Lonesome Cruiser

Blockbuster composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, talks to Gemma Gracewood about composing for titans, Dutch cinema, and his friendship with George Miller. Plus: why he’s selling his prized collection of recording gear.

I find, personally, movies from the ’70s to be more sexy, but it has something to do with the super-loose way that people were dressed and people were behaving.” —⁠Tom Holkenborg

It has been a spectacular spring for Tom Holkenborg, the Dutch musician also known as Junkie XL, who has crafted the scores for multiplex fare such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, Terminator: Dark Fate, Sonic the Hedgehog and the upcoming zombie banger Army of the Dead. Only weeks apart, two blockbusters landed on screens with his sonic stamp all over them: Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong and Zack Snyder’s re-realized Justice League.

Thankfully, the Godzilla vs. Kong score was complete by the time the Justice League telephone rang. Holkenborg—who had lost the Justice League gig along with Snyder the first time around—knew the Snyder cut was coming; he had closely watched the growing calls for it online. “Zack and I already started talking in 2019. He’s like, ‘What if we were to finish this? What would it take?’ Those conversations turned to ‘Well, how many recording days potentially do you need and how much of an orchestra do you potentially need?’ Finally, somewhere in April 2020, that’s when that phone call came: ‘Okay, light’s green, start tomorrow, and start running until it’s done because it’s four and a half hours’.”

Ray Fisher as Cyborg in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Ray Fisher as Cyborg in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Holkenborg approaches the titanic task of blockbuster film scoring with an engineer’s mindset: “Building a fantastic, huge house with 20 bedrooms and the dance hall and the kitchen… You’re not going to start by building the third bathroom for the third guest room, right?” Once he has identified the scenes that are most important to his directors—for Snyder, they included the introduction of Cyborg, three fight set-pieces, and a scene of The Flash running that comes towards the end of the film—the composer identifies instrumental “colors” in order to build a theme around each character. Then he holds some of those colors back, theorizing that “if you want like an, ‘Oh!’ experience by looking at a painting that has a huge amount of bright yellow in it, it’s way more successful to see fifteen paintings in front of it, where yellow is absent.”

The Godzilla vs. Kong score satisfies Holkenborg’s life-long love of both characters. “I don’t have a preference for either one. I love them both for various different reasons.” Their respective histories fascinate him: Godzilla as a way to make sense of Japan’s nuclear fall-out, and Kong as a gigantic spectacle that ended up attracting the sympathies of the audiences he was supposed to scare. Even when the science makes no sense (“what the fuck are plasma boosters, anyway?!”), Holkenborg is still happy to wax lyrical about the emotional depth of Kong’s stories, the elaborate concepts of the Godzilla-verse, and his musical approach to the pair—dark, moving brass for Godzilla, with synthesized elements “because he is a half-synthesized animal”, and a more organic, complex orchestration for Kong, featuring “one of the world’s bigger bass drums”.

Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong.
Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong.

All of this seat-shaking bombast is composed on an “insanely massive sound system” in Holkenborg’s small home studio (though he reassures pandemic-stricken film lovers that he has recently seen both Godzilla vs. Kong and Justice League on his laptop—and “really enjoyed watching it like that”). The process, he says, was “pretty intense”, but only in terms of the sheer amount of score needed. Composing in quarantine was not much different from his usual workflow. “I’m a pretty lonesome cruiser anyway. Composing, by nature, is like a solo exercise—obviously with assistance.”

Like many creatives (Bong Joon-ho recently told a film studies class that he is up at 5:00am most days to watch a movie), Holkenborg is an early riser, waking by 4:00am. “I’m super sharp between like 4 or 5:00am and 9:00am, so I like to do a lot of creative work in that slot.” He takes care of business until mid-afternoon, when another creative spurt happens. “And then I have another batch of calls usually to make, and then around 8:30pm, I’m going to retire for the rest of the day and just chill out a little bit and watch stuff that I want to see, read things that I want to read. Right now I’m studying Portuguese.” By 10:30pm, he’s asleep. “And then at three o’clock I get up.” (Needless to say, Holkenborg’s children are no longer small.)

The pandemic simplified a lot of things for a lot of people: for Holkenborg, it has been a moment to tidy up the physical side of his work. In November last year, he opened an online shop to divest the bulk of his gear—synths, pedals, guitars, drum machines and much more—that he has been collecting since the late 1970s. When friends told him he’d regret it, he disagreed. “At some point I’m going to die. I can’t take them to the afterlife. I also found out I don’t need them. I love to have them around, but I don’t need them.”

Tom Holkenborg with the bass drum used in the Godzilla vs. Kong score.
Tom Holkenborg with the bass drum used in the Godzilla vs. Kong score.

