Interview with Nathan Johnson

Composer Nathan Johnson (Photo by Steve Yedlin)

Much like a carny clawing his way from the freakshow to shock high society with the voice of his seemingly clairvoyant powers, composer Nathan Johnson mesmerized audiences with his shockingly idiosyncratic, yet perfectly in tune debut score for 2005’s neo teen noir film “Brick.” Also marking the beyond clever directing debut of his cousin Rian, this hipster upending of noir conventions into a high school flick marked a film and music-making team to take note of for the originality they’d unleash. Not only would Nathan apply Klezmer, sci-fi metal and a far more Baroque stab into the genre for Rian’s “Brothers Bloom,” “Looper” and “Knives Out,” but the composer would grace any number of directors with such unique alt. scores as “The Day I Saw Your Heart,” “Don John,” and “Kill the Messenger” as well as the electrified game score to “InFamous: Second Son.” 

“Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight Pictures)

Now Johnson’s often unnerving, yet sometimes sinisterly beautiful voice joins the unique sideshow family of Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, who eschews the supernatural to dive into the chicken-biting, mind-conning and major head trauma (both psychological and physical) of “Nightmare Alley.” Going for a more by-the-William Lindsay Gresham book remake of the 1947 cult noir classic, Del Toro dives into early 40’s seediness by way of the muck-soaked baby-bottled sideshow and a darkly glorious Midwest city, where anything-goes grifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds out that suckering the rich and famous with the help of an avariciously gorgeous head shrinker will go wrong in the catastrophic way that is the world of noir at its most disturbing. 

Given a gorgeously designed world for better and worse, Johnson conjures moody scoring, yet mostly as subtle as the rain patter of the twisted machinations turning in Stanton’s head. Strings, train-like rhythm and stalking brass serve as “Alley’s” potent Greek chorus to turn back before it’s too late, a call by the very few moral people on deck here that of course won’t be heeded. Yet as experimental as some of Johnson’s work has been in the past, “Nightmare Alley” stands as his most deceptively smooth score as such, one full of silken melody – all the better for a black widow to take her prey. It’s a tone that might not be as brash as the classic noir scores (here originally done by Cyril. J. Mockridge) but is tonally connected to them to be sure in its atmosphere of transfixing gloom and occasionally violent outbursts. And in the service of a director obsessed with bleak fairy tales, Johnson does the best mind reading trick of all here in getting to the hypnotic, melancholy and even tender soul of this circular tale of sin, where there’s now no remotely happy ending to wash away the depravity. 

Rian and Nathan Johnson at the “Knives Out” recording session (Photo by Peter Cobbin)

Did you ever envision becoming a film composer? And how did you connect with Rian Johnson on that level?

Rian and I grew up making movies and music together. It was something we did every family vacation. We’d drag the younger cousins along as actors, and it would all culminate with family screenings in our grandparents’ basement. All the adults gathered around to see what we’d been doing all week. And then we just kind of never stopped. I have a pretty clear memory when we took “Brick” to Sundance – sitting with Rian at the premiere in the Eccles theater with our parents and grandparents all gathered in the row behind us. And then a huge crown behind them. Very exciting and surreal, but in a way, it felt like what we’d been doing for our entire childhoods together.

“Brick” was a notably audacious score that marked both your first score, as well as your first “film noir” soundtrack in a way that played off the genre while sounding nothing like it. What was that challenge like?

I felt very out of my depth, but there’s also something freeing about not knowing just how deep the water goes. Rian’s such a great director and obviously there’s a shorthand we’ve got, but it was all about finding a unique musical world. Sort of a world where everyone in high school listens to, I don’t know, Tom Waits instead of pop radio. I recorded the whole thing in my apartment and we basically had no budget, so it was about using wine glasses instead of a string section or kitchen utensils instead of percussion. We didn’t have timpani drums, so we used mallets on a filing cabinet in the hallway. I look back on that really fondly because it encapsulates a principle I think is really important – namely doing something now. You know, not waiting for budget or experience or an orchestra or whatever. It’s so important when we’re getting started to lean into restrictions and allow them to help shape our work rather than letting them shut us down. Clearly in the broader history of art, wonderful, surprising work comes out of restrictions. 

