Junkie XL on creating the insane soundscape for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

The moment I was sent the download link for the “Fury Road” soundtrack, I loaded the entire score onto my iPod specifically so I could play it in my car.

Big mistake.

The first time through, I didn't even realize how fast I was going, but around the time we got to track four, “Blood Bag,” I glanced at the speedometer and was startled to see I had crept up past 90 MPH. I pumped the brakes, and since then, I've had to fight my own natural inclination to speed up as I have been assaulted by the intense cacophony that is Junkie XL's “Mad Max: Fury Road” score.

I had about five days to live with the score before my phone rang one morning last week, and I jumped right into what turned out to be a great conversation with Tom Holkenborg, the Dutch composer who is building a reputation for himself as the guy who writes the music that's big enough for Max's trip down the Fury Road or Batman's first head-to-head with Superman.

DREW MCWEENY: Hi, Tom, how are you, sir?  

TOM HOLKENBORG: Good. How are you?

DM: Doing well, thanks. First of all, wow. I think the movie is unbelievable, and your score is such an essential part of that experience that I really don”t even know how to pull the two of them apart. I think what you and George did together is truly exceptional.

TH: Thank you, man.

DM: Watching it last night, it is such a bizarre, crazy, fever dream of a movie, and it feels like a movie that a 25-year-old would make, saying, “I have something to prove.” This is not the film of a 70-year-old guy who's been away from live action for almost 20 years. Can you talk about becoming involved with him and your first reaction to the world he built this time?

TH: Basically, I was working on “300: Rise of An Empire,” and I was finishing it up and I got this phone call from Darren Higman, the vice-president at Warner Brothers. He called me and said, “What are you doing this afternoon or tonight?” It was a Monday, and I said, “Well, you know, I”m just finishing up some mixers, but I”ve got time. What”s going on?” He said, “Well, grab your toothbrush and some toothpaste. You”re coming to Sydney.” I said, “Okay. What is it about?” And he said, “Well, I”m in Sydney, and I”m talking to George Miller.”

Then my heart started racing. It was like, “Fuck, is he talking about 'Fury Road'?”  And he was. He was talking about “Fury Road.” So before I knew it, I was on a plane. I get there at 7:30 in the morning. Darren picks me up. We go straight to George”s offices, and it”s like 8:30 in the morning, and I”m watching this film completely jet lagged, you know? And it was remarkable. It was very long at that point, and the beginning and the ending wasn”t even shot. It was just the whole middle section of the film. And I came out of there dreaming and thinking “What the hell did I just see?” It was so overwhelming. Then I talked to George and it was supposed to be a quick handshake and then leave the next day. But in that conversation, we were talking about things that we were both interested in, and then I brought up math. He was like, “Math?” I said, “Yeah, you know, I”m very interested in number sequences and how math works in general.” And he was like, “Wow, that”s how I approach my films.” So we hit it off with this conversation for three or four hours. We got interrupted a number of times by his assistant saying, “George, you have a phone call to make.” And he was like, “Oh, we”ll do it later. We”ll do it later.” So we talked for hours. He said at the end of it, “Why don”t you just think about this movie and come up with an idea musically with what to do and we”ll talk tomorrow?”

So the next day, I sat with him and he sat across from me in a chair, and he had his hands folded on top of each other and he was leaning backwards. He was like, “Well, tell me what you feel.”  I started this two-hour monologue of what I think the movie was and how we should approach it. When I was done, he was quiet for a second. Then he stood up, gave me a handshake, and said “I want you to be my composer on this film.”

DM: Oh my god, man. Having met him a couple of times now this year, something that I had been waiting to do since 1982 when I first saw “The Road Warrior,” he strikes me as everything you would hope he would be, but wrapped in a package you wouldn”t expect. There is something very sweet about him and very gentle in conversation. He comes across as this lovely, charming man who has all of that mayhem going on inside of his head. When you look at “Fury Road,” and you realize that came out of that sweet little man, it is the craziest dichotomy. There are so many extraordinary sequences in the film, but one of the images that immediately popped out last night… and by the time we saw him the third or fourth time, cheers would erupt every time this character appeared on screen… was The Doof Warrior, that crazy dude on the front of the truck with the guitar.

TH: (laughs) Yeah.

