Nathan Johnson on composing Don Jon, Looper, Brick, and more

Ivan sits down for a chat with a composer for whom car doors and cheese graters are just more musical instruments

Nathan Johnson is one of the most interesting and exciting people working in film scoring today. Thinking of sound and music as one and the same thing, he’s the kind of guy who. if you ring him up in the middle of recording a new soundtrack, could easily end up using the ring tone as the film’s main theme.

Which is exactly what happened when we spoke to him this week about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. Our call came while he was working on his next movie, Young Ones (Jake Paltrow’s sci-fi starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult). Both movies are a long way from Brick, his debut feature project for his cousin Rian Johnson, back in 2005. That’s a score that comprises mostly of wine glasses and kitchen utensils, so the first question to ask was obvious…

What’s your favourite kitchen utensil?

[Laughs] I’d have to say the cheese grater is my favourite kitchen utensil as a musical instrument… and a cocktail shaker is my favourite kitchen utensil bar none. Does that count? I think we should count that…

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Your approach to soundtracks is extraordinarily unique. How did your focus on found sounds start?

That’s a really good question. I grew up really interested in visuals, just as much as music. And I remember seeing the show Stomp from when I was in high school and just connecting so deeply and being so inspired by that. I really love how they went about using everyday objects. I think part of it has to do with the idea of necessity as the mother of invention, you know?

To actually answer your question a little bit more directly, when I was scoring the film Brick, it was such a low budget movie that there was almost no money for the score, so we didn’t have an orchestra! But on top of that, I wasn’t trained classically, so at that point I wouldn’t have known what to do with one!

I remember this moment of crisis when I was starting to work on that and I realised kind of in a scary way that I didn’t know how to do this thing as film composers normally do it, so what that did was force us to go down some interesting avenues…

We used a lot of wine glasses – that kind of came from the idea of an instrument that sort of fills the same sonic space as a string section. The long glass tones sort of ended up being my substitute for a string ensemble!

That whole score was recorded just with a single laptop microphone in my apartment, so the percussion using kitchen utensils and radiators and filing cabinets was literally what was lying around. I’ll be forever grateful to the old couple who shared a wall with me!

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You call the wine glass instrument the “Wine-o-phone”. Do you have names for all of your invented instruments?

Yeah, there are names for quite a lot of them! Recently, in Don Jon, one of the synths was called The Sub-Humper! You know, it actually becomes kind of helpful when I’m working with my team because we need some sort of shorthand to distinguish between these different sounds that we’re using!

How long does the whole process usually take?

It takes the exact amount of time that we’re given! Someone talked about art being sort of like a gas – it expands to fill the boundaries that it’s been given. And I really find that to be true. If you’ve got a month, it takes every moment of that month. If you’ve got nine, it’ll expand to become a monster.

Do you find you’re inspired by random sounds, or do you go looking for particular sounds to match your ideas?

Usually when I’m doing found sounds, it’s much more that I’m just kind of exploring – I don’t think. It’s rare that I would go out looking for a certain sound. I think we did that a little bit in Looper with car doors in a garage, which was one of the big percussion elements that we used.

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But that actually came from while I was working on a project and just got out of a car and slammed a door – I didn’t have my recorder with me, but we went back to that location with gear and sampled it. However, I guess I do always have my iPhone with me and I use that voice memo app all the time! Both to lay down terrible recordings of me singing an idea in the middle of the night but also, you know, if I’m in a hospital and there’s a beeping noise… the iPhone goes out and grabs it immediately.

So when your family and friends now see you with a phone, they say “Oh, he’s recording again…”

[Laughs] Yeah! I try not to do it in social company!

Do you have a favourite sound you’ve ever captured? Or are there particular ones that stick with you?

I think for Looper, my favourite sound that turned into an instrument was this big industrial fan in the side of a building in New Orleans. That turned into what we called The Fan Synth. But I got some really great recordings of the wonky treadmills in our hotel room as well – and those occupy a special spot on the winner’s podium! Those are definitely the two that come to mind… I think as well for me, there’s something about the visual element that I really like – I’m a pretty visual person anyway so those things are really helpful for me to categorise them in my mind, sort of bringing things to the top that are most exciting to me.

