POSSESSING WHAT YOU DO NOT POSSESS
Discussing Sonic Palettes with Composer NATHAN JOHNSON
By Randall Winston
Amongst the many constituent elements of a film, the score–or the music either written for or otherwise crafted to accompany cinematic visuals–is as paramount as any other aspect of filmmaking craft. The history of film scoring has seen compositions range from the grandiose pieces, produced with full orchestras, made for traditional feature film scores to spare, minimalist sonic landscapes created by small production crews (or even lone musicians). Along with the diversity of approaches to the actual style of music in a film score come a plethora of recording options for sound engineers, increasing the possibilities of what types of projects–from online media to video games–can benefit from a “film score” audio production approach in the digital age.
As technological means of film scoring have increased, so too have the capabilities of film composers expanded as a new wealth of musical possibilities exist at their fingertips. However, instead of diving headlong into the ocean of ones and zeroes of digital composition and sound manipulation, some composers are interested in employing the organic textures of analog sounds with the workflow and production capabilities of digital recording. In my conversation with Nathan Johnson–the composer behind his cousin Rian Johnson’s films Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper, as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon–we discuss his journey from performing musician to film composer, his particular production processes, and the trials and triumphs of creating the “sonic palette” for diverse projects.
Randall Winston: Film composers begin their careers in so many different ways. You came to the craft as a professional musician. Could you speak a bit about your beginnings as a musician and how your musical career kind of led you to film composing?
Nathan Johnson: Yeah, definitely. Well, first, I wasn’t really a professional musician. I was like a part-time musician. I kind of grew up with Rian [Johnson, director of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper] and essentially we just grew up together making stuff. We would always make family movies every time we had a vacation, but we also kind of had a half-band together where we would write songs. I think our family just kind of grew up always making things. And so in high school and college, I started skewing more to the music side of things–doing a lot band stuff, performing, and producing. I did this project called The Cinematic Underground, which was basically a concept narrative album combined with a graphic novella and a twelve-person touring stage production. That was what I was doing when Rian talked to me about doing the music for Brick. Up until that time, although music and film were kind of my two main interests, I hadn’t really thought about combining them in terms of being a film composer. So, yeah, when he talked about doing Brick, it was kind of a direct result of that concept narrative record that I was working on at that time.
RW: Speaking of Brick, I read that you composed that with a single microphone and a laptop, which is amazing. You also used a lot of found objects, unique instruments…did you invent those instruments that were used?
NJ: Well, I didn’t invent them. They were things that had been around for a long time–we invented the names for them, but the main instrument in Brick was what we called the “Wine-o-phone.” It’s just like the classic dinner table where you know fill the wine glasses with water, run your finger around them, and that’s what produces the tone. A lot of that stuff on Brick was coming out of the fact that we didn’t really have a budget, and so we couldn’t use an orchestra. The genesis of the “Wine-o-phone” was me thinking, “What mimics what a string section would do?” in terms of the space that that sound usually occupies in a film, providing those emotional paths. So the wine glasses came out of that. And a lot of the “invented instruments”–for lack of a better term–were just the two of us gathering stuff around the house. All of the percussion was, like, cheese graters and radiators. The big tympani sounding drums at the end of Brick? That’s actually a filing cabinet in the hallway. So a lot of it is coming from that place of: “Is there a way we can do a version of this with the limited resources that we have?”
RW: I also saw from some online video of The Cinematic Underground that you use the same approach–I think I saw a bicycle tire and some other things…
NJ: Yeah, and we used wine glasses on that tour, pounding trash cans. To be honest, I just love the visual element to that. Even on a film score, where you’re not seeing the stuff being played, there’s something in my mind where the process captures a really active part of my imagination. Even if that’s not apparent when you’re listening to it, I think there’s definitely a creative resonance that’s there that carries through in my mind. Part of that may be the excitement that is generated within myself in following those interesting paths at the beginning.
