'Divergent' Composer Junkie XL on Dystopian Music, 'Hunger Games' and EDM Film Scores (Audio)
The electronic music producer-turned-composer tells THR how Ellie Goulding and a reconstructed piano brought warmth to the film's cold world.
"If you distract the story from Divergent, there's a bigger story at hand of every 16-year-old girl that comes of age," says Junkie XL, the seasoned electronic music producer-turned-film composer tasked with scoring Summit's highly-anticipated young-adult franchise debut, starring Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, Maggie Q and Miles Teller. In order to invite viewers into the dystopian world where people are divided into groups based on certain values, the score had to be "something that's 'futuristic' in a sense that unusual elements come together, so it feels foreign," but still "very simple, understandable and emotional at the same time."
Junkie, or Tom Holkenborg, took the job after reading the Divergent's script -- and opting not to read the Veronica Roth best-sellers, so he could stay loyal to the Evan Daugherty-Vanessa Taylor screenplay -- and then brainstormed with director Neil Burger, producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, and Hans Zimmer, the film's executive music producer and Junkie's oft-collaborator (Junkie contributed to the scores of Man Of Steel, Dark Knight Rises,Madagascar 3, Megamind and Inception).
Early on in the film, Tris (Woodley) discovers that she fits into more than one group, making her a Divergent -- a deadly classification that therefore forces her to be alone often. "My analysis of that was, her audience then becomes her only friend and connection, so the music needed to be very inviting for the audience to feel for her, and to avoid the third-person perspective scenario where you just watch everything unfold onscreen," Junkie explains. He first starts the score "small," -- a few soft and warm instruments like piano, guitar and Goulding's lower register, layered just oddly enough so that it transports the viewer to the new world of the film.
Throughout the film, the music matures parallel to Tris' journey -- but not veering directly into Junkie's EDM background. "Even though it's a dystopian society that takes place somewhere in the future -- it was so easy to fall into the trap to do a full electronic score and make it sci-fi and all that, but that would be too cold," he says. "And a 16-year-old that has specific feelings -- whether it's fear, anxiety, loneliness or sadness, she probably will not relate to something Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings', but more to Adele. That's why, harmonically, I chose to go more for almost pop music chords."
To do so, Junkie used the instrument he made by sawing a piano in half, and playing only with various sticks and while wearing a riot-protection police helmet. "It's called the Junkie XL's Piano From Hell!" he laughed of the instrument specifically constructed for the thunders of 300: Rise of an Empire, but also sourced some "beautiful" sounds in Divergent. "Every time she gets drawn into the fear landscapes where they do testing on her, that's where it comes in. It's a sweet riff that repeats and repeats, and then as more instruments get added, it gets very scary." Junkie also used the same set of tribal drums he just purchased to score the 300 sequel.
Another key tool to achieve pop-minded accessibility? Goulding. "We all stopped and thought, 'There's something missing -- maybe we need a good vocalist to give some extra spice and lead us more into her world," he tells THR, noting that the electro-infused singer's instrumentation resembled the Divergent score in many ways. The two hit it off in L.A. immediately -- "I find it's best to just open a bottle of wine and talk and listen to music, and we did that for five hours" -- and though they agreed not to work until they were in the London studios, she soon began sending him ideas and vocal samples to serve as rough placeholders in the meantime.
Altogether, the resulting Divergent score carries some of the same sounds currently lighting up the dance charts, but balanced by classical strings sections and tribal drums to match the film's action sequences. THR film critic Sheri Linden noted in her review that Junkie's score "is rousing when appropriate and mostly unobtrusive, unlike the tone-deaf use of indie-pop and techno tracks at key points in the action (Randall Poster is the music supervisor)."
Fine-tuning the formula of EDM in film scoring is inevitable for composers, says Junkie, as the blend continues to pique the interest of studios, especially for films young-adult audiences. "Electronic music has finally arrived to the mainstream -- a small example, I went out this morning to get a coffee, and I walked past a local body shop where two older guys in their fifties, one is maybe in his sixties, were just blasting loud electronic music while repairing these cars," he explains. That would be unthinkable twenty, ten, even five years ago.
"But electronic is very two-dimensional in its scope -- I'm not talking harmonies or melodies, but basically, electronic music is, at its core, an extremely loud bass line that hits your stomach hard, and then goes into a melodic section that's dreamy and epic, and then it goes back to that heavy beat," he continues, naming Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder as the masterful exceptions. "Pure electronic music in film scoring only works, in my opinion, as a needle drop, or in a certain action scene. It's very hard to keep the tone of electronic music interesting throughout a whole film, or to score all the different emotions with it. Could we think of a full EDM score for 12 Years a Slave? That's going to be really hard to tackle! … There's so much interesting stuff in that music genre; if it's well mixed with other things, then you can create something that takes you on that emotional journey and gives you that epic feeling you need, in a more timeless fashion."
Divergent's decision to have its soundtrack and score touch on electronic music is another way to make it distinct from fellow dystopian-society YA franchise, The Hunger Games. "I'm really happy you brought this up because it was a very important part of the discussions that we had," admits Junkie, who also laughs that his current project, Mad Max: Fury Road, is coincidentally dystopian as well. He says he purposely didn't watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire so he wouldn't be influenced, but fondly recalls James Newton Howard's score for the first installment. "For me, it had almost like a country-folk feel to it. What I remember was that the movie started with an acoustic guitar, and it's the same scenario -- you're immediately invited in, like yes, it's a dystopian world, but hey, it's the new normal. I think what he did was really clever."
At the end of Divergent, an incredibly short but pivotal moment between Tris and Four (Theo James) was the most difficult of the film for Junkie to score. "I did a version, and then another and another -- it all happens so fast, it's like, how can you possibly hit all the different emotions in different pieces of music without getting into Mickey Mouse land?" he says. "Eventually, we came up with the massive tension swell, and then we go back to the music in the opening, when she was still a young girl. It makes it so human and emotional, and way better than any of the other things we tried. We wanted to create a sense of melancholy, that longing back to maybe what was, or maybe never was, but at least touch on that emotion. It worked amazingly."
Listen to the score's first track "Tris" featuring Goulding's vocals:
And watch the behind-the-scenes featurette below: