‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’: how Junkie XL wrote the blockbuster’s super-sized score

After being ditched for Danny Elfman on Joss Whedon's original, composer Thomas Holkenborg tells James McMahon about crafting the Snyder Cut's metal-flavoured masterpiece

Zack Snyder’s Justice League has finally seen the light of day, and fan reactions have been more good than bad. As you will most surely know, Snyder’s four-hour love letter to DC Comics is a redo of a project he left in mid-flow after his daughter sadly passed away in 2017. Following a long-term fan campaign, Snyder was given free rein (and access to Warner Bros’ bank account) to finish off his original vision of the critically derided superhero blockbuster.

And yet the director wasn’t alone in having unfinished business with Justice League. Before Snyder stepped away, and with the increasingly divisive Joss Whedon drafted in to salvage something from the wreckage, Snyder’s long-time musical collaborator, Thomas Holkenborg – also known as Junkie XL, formerly JXL (maker of 2002 hit remix ‘A Little Less Conversation’) – was beavering away on the film’s soundtrack. When Snyder left, the 53-year-old Dutchman did too.

Starting from scratch

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“The way that Zack had to leave the project,” says Holkenborg, drawing on a cigarette, “and me along with it, was an emotional and unpleasant time. That’s one of the reasons why there’s nothing I’d worked on the first time around in the new film. When I heard the project was back on, I delved back into the work I did, and it brought me back to that vibe. This film should be a celebration, not something being dragged down by some negative emotions that I felt four years ago…”

Which makes sense, right? New beginnings and all that. Yet that doesn’t come close to telling the full story. By his own admission, this Junkie XL is not the same Junkie XL of four years ago.

“My film scoring career is still relatively young,” explains Holkenborg, who away from Snyder’s apron strings, has composed scores for highly acclaimed features like Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool. “It’s just seven years. I’ve learned so much these last four years by working with George Miller, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez and with Tim Miller. I wanted this movie to benefit from what I am as a composer now, and not then…”

Justice League
‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ arrives on Sky Cinema and NOW TV later this week. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Learning from the greats

As apprenticeships in composing go, few could boast of schooling more distinguished than that of Holkenborg. He formally assisted the legendary Hans Zimmer on a variety of projects, collaborating with the German on 2013’s Man Of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. “People often think I learned musical things from Hans,” says Holkenborg. “But what I really learned was the politics of studios.”

What did he learn from the other directors, we ask?

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“Patience,” he says. “Musical patience. And to never think in a way that is a concession from the start. The way this industry works is that you will need to water a few things down because of the influence of a studio or a director. But if you make concessions from the off based on what you think they’ll want, they’ll still want another concession on top. You’ll end up even further from what you set out to do.”

Smart advice for anyone undertaking any creative pursuit. And make no mistake, the soundtrack to Zack Snyder’s Justice League is as smart and sophisticated a piece of work as Holkenborg has ever done. Sometimes tender. Often rousing. Always cool. Sometimes even nodding to the heavy metal bands (Fear Factory, Sepultura) that Junkie XL worked with in the ’90s. Maintaining engagement over four hours is a Herculean task for anyone – even Superman – but Holkenborg’s score, often more than what takes place on screen, is what drives the movie along.

Moving on from Joss Whedon

There is, of course, one question every DC fan wants to know: was there ever a conversation with incoming director Joss Whedon about Holkenborg staying on when Snyder departed?

The vibe of our chat – an affable one until now – changes.

“There was,” he says, “but there was no motivation on my part and there was no motivation on his part. That was an engagement that was never bound to happen. Let’s put it that way…” So there was a conversation? “No longer than 10 minutes.”

Zack Snyder
Zack Snyder poses on the red carpet. CREDIT: Victor Chavez/WireImage

Staying loyal to Zack Snyder

It’s clear that Holkenborg is deeply committed to Snyder. As soon as we change the subject to his process with him, the mood lightens. Later this year the product of their next pairing, zombie-heist movie Army Of The Dead, will see the light of day. What is the glue that binds their creative union?

“Zack is very much of the opinion that music is very, very important and never an afterthought,” he says. “And he gives me all the room for experimentation. He’s an interesting team player, because he likes to build a team of people around him that know way more of a certain subject than he does, and he trusts that person’s opinion completely. Sometimes in this industry you have people that are almost like generals in an army, and they give you orders.”

Thomas is naming no names, and he’s keen to make the point that there’s no right way or wrong way – just a different way. The specifics of who he might be talking about is all conjecture. He continues, smiling, “with Zack it’s always collaboration.”

‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ is out now on Sky Cinema and NOW

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