Interview with Steve Jablonsky

He’s big, put together with charismatic muscle, and knows how to move with powerful, heroic steps. All of which make the franchise building megastar known as The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson) perfectly constructed for composer Steve Jablonsky. While not quite as physically formidable, Jablonsky has more than shown he can keep pace with his leading man after a career scoring transforming robots, machine gun-blasting villains and perfect military specimens thwarting alien invasions – with the humor to even poke fun at his own action stylings in the outrageous Netflix spoof “Game Over, Man!” Now after all of the imitations spawned by the best action movie of the 80’s, both The Rock and Steve Jablonsky get to team up at their mightiest for a film best described as “’Die Hard’ in a building.” And The Pearl is certainly a formidable, ultra-futuristic “Skyscraper” peaking above Hong Kong, as if some “Arrival” spaceship from the Donald Trump branch of the family landed. Of course, that’s all a nefarious, foreign accented baddie needs to light a torch a la “The Towering Inferno,” with our hero’s family trapped on the upper floors.

If The Rock has a real magic to his success, it’s his ability to bring likeable heart and humanity to his well-built movies, of which “Skyscraper” boasts top-notch design and action via the fun direction of the star’s “Central Intelligence” director Rawson Marshall Thurber. That The Rock’s security whiz character Will Sawyer is way more worried dad pushed into the impossible than a bionic-legged Superman says much about the emotional stakes that level up “Skyscraper” and Jablonsky’s action scoring abilities, especially after having created one of his most unique scores for the star’s unlikely appearance as a real-life gay weightlifter dragged into murder in “Pain & Gain” (which also ranks as the best, and most unique film from Jablonsky’s frequent “Transformers” collaborator Michael Bay). With brass and rhythm literally blazing through any number of knuckle-tightening, building-climbing set pieces, Jablonsky’s most exciting score yet not only makes bank on the composer’s trademarked way with musical momentum, but also melodically makes the listener aware that taking down the bad guy isn’t Will’s biggest goal. It’s a “Skyscraper” that’s a slam-bang combo of thematic orchestra, electronics and metal, as topped with a futuristic sound that in the end succeeds so well by being about family first while more than delivering the action goods, giving the composer his most impressive fusion of excitement and heart yet for a genre where he remains a modern king of the hill.

What would you say is the Steve Jablonsky action “sound?”

Well, I have no idea how. I would describe it, to be honest. I’m the worst at telling people what I do because I really just sit down and let the movie inspire me. “Skyscraper” seemed like a film where we could try a little bit, something a bit more different, where I could try not to go too “Hollywood.” I wanted to treat Dwayne Johnson’s character a bit more like an everyday guy, as opposed to him being like Spider-Man or Superman.

Ironically, your last score was for the Netflix “Die Hard” spoof “Game Over Man,” where you also got to satirize your approach for scoring this kind of stuff.

Right. That’s a good point. I went from one “Die Hard” movie to another “Die Hard” movie. That one was totally like “We’ve got trumpets, we’ve got woodwinds, now let’s just go all out and send it to these male maids! Because to these “Workaholics” guys, this was a big Hollywood thing where they could be these badass heroes. So I treated that with just a little bit of tongue in cheek – like having the trumpets send in the “big theme” when they beat the bad guy. “Game Over Man’s” score was just meant to be fun. Where “Skyscraper” could also be fun, we didn’t want to ignore the fact that Will is essentially just trying to save his family, and they happened to be in the tallest building in the world, which is on fire. Even if they were stuck in a hole in the ground somewhere. It would be the same musical premise. So that’s where we started with the score and took it from there. We weren’t trying to, say, “This is a big throwback action movie.” It was important for Rawson to not to overplay the music as well. Will is a wounded character in the beginning because he’s had a tragic experience where he loses a leg. That sets a different tone than “Game Over Man.” I liked that Rawson set up “Skyscraper” that way with Will having to redeem his past mistake.

After scoring the real life disaster of “Deep Water Horizon,” you’re also replaying a movie that has another giant explosion in it, with people trying to make it through lots of burning metal as the result. Was there any kind of lessons that “Deepwater” taught you about how to score “Skyscraper?”