You’ve worked mostly with your cousin, Rian. How is that relationship? He’s older, right?

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He’s the oldest of like 40 cousins! Rian’s the eldest and I’m the second eldest. We grew up with all of our younger cousins making movies with them. The family vacations were always a ridiculous creative hodgepodge!

Do you still have those home videos lying around?

We do! A while ago for Christmas, Rian transferred a bunch of them from, like VHS or Hi-8 onto a DVD and gave it to everyone in the family for a Christmas present. They exist under lock and key! [Laughs]

When you’re working with Rian, how early do you get involved in the project?

It’s pretty early. Definitely during the writing process or even the idea phase. I mean, with The Brothers Bloom, I read the opening monologue a couple of years before the script was actually finished. But at that stage, it’s less … it’s not like I hear ideas and immediately think of music. I’m just excited about the world that he’s creating. What the world is going to be or what kind of textures there are going to be… those conversations come quite a bit later. I tend to go on set while they’re filming and use that as a bit of a low pressure time to just explore, to maybe follow some of the paths we’ve talked about and I have to say, I really love that process, just being on set, just being in the world and watching the actors perform and the set design.

Your music always captures those worlds really well…

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I have to give credit to Rian for that! So much of what goes into it is coming from his perception and what he wants the world to be. With every movie, he usually comes up with at least a handful of references. For Brothers Bloom, it was very much in the world of Nino Rota, whereas Brick was much more along the lines of Morricone and Tom Waits. Then I just kind of immerse myself in that and try to bounce back stuff that makes him smile.

Brothers Bloom has that Parisian, jazzy feel – but Looper is so different. It’s… industrial.

Looper was really unique for me. Rian’s idea was that it would not be very melodic at all. It would be very atmospheric. And there were a number of times during Looper where I felt I was just stumbling around in the dark. The way I find my way into a movie is often by the melodies. Looper was just a different kind of score for that. It was very purposefully not melodic. There’s only one main theme that carries through the movie and I had been working on it for several months and I still hadn’t found a theme… but I guess, looking back, it makes sense, because it just forced me to find my door into the world through textures and sounds.

There’s a slight parallel there with Don Jon, which has that main theme, which is rearranged throughout the score. But you don’t use any found sounds. Where did that decision come from?

Again, that’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt coming to me early on. This was such a cool project. Joe had this idea where he wanted to basically score the film with three completely different genres of music to represent the three different characters. He carried that through the whole movie: the camerawork is very much in three distinct styles of camerawork, the lighting changes… he had this really exciting master plan with that. And as we talked about that, we kicked around the idea of what if there is this main theme that carries through but maybe you never realise you’re hearing it again because it sounds so different.

There’s that disco first part for Jon’s nightlife, then the Hollywood middle for Barbara’s romantic, Hollywoodised view of the world…

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… and the whole third art is just electric guitar. That was really fun for me! I tend to approach each film with the idea that it’s more important to serve what the movie is calling for rather than try to impose any of my internal stylistic process. With Don Jon, there weren’t any weird created instruments, although there were some new synthesisers created, but my sort of key to unlock that was the idea of scoring three different genres of music.

You have these little fanfare bursts that keep popping up, like achievements.

That was linked to the idea of a climax moment – so that moments every point when one of the characters is having a climactic experience! You know… literally or figuratively…

A lot of the film’s humourous tone stems from the music. There’s something about a waltz that seems well suited to comedy…

Right! And they’re lyrical too. I just love how writing a waltz serves melody. It just gets there quicker! There’s something about a lyrical passage in 3/4 that really serves a melody well…

But then when you get to the final third on guitar, it turns out to be quite a sad theme.

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The interesting thing is that’s where I started with my writing. I went to the end of the movie and wrote with a guitar for that segment because that’s the place where it finally gets stripped down. It’s really the raw emotion of it – and that’s what Joe and I talked about the guitar representing. We recorded that pretty nakedly. I wanted to make sure the theme began there so when we strip it down, it works.