After “Brick,” you’d range from Klezmer and dark futurism with Ryan on “The Brothers Bloom” and “Looper” to the dark “romantic” dramedy of “Don Juan” and the superhero video game “InFamous: Second Son.” How do you think you found your voice as a composer while delivering the stories’ demands in a way that marked you as an individualist composer?

I mean, I think probably the answer to that is summed up in the question. I’m always really thinking (in collaboration with the director) about the stories’ demands first and foremost. It’s something I’ve talked about before, but I don’t view a film score as the venue for a composer’s personal opus. Whatever I write has to be subservient to the story. In our world, the story is the ultimate goal and all of us, from director to composer to actor to costume designer – all of us are working together to help deliver that as effectively as we can. The fun part of that is if you’re lucky enough to work with an amazing story, chances are that will call for unique music. I feel so fortunate that I’ve gotten to play in a pretty wide variety of worlds, and the story itself is what keeps it fresh and compelling.

There’d be a break from 2014’s underrated political thriller “Kill the Messenger” to teaming with Ryan on the smash hit “Knives Out.” What were your creative goals during that period, and was it fun to attack the mystery genre again with a more robustly “traditional” score?

I was directing a ton of music videos during that stretch, which is also a big part of what I do. I think at some level it makes me a better composer, but it’s also just part of who I am – very much a visual thinker and I love directing and editing, marrying visuals with music. It’s why I love filmmaking because it combines all of these art forms that feel very much like they’re overlapping in my mind anyway. But yes, when it was time for “Knives Out,” it felt like the best thing in the world to get to dive into a full-on orchestral score. That was our new restriction… you know, before, it was field recordings, or back porch orchestras or whatever. For “Knives Out,” it was like “okay now our restriction is we have to only use a giant orchestra at Abbey Road.” You know, really tie one hand behind our backs. It’s not the worst creative restriction in the world. 

Director Guillermo del Toro ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Were you a fan of Guillermo’s work before “Nightmare Alley” came along?

Such a fan. I remember right after “Brick” came out seeing “Pan’s Labyrinth” and being so moved by it. I think that was my first exposure to Guillermo’s vision. I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me that night we’d eventually be working together.

You were brought on board “Nightmare Alley” to do a replacement score with a relatively quick timeline, all under covid restrictions. What was the challenge of finding tone and orchestration of the score, and pulling it off?

In a way, it was actually a dream set up. Guillermo sent me the movie – almost finished and completely dry with no temp music. When we talked, we weren’t really talking about references. It was all about this world and the characters… who they were and how they were interacting. I sent Guillermo a few early sketches and thankfully they were right in line with what he was imagining. “Lilith’s Room” was actually the first sketch I sent, and that made it into the final movie almost exactly as I wrote it. Guillermo was able to come over to my studio every week, and we just worked together dialing it in. I think being together in person was crucial to us locking in the score under such a quick deadline.

You’ve always had a love of “found” instruments. How are they reflected here?

In this world, we found another amazing orchestra, and we were one of the first movies to be able to travel back to London and record the score in person. I remember Guillermo said he didn’t want any celeste in this film because celeste felt magical to him and there’s no magic in this movie. It’s about hucksters, and he wanted it to be very anchored in gritty humanity. So although we’re using a traditional orchestra, we’re also experimenting with the ways we use those sounds. There are a lot of microtonal string dissonances – aleatoric stuff that pulls away from the pitch and really generates a sense of uneasy sea sickness. I love that imperfection. In “Brick” we used an out of tune piano, but here, we’re instructing these world class players to keep filtering imperfections into their techniques. 

In “Lilith’s Room,” there’s a rhythmic lurch in the piano that’s more commonly found in hip-hop. I mean, nobody is going to think hip-hop when they hear that cue, but there’s a push and pull in the DNA where it’s not quite straight and not quite swung. And all of that is there as an unsettling agent. Something that refuses to land you on the grid, which again feels weird and odd. I like to think of all sounds as “found,” even if they’re instruments we’re used to. But if we can shuffle the approach, then they can be used to highlight the story we’re telling. And in this case, Nightmare Alley is very much a story about complexity and uncertainty.

If you immediately steeped yourself in the 1947 film, what struck you about how Guillermo updated the story, and how it would affect the score, which was originally composed by Cyril. J. Mockridge?

