CS Interview: Tom Holkenborg on crafting the “Mount Everest” of film scores for Justice League
In a few days, audiences will finally get a chance to check out Zack Snyder’s Justice League, an enormous undertaking that began as a fan movement and culminated into one of the better superhero films ever released — at least, according to our review. One of the film’s key attributes is Tom Holkenborg’s electrifying, rock-heavy score that interweaves music previously established by Hans Zimmer in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with all-new material that drives the 4-hour plus film towards its action-packed conclusion.
“Clearly for me, this is a very special score,” Holkenborg said during a roundtable interview. “This is movie number six that I’ve done with Zack [Snyder]. I was an assistant to Hans [Zimmer] on Man of Steel; and then on Batman v Superman it was like a joint billing. And when I started Justice League in 2016, it was supposed to be movie number three in a row with that same thematic through-line.”
Except, Holkenborg ended up leaving Justice League after Zack Snyder walked away from the project in 2017. The much-publicized Joss Whedon reshoots followed as did an entirely new score by Danny Elfman, who dumped Holkenborg’s work and chose instead to lean on his previous Batman theme from Tim Burton’s 1989 film as well as John Williams’ classic theme from Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) — a direction Zimmer and Holkenborg purposely avoided back when they began working on Man of Steel.
“We were sitting on a couch and … I asked Hans if he felt like reprising the John Williams Superman theme,” Holkenborg explained, “and Hans only needed like 100 milliseconds to answer, ‘Absolutely not.’ And his reasoning made so much sense. He said, the original Superman theme written by John Williams is one of the greatest themes ever written, but it made total sense in the movie that was made back then with Christopher Reeve which had this sort of tongue-in-cheek quality to it. It wouldn’t make any sense to use that music in Man of Steel.”
When they got to BvS, Holkenborg and Zimmer decided that Superman’s musical identity didn’t require additional examination and chose to focus more on Batman’s personal conflict. “The second movie is primarily the background of Bruce Wayne, what happened to him as a kid and how he became Batman,” the composer said. As such, that score leans heavily on Batman’s brooding theme as Bruce, now aged and broken, struggles to accept his place in a world alongside Superman.
Of course, Snyder always planned to lighten the mood for Justice League; and the composer had written nearly half of the film’s music before departing the project. Then, some three years later, he was called back to score Zack Snyder’s Justice League in August of 2020, a mammoth production that would require nearly four and a half hours of music. Interestingly enough, after listening to what he wrote in 2016, Holkenborg, now boasting more experienced after working alongside directors such as Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Miller, and Tim Miller, decided to start from scratch.
“I called Zack and I said, ‘Do you mind if I start over?’ And he said, ‘No, by all means.’ He wasn’t necessarily married to anything that we cooked up in those days. And he also added, ‘Keep in mind, when you start, the shackles are off,’ which basically means that … there was no interference of studio or producers on this particular film, which is extremely unique. This only happens to Final Cut directors like George Miller, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and Chris Nolan, for instance.”
After the phone call, Holkenborg began his “climb over Mount Everest,” a name he gave to Justice League not only because of its enormity, but also due in part to his having to tackle the project solo while in isolation. He moved his studio into his house where he set up one bass, one guitar, and a few percussion instruments and crafted the intense score practically by himself. “I was able to play everything myself in that little room, and it was a fantastic experience … I was able to showcase the full spectrum of my experience in music and production over the last 40 or so years.”
Indeed, while certain elements of previous Snyder’s previous DC films are featured throughout Justice League, namely Wonder Woman’s popular guitar riff and Zimmer’s Man of Steel melodies, Holkenborg still took the time to craft all new themes for Snyder’s ragtag group of heroes. “Batman has a whole new theme in this movie and it’s not reprising the thematics of Batman v Superman … The Wonder Woman theme, I completely put a different spin on it. Yes, it does use that riff, but what I was missing potentially in an earlier approach is that everything that Diana or Wonder Woman does is covered with a blanket of being feminine and being, like, respectful that she’s a woman. But my answer is, have you actually seen how she kicks ass and takes a whole army out by herself? Why are we softening up her music? If anything, it should be the roughest theme of them all, because she’s the one that really kicks ass! So, I made the music very tough for her at times and way more emotional than the original was and infused her theme with a lot of world music elements.”
Holkenborg then went on to discuss his themes for Cyborg and Flash both of which were uncharted territory as neither character had ever been featured on the big screen before.
“Cyborg was a little bit of a headache,” the composer said. “You know, with all the modifications done to his body … you would almost think what his music needs is a very synthesized version of reality. And I found out it was not working for him … So, there’s this big section in the film where we [see] his backstory, right, like how he grew up and what happens to him. And what works best for him was just 100% organic strength, because it’s such a sad story … That’s why the piece with Cyborg is 100% acoustic … but that was a challenging one.”
Another piece of music that proved daunting was the main Justice League theme, a piece of music Holkenborg likened to a national anthem. That theme makes an appearance in the recently released single, “The Crew at Warpower,” but enjoys numerous alterations and reprisals throughout the film. “It has strong rhythms and some cool bass sounds. There’s a version of the theme that happens twice in the movie where it’s really slow with choir and brass and strings; and that really feels like a national anthem.”
Finally, Holkenborg crafted a nightmarish theme for Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and the Mother Boxes, which necessitated a choir screaming its lungs out in a church. “There’s nothing scarier than the human voice when it’s screaming at that level. It’s just … it’s very scary.”
Another issue Holkenborg faced with Justice League was pacing the music in such a way that it never felt grating. Having worked on TV shows and Netflix series throughout his career, Holkenborg is well versed in the various styles of musical composition. But, he explains, where a TV show such as 24 is essentially a cluster of three to four-minute mini-movies that climax before each commercial break, a four-hour film is like “a really long race where the next action sequence feels more intense than the one before and it all adds up; and then there’s a nice release at the end.”
Despite all the headaches, Holkenborg managed to craft one hell of a soundtrack for Justice League. Seriously, the music in this film kicks all kinds of ass and matches Snyder’s lofty visuals beat for beat. The duo makes quite the formidable pair, which is probably why Holkenborg signed up for Snyder’s next project, Army of the Dead, which releases on Netflix this summer and is, in the composer’s words, “not your average zombie movie.”
Holkenborg also has another bombastic score for the anticipated sequel Godzilla vs. Kong set for release in a few weeks. In other words, the man is living the high life. And while Zack Snyder’s Justice League may very well be his magnum opus, there’s also a feeling that the man is just getting started.
“[Justice League] is due to the tenacity of the fans,” Holkenborg said. “Incredible tenacity … And it was an incredible undertaking to get this to the finish line.”
Zack Snyder’s Justice League releases on HBO Max this Thursday, March 18. The soundtrack will release on the same day with a vinyl release expected shortly after.