Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with Cherry composer Henry Jackman about blending radical tones into a singular experience.
The only thing more satisfying than an established creative partnership is an established creative partnership that continuously erupts in surprise. Henry Jackman began composing films for Anthony Russo and Joe Russo with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, leading to subsequent team-ups on Captain America: Civil War, 21 Bridges, and Extraction. They instantly clicked, and their shared energy became perpetual. They fed each other, and in doing so, they seemed to attain a collective palate. Then came Cherry.
Some movies feel like dares. Cherry dares you to have a good time. It’s a sprawling nightmare blitz through the trauma of growing up in America. Tom Holland‘s protagonist stumbles from teenager to soldier to addict to bank robber. The Russos call the film their most personal work to date, and their obvious passion for cinema throbs through every frame. Why settle for one genre when you can shred a half dozen?
And, by “shred,” I’m talking the Eddie Van Halen kind. Cherry roars from the screen and the speakers. It mutilates expectation and slides through tone like meat through a grinder. Balancing such a mixed dish of vibes requires all hands on deck or all cooks in the kitchen. If one chef faltered, Cherry would crumble. Certainly, if the score couldn’t make sense of the emotional whiplash, the audience would recoil.
Jackman got word of Cherry early on in the process and was told to expect something lightyears apart from the Russos’ Marvel tales. When the script finally dropped on his desk, he was not disappointed. He was a little flummoxed.
“I knew pretty early on,” Jackman says, “from the way they were talking, and the material, and the nature of the story, that this was going to be a long way from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and their Avengers movies. They were definitely heading off in a completely different direction.”
Cherry‘s script contains a lot of story. The film spans years and is chopped into multiple chapters. It’s no mere feat for the autobiographical novel, the medium in which Cherry originated, but it’s a magic trick for a movie contending with a tightly contained budget and runtime.
Propelling themselves from the source material, screenwriters Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot (the latter is Anthony and Joe’s sister) reach for comedy as quickly as they do for terror. They’re going for the whole human experience in two and a half hours. The task is daunting on paper, but it was utterly wonderous once experienced in motion.
“Then I got the first cut,” Jackman continues. “It surprised me. Even having read the script. The bravery of the filmmaking was really quite exceptional. So, then, instead of launching straight into writing specific music for specific scenes, I thought, in order for the music to really achieve something individual and experimental, I had to go into the laboratory for a while.”
The “laboratory” was Jackman’s garage. Given the freedom to poke, prod, and play, the composer tasked his assistant with stuffing the space with every known and unknown musical instrument. Jackman didn’t want to rely on the usual melodies that bubble in his mind. He craved new ones; the weirder, the better.
“I started experimenting with texture,” he says. “Messing things up with production. I was wheeling out all sorts of half-broken hardware equipment from the late ’70s and ’80s. These analog synths. Things that don’t quite work properly and are a bit unstable.”
When Cherry enters Iraq, and Holland’s titular character has his universe forever altered, the film rattles off its emotional hinges. Jackman found liberation in the story’s precarious nature. Solution existed within the chaos.
“Once they go into the PTSD in Iraq,” Jackman explains, “I started to become obsessed by needing inherent instability to the sound. I started fooling around with layering things onto broken cassette machines and laying them back again and laying them into a Roland Space Echo, which is an Echo that’s probably forty years old.”
A Roland Space Echo is an effects unit that records sound onto a loop of magnetic tape. The instrument’s wielder can then distort the sound, producing gnarly delays and reverb. If you’re seeking to replicate a brain under attack, it’s the beast needed.
“There’s a little patch of tape on mine that’s damaged,” he says. “I would time the layering of the sound, so it hit the damaged part of the tape, and then lay it back into the computer. Those sorts of things, unexpected anomalies, create an emotional effect that is something not perfect, something unexpected, something with grunge and noise. You need those accidental imperfections. That non-digital, analog messiness is quite reassuring. It’s quite human.”
Jackman connects Cherry‘s various strands of music using one particular melody. It’s the tune that came to Jackman first while he was fiddling around on the piano. Nothing would make sense, let alone gel, without it.
“My first thought was I’m going to need some basic Cherry theme,” he says. “Even if it’s distorted and mangled and appears on different instruments, I’m going to need one unifying idea.”
The main theme became “The Comedown,” and it warbles in all its glory toward the very end of the film as this sweeping, long track. Before Jackman could tinker on anything else in his laboratory, he had to nail down the film’s emotional climax. Once acquired, he could work backward, and go crazy, and seed “The Comedown” into other places within the musical narrative.
“[The main theme] emerged pretty quickly after watching the first cut,” says Jackman. “I was just left with this very ambiguous feeling that comes out of the filmmaking from that last scene. It’s not a happy scene. It’s not a sad scene. It’s cathartic. It leaves you in this philosophic, ambiguous place that seemed to demand some compositional response. I just ambled up to the piano, not long after seeing that, and I let something start to happen.”
The pandemic added another disordered layer to the endeavor. On Cherry, Jackman could not secure the orchestra he initially expected. He became the sole hand steering the musical ship, and his struggles to master instrumentation concocted further unexpected but whimsical results.
“There’s a piece used for Emily (Ciara Bravo),” he says, “where you hear this ukulele and Andean harp. It’s got this naivety to it. Well, that naivety is because I’m playing all the instruments and I’ve no idea what I’m doing! The way I approached writing that piece of music was in some way hindered by my ability to pluck any of these instruments, but that compositional technique created an unexpected result. That was me locked in a room by myself, going deeper and deeper into the laboratory, which may not have happened, had it not been for COVID.”
In another creative collaboration, lockdown might have proved agonizing, if not utterly detrimental. With the Russos, however, Jackman never lost any time in the process. Whenever necessary, the directors and composer jumped onto Zoom to hash out their notes on the score. With a firmly established working relationship, the unique post-production grind wasn’t much of a grind at all.
“It was nice having my secret laboratory,” says Jackman. “I furtively winged these things down the digital pipes to the guys, who are super tech-savvy and would review it to picture. I could think of all sorts of projects where COVID could really hamper you, but with a combination of the serious experimental nature of the music and me knowing the Russos as I do, and then being really on top of the tech ways of communicating with each other, we really didn’t skip a beat in terms of our usual relationship.”
The next challenge for Henry Jackman and the Russos will be finding a film that can equal or topple Cherry‘s surprises. Not an impossible task, but one that seems unlikely so close after completing a movie that’s emotionally stuffed with six other movies.
Cherry premieres in select theaters on February 26th and releases globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 12th.