DM: That is such a crazy place to go in the film, and I love the way your score wraps around that once it shows up and starts to play with what”s happening between them. The whole thing feels like it”s very operatic from beginning to end.  

TH: That was the first conversation with George, based on those giant scenes. I told him I wanted to make a 2015 version of a rock opera. The worlds that George created, these worlds where everything become tribal and people are in a different place, where they've tattooed themselves and hurt themselves, and they paint their faces. It”s back to this tribal world in the worst possible way, where it's survival of the fittest. At the same time, this movie is an analogy to where we are in the world with all the dictatorships and all the wars and everything that goes on everywhere.  When I saw that, I felt we needed music that needed to be so over the top on the score, that builds and builds until it lifts these characters out of the crazy world around them.

DM: What I love is that even as extreme an image as that is, and you laugh the first time you see it just because it”s so audacious, is that there”s nothing in Miller”s world that isn”t thought out and carefully constructed and serving some real function to the characters, not the filmmaker. I love that this is a war party and the drummer and the guitars are meant to rile these guys up the way, you know, drummers or the bagpipes or any of those military instruments did. It”s a really brilliant way of having both a crazy image and yet something that is truly part of that world. The whole film is full of that stuff.

TH: Yeah, and he did it really detailed this time. The idea with the score was that the drums and the guitars are always there from the first time we see the war party.  But then every now and then, we actually see the guitar player and he gets like a real featured moment. Then, you know, it disappears into the background. There are also moments when the war rig, the big truck with Charlize and Tom Hardy and the girls, when they get stuck a couple of times, you could still hear that rumble in the background of the drums and the guitars approaching, you know, just coming towards them.  That was another thing that I wanted to create constantly, that sense that they”re being chased and they”re coming closer and they”re coming closer.  I think those moments were really successful, and you get to feel that fear that they”re feeling.

DM: They sent me the score last week so I had about a week to live with it and drive around with it and play it in the car, and I will admit that may not be the best place to play it.  I had a moment during the week where I looked down and I was listening to “Blood Bag” and doing 90 without any effort whatsoever. I just had my foot down, and I was like, “Okay, perhaps I shouldn”t do that. Maybe I don”t want to actually drive like I”m on the Fury Road,” but there is an almost undeniable pull to the way the music works in the film. You are always leaning in because there”s that sense that something”s coming and building. You play with dynamics extraordinarily well in this, and there is stuff where it is almost an assault. There”s also stuff that is so lyrical and quiet and unlike anything I”ve heard you do before. I think that mix makes it a really compelling listen on its own even not married to the images.

TH: Well, this is a really good example where this is not one of those movies which I have made a lot where a composer comes in four weeks before the deadline and you quickly copy whatever the temporary score is on the movie when you start. This is a cooperation of nineteen months between me and George. I”ve been to Australia a number of times, and during the final process of finishing the score, I was there with my family and assistants for twelve weeks. We packed up the studio.  We took everything. We flew it out to Sydney to really work together, you know, very, very closely. George took so much time to actually hang out with me and just talk me through the scenes and how we like to perceive certain things. It was so close that the music that is now in the film is between the two of us, where storytelling and character building was very important, so that all of this is as a result of that. If you just play the score on its own, you feel the film, and you feel the dynamics of the film. You feel the way it rolls, but you also feel the terror of the Immortan, and you also feel the suffering of the women and the heartfelt moments when they come together and realize they might have a solution.

DM: I feel like with film scores in general, we are in an age where there is a sort of saneness to a lot of what we hear in movie theaters. Part of that is because the same five or six composers have done everything for the last twenty years, it feels like. Part of it is just because I think there is a fear to try new things. This score is very radical. I can”t imagine it was an easy collaboration in the sense that you just automatically got there. There”s stuff that you do that I”m just… listening to it in the car, I love the way that there are actual car sounds and engine noises used as part of the tracks. It”s something you might not notice if you”re watching the movie, because there are so many cars in the film. But you literally use it as an instrument.

TH: There are a lot of resamples of cars and also from animals because I wanted to make sure that these people came across so primal that I did a lot of resamples of animals like dogs, lions, monkeys, birds. I would slow them down or speed them up, or even edit in foreign languages, you know. Because really we have languages from all over the world recorded, like small phrases, and time stretch can really do weird things with them, and they”re all part of the music. So when you hear it, it becomes this really awkward experience, like “What am I listening to?” There are certain things that will sound familiar, like drums or strings, but even with the strings, we did really weird things where they get out of tune and then we did like sound design versions of them. My favorite era of film scoring is the late '40s going into around '65 with composers like Bernard Herrmann and the earlier work of Morricone. So there are a lot of references in the score to that, too.