I actually purposefully didn’t read the book until I was completely done with the score, and I still haven’t seen the ’47 film. Guillermo said that whenever they tried temp music, the movie expelled it, so it was pretty clear to me that I wasn’t going to find the key to the score by looking at the original movie or other noir from the period. Even the term “noir” wasn’t that helpful in a sense. As Guillermo said, “what is noir but a crime story?” So I just focused on the performances and the overall vibe. I mean, in a Guillermo movie, all of that is so fully realized, so just watching the picture dictates a lot in my mind. I suppose at one level, we’re definitely using instruments that were around in the 40’s, but in terms of the stylistic references, the score actually feels more modern to me. I like that disparity.

Through the film Stan transformers himself from Carny psychic to high society before taking a big fall, even further down then where he started. Could you talk about scoring his character’s musical “evolution?”

I was really compelled by Stan. In western narrative, it’s almost always about character arcs and how a character starts in one place and then goes through a big change and ends somewhere totally different. But Stan keeps hitting at the same note all the way through the film. He puts on a variety of masks as he’s conning people, but essentially he doesn’t change. And I talked with Guillermo about that the first time we met. I was kind of enamored because I think it’s so bold. So my initial idea for the score was almost an architectural mirror to the character. I proposed a single repeating piano note that morphs into a dissonant motif. We develop different textures and themes as Stan starts layering on masks. He goes to the carnival, and then we bring in a lush orchestra when he takes his act to the big city, but that same single note is there the whole time underneath everything. It’s fighting with other character themes, and the dissonance gets extreme when he clashes with Lilith. And finally, we strip everything away and we’re left with the same note we started with. It mirrors not only his journey, but his psyche, his self. That single note has been there the whole time under this very dissonant, unsettling musical journey. And it’s a reflection of his character – brutal, unchanging, and ultimately alone.

Conversely, did you want to the music to stay elusive to the characters’ motives, and feelings?

Yes, especially in the sense that these characters are elusive in their very nature. Lilith has this calm beauty, but under the surface, there’s a hurricane. I love scoring the under-the-surface part. It’s one of the things I love about music – it’s a direct link to the emotional subtext, and it’s so rewarding to be invited by someone like Guillermo to plumb those depths.

With a glass jarred cyclops baby as a recurring visual motif, would you say there’s a crystalline sound to the score?

Perhaps – there’s certainly a brittle element in the strings that evokes that crystalline sound. In Lilith’s office, we use the actual sound of a crystal glass as the score, and then we transition into the high string harmonics. There’s a tenuousness at play in a lot of these scenes – as Stan is experimenting with the mind reading trick, as Stan encounters Lilith – and these delicate strings were key to embodying that. So much of my job with this score was about not letting the audience off the hook. It’s such a tense movie, and the score refuses to land us in a comfortable place.

What do you think made the piano a particularly important instrument here?

I originally pitched the piano as a metaphor for Stan, and Guillermo really came to see that as Stan’s instrument. Part of that has to do with the percussive nature of a hammer on a string. That simplicity just felt like Stan to me, whereas Lilith is an Oboe. Breathy, beautiful, but with a darkness.

Every noir has got to have a femme fatale, and this has a doozy in Lilith. How did you want to capture her sensual calculation?

Again, Lilith was all about very key contradictions. A simple beautiful oboe motif on top of wide-open string harmonies that don’t reveal much about the tonal center. And then all of that contrasts with the lurch of the piano. To me, Lilith’s scenes were about her interactions with Stan. Stan thinks he’s in control, but he just has no clue what kind of depth and power is lurking under the surface.

How did you want to the score to reflect the fastidious set design of the film, whether it was the rainy murk of the carnival or the sleek, Edward Hopper-art deco design of Lilith’s office and the high society she associates with?

I’ve got to say, Tamara Deverell, our production designer, is incredible. She did such an amazing job creating the feel of this world. I mean, talk about score inspirations…I feel like she got me halfway there in terms of setting the mood. When there’s a movie that’s already so singular in its vision, everything starts resonating together.

The Echo Society Front row, from left: Brendan Angelides, Nathan Johnson, Judson Crane. Back row, from left: Joseph Trapanese, Benjamin Wynn, Jeremy Zuckerman and Rob Simonsen.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

I recently interviewed Echo Society co-founder Rob Simonsen on if this wonderful LA live composing event would be back, and he mentioned he had big plans for it. Could you talk about your work with that collective, and where it might be headed now that it appears that musical events had returned to relative normalcy?

