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Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Fight to Be Visionary, From His Film Scores to His Directorial Debut — Interview

In late 2017, the trailblazing composer talked to IndieWire about avoiding the creative “straitjacket” of modern film composition, and completing his feature directorial debut after 10 years.

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jónatan Grétarsson

One of the most exciting things happening in film today is a new generation of composers expanding how we think about music and movies. On Friday, we lost the composer at the forefront of that movement. Jóhann Jóhannsson, 48, created music for the screen that was as experimental and varied as it was cinematic, drawing the viewer into new depths of the worlds created by directors like frequent collaborator Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario,” “Arrival”). More than any other composer working in commercial film, he blurred the line between sound design and score, which he refused to treat as separate entities.

Through his deep appreciation of the 20th-century composers who redefined classical music and his own experience as the founding member of Kitchen Motors — an arts organization built around interdisciplinary collaborations — Jóhannsson drew from a seemingly endless well of musical knowledge to find new techniques and approaches to create music that served as powerful soundscapes.

I interviewed Jóhannsson last September, under the impression he would talk about his experiences on “mother!” – a film in which he and director Darren Aronofsky ultimately decided score was unnecessary and there were rumors (later confirmed by Aronofsky) that the collaborators planned to turn Jóhannsson’s unused score into a staged opera version of the film. However, Jóhannsson was unwilling to discuss “mother!,” sincerely apologizing: “Sorry to be secretive about it, but I have plans [for his ‘mother!’ score], but I’m not at liberty to discuss them at the moment.”

With both “mother!” and “Blade Runner 2049” (for legal reasons)off the table as topics of discussion, and since he didn’t have a project in theaters until 2018, our freewheeling conversation focused on Jóhannsson’s thoughts about modern film composition and his career. What follows is an edited version of that interview in which Jóhannsson talked about sound design, why modern scores too often sound the same, his deep appreciation for composer Mica Levy (“Under the Skin”), collaborating with Villeneuve, and the projects he was working on last fall — “Mary Magdalene,” “Mandy” [premiered last month at Sundance], and his own feature, which he had been working on for 10 years.

Against Homogeneity

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jónatan Grétarsson

Every film is different and every film has different requirements. It’s really about using music to achieve a strong emotional response in the viewer, but also to do it in hopefully new and subtle ways because there are certain shortcuts people use a lot, which maybe why a lot of film music is homogeneous, in a sense. I don’t want to say sounds the same, because I don’t want to insult my fellow composers, but there’s a homogeneity to how [long pause] — it sometimes feels like it’s an echo chamber almost. And a lot of that had to do with editors and directors using temp music to create the edit. They usually use other scores as temp music, and then they become attached to that and then the composer is forced into a straitjacket creatively. I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors that really want to hear something new. They want to hear something they haven’t heard before, and they encourage me to take a bold approach to writing music for the films. I’ve kind of ran with that, and have taken advantage of that kind of license that Denis Villeneuve and other great directors that I have worked with have given me to create music for their films.

I try to conserve the film and serve the vision of the director as much as possible, but also to do something that is new and interesting and keeps things interesting for me, because I don’t like repeating myself. I get bored very easily. Some films need a very traditional approach, and some films need something more radical, and I have done some of both. I did a score that was very traditional, very much by-the-book, like “Theory of Everything,” a melodic romantic score, and then also gone in much deeper into an experimental [long pause] — I’ve gone into unexplored, or less-explored territory, like with Denis and Aronofsky and I must tell you I prefer that approach.

That’s the one I relish working in, but also every film is different and every film has its own language and it’s about discovering that language. For me, it’s a long process. I tend to spend quite a lot of time on the film scores that I do. I don’t do a lot of scores per year, and the reason is I like to spend time on them and I like to use sounds that [are] tailor-made for the film, and to find those creative sounds is a big part of the whole process.

Sound Design and Score

"Mary Magdalene"

“Mary Magdalene”

I think people are far too reductive in terms of separating these two things. You could say there are certain composers, spectral composers like more 20th-century art composers, [Gérard] Grisey or Tristan Murail for example, who basically used the orchestra to create sounds, to design sounds. They use a traditional orchestra, but in fact they are using it to work with the spectral qualities of the orchestra. They are in effect sound designers as much as composers.

