“Furiosa” Composer Tom Holkenborg Takes us on a Wild Musical Ride

George Miller’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Story has given us the best action sequence of the year, a relentless, 15-minute literal thrill ride that pits a young Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy), her War Rig mentor Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), and some assorted War Boys against the onslaught of Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) and his Biker Horde. This includes the Mortiflyers, a team of motorcyclists who get airborne using a number of inventive techniques, including huge fans and paragliders.

Following the relentless action and success of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller’s Furiosa doesn’t skimp on the action while also covering a whole lot more ground and time (years, in fact) than its tightly wound successor, which introduced the world to Charlize Theron’s indomitable Furiosa. Miller reassembled a ton of his Fury Road creatives, and that includes Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL), who provides Furiosa with a sound suitable to the Wastelands and the murderous men—and resilient women—who live and die there.

In an interview with The Credits, Holkenborg discusses deploying the duduk and didgeridoo, buying additional “instruments” at a hardware store, utilizing silence as a part of music, and which family member can be heard on the soundtrack.


How did you get started in music?

I just grew up in a family where everybody played instruments like it was the most normal thing to do. Since I started banging on the piano with my fists, my mom thought it was a good idea to give me a drum kit when I was seven. And so drums were my first instrument. Then, later, bass and guitar. I had violin lessons. I was playing the recorder. But by the time I was 14, I started working in a music store. I have to say, though, I’m not a master at any of them. I’m just a jack of all trades. I know a little bit about all these different instruments, and that’s what I love. 

What do you compose on when you’re scoring a film?

It depends on the movie. For instance, when I was doing Fury Road, the first image that I saw was that guitar player [the Doof Warrior]. So, it makes sense to start with the guitar riff. And since the drummers were on the back of the truck, the drums came after that. But if you score a movie like Black Mass, which I did in 2015, that was like a cello, predominantly cello scores. So. you write it for a cello first. It totally depends on what the movie is and what is required for it. 


I call myself a full-contact composer because I don’t want to be stuck behind two computer screens and an electronic keyboard to figure out what I’ll be writing. I have all this equipment in the studio here, I just like to turn knobs, move faders. up and down, play guitars, play bass—it’s right behind me, right there. I just love being physical with my instruments.

What was it like to come back to the Mad Max environment?

Oh, it’s fantastic. It’s like it never left me. Fury Road was a career-defining moment for me. It’s an action movie with rock and roll drums and rock and roll guitars and bass guitars, and the orchestra is like on speed, and everything sounds over the top and mangled with whatever tools. It took a while, but after about a year, I heard from people that the score was a fresh breeze of air in how you approach action. And so, it’s been a very special movie for me, and that’s why it was so special to return to that world.

Furiosa is just as action-packed as Fury Road, but the new film covers a lot more ground.

The first one was also pretty much shot in real time, except for a few breaks, all happening in 48 hours. This movie takes place over a period of 20 years. The first one used a third-person perspective approach. Furiosa is a first-person perspective score, so everything needs to be approached through her eyes. It’s quite different, but it’s the same world.


How does having everything seen through Furiosa’s eyes affect the way that you approach the score?

There’s a great music editor, Bob Battersby, that I’ve worked with on many, many movies before he retired. And he said to me, “Tom, never put more instruments in your arrangements that can fit in the room where the actors are.” So, if you have a discussion between two people in a kitchen, you wouldn’t use a 150-piece choir and orchestra. It made so much sense. So, if you score a movie with a very young girl, and when something really horrific is happening in front of her eyes, she’s not imagining a really emotional string piece. She doesn’t even know what strings are. But what she does feel is her heart pumping out of her chest and feeling sheer panic in her head, which has an impact on how you approach the score of things. It is a pulse, which is more of a heartbeat approach. And since I was also one of the re-recording engineers on this movie, I was able to give it the sounds that George and I were looking for.


Secondly, the duduk and the didgeridoo keep reminding her of the Green Place, until she loses her arm. This time around, we needed way more of that duduk and didgeridoo because the Green Place actually still exists. Until Furiosa loses her arm with the astral body navigation on it, which means, okay, from that point forward, there is no Green Place for her. The reason I picked up the duduk and the didgeridoo is because they are both instruments that feel like Earth to me.


Third, it’s the incredibly aggressive sounds that we called The Darkest of Gods, From the Deepest of Hell, a characterization of which she’s witnessing the Dementors being that person until she becomes it herself at the end of the movie.


The fourth element is the typical repurposed instruments we used for Fury Road: the percussion, the mangled strings, and the metal sounds. So, it was quite a different approach on this one, and it took way longer in the movie itself to get to the point where that sound is warranted.

What kind of conversations did you have about the score with George Miller?

George told me, “You have to be very, very sparse with what we would call traditional music or traditional emotional music because she’s not there at any point anywhere in the movie yet.” With Fury Road, it was like 50-50. In this movie, it was more like 10 percent, 90 percent. So, 10 percent of the orchestral players were playing the proper notes I had notated. And 90 percent of them were just experimental sessions with each other in a room and very experimental notation. None of these performances would ever be the same because you’re leaving a lot of interpretation up to the players. It was really fun to do that. And when we were done with the recordings, we would take these mixes. Sometimes, I would use them in their natural sounds and sprinkle them throughout the movie. I would then take these recordings and, through this incredible Buchla synthesizer system developed in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, create even weirder sounds out of it and again. There’s this everlasting rise. You don’t feel it stop, and it feels like it’s rising over and over and over again. That’s used in all the tense moments. I would also like to say, one powerful tool a composer has is not when to write music, but when not to write music. That was also a big part of the concept in this movie.


Much like Fury Road, it felt like the music was being played on the machinery I saw in the movie.

Repurposed instruments were obviously a massive quest for Fury Road, and so I did so much recording on my own. We rented a massive truck from U-Haul and went to Home Depot, where we bought absolutely everything that looked like metal: sledgehammers, pipes, the kitchen sink, metal toilets, you name it. All these recordings describe the world; they don’t describe one character. They just describe the world and the wasteland that we’re in. So, obviously, this is taking place in that same wasteland. Just a different story, but it’s still the same wasteland. It made sense to use all those recordings again but pick the things we hadn’t used so much on Fury Road.

Can you give me an example?

When Furiosa is sitting in the cave with Praetorian Jack, and he fixes her shoulder, it’s that first moment of warmth. And you can see clearly in the movie that she’s very, very hesitant to even open up the tiniest bit to him. Therefore, the music had to be very restrained in its emotional quality because it’s not like a love affair, and you start with all your violins. They don’t even know what violins are.


Your dog was on the soundtrack of Fury Road. Any other members of the household we can hear in Furiosa?

You can hear a recording of my oldest son’s heartbeat from before he was born.


For more on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, check out these stories:

“Furiosa” Art Director Jacinta Leong on Building Flying Motorcycles & That Breathtaking 15-Minute Action Sequence

After “Furiosa” Blows the Doors off Cannes, George Miller Revs Up the Possibility of Another “Mad Max” Film

Featured image: Caption: War Boys in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Jasin Boland