Yes! When we started the Echo Society, we were all really excited about exploring non-traditional types of shows and venues. I think the ones that have felt most fulfilling to us are the ones where we’ve been somewhat successful in upending a normal concert-going experience. That being said, none of us really wanted to do “streaming concerts” last year, so we’re thrilled about the chance to hold another live event. We’ve been dreaming up a number of things in response to the last couple years of isolation. I won’t give any teasers except to say that we’ve been having a bunch of planning sessions, and we’re all eager to make live music again.

I believe that Rian has shot the next two “Knives Out” films back-to-back. What can we expect from those scores?

We recently wrapped production on the second film – I got to be on set in Europe for most of the summer and had a little mobile rig with me there and, yeah, I’m so excited. I feel like it’s still too early in the process to comment, but I can’t wait to fully dive back into that world.

Son Lux (left to right): Ian Chang, Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia) (c) Soundtoys

Given you directing videos for Son Lux, do you see a future for yourself as a filmmaker?

I’d be thrilled to get to collaborate more in that vein. There’s something I love about working with actors that feels similar to working with an amazing orchestra. There’s a magic in collaboration where the people I’ve been privileged to work with take my ideas and make them so much better. I just can’t imagine a better forum that highlights the alchemy of music and visuals, and I’m so excited to explore that from every angle I can.

Seeing how far you’ve come, do you think there’s something to be said about the freshness, and roughness of composers who don’t come into this world with classical training and learn on the job?

Yeah, I mean, that’s my background. I came from the indie band world, and I love scores from some of those composers as much as the classics. I think that a variety of voices and approaches is what makes music rich and surprising. But I think the most important type of any learning is always going to happen on the job.

Composer Johnny Greenwood (Photo by Shin Katan)

When you look at a new wave of idiosyncratic “art” composers like Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi, how do you think you helped put this kind of often style on the film scoring map, and where do you think it will go? 

I’m not sure how much I helped put it on the map, but I’m so thrilled that they’re here in this world and creating music. Mica’s score for “Under the Skin” was amazing, and Jonny’s work – I mean, I’ll go see a movie just because he’s involved. I’m so into the idea of music serving the picture, and there’s so much room for that to be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. As I said earlier, if we open our minds to think about sounds instead of instruments, then that gives us such a broad palette to draw from. I want to live in a world where there are beautiful new classical scores being created right around the corner from crazy experimental scores. And probably scores that effectively are both at the same time. If storytelling is our north star, as opposed to genre or temp music, then the scope of what we get to make is unlimited.

Bradley Cooper, Composer Nathan Johnson, Writer Kim Morgan and Guillermo del Toro attend Searchlight Picture’s Nightmare Alley Fine Arts Q&A in Los Angeles, on Wed, Decemeber 8rd. 2021.

What’s it like to now be part of Guillermo’s dark world? And would you say there’s a particular theme that runs through the work of auteur directors like him and Rian?

I mean, first of all, Guillermo is not a dark guy. He’s funny and kind and I think ultimately, a romantic artist. One thing that Guillermo and Rian both have –something that marks great directors – is the sense that they’re steering the ship, but they’re so excited to trust their collaborators. I mean, Rian and I have been creating things for as long as I can remember, but the day after I met Guillermo, he called me and said, “There are no bad ideas.” He really trusted me and almost didn’t want to tell me too much because he wanted me to use my instincts. 

Nathan at Abbey Road (Photo by Rian Johnson)

There’s a freedom to create great work in those situations because you can just go all out. And you know that if you’re missing the mark, they’ll steer you back. But here’s the thing. With these types of directors, the fear goes away. It’s scary enough to create as it is, but you’re never going to feel free to swing for the fences if you’re second-guessing yourself before you start. I don’t know, I think that’s the main thing that marks a good director…they set the course, but they want all of their collaborators to play a key role in helping realize their story. I’m incredibly thankful for the part I get to play.

Watch “Nightmare Alley” in theaters, and get Nathan Johnson’s score on Hollywood Records HERE

Visit Nathan Johnson’s website HERE

Special thanks to Lana Lang and Heather Davis