It certainly solves the question of what he’d take if his house was on fire. “The hard drives with sounds and music over the last 40 years, 45 years, that’s hard to replace. So, that would be it. I’m just thinking about things that are absolutely irreplaceable and there are not that many, really.” Alas, it’s bad news for that bass drum. “I can’t take that with me when the house is on fire. Unfortunately, it’s going to make the house burn longer.”

Anyone who has interviewed or spent time with Holkenborg will agree: he may be a lonesome cruiser, but he is also personable, funny, loves to settle in for a chat. As he lights his second or third cigarette in readiness for his Life in Film questionnaire, I’m curious about his relationships with the esteemed filmmakers he has worked with—who include his mentor, Hans Zimmer, directors Sir Peter Jackson, Tim Miller, Robert Rodriguez and, especially, Fury Road’s George Miller.

The story of how Holkenborg scored Mad Max: Fury Road bears retelling: that George Miller did not want a soundtrack (“he was convinced that the orchestration of sounds of the cars would be enough to carry the whole movie”), that Holkenborg was only brought in to create a little something for the Coma-Doof Warrior’s flame-throwing guitar, that they hit it off, the job grew, and grew, into a score that covers almost the entire film.

The Coma-Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
The Coma-Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

What is his best memory of Fury Road? “Well, obviously, when I saw the movie for the first time and I was like ‘what the hell am I looking at?’,” he laughs. “What I mostly look back on is the friendship that I developed with George and the film school one-on-one that I got admitted to, while being paid at the same time, to study with somebody like him. We would talk all night about all kinds of things and nothing, because that really defines our relationship so much—a joint interest in so many different things.”

Happily, Holkenborg and Miller are working together again, on Three Thousand Years of Longing. “It’s really great to be in that process with him again. It’s just like about pricking each other with a little needle. It’s like, ‘Oh, why are you saying that?’ We do that with each other to keep each other sharp. ‘Oh, but if you’re doing this, I’m going to be doing that.’ And then, ‘Oh, if you’re doing that, I’m going to be doing this.’ So it’s really interesting.”

What is your favorite Godzilla film?
Tom Holkenborg: 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante. It’s a very obscure one where he’s basically fighting a giant rose. Let’s not look for the logic there.

Why has that particular Godzilla captured your heart?
It’s so corny. Yeah. Mothra vs. Godzilla is also great. Mothra looks like a very bad Arabian carpet that was imported through customs and it got delivered by FedEx completely ruined and then laid outside for like four weeks in the rain.

Godzilla vs. Biollante (ゴジラvsビオランテ, 1989).
Godzilla vs. Biollante (ゴジラvsビオランテ, 1989).

What is the first film you remember seeing in a cinema?
Bambi. I was six years old, yeah.

And is there a film you have fond memories of watching with your family—a movie that became a family favorite?
Not, like, a family favorite because our opinions were too diverse for that, but the next movie that became very important to me when I was a little older was Saturday Night Fever. I thought the soundtrack was, like, groundbreaking, mind-blowingly insane. It’s not necessarily those three massive beats of the Bee Gees on there, but all these other really alternative, left-field tracks by bands like Kool & the Gang. And the way that that darker disco music played against that really dark movie about what it’s like to live in New York and become a competitive dancer, it’s incredible. And still, today, it’s one of the movies where film music and the film itself had so much impact on me, even though it’s not a traditional film score in that sense. It’s incredible.

What is the film that made you want to work in movies, given that you also have a whole musical career separate from movies? (Enjoy Junkie XL’s early 2000s remix of Elvis Presley’s ‘A Little Less Conversation’.)
For me, the move from a traditional artist into film scoring was a very slow gradual process. There’s not one movie that pushed me over the cliff. It’s just, like, all the great movies that were made. And I still have a list of obscure movies, classic movies that I need to see.

Yesterday I saw the weirdest of all, but I do want to share this: the original, uncut R-rated version of Caligula, [from] 1979. He [director Tinto Brass] was notoriously brutal and he organized orgies and had terrible torturing techniques. But it’s really weird, there’s Shakespearean actors in there, and then it goes to full-on porn sections. It’s really weird. The music is incredible. You can find it online. You will not find it anywhere [else]. I can just imagine what this must have felt like in 1979 when the film came out. Suspiria, that’s another one. It’s just like, how weird was that thing?

What is your favorite blockbuster that you did not compose?
Ben-Hur. I’ve seen that one at least 20 times.

