Johnny Jewel — née John Padgett — is the staggeringly productive force behind that glistening, nocturnal, electro-noir synth pop you heard in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” Almost four years later, he brings his signature genre-bending style back to the screen for his pal Ryan Gosling’s dark fairytale “Lost River.” But in between, he juggled running his own label, Italians Do It Better, while playing in several of its bands including Glass Candy and Chromatics, doing for-hire TV work and squirreling money away for his own super-secret side projects.
His “Lost River” journey began around 2008 when he supplied tracks for “Bronson” director Refn, who brought Jewel on for the acclaimed “Drive,” starring and produced by Gosling. By now, Jewel and Gosling have learned to talk each other in a kind of creative frenzy, a simpatico mind meld that makes for a unique director/composer pairing. “When you’re creating a world, there’s a sense of synergy that fucks with your mind,” he told me. (Stream the soundtrack below.)
As I learned during our relaxed chat at an Italian restaurant in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA, Jewel will go passionately up to bat for Gosling, whose film was slammed at Cannes. Jewel agreed that if it weren’t directed by Ryan Gosling, more audiences would be praising a promising discovery—and that everyone was prepared for mixed reactions as they arrived at Cannes.
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In our Q&A below, Jewel digs into the improvisatory making of “Lost River,” which he collaborated closely on from day one, and his creative relationship with Refn, another up-and-down artist whose film “Only God Forgives” bombed at Cannes 2013.
“Lost River” has polarized people since it premiered at Cannes, but had a warmer reception at SXSW. What are your thoughts on all that hate?
What no one really talks about is the nerve and the balls it takes to subject yourself to that, knowing you’re going to get hammered because you love the film. It’s so obvious there’s a lot of people involved in making the movie. It’s not like everyone was shocked all of a sudden. He stood up for himself, and said, “I love this movie and this is the movie I want to show the world.” It’s a no-brainer that he’s going to get backlash for that. I’m proud of him for taking it on the chin and being like, “fuck it.” No one’s really acknowledging that.
It’s not a masterpiece, but the ambition is there. And he was really able to achieve a dream team of cast and crew, including Gaspar Noe’s cinematographer Benoît Debie.
That’s a testament to his love of the people he works with and movies, and he’s a huge music fan.
Where did you first meet him?
He’s been coming to my show in Los Angeles since 2007. At one point we were on tour in LA in 2010 and we had a show and we heard all these people were coming who were making a movie called “Drive.” It was Nic, his wife Liv Corfixen, Ryan and Matt Newman the editor and a bunch of the producers and they all came to this show and it was fucking bananas. It was so wild and — Ryan knew what they were in store for but Glass Candy shows are crazy and the crowd is really flamboyant and lively and rowdy. That was their crash course intro to the world of Johnny Jewel.
When I met Ryan I had never seen any of his movies. I didn’t know who he was. My manager said, “Ryan Gosling’s on the list. He wants to meet you.” And I’m like, “Is that supposed to register? Who is this?” We always hang out with the fans and have drinks, so I met Nic and Ryan and Liv and Matt and we just talked, about Suicide the band, and about the angle they were going for. We talked about John Carpenter and synth bass scores and Goblin. So after reading the book, I told Nic “I don’t think I’m the guy.” He said, “we’re replacing all that with electro noir, your sound.” I was skeptical but he showed me the film in Montreal. When I got back from tour he actually landed in customs the same time as me. When I saw what they had shot, it made sense.
What was it like, looking at “Drive” without music?
It had an electronic temp score. The first time I saw the film, the composer credit was Angelo Badalamenti, I don’t know what happened but he didn’t do it. When I saw that I thought, “You should get him!” But, a lot of composers have interns that handle a lot of the groundwork. It was more of a situation like that.
When did you start talking to Ryan again about “Lost River”?
I didn’t see Ryan again until after “Drive” came out, in 2012 in the Spring. Glass Candy was playing a festival, Fun Fun Fun, in Austin and Ryan shows up because he heard we were in town and they were shooting the Terrence Malick film that at that point didn’t have a title, but now it’s called “Weightless” and the plot weaves through all these festival experiences. There’s a lot of music in the movie, and they came to the Glass Candy show and it was so — it was my fault because I wanted us to play almost in the dark. They couldn’t really film. It’s funny because the next year Chromatics played the same festival at dusk, so they filmed again.
Well that’s Terrence Malick’s favorite time of day to shoot.
We ended up in the film anyways, I think. But after the show, me and Ryan went upstairs and talked and played pool and just caught up. After “Drive” he immediately went to Cincinnati to work on “Ides of March.” He wasn’t involved in editing. I was in New York at the mix stage on “Drive” and I was Skyping with Nic all the time but Ryan left. He was a producer on “Drive” but he was out of the creative equation. So we were catching up with that and he asked for my phone number. But I hate giving my number out. I don’t like to be bothered. It was only the second time I’d talk to him. I’d mostly dealt with Nic.
The fact that it was Ryan Gosling didn’t mean a lot to you.
I don’t get that way. I tell people the truth about what I think, and it’s strange how rare that is when you’re dealing with people that want to keep their jobs. People are coming to me, they want something from me, I don’t want something from them so I’m not trying to be on my best behavior.
We didn’t talk for awhile. I was getting my hair “did” in Montreal. He sends me me the script while I’m in the chair and I start reading it and then I went home and finished, and send him the longest text I’ve ever written in my life. He said, “You get it. We start shooting in a couple months.”