DM: It's interesting you bring up Morricone. One of the things that I”ve been fascinated by recently was when I got a chance to talk to the Wachowskis. They worked with Tykwer on “Cloud Atlas” and, for the very first time, tried a different situation where they recorded the score first and then would play it on set for the actors to interact with. They loved it. They say they're doing that from now on. They did it with Giacchino on “Jupiter Ascending.” I know that Leone did that sometimes with Morricone and would play that stuff on set. I think it becomes a radically different experience when the actors are reacting to the sound of that. You guys worked for so long on this. Was there any of that, because you said that when you initially saw it there was no beginning and end yet. So was there any of your work that was done when he went in and shot those sequences, or is this something that was entirely done by you to the finished image?

TH: I know that George played the music to the actors when they came in to do the ADR to make sure that they felt the complete presence of how they would be in the cars musically but also how the scene would work. When you shoot an action movie like this, you film everything at a pretty slow speed. The cars are not driving 80 miles an hour. They”re driving like 10 miles an hour. So it”s very interesting when you talk to these actors, and I met a few of them when George was doing ADR in Sydney. They had no idea how crazy this movie actually was until they saw it. Even the costuming was crazy and their makeup was crazy, but the way that it”s filmed and then how it”s edited is a whole different ballgame. Once they saw rough cuts of their scenes with the music that I did, they got a whole different idea of how they should have handled the ADR.  

DM: There is a thing that you do several times in the score where it almost feels like strings or certain types of instruments are trying to bleed through the noise and it”s like it comes up out of the subconscious. You just hear a hint of it and then it”s gone again. I thought what was interesting visually this time is that Miller makes Max's ghosts external. He is definitely carrying around everybody he”s ever failed to save or everybody who”s ever died around him. We do see that Max is haunted. We see actual flashes of it this time and interaction with it. I think it”s a slightly different Max.  Your score has that feeling of memories bubbling up and things that you”re trying to keep suppressed struggling to the surface. It really is remarkable how thematically you and George seem to work together.

TH: You know what”s interesting too is that that specific thing that you”re talking about is one of my '40s and '50s references. It”s a string group, a small string section that plays nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah – nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, you know? They play that and they play it from really quiet to really loud and then they disappear. And basically Max in this movie is a very troubled character. There are certain flashbacks that when we see it for the first time, it doesn”t even make sense what all these flashbacks are. It doesn”t need to make sense. All that it does is it”s saying this is a really troubled character that is haunted by the past and especially in the beginning when he escapes. He has been in so many situations where people die because of his actions or he couldn”t save them, and of course from his initial experience that he had in the first movie where, you know, he loses his daughter. He”s a very troubled character. That theme, that string theme that you mentioned, constantly comes up in the movie to remind him of his past and eventually that string theme becomes less insistent as he becomes more successful in helping these women.

DM: I love when film music and film works together so well, like it gives you that extra something, that emotional something. It really feels like when score is at its best, score is essential to the character. Not just background noise. Not just, okay, now this sounds nice. But you really are adding that extra something. When you”re reading a novel, for example, you can spend two pages describing how someone feels.  You can do that and evoke that in a simple four measure thing that you do, and I find that so essentially valuable. You and George play with dynamics in this to such a degree that it becomes very physical. Your score is a physical thing when you see this in a movie theater because of the way George has mixed this.

