'Mortal Engines' Composer Tom Holkenborg on Working in the "Alternate Universe" of New Zealand

Tom Holkenborg - Portrait - H - 2016
Courtey of Tom Holkenborg

The L.A.-based musician says he was inspired by the "family dynamic" when he flew to Wellington to meet with producer Peter Jackson and director Christian Rivers: "It never felt like business."

Composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) starts his morning routine at 3 a.m. By the early afternoon, he’s already well into the work day when we meet at the studio adjacent to his home in Tarzana. “Sometimes you have a 24-hour deadline, and you have to have all the ability to do everything at once,” says Holkenborg, reclining in a chair behind the mixing board of his home studio. 

If the 50-year-old DJ-turned-composer has a trademark sound, it can be found in the modern, propulsive work he’s done on recent blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool. But that’s an impression he’d like to change. For the big-budget YA action-drama Mortal Engines, Holkenborg mixed synths and other electronic elements with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to deliver what he considers to be his most evolved score to date.

“Like my work on Max Max: Fury Road and Deadpool, this is a score that’s incredibly modern,” the composer shares. “At the same time, I’m honoring the traditions of using thematic material with recognizable melodies played over soaring strings and brass.”

After receiving the call for Mortal Engines, Holkenborg flew to New Zealand to meet with husband and wife producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, along with director Christian Rivers. The reception was incredibly warm, and unlike any of his previous Hollywood meetings.

“Christian, Peter, Fran and myself were sitting around Peter’s kitchen table in Wellington, discussing the film over great food and wine,” Holkenborg recalls. “Creatively, this film was driven by a family dynamic that was established right from the start. It never felt like business.”

Holkenborg much prefers these “production meeting dinners” to what he jokingly refers to as the “iced teas in L.A.” meetings. Jackson’s residency in New Zealand, which is so far removed from Hollywood, is something that Holkenborg considers to be a great asset for the Oscar-winning director and producer. “It really feels like you’re living in an alternate universe when you’re there,” he observes. “I found that it reinforced the creative process, being around such beauty and such beautiful and talented people.”

But that isolation from Hollywood also means less consistent work for the country’s musicians and sound engineers — it’s been over two years since a film was scored there. From Holkenborg’s perspective, that’s not necessarily a negative. “In New Zealand, it’s not only that you have quality players, it feels like more of a special occasion,” he says. “You see the motivation, the fire in their eyes. There’s an energy that translates into the performance.”

While in New Zealand, Holkenborg got to see firsthand just how much Jackson’s presence and influence has grown in the country since putting it on the global film-locations map with the massive success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “He’s invested in their museums, programs for the citizens, he’s even founded a special effects company (Weta Digital) that employs thousands of people,” Holkenborg says with a sense of pride in his friend. “He may be the single biggest economic force in New Zealand. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly what it feels like when you talk with people. They adore him.”