Yeah, definitely. The fact that “Deepwater Horizon” dealt with real people was partially why I almost didn’t get the film because the director Peter Berg told the studio straight away that he didn’t want to have a “Hollywood” score, or a big Hollywood composer. So I just called Peter up and said, “Look, if, if you give me a shot at this, I can do other things than what you might expect. I’m not going to put big horns in this movie. This is a real life story. People died. Other wives and brothers and sisters and husbands of these people who died will see this film, and the last thing I want to do was to trivializes the death of their loved ones by overplaying over melody or making things melodramatic, I wanted to create a score that would keep things more real, and that’s why I went less “big” for that score. Now “Skyscraper” is obviously not a true story, but that approach is closer to what Rawson wanted. And I thought that made sense, because Will is an everyday guy – even though he’s bigger than any other human being on this planet!
The Rock is pretty much the size of a building.

I always joked that he could have just picked up the building and tilted it. Then everything would have been fine. For Rawson and me, Will is a “real” guy who does crazy things when he’s put into impossible situations. He knows how awful it is, and isn’t going, “Yeah, I’m going to kick ass!” He just wants to survive so he can find his wife and kids. So in that respect this score is similar to “Deep Water Horizon,” which I think Rawson heard and liked. That’s part of the reason my name came up for “Skyscraper” in the first place.

Steve & Rawson

This is the second score you’ve done for The Rock that has him in a bit of departure from the super-confident action hero you’d expect, especially after “Pain & Gain.”

In that movie, The Rock is like a gentle giant who gets sort of victimized by Mark Wahlberg’s character in this.. I came up with this super innocent, little simple thing for him in that which was innocent but emotional, because his character was a religious, naïve guy who gets involved in this terrible thing. When I saw The Rock in “Pain & Gain,” I thought, “Wow, this guy can do something other than just being ‘the big guy.’ “Pain & Gain” was also the film that opened Rawson’s eyes to the Rock being able to do comedy before he directed him in “Central Intelligence.” For this film, I tried to ignore that The Rock was as big as a house, and to just scores him as a father who’s trying to save his family from this horrible situation. The idea of family was also very important to him in how he’s been promoting “Skyscraper.” We had a screening where I saw this guy standing there with a baseball cap. He was big, but he didn’t strike me as being The Rock. Then a producer introduced us. I told him that because the movie was so early on that my music was only in 25% of what he saw. He asked me if it was in the scene where we first meet Will and his family, and I told him that was indeed one of my cues. Dwayne said, “Oh great! I loved that music. You don’t really hear scoring like that in action movies these days.” I gave him a big thanks, because just the fact that he even noticed he music there showed that he was very sensitive to how music sold the emotion apart from all of the big explosions.

It’s interesting how you score this super futuristic building in an almost science fiction-y way in the beginning of the film, especially as it looks like some spaceship that’s landed in Hong Kong.

The thing about scoring a film like this is that generally composers don’t really get to see what’s happening, as the visuals are still being created. But while I didn’t really get to see The Pearl, I created a theme for it and the billionaire who owns the whole thing. I wanted it to be sort of awe inspiring but also mysterious and not too “science fiction-y.” I didn’t want the music to make you feel like this movie was taking place a hundred years in the future. You really hear that melody when Will is riding up the elevator for the first time and seeing all of this cool, amazing stuff in the building and how amazing it is. I can’t wait to see those effects myself!

Did you want to reflect the film’s Hong Kong setting in the score?

Rawson and I talked a little about that in relation to The Pearl’s owner. But in general, unless the music’s specifically called upon to reference an ethnic character or background, I don’t think it’s necessary to do that – though I certainly did for the fourth “Transformers” movie that was partially set in Hong Kong.

The first big musical setpiece in “Skyscraper” is when will has to evade the police and climb up “The Crane” to get into the Pearl. How difficult was it to score that scene?

At first I thought it would be interesting to center the scene around one instrument, as Will is one guy trying to do all of these things. So the music starts with a solo cello, processed to be “weighty,” because it wouldn’t quite sound right if it was just sort of a classical cellist playing this riff against these big images. I also had the idea of making the music go “up and down” with The Rock to literally mirror how he’s trying to get into The Pearl.” Then as he progresses, the orchestra would slowly come in as his strength and confidence in beating the odds builds. Rawson thought the music should also treat the scene in a way that showed how Will was having “fun” with all of this. So I did a rhythmic thing for that which could play the scene’s tension and tempo. It changed a lot during the course of the process, but I always knew that scene was going to be great and wanted to just help it as much as I could.

