designed and sounded great. As I finished I had this cool kick drum sound in mind, a low end sound. I just started going, “Oh yeah, no, that’s cool.” I got the tempo that I liked. I liked the feel, the rhythm of which is in a bit of an unusual rhythm. It’s in five fours — so as not to bore your readers, but it’s a slightly esoteric model.
I said, “Well, I’m going to leave that for now. I’m just going to tap that little percussion sound that hammers that little pattern. I’ll save that for later.” When I arrive in December, I have the beginning of a rhythm. After endless crying and screaming, no sleep and no caring about the song, I say, “You know what? Let me come back to this great idea, expand on it a bit.” I started doing more and more processed percussive sounds and chopping up break beats and warping them and building up this whole arsenal of hard percussive sounds that don’t really sound like your standard issue, the big Hollywood drum sound. It was a lot of sound palette almost slightly influenced by drums and bass.
And then I started building this big bass. I said, “Okay, cool. I’ll stop now. I’ve got an emotional piano intro. I’ve got a really cool collection of percussion sounds. I’m more than ready for this ‘Gray Man. ‘ movie to come.” I said, “Well, you know what? I might as well start playing with some harmonic stuff and get, what kind of chords do I want to use?” He developed a little more. I said, “Look, once I get to five minutes, I’ll stop. Let me go to the piano.” Then I started to say, “Well, maybe the same chords I was using on the piano up front, maybe it can start to happen on a pattern.” I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. What about that? Oh, that’s a cool bass. Alright, alright, let me chase that bassline a bit.”
I promise myself to stop. It’s just getting out of control because I’ve probably been on it for three months. And also, unlike a lot of classic film scores, I engineer like crazy. It’s much more like a record that I spend forever processing. I could spend a whole day designing a sound to make it unique, so it takes a lot of time.
In the back of my head I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, I should talk to Joe and Anthony about this. If they don’t like where this is going, it’s months of my life gone and my partner is going to say ‘Well, if they didn’t like it, we could have had nine months off instead.'” But I started to feel very secretive about no, no, I don’t want anyone hear this for now. I want to explore it.
And then I thought, “How about those kind of jazz chords, but they’ve gone a little wrong, like atonal jazz?” Sounds a little badass, old-school, like Chemical Brothers meets a drummer bass bottom, but then the chords sound like [composer] John Barry Gone Crazy or maybe even one of those almost jazzy ’70s scores. It’s dangerous. So I continued that and it continued over and over again. I said, “Okay, now I’m definitely going to quit.”
Then I had this other idea at the end, this big Mancini thing. I was like, “Oh, holy shit. Now I’ve come up with another thing I need to chase. How long is this thing?” We’re at 17 minutes and I had spent so much time on this thing. And the more time I spent there, the more I was like, “God, if Joe and Anthony don’t see this as the direction to go, I’m such an idiot. I spent so much time on it and I’ve designed the hell out of it. It definitely looks like something you need, but whatever, it’s just an artistic endeavor. It’s too late now, I am so far down the road, I have to finish this piece for its natural conclusion.”
Anyway, we almost got our first cut of this movie. I said, “I have a little secret.” Joe said, “Oh, you didn’t do one of your sequels.” I said, “Yeah, not only did I do one of my sequels, but I’ve been secretly working on it for eight months.” And he’s, “Oh my God, send it to me now.” I say, “Well, I’m actually nervous about playing it to you because right now I’m living in this space of psychological freedom, but I love it. If I send it to you and you you say, ‘Oh, that’s fantastically put together and all, but maybe not what we need’, so I’ve just wasted eight months of my life.”
I said, “Just let me sleep on it.” Give me one more night of freedom where I can just forget. I will send it to you tomorrow morning. Otherwise, I won’t sleep at night. I sent it to the boys in the morning and they absolutely loved it, thank goodness. I think Joe even texted me when he was listening to it live for the first time, saying, “Oh, I love the bassline.” Joe and Anthony, they have a lot of imagination. They were already, even as they listened, saying, “Oh, it’ll work for this and that.”
I was so relieved that I didn’t have to go to Victoria, my partner, and say, “We could have spent nine months raising our wonderful little child and I shouldn’t have had to sit there like a crazy teacher because that they hated it.” They absolutely loved it. Now I said to Joe and Anthony, “Listen, please, based on this precedent, don’t expect every time we let’s work together, I’ve been playing for nine months on a 17-minute sequel because I’ve had points in my career in that space of nine months, I’ve done three whole movies.”
I guess if we have another kid and I take another nine months off and it happens to time itself with another Joe and Anthony thing, I guess I could spend another nine months on it. In film music, very often you do an entire score in three months, but a certain part of me has fallen into place that’s more rooted in the days when, when I was younger, when I was hanging out with [record producer] Trevor Horn, who would spend four years on a Seal album or two and a half years on an Art of Noise album. There were these great labors of love with all kinds of exploring and seeing how far you could take something.
Now, you can’t quite do that with scores. I guess because I had the time, I got more into that exploratory spirit of seeing what happens with a piece of music, if there are no restrictions. I wasn’t just writing old crap on stage. In the back of my mind, that must be appropriate for “Gray Man”. We need the energy, the catchy bassline. It wouldn’t have been something I would have thought of if it was a character drama with Helen Mirren.