Dutch-born composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, has, in just the past two years, become a top composer for epic fantasies (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) and comic-book heroes (“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Deadpool”). He’s now working on two of 2017’s biggest films, the Stephen King adaptation “The Dark Tower” and the next DC Comics franchise entry “Justice League,” although he declined to offer any details about either. We visited him in his West Valley studio, where he was surrounded by both vintage and modern synthesizers.
You had a long run in Europe, first as an engineer and producer in the ’80s, then as a prominent artist during the ’90s. What led you into film work?
I saw a track of mine being used in the first “Blade” movie, and I was like, “Man, that’s amazing.” I’ve always considered film a higher art form than music; multiple disciplines meet each other. So I got really intrigued by that. Jason Bentley, the music supervisor and KCRW DJ, invited me over. I got a taste of it and I wanted more. In 2001 I moved out here to pursue a career as a film composer.
So how did you go about it?
Pretty soon I discovered I needed to learn a lot. But I was ready for a long ride. I started interning with other composers. I started getting great alternative films from Europe. When I started collaborating with Hans Zimmer in 2011, everything started to fall into place.
What were your most valuable lessons during that time?
These other composers, especially Hans [Zimmer], pointed me in the right direction. I had to learn the language used by composers and directors, the culture of how studios work, to become a team player.
What do you consider your breakthrough film?
There were two. Hans was the main composer on “Man of Steel” and I was helping him out. That’s how I met [director] Zack Snyder. The first movie I did on my own was “300: Rise of an Empire” with Zack. Pretty soon after that it was “Divergent,” and then “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It was like a dream step up.
Now you’re doing these big comic-book titles. How did that come about?
Hans was going to do the next Superman movie, but when he found out it was “Batman v. Superman,” he’d just done three Batman films with Christopher Nolan and he didn’t want to take on Batman again. So he said, “Let’s get Tom in.” We ended up doing the whole thing together.
For “Deadpool,” you went back to a lot of 1980s electronic sounds. Why was this the right approach?
They had a really hard time finding temp music that actually worked for the character. So I started experimenting in the studio. It turned out to be “Miami Vice” meets Frankie Goes to Hollywood on acid. When “Miami Vice” came out, it felt cool and exciting and fresh. Now when we look back it’s almost like a comedy. Deadpool is goofy and doesn’t take himself seriously. The music had to be fun but not funny.