RW: In preparation for the interview, I watched all of the Rian’s films again, just to hear the music. I turned off the visuals and I just listened to the music. It’s fascinating. Just because your work is so different from film to film, yet I can see that process happening–the way that you describe it. I can see you trying to get to a point where every moment is stimulating you and pushing forward as you try to find the spaces where the music should go…
NJ: Totally. One of the things that has been a real jewel of a discovery for me personally is the idea that the material you’re working with shapes the final product. In terms of what we’re talking about here, the way that plays out is: if I were to sit down with a guitar on a given day, the piece of music that I would write will be completely different than if I were sat down at a piano. Or if I were to sit down with an instrument that I don’t know how to play at all. Or if I sat down with wine glasses. There is something so interesting about how the material that you choose to work with pushes back against you and shapes what you’re writing. That is essential to me. It is one of those great discoveries for me. Surely each of us has our own personal sensibility, but I think that sensibility keeps getting resisted against or that those materials push our sensibilities in a way that we wouldn’t have thought if we just sat down with our most normal instruments.
RW: Is there any part of the creative process of making a score that scares you? Is there any moment where you feel paralyzed by something or you feel like that resistance you speak of has stymied or scared you?
NJ: Oh yeah! Yeah, there is. Almost so much that I don’t know how to give you a specific answer, but I suppose maybe I can talk about Looper because that was such a different process that, for a lot of it, I kind of felt like I was in a dark tunnel just stumbling, looking for a thread. Generally for me, as much as I’m into technology and weird sounds, there is a real love that I have for melody. I feel like that is generally the door that I walk through, in terms of beginning a project. With Looper, Rian and I were talking, from the very beginning, about it being a non-melodic score–you know, maybe just one theme, but mostly it would be atmospheric and it’s about all these other thing. Early on, Rian was talking about the idea of going to a factory and pushing TVs off the top of a building. I was talking about this idea I had about “microscopic sounds”–that was kind of the term I was using. Essentially, the concept was that there are these sounds that are very normal and we hear them all of the time, but they’re so small that we never consciously realize them. I wanted to take the approach of sampling those things and turning the gain up really high, bringing these little sounds to the forefront in a big, dramatic way. So everything we were talking about was conceptual and atmospheric, not melodic.
Then, during the editing process, usually I’m on board really early and I’m working on themes, but we weren’t really working on themes on Looper at the beginning, I was just doing field recordings. I spent a month just recording sounds. So I was approaching it very differently from the way that I normally do and I didn’t have a thematic motif that was going to pull me through the movie. Rian was editing the film and called me up at one point, and he was like “There are a couple of scenes that we’re having trouble finding any temp music for. Can I just send these over to you so you can take a stab at them?” For me, that’s entering through the back door, because I don’t really want to write for the movie until I have the overall approach down. But I just got these two scenes and did a really quick turnaround where I just pulled up all of my sample sounds–my field recordings–and just starting making instruments and writing for these scenes just out of my gut response to them. I sent them to Rian and he was really excited. He was like “This is the sound for Looper” and what that did is it started us down this path where I was going against my normal instincts and I was pretty deep into the movie before the main theme even emerged. So it was very much a creative stumbling. I think, in response to your original question, that is really scary. I find, for me, there is a whole lot of fear when I don’t know how to do something. There are any number of things that bounce around our heads in terms of these stymying stumble blocks when you’re trying to create something out of nothing and get it into the world.
RW: Especially when it is a new process, like you’re describing, where everything is new and everything is untested…
NJ: I should say this favorite quote of mine, because it applies so well here: T.S. Eliot said, “You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance in order to possess what you do not possess.” I love that concept because it is a healthy reminder that, if you’re trying to do something new, you don’t know how to do it. So even though it is really terrifying because people are counting on you to come up with something, that concept is really encouraging on a deeper level to me, because it is the concept of, “Ok, of course, you’re doing something new, that means you don’t know how to do it. That’s normal, so don’t worry about it. Just keep going.”