It’s interesting in terms of sound, too: there are these effects, like the Trash noise on an iMac, that appear all the way through. Those are the kinds of things you’d expect to appear in your score!

That’s funny you say that because I made a strong case for keeping those in the movie! The garbage can effect, those were in the temp version when I was scoring it and I said to Joe: “You have to keep the trash can – that’s so good.” I’m really glad they ended up sticking with that!

What’s working with Joseph like compared to, say, Rian? Is that dynamic different for you?

Joe and have known each other since Brick and we’ve worked on a bunch of things together since then so it feels like, you know, although we’re not family, it’s a very trusting relationship. He’s an amazing actor – one of my favourites – but he’s really accomplished in more of a holistic, artistic sense. He’s a good musician and as a director, he’s got a great sense of rhythm and editing. It was really fun working with him – and also because, aside from being good at those things, he has a very strong artistic sensibility, so he was excited to go in a bold, different direction, to really push to an extreme approach the scoring of the film.

Is that one of things you look for in a film project?

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That’s sort of the number one thing: I’m less concerned about what kind of music it is or what kind of score it is. I’m excited when I’m working with a director who has a strong aesthetic and artistic approach, because that puts me in a situation where they’re not only opening the doors, but they’re pushing me to go to a new place. That’s so much more exciting than trying to replicate something that’s been done 100 times before.

Do you listen to a lot of other film scores?

Honestly, I don’t listen to a lot, aside from seeing them with a movie. One score I loved was Gravity! Steven Price did such an amazing job with that.

He did that in a pretty unconventional way as well…

It’s so much about texture. I love that there’s hardly any percussion in it! That’s something that would be in terms of talking about a big studio picture that’s a thriller or high stakes adventure…

… the first thing they do is bring in the drums.

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Right! It’s so cool to hear how he went about approaching it! It’s one of those times you’re sitting in a theatre with your mouth hanging open at the way the score works and the way that they’ve mixed it. That’s my favourite thing, when all of those come together to serve the story. Gravity is such a perfect example of that. Everything is working to serve the story.

I read in an interview with Steven there’s this fascinating part of the score where they put a trumpet through a synth, but it can’t cope and dies – and they keep the noise of the dying machine in the score!

That’s so good! That’s awesome. I mean, something that I talk about a lot is this idea of imperfection. Brian Eno has this really great quote about imperfection – I won’t paraphrase the whole thing because I’ll slaughter it – but he talks about the idea that a distorted guitar running through an amp is the sound of something that’s going through something too feeble to carry it. It’s the same with the cracking voice of a blues singer. I love imperfection. When I look at all the different types of music that I gravitate towards, it’s not perfect stuff. I’d much rather hear an idea that has freshness in it, even if it’s not recorded perfectly… Sometimes especially when it’s not, you start hearing things that weren’t supposed to be there. That sort of communicates that idea in such a cool way.

Speaking of Gravity and your work, movies today seem to be at the point where the boundary between music and sound has shrunk: people seem to accept that they’re part of the same thing.

Right. Well, that’s definitely the way I think about music. It’s sort of a liberating way to think about, rather than what instruments you want to hear, what sounds you want to hear. Obviously, that’s just going back centuries and centuries in time – that’s how music was created to begin with. Just looking at the world around us and figuring how we can make sounds to carry our melodies or a musical idea.

Can you talk much about Young Ones, which you’re working on now?

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I don’t know how much I can talk about it at the moment!

Obviously, the music will revolve around your phone ringing…

That’s right – that’s the key melodic phrase! [Laughs] I’ll tell you a bit about the movie. It’s basically, I’m really excited about it – Jake Paltrow is a really great director and he has that same artistic, aesthetic approach, so I’ve really enjoyed working with him. I’m excited both about the movie and the direction he’s pushing me in for the music.

Will there be found sounds in there – or are you using more conventional instruments?

There’s sort of a combination. I’m kind of mid-process in it, right now… but there will be a variety of things that don’t always go together! [Laughs]

Don Jon is out in UK cinemas now. The soundtrack is available to purchase in iTunes here.

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