What’s your all-time comfort re-watch?
The movie I’ve seen the most is Blade Runner. It’s just, like, it’s a nice world you’re stepping into, that fantasy. It’s not necessarily because I have memories [of] that movie that brings me back to a certain time period, it’s not that. It’s just that I just love to dwell in it. It feels a little bit like coming home. You can use it as comfort food, you can use it as, “I’m not feeling anything today”, or the opposite. You feel very great and you feel very inspired and it’s like, “Oh, let’s go home and watch that movie again.”

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998).
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998).

Hans Zimmer has been an important mentor to you. Do you have a favorite of his scores?
Yes, The Thin Red Line. It’s also the filmmaking of Terrence Malick—he forces a composer to think a certain way. He would always say, “It’s too much, make it less, make it smaller, make it this, make it that.” So, A, it’s a very good movie and B, he got Hans into the right place and Hans just over-delivered by doing exactly the right things at the right time and then shining just because of that.

Who is a composer that you have your eye on and what is one of their films that we should watch next?
It’s so sad to say, but I mean, let’s call it like a retrospective discovery if you will. I’m so sad that we lost Jóhann Jóhannsson. He was a composer I felt really close to. We started roughly in the same time period making our way in today’s world. Also, Jóhann came from an artist background, even though it was a modern classical background. He made really great records, great experimentation with electronic elements, with classical instruments, and the mix between the two of them—very original way of looking at music. With Denis Villeneuve as his partner in crime the movies that they did were just mind-boggling good, whether it was Sicario or Arrival or Prisoners, and his voice will truly be missed among film composers. So people that are not super familiar with his work, I would definitely check it out.

Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit, 1973).
Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit, 1973).

What is a must-see Dutch film that we should add to our watchlists?
Holland has small cinema, but it has a really rich cinema and a very serious cinema culture. Usually because there’s not enough work in film, people are serious stage performers but then they also act in movies so they understand both really well. And we’ve delivered. There’s a string of actors that make their way to Hollywood or star in well-known series, whether it’s like Game of Thrones, or what we just talked about, Blade Runner. Many directors like Paul Verhoeven, Jan de Bont, the cameraman.

And so a movie that I’d like to pick is an old movie, called Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight) from the 1970s. Rutger Hauer is a younger guy, like, this completely irresponsible guy that starts this relationship with a really beautiful young girl, and they do all these crazy things, they do a lot of drugs and they have a lot of sex. He’s just like a bad influence on her.

Then he finds out she [has] cancer and it’s terminal. And to see him deal with that, and to see him want a change, but also in that change he does a lot of bad stuff at the same time… It was a sensational movie when it came out. And it actually was directed by Paul Verhoeven, one of his earlier films. When you see it, you’re just like, ‘Why am I watching this?’ for the first 45 minutes and then it starts and it’s like, ‘whoa’. So it’s really good, even in retrospect.

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).

What is the sexiest film you’ve ever seen?
When I was super young, it was definitely Grease, with Olivia Newton-John, when she was in her catsuit at the very end of it. I had her picture on my bedroom, above my bed sideways because I was only like ten years old or something. I was so in love with Olivia Newton-John. It wasn’t the film per se, it was her. Yeah, I find, personally, movies from the ’70s to be more sexy, but it has something to do with the super-loose way that people were dressed and people were behaving.

And the other one was later in life: Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone. I’m not talking about like the famous shot, right, where she crosses her legs. I’m not talking about that, but the way that she acts throughout the whole movie. It’s insane. It’s really great.

Are there any films that have scared you? Like, truly terrified you?
Yeah, I’m not a big fan because I get sucked up too much in it. The found [footage] horror movies like Paranormal Activity and things like the Japanese version of The Grudge, I cannot watch that stuff. That gets me too much. Because when I watch a film, I cannot watch it with one eye half open, the other one closed, like, ‘Okay, kind of cool, interesting’. I just get sucked into it.

Is there a film that has made you cry like no other?
Oh yeah. Multiple. Once Upon a Time in America. The Godfather. Hable con Ella (Talk to Her). Betty Blue.

Thomas Holkenborg, AKA Junkie XL.
Thomas Holkenborg, AKA Junkie XL.

These are the films that make you weep?
Not like on a regular basis, but I remember those were the ones that I really got hit. I’m talking particularly about the third Godfather. That whole end scene when they get out of the church and then… It’s really well-acted. So many Godfather fans that were dismissive of the film when it came out, in retrospect, ten, fifteen, 20 years later, are like, ‘it’s a really good film’. And I actually think so.

Final question. Is there a film from the past year that you would recommend, that you’ve loved?
[Long pause.] The thing is that I watch pretty much a movie a day. So, that’s like three to four hundred movies. It [has] happened so often that I watch a film and then I’m just like an hour and 45 minutes in, it’s like, ‘wait, fuck, I’ve seen this thing before’.

So, we have an app for that…

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