RW: From what I’ve read of your process for composing Don Jon, it was the exactly opposite in that you composed everything first and Joseph Gordon-Levitt cut the film to the music you made. Is that correct?
NJ: Well, it was a bit more of a parallel process. What was unique about that was that usually the process is not very back-and-forth at all. In other words, there’s a cut of the movie and you’re writing to that. What was unique about the approach for Don Jon is that we would have a rough edit of the scene that I was working with, but always in Joe’s mind, he was planning on doing a final edit to the music because he wanted that very rhythmic punch to it. So that was amazing, something that I had to keep reminding myself and that he kept reminded me of. What was really cool about Don Jon is that there was a real deference to the music through the process because Joe really wanted it to feel rhythmically powerful.
RW: Having worked with the multiple approaches to composing, do you prefer one over others or do you create according to however the director develops the film?
NJ: It’s funny, when you ask it that specific way, it almost…I don’t even really think about it that way. I think of them more like project experiences and everything is so different anyway, from project to project. I mean, that’s a funny thing as well: I don’t really search out movies based on the kind of score that I want to write. I tend to search out projects based on how excited I am about the idea of the project or the story. Even stylistically the kind of music I’ll use tends to come later in the process. I think for me, it’s really important that I’m excited by the people involved and the story–then we’ll figure out what it’s going to sound like later on. That’s kind of the approach I enjoy taking.
RW: Besides your work as a musician, you also work in visual design. Could you talk about that aspect of your creative output? Does the music inform the visuals, and vice versa? How do you conceptualize that other work you do?
NJ: I do think it is pretty blurry in my mind, in terms where of one thing starts and the other ends. I will say that even when I’m composing, I approach that in a very visual way. My process looks like story charts on the walls and me following after things that are exciting both aurally and visually, in terms of what types of instruments and players I’m using. In terms of art direction and visual design, I just like making things. That’s probably because of how when we were growing up, we were just making lots of different things that were exciting to us and it wasn’t like we had a job title or a job description for it. So in terms of the visual stuff, I work with my brother who runs a design shop called The Made Shop–it’s art, architecture, and graphic design. I really love those projects because they activate a slightly different part of my brain. I guess I’m compelled towards things that feel sort of DIY and “circus act-y.”
RW: I would imagine that, in addition to being an artist and musician, you’re also a music fan. I was wondering who are some of the film composers (or musician or other kinds of sonic artists) who inspire your own work?
NJ: I’m inspired a lot by the visual side of things. I remember, when I was in high school, seeing STOMP and being super excited by that at that point. Partly because it was doing things in a different way, but also because it was doing things using tools that were readily available to everybody and I liked that concept. There’s something about that that resonates with me. I’m a big fan of some of the classics…Morricone, Nino Rota…I love John Brion, in terms of a more contemporary guy. Part of the reason I love him is because of his focus on melody and the fact that he uses an eclectic palette. I really love Jonny Greenwood, and Radiohead have been heroes of mine for a long time. It’s really cool to hear their aesthetic interpreted through a film score, but it’s also just cool to hear composers coming from different backgrounds. My favorite score that I’ve heard recently is by Mica Levi, for Under the Skin. She’s fantastic. I’m such a huge fan of her work and, specifically, what she did on that score. It’s really exciting to see someone nail it in that way on their first film.
RW: I’m so glad to hear you mention, in particular, Jonny Greenwood, because I was also pleasantly surprised to find that you worked with Son Lux on the Looper soundtrack, which blew my mind. It seems like the two of you join a particular group of composers–including Hans Zimmer, Mark Mothersbaugh, the RZA, and Trent Reznor–who began their respective careers as popular musicians, if you want to call them that, before adding “composer” to their repertoire. What exactly do you think that brings to the table?