I sent him a mix tape, with categories of things that spoke to me in the script and from there, he’d kind of gotten really into this music. He was going to Detroit before the whole crew showed up. Certain things resonated and we got to the point where– the music was there from before the beginning and after he shot everything he went to Iceland [for post-production]. They shot over 200 hours [in Detroit] in 35mm, which is an insane amount of footage. He took all the footage to Iceland and was there for four months and from there he was getting his legs, he was getting taught how to use Avid because he’s really super hands on. He wants to stare at every single shot, hear every single piece of music, try every single possibility.
After Iceland, Ryan was trying to find the movie. He was really improvisational. There was a script but they were just completely trying anything. As an actor he always wanted freedom; so as a director he wanted to give that freedom to the actors. In the end you have all this great stuff, how are you going to tie it together? So his editor lived with Ryan for over three months.
You’re releasing the soundtrack yourself. Do you hope that it works as a standalone album independent of the film?
I made the soundtrack as representative of the journey of the film, from the beginning to when we finished. There’s a lot on the soundtrack that isn’t in the film but once was. In my mind and Ryan’s mind, it’s like important moments of the film. That old adage about how a guy’s stuck at a river bank, he needs to get across the river but he spends all his time building a raft, this amazing raft, gets across the river and then on the other side he has a decision to make. “Do I carry this raft with me now or do I let somebody else use it to go the other direction?” The point of some of the music was to get us to where we needed to go and the soundtrack is showing the raft, in a museum. “Here’s the raft!” I was happy to let it go as a stepping stone.
The sequence of a soundtrack shouldn’t be the linear experience of the film. There are things I pulled from the dialogue from the dailies that aren’t in the film, and there are things musically in the film that aren’t on the soundtrack.
Are you listening to other music when you’re composing or do you have to shut that out?
The idea of being in a studio alone at 4 am, you haven’t eaten, you haven’t had any water, you haven’t talked to another human for ten hours and you’re making music for people to enjoy together in a crowd or in their bedroom with their lover or whatever. It’s maddening but you just have to turn it off. It’s gratifying but there’s a loneliness to it, but that’s what’s beautiful about it. By the time you get to the point where you can execute a certain type of art form, you’re removed out of the equation. There’s a producer and a consumer and you can’t be both. You’re removed out of the ability to consume but it’s important to learn how to take in still.
Is it less lonely working on a movie?
The people you work with the most are the people on the screen. That’s your family. It’s like “Fahrenheit 451” or something. The people on the wall. That’s who you’re hanging out with. The dialogue, that’s the conversation you’re having. Even still, while me and Ryan are hanging out we’re looking at them so it becomes about them and they become part of you. When you’re creating a world, there’s a sense of synergy that fucks with your mind.
In the documentary “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn,” directed by his wife, you see how much Refn suffered making “Only God Forgives.” He’s in bed, in the fetal position, hiding under the covers. Do you ever have moments of panic or stasis?
No, no. I don’t need to be stressed out. I’m in a different position because I have control. A film is such a big machine, no matter how small the film is. I don’t deal with any of that. I sit at the piano, press record, then I go over to the drums. I produce, mix and distribute the albums myself. There’s no external pressure. I’m competitive of myself and when I can’t figure out the puzzle I get frustrated. Stress comes from either fear or lack of control, and if you remove those it’s very hard to find a reason to be stressed. You’re motivated, you want to work, you’re competitive with yourself, but everything is healthy creative friction. I sweat when I record. I’m thinking all the time. I’m heavily caffeinated. I’m trying my best. There’s a peace that comes with that. I know I did everything I could at that moment, and I’m not going to hate myself for not painting the Mona Lisa. Nobody stopped me other than myself, and with that there’s not that intense “what the fuck am I doing?”
Have you ever thought about making a movie?
If I were to make a film I would pay for everything myself, which goes against the number one rule: never spend your own money. I always spend my own money, and with that comes control, and you’re not dependent on someone. Film does impose a deadline of some kind, though. Since I’m so independent I’m not used to dealing with deadlines and that’s one of the things about doing TV: Can I handle taking notes from people and flipping something around and then taking additional notes in the opposite direction after I’ve done exactly what they asked for?
We talked about Angelo Badalamenti but are there other composers who have inspired you?
I’m very much inspired by the mid-’70s, early ’80s. I love John Carpenter. His stuff is really minimal, the writing, the pacing and the discipline for less is so impressive, so that is a huge inspiration. I love the sweeping, European melodies of Morricone. That was really in my mind [during “Lost River”] because there was a lot of dead space and it reminded me of a western, and I wanted the element of half-soundtrack, half-sound-design, a romanticized version of a disintegrated space where it’s just a no man’s land, a junkyard. I love Hitchcock. And actually the “Under the Skin” score reminded me of Hitchcock.
What did you think of “Under the Skin”?
I tried to talk Ryan into going to see it. But the week it opened we were at the mix stage for Cannes delivery. Ryan had been talking to Jonathan Glazer a lot. Both movies were developing at the same time and Jonathan had been consulting through the first director process. Jonathan had a year and a half in editing and Ryan had nine weeks before the studio was going to take it. It didn’t end up happening, but Jonathan was like, “You’ve got to get more time.” So anyway, I wanted him to come and see it with me. He has a backdoor entrance at the ArcLight where he can come in and no one knows, and we were going to go in and he said, “I’m afraid I’m going to get distracted by it.” I wanted him to go, though, because the sound design is mixed so perfectly in that film.
I assume he saw it eventually?
He asked me what I thought of it, and I told him that “Under the Skin,” if we compare it to photography terms, is like Ansel Adams and “Lost River” is like a Polaroid. He was like, “Ah man.” But, no, each has their place and each is totally the king of what they do.