Dark Tower composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, has worked on some of the biggest blockbusters of the past two decades, with credits on films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Deadpool.
Holkenborg invited The Hollywood Reporter into his studio — which happens to look more like a spacecraft — for a private tour of his hit-making labyrinth and to give a behind-the-scenes look at his creative inspiration for The Dark Tower‘s emotive soundtrack. He also offered up some advice for producers looking to venture into film composing.
“It’s very thematically driven, whereas some of my other film scores are very sound-driven,” Holkenborg says of how The Dark Tower differs from his other work. “In this case, it’s a combination of how melodies and harmonies are used in combination with sounds.”
The Stephen King adaptation, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, primarily takes place in two distinct worlds: New York City, aka our world, and Mid-World, which is where the gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) and the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) are locked in a struggle of good vs. evil. Deschain’s mission is to save the mythical Dark Tower, which protects all worlds.
“I had to fall back on a lot of different types of instruments that don’t really exist, you make them up as you go,” Holkenborg says of creating the sonic aesthetic of Mid-World. “One of the things we used extensively was a guitar and a bunch of really outlandish guitar pedals.”
The process paid off.
“I made these really weird ambient sounds and then we turned that in samples and in hardware to play them a certain way. That created a really unique ambiance that you can’t really tell what it is. That combined with a cast of colors really made a nice atmosphere for the other world,” he says.
Bringing Roland to life became Holkenborg’s first task during the scoring process. Inside the gun-toting, stoic badass is a damaged man whose demons are layered into the ultra-emotive, champion theme music.
“It’s a theme that needs to be emotional. He’s the last one left,” says the composer of Roland, whose fellow gunslingers have died out. “He also lost his dad a long time ago, so it needed to have an emotional quality, a sad quality. At the same time, the theme needed to be able to develop to something really heroic when finally at the end of the movie he really stands up to what he was meant to do in the first place — and that’s being a hero and a gunslinger and protect the world.”
Meanwhile, the Man in Black’s devilish comportment attracts the complete opposite musical treatment, with his themes sounding more like a clash of distorted noises that painfully stab the ears.
“The sound approach to Matthew McConaughey’s character is not necessarily melodic-driven, it’s sound-driven,” says Holkenborg, “which I actually made with modular synthesizers and other sounds and programs. These really eerie sounds that make you extremely uncomfortable when you listen to them.”
According to Holkenborg, the process of constructing the soundtrack was a collaborative one with director Arcel.
“He is so involved in the creative process of all the different areas in making a film, not only directing but also with the music,” he remarks. “We massaged the score constantly, then the picture would change and we need to change things here and change things there.”
Arcel even used Holkenborg’s elaborate production studio to take a mental break from long production hours on the set.
“He was here almost once a week for the last couple of months and the last month or so he was here two, three times a week. He really felt it as a breakaway from the production office,” he says. “So many people needed his attention. For him it was just a great break to hang here in the studio and just play music, enjoy music and work on it together.”
Originally a music producer in the electronica sphere, with focuses on trance and big beat, Holkenborg gained notoriety with projects like 1997’s Saturday Teenage Kick, Radio JXL: A Broadcast From the Computer Hell Cabin and a world-renowned remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.” He credits his transition over to film scoring to his production skills. He also stresses the importance of seeking an apprenticeship with established composers.
“It really helped me to create more colors to score instead of just being a composer,” he says of his production skills. “[Otherwise] I would have to rely on a lot of session players and other people that would come up with ideas regarding that. The most successful road to become a film composer is actually assisting other composers for a really good amount of time.”
Holkeborg said the most valuable lesson learned from mentor and collaborator Hans Zimmer is to connect with everyone working on the project, including directors and people at the film studios.
“The job as a composer is that you are a movie maker together with the director and other people that work on it,” says Holkenborg. “The director is steering the ship where it needs to go, but you’re all storytelling with sounds and melodies and harmonies to help emphasize the characters in the film and the drama as it’s unfolding.”
The Dark Tower is in theaters now.