TH: It”s quite remarkable how we did it. I mean, in any scenario this movie is a composer”s dream. Not only because there are so many incredible characters to play around with, but then at the same time, you also have a director that knows when music needs to be heard and other moments when sound effects need to be heard. Not because oh, we need to hear sound effects, no, but because the scoring demands it. He is so very clever when it comes to mixing, when it comes to creating sound effects, when he steers me directionally, about what we need to do thematically. What was interesting, too, is that I know the films that George has done and he”s worked with amazing composers in the past. John Williams. Maurice Jarre. It”s quite remarkable, and I was so surprised that he was open to this really oddball approach to the score because it”s so out there compared to the movies he has done in the past. He was saying, “No, no, no. It has to be like this. It cannot be traditional. It”s not what this world is. It”s not what this movie is.” It was interesting that after our initial meeting, I scored three really long scenes. One starts in the beginning of the movie when Furiosa takes a left turn and then she gets chased by these spiky cars and then the war party closes in and then we go all the way into the storm and then the scene ends when Max wakes up in the sand. That was one scene I scored. The second scene I scored was the whole night scene which we call The Night Bog, when it”s dark and they get stuck in the mud and these guys come chasing after them. Then the third scene that I scored was [GIANT HONKING CHARACTER SPOILER REMOVED]. So I sent those three scenes and he had no notes. He approved them right off the bat. He was like, “This is what I want my movie to be.” And then from that point on, we went through this amazing collaboration for 17 months by working at other scenes and how thematically these scenes need to be connected. It was an amazing time period.

DM: I hadn”t seen “Beyond Thunderdome” in a while, and I”ve been rewatching the movies with my kids who are just the right age. They”re becoming action junkies and I honestly think George is going to break their brains when they see the new one. It's funny you mentioned him working with Maurice Jarre. My favorite film of all time is “Lawrence of Arabia,” and I did not realize when I saw it as a kid how much “Lawrence” is in “Thunderdome,” especially in that score.  

TH: (laughs) Yeah.

DM: He definitely asked Jarre to do a riff on that. Max is even costumed like Lawrence several times in the film. It”s very strange, but it”s also playful. That”s the thing about George Miller that makes him George Miller. Lots of people can direct action, although I would argue few can do it the way he can, but what makes him extraordinary is that playful, weird, unique sense of humor in the midst of mayhem and carnage and horror. I can”t think of anybody else that would make a movie as funny as “Fury Road” that still has the balls of “Fury Road”.

TH: I agree. He”s got a tremendous sense of humor. It”s fantastic and it's worth remembering that he”s also the director of “The Witches of Eastwick,” which is one of my favorite films that he did besides the “Mad Max” trilogy. It's remarkable how he plays with darkness and humor in the film. The balance of this film is slightly different, but he”s very, very good at that. What we have in common is that we”re both nice easy people to get along with, but at the same time, we do have our dark sides. And we use that dark side to fulfill our creative needs. That”s what I really like to do. I have no desire to be a dark person in real life with my wife, my kids and my friends and my family, but I love to be it in my musical world. I can pull out the nastier stuff, so it's great to find a director where I can fulfill that need and serve their film.

DM: My final question. Obviously you know what your next job is [he's writing the score for “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” for Zack Snyder], and it”s a very big job. One of my pet peeves with what Marvel has done with the Avenger series, and one of the few places I think Marvel truly dropped the ball, was I don”t feel like they gave each of the Avengers a distinct enough sonic signature in their own film, whether it”s a theme or whether it”s a sound or anything. If they had nailed a theme and a sound for each character, then the “Avengers” score could have been a really unique piece of work where you merged all these themes together and played with that cross-over. I just don”t think they had a strong enough sense of what they were doing to pull that off. You”re going into a situation where you”re scoring a film with two of the biggest icons of all time, I would argue, and you are following up a movie that had an incredibly strong sonic signature. The “Man of Steel” score is, no matter what anybody thinks of that film, an adventurous, exciting score. I think it really signs Superman in a different way and made it clear this wasn”t the John Williams Superman. Is there anything daunting about stepping into a thing where you”re dealing with such giant icons?

TH: The only thing that I can say, because there”s an agreement with Warner Brothers and Zack not to say anything whatsoever about the upcoming film, is that Zack and I had a meeting a long time ago, and Zach was explaining it better than anybody else. I can so relate to that. These movies, and I would include “Mad Max,” because I could see a scenario where long after George is not around, like 50 years from now, someone could say, “Oh, Mad Max, that”s so iconic. We should try and make a film for it for the audience in 2085.” These are movies, and these are themes, and these are characters that are larger than all of us in this life. The only thing you can do to approach it is to really make it your own and just give it your vision, give it your feeling, give it your intention. Become that character for a month or four or five, musically speaking. Just do the best that you can and give it all your heart. That”s all you can do because you know for sure that at a certain point in time, somebody else will be asked to do that same thing.  

“Mad Max: Fury Road” will be in theaters May 16.