'Captain Phillips' to 'Captain America': Composer Henry Jackman on the Challenge of High-Profile Pics

"Captain Phillips"
"Captain Phillips"
 Sony Pictures

He's worked on four films this year, grossing nearly $750 million worldwide thus far, but composer Henry Jackman is reluctant to accept credit.

"You have to take your responsibility seriously, but it would be a bold composer who would claim that their music is what led to a film's success," Jackman tells The Hollywood Reporter.

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The British-born composer worked on the scores for the action blockbuster G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Sony's apocalyptic comedy This Is the End, Dreamworks' animated comedy Turbo and Universal's superhero romp Kick-Ass 2.

He just wrapped his latest project and fifth this year: Captain Phillips, opening Oct. 11.

The film, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks, is based on the true story of a Massachusetts-born container ship captain who is taken hostage by Somali pirates.

At a glance, Jackman's five films appear to be loosely linked by genre; although distinct in style, they all incorporate action. But his most recent endeavor challenged him to tone down the drama and produce something that wouldn't influence the audience.

"Paul Greengrass' take on music is about discipline, minimalism, noninvasive sounds and subtle scores," Jackman says.

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Greengrass, who was a journalist in his early career, has a commitment to objectivity and felt that it needed to be respected in the film's music, Jackman says. The pic introduces Phillips as the protagonist and the pirates as antagonists, but as the story unfolds, it becomes morally ambiguous.

"Greengrass has a noble respect for the intelligence of the audience to make up their own minds," Jackman says. "So, I had to develop a score where I supported what was going on with a kind of invisibility."

This meant that Jackman had to suppress some of his natural instincts by stowing away the powerful, thematic and operatic material he might use for an epic.

"Traditional devices would take you out of some of the more realistic aspects of the filmmaking that's been put together," Jackman says, explaining how Greengrass constantly pushed him to make his music more neutral -- creating a challenge in setting the tone of the film's more intimate scenes.

"You need something that's stirring, that is emotionally complementing [Phillips is] going through -- especially at the end -- but it can't be loaded with pity or sentiment," Jackman says.

Still, subtle sound can possess the same presence as a full-blown orchestra.

"We're not leaning on traditional deployment of harmonies, melodies and theme," Jackman says. "When you can involve things sonically so that you're using fewer elements but focusing more on the detail of what you're doing, it has a massive effect."

Jackman hopes his upcoming project will achieve the same impact, but it might again deviate from the compositional norm. He's currently working on something that's "not particularly orchestral" for the Marvel sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier, slated for a spring 2014 release.

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Captain America's formidable adversary, the Winter Soldier, will grant Jackman the opportunity to do something with music that he says he's been "itching to do."

"I can't say too much, but if I only get one shot to do something so badass that it's almost worrying, then this is the movie where I could maybe get away with it."

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