Another musical setpiece is where Will has to get past the Pearl’s massive energy-creating turbines.

The first time I scored that scene I thought it would be scarier for the audience if the music was minimalist and intense, letting the wind and Will’s breath carry the tension. I played that approach for Rawson, and he didn’t think enough was going on. So looking back, I took that first idea too far, because Rawson was absolutely right. I amped up what I’d already done by 75% without going overboard, making the music “seasick” in a way that goes in and out of tune. It’s subtle, but it just makes you a little uneasy in creating a sense of vertigo. I also used pulses to hit the slips and the scares. One important moment is when Will ties the rope on himself. He’s sort of standing there frozen as he’s about to repel down the building to get to the turbines. Rawson wanted the music to shock the audience that he actually does this, with a big, nasty orchestra hitting when he finally takes that leap. I think by the end we got to a pretty good place for that sequence.

How did you want to play the bad guys here?

Because the score’s focus is on Will, I played them “dark,” without any kind of “big bad” theme. The villain here really isn’t like Hans Gruber in “Die Hard,” which was much more about pitting him against John McClane. There is a bit of that in “Skyscraper,” but all Will wants to do is get to his family. So the bad guys are just part of this scary adventure.

You’re a composer who’s known for his rhythm. What’s the trick of creating your sense of musical propulsion in a way that satisfies both “Skyscraper’s” action and emotion?

It’s a very tricky balance, and I worked very closely with Rawson and his editor on it, because they’re all about the storytelling’s rhythm. They were really smart about how they wanted to place the music, especially given that the movie is going so fast that the emotional moments are over pretty quickly. There are few places to create big, musically sweeping emotion in “Skyscraper,” because they didn’t want the audience to lose sight of the danger that lurks around every corner of the movie. So we just picked our little emotional moments that could happen without the story losing steam. I think we found a decent balance between the two.

There are some interesting use of the piano, and the chorus in “Skyscraper.”

I thought it would be cool to have a few notes of the piano in the beginning of the film, and then have them at the end for Will’s connection to his family. I also used the choir to play that bond. I originally thought I’d be using more voices for The Pearl, but it ended up not really being the place for that because it seemed over the top.

Like “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “Skyscraper” represents another film you’ve scored to show the partnership between Hollywood and Hong Kong. Where do you think that might take your music?

I guess I’ll find out. I am excited about that prospect though, because I, I’ve seen in the last few years how important China has become in making big summer movies. I’m doing the “Skyscraper” album with Milan Records, and they’ve shown me all of this marketing that they’re going to do specifically for China. I think that’s very smart because it’s, it’s a huge market for these films, which have Chinese stars in them to bring in those audiences. I’m excited because I’ve loved Chinese cinema of since I was young. I’ve been watching John Woo and Chow Yun Fat movies forever. I’ll never forget going to Hong Kong as part of the “Transformers” premiere, and having people scream “Steve!” as I walked down the red carpet and wanting to take selfies. Hollywood audiences can be so jaded, because there’s a premier every night, which made it especially cool to be around thousands of movie fans who were just so excited that we were there. So I’d love to be involved with more movies made between Hollywood and China, or any foreign production.

With “Skyscraper,” do you feel that you’ve now gotten to score both “Die Hard” and “The Towering Inferno?”

Photo by Jason Kempin

Those are two great, unique movies. And it was never Rawson’s idea to rip them off, but to pay homage to them with a script he wrote himself. I think he did a great job with without copying either movie, because he’s a really thoughtful director, and was truly excited to record the score at London’s Abbey Road Studio. It was also great to score a big action film with The Rock. He’s the real deal, especially when it comes to caring about the music of his films.

“Skyscraper” opens on July 13th, with Steve Jablonsky’s score available now digitally, and on CD August 3rd from Milan Records HERE

Listen to Steve Jablonsky pump iron with The Rock for “Pain & Gain” HERE, then score the oil explosion of “Deepwater Horizon” HERE

Visit Steve Jablonsky’s official Facebook page HERE