NJ: Well, I’d be hesitant to speak for them, not being intimately acquainted with their backgrounds, but I think on the surface there is a pretty obvious difference in sonic palette. When we think through all of the composers you just talked about, it’s very different than the traditional, Hollywood “soaring horns and percussion” approach. On a personal level, I think there is something exciting that happens when we stop thinking about traditional instrumentation and start thinking about sounds, sounds as music. That doesn’t mean avoiding traditional instrumentation–I think one thing I see happening is that a lot more ingredients are being thrown into the cauldron right now. I feel like that is sort of an exciting thing that does come from popular music–this idea of mixing things up, mixing genres and sonic palettes.
RW: I’ve been really impressed with a lot of the work that has been coming out recently by composers who are willing to go to certain sonic territory that most scores won’t go to. The traditional score, like you said, is very orchestral and very much rooted in classical music–which is great, I love those scores–but now we’re talking about pop music played at a cinematic level or branching out by playing with the boundaries of music. I find that kind of experimentation to be really compelling.
NJ: Yeah! So one thing that’s really interesting about Jonny Greenwood is that I think he’s flipping the thing that we were just talking about–in the sense that he’s using a traditional palette, but bringing a completely different sensibility to it. I think he definitely references [Polish composer Krzysztof] Penderecki, but also you hear an appreciation for the interesting and weird that is apparent in Radiohead’s work. You hear that coming through Greenwood’s scores. So, in a way, these other pop musicians-turned-composers, they’re changing the sonic palette. I really love that Greenwood is using the same sonic palette, but the thing that is different is he’s essentially bringing some of the sensibilities that are the engine in some of his writing in Radiohead and changing the sensibilities away from pop-rock. It’s exciting to hear different people’s creative spark interpreted differently depending on what they are working on.
NJ: Yeah, both of which I’m really excited about! Young Ones is a dystopian, near-future, sci-fi film about a community that is cut off from the rest of the world in this area that has a water shortage. It’s a small family drama done with really great actors, by a really great director [Jacob Paltrow]. It was a really cool experience, especially in terms of the music. He came over a lot in the beginning and we would just play around with things–we went to this great little music store together and bought a harmonium in my neighborhood. That is combined with sounds like a little toy music box–it was a really eclectic and fun process. At the same time, there were a lot of strings and horns and traditional filmic influences in there.
Then Kill the Messenger is a journalistic thriller based on the story of the journalist who broke the news that the CIA was allowing and aware of drugs coming into South Central L.A. so that the agency could use the money to fund the contras. It is also a dark personal story and the director Michael Cuesta and I connected about a year ago in New York. He was really excited about the idea of not doing a traditional thriller score, but working instead in the main character’s personality. It’s not a rock and roll score but we use guitars in a lot of weird ways. There are pulses built out of guitars combined with synthesizers. Also, one of my good friends and collaborators, Judson Crane, has this instrument called a guitarviol (which is essentially a cello combined with guitar). So we’re doing a lot of bowed guitar voicing–bowed electric guitar and guitarviol–and creating a score that sits in that world but the palette comes from a rock and roll background. Both of these upcoming projects hooked me as visual stories and I was super excited about the story and the creative people working on them. Definitely put them on your “must see” list.
RW: And beyond those two films, what else should we be on the lookout for from Nathan Johnson?
NJ: I’m just starting to work on the next Faux Fix record, one of my bands. My wife Katie is the creative drive for that project. She’s a singer and a writer–we have this project together. This will be the second Faux Fix record. Basically, she was writing for this while I was working on Kill the Messenger and we’re about to take the music into the studio to start producing it.
Nathan Johnson is a musician, film composer, songwriter, and music producer.
Written by Randall Winston
Photography by Christopher Kuehl and Courtesy of Nathan Johnson
Design by Francesca Rimi
Nathan Johnson, Photography by Christopher Kuehl and Courtesy of Nathan Johnson