TIFF 2016 Exclusive: Composer Henry Jackman Talks The Birth Of A NationPosted by Wilson Morales
September 13, 2016
Recently making its appearance at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival after winning the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition earlier this year at Sundance is the writer, director, producer and star Nate Parker’s powerful slave drama The Birth of a Nation.
Set against the antebellum South, THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities – against himself and his fellow slaves – Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom..
The film stars Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Jayson Warner Smith, Tony Epinosa, Roger Guenveur Smith and Gabrielle Union.
Composing the score for the film is Henry Jackman, who over the years has scored a number of tog grossing films such as X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, G.I. Joe Retaliation, Captain Phillips and Kingsman: The Secret Service to name a few. In 2016, he scored the box office hit Captain America: Civil War as well as George Clooney’s Money Monster, and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back coming up (Oct.21).
Blackfilm.com recently spoke with Jackman on his experience composing the music for this powerful film.
What was it that Nate wanted from you in terms of composing the music for the film?
Henry Jackman: That’s a very good question. Normally when you think about scoring a movie, you think about a creative question and you make your consideration based on what the movie is. This was very unusual because when I started working on it, the film had not been picked up Fox Searchlight. It was very much a small production with very little budget; so much so that we’re even sure we would have an orchestra. In the early stages, and this is an indication on how bold Nate Parker is, I was suggesting that if we didn’t have the budget, then maybe we should be clever and creative and do a score with a solo singer. We reduce the forces but stay creative if we’re never going to get the budget. He said “No. Here’s what we are going to do. Let’s think about the music in an abstract base as if we had all the budget in the world and we’re going to make it happen.”
One of Nate’s point about Nat Turner was that he was an African American hero and by the time you get to the end of the movie and Nat and his band of followers go into this sacrificial battle in which they know they have already lost, it would be a big theme with an orchestra as if that were “Braveheart.” So, I said we should have an orchestra and not only that but ideally we should have a gospel choir and we ended up with a huge array of textures for the score. We had this African element when the young Nat Turner is having disturbing visions and dreams that stem from his African heritage. We had an African percussion, gospel choir and a solo female singer. We had Alex Boye, Alex Acuña, and the One Voice Children’s Choir. Given how restrictive the initial situation looked, Nate pulled off the logistics. Ironically enough, when we started the movie, it was budgetary constrained and we ended up ignoring that completely and having the full gamut and texture that you can imagine and Nate did just an amazing job. He found the money or twisted the arm of the A Cappella Choir of Wiley College and asking “will you do this for us.” People were just accommodating to record on a score in circumstances that weren’t your average situation. People just wanted to help, which is fantastic.
Having done a string of big budget films recently, what does it take for you to come on board to a film with no initial distributor?
HJ: When I first met Nate, I got the impression that he was someone coming to meet me and show me the script with a view that I might not be interested for the reasons you had mentioned (doing big budget films like Captain America, Wreck-It Ralph). From an artist point of view, you need a budget to pay for symphony orchestra. In terms of the artistic process of writing music, what I was trying to explain to Nate, and he was pretty surprised that I came on board within ten seconds of meeting him, was that the most important thing, if you’re an artist and with practical limitations, is the story and the movie and also confidence in the director. When I met Nate, he was so upfront. “I don’t have a distributor. I don’t have a studio. I’m not exactly sure how thing is going to get shot. I probably don’t have enough days and we don’t really have any money, so are you in?”? I said “Yes!” I made an assessment of him. He was a motivator of people and forces. Regardless of the constrained circumstances upon him at that time, he had already felt that he wouldn’t let any of that stand in his way. At the time I was writing, I didn’t have any idea how it would get recorded but I knew from his personality that he was a man when he says “I’ll make something happen,” it happened.
Were any of the tracks you submitted left out?
HJ: Not much because in the process of temping it becomes clear where music is needed. There wasn’t a vast array of music written in sections of the film where we later decided it didn’t need music. There was a fair amount of time spent on carefully considering the spotting of where music should be. There are some huge action films that absolutely can’t work in wall to wall music. The thing about Nate’s film is that every single piece (of music) is there for a reason and it’s enhancing the narrative of the story. It’s key to where all the pieces are. For that reason, there wasn’t a huge process of eliminating music. It was more about working and refining the pieces that we knew we wanted.
Was there any particular track that stood out for you?
HJ: The cue from when Nate Turner rises after being brutally beaten, those were orchestral. I think where music scores well in terms of the variation is the baptism cue. It allowed for an uncomplicated start and in that case, it’s really about the melody. There’s very little orchestration because he was such a great figure. Nate had a natural delivery, that the amount of character and narrative honesty that could go with the music, you didn’t need that many elements. It meant that you could hold off on things you normally do. You could hold off on the strings and the bars because you can arrange things for Children’s Choir and it is such a unique color that you don’t need anything else.
HJ: The Birth of a Nation is a powerful and historical film it almost demands of you as a composer a unique approach because the movie is so unique. Whether it’s the theme or the orchestration, you look for the angle and avoid the first thing you can think of. It’s like looking under various different stones until you find something you didn’t expect. The more unique the film the more the process is demanded from you naturally. As a composer, you should attempt to find your own voice, whether it’s the theme, the use of electronics or the type of orchestration. You should just try that as a general.