For me, what people generally call sound design is just one component of orchestrating a score. It’s just one element at my disposal as a composer and it’s a element that I use very much, but it’s part of the composition process; it’s not a separate thing and for me those two things are the same, so I don’t distinguish between composing and creating sounds whether by analog means or electronic or digital means. I think it’s quite old fashioned to make that distinction because every young composer I know works very much in that way, and this idea of a score being just an orchestra playing from notes is just very old fashioned.

Time, Collaboration and “Arrival”

I always relish the idea of collaborating with the director on creating the sound world, the sound spectrum, and the sound environment of the film. I use every means at my disposal to create a score that is as strong and powerful to enhance the director’s vision for the film. I think getting involved early and starting the dialogue is important because then it gives me time to absorb the ideas inherent in the film to do research to find musicians I want to work with and spend time collecting sounds, recording sounds and textures that may become elements of the score and starting the demo process early.

For example, on “Arrival” I started writing the demos the same week they started shooting and one of the main scenes of the score was written in the first week of shooting. I think that’s an approach that has served me well. I try to share [these sounds] as early as possible [with the filmmaking team] because I’m often working with unconventional sounds and unconventional methods; it’s important that everyone is on board with that. Denis gave me some keys words and we talked about the films, the themes, and the atmosphere he wanted to create. The ideas came very easily, the scores materialized quite quickly. That’s also because they are very strong films, but sometimes it takes longer to find the right approach, and sometimes you find an approach that works for part of the film, but not the rest.

Mica Levi and Making the Strange Sound Ordinary

Under the Skin

It’s very easy to answer, [the recent film score that got me really excited was] “Under the Skin” by Mica Levi. It think that score is revolutionary and just absolutely amazing. That was a score that very original and exciting, but also a very cinematic approach to — it’s somehow very avant-garde, but yet very accessible at the same time and that’s something that is not easy to achieve.

[“Under the Skin” or “Arrival” are both films about aliens], but both are very earthbound films. There are some stunning visual moments in ‘Arrival’ that are out of this world, but it’s all on the earth and it’s about an academic, a woman that is dealing with a personal tragedy, but there’s a circular view of time that makes things more complicated. It’s a very layered film and has this philosophical element about the nature of time, about how language affects our view of the world, and whether speaking a different language makes you view the world differently. In a way that is very science fiction, but it’s also very earthbound. You might say they sound alien, but they are actually made. There are no synthesizers, for example; it’s all just piano, vocals, strings and percussion, but treated through analog means through tape speed modulations and sound recording and creating loops out of sounds. It’s about making the ordinary strange.

2018 Films

We are in the midst of finishing “Mary Magdelene” and it’s a very exciting collaboration that I’m co-composing with my good friend Hildur Guðnadóttir, who is somebody I’ve worked with for years, if not decades. That is a remarkable film and I can’t tell you how excited I am about that film and the music we’re writing — we’re very excited about what’s happening with that film. We’re still writing it and [director] Garth [Davis] is coming from Australia in a few days and he’s going to work with us for a few days and we’ll record in London in October and it’s going to be fabulous, I’m very excited about that film. And then after that it’s a very different — a different thing, indeed — which is “Mandy,” by Panos Cosmatos, which is a surreal sort of supernatural thriller, an extremely visionary film, unlike anything I’ve seen before and which I’m very excited about starting work on. I’ll start work on that in November.

Directorial Debut

"First and Last Men"

“First and Last Men”

I’m putting my finishing touches on my first film [“Last and First Men”]. It’s a feature film shot on 16mm black-and-white, narrated by Tilda Swinton, and it’s a development of audiovisual work that had its debut this summer in at the Manchester International Film Festival. I’m developing that work into a feature film. I’m hoping to finish it this year and submit to festivals, etcetera. It’s a pet project of mine that I’ve been working on for a very long time, about 10 years and one that I’m very excited about.

Editor’s Note: The MIF17 catalog described “Last and First Men” as “Based on the cult novel by British science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, ‘Last and First Men’ blurs the boundary between fiction and documentary. The work sets images of a futuristic yet decaying monumental landscape, beautifully filmed in 16mm black and white in the former Yugoslav republics, against Swinton’s narration and Jóhannsson’s mesmerising orchestral soundtrack. The result is a breathtaking requiem for the final human species in civilisation.” The film was screened at the festival, with live score performed by the BBC Philharmonic.

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