Composer Nathan Johnson talks about creating the score for Looper, his nontraditional approach to recording and arranging instruments, his musical background, and working with his cousin, director Rian Johnson.
I thought we’d open with a little about your background. I know you and Rian have been doing films together since an early age, but then you did the rock band route before scoring Brick. What was that jump like for you? Did you always think you’d be scoring films in the back of your mind?
No, I never thought about scoring films before I did Brick. Growing up, I was really into making movies and I was really into music, I just didn’t think about combining those two together. In high school, I started leaning more towards the music world. I was writing a lot and performing a lot. Through college, I was in a bunch of different bands.
Then right before Brick happened, I was working on this project called the Cinematic Underground. I had done a concept narrative record that told a story and had a graphic novella that came along with it. We were touring that around with projections of the artwork onto the band and onto these big screens behind the band. When Rian heard that record, he called me up and asked me if I wanted to take a stab at doing the music for Brick. The record doesn’t sound like Brick, but I think he saw some of those storytelling parallels there.
Did you have any background in music theory? Was it difficult going from being in a band to doing a whole instrumental score?
I didn’t have a background in music theory and I wasn’t classically trained, but I spent a lot of time producing and had been building stuff up, working with different players. I feel like I came at it more from that road, from that direction. I just gathered a really strong team around me. For the moments where I didn’t speak the language as well, I would rely on people on my team who were classically trained. We put together this unique crew, where everybody had their role and spoke their language. I was able to be a line through that and connect it together.
So getting into Looper, I know Rian had been kicking this concept around for quite awhile. At what point did you get involved?
I read his initial draft, his initial story, 10 years ago, so I was aware of it this whole time. When he finished the script after The Brothers Bloom, he sent it to me. I guess we really started talking in earnest a little while before they went into production. This was before they had cast it, and then after they cast it we started talking about themes and ideas.
Then I went down to New Orleans, where they were shooting it, and I sort of lived down there and started work on it. While they were all shooting I was wandering around the city, and that was where I started gathering the sounds and properly developing everything.
Do you remember what your initial reaction was after reading the script?
It surprised me because it was a lot less dialogue-focused than either Brick or The Brothers Bloom. It was leaner and meaner. It just felt tighter, and a lot more show rather than tell.
I assume you were kind of one of the first to read the script. Do you get to offer any input or anything like that?
Not in an official way, but we always talk through stuff. Early on, Rian’s really great about collaborating, and at that point he’s always interested in hearing feedback. Yeah, definitely nothing official, but there’s always an open ear for hashing out stuff as he’s getting a perspective on what’s making sense to me and different thoughts that I might have.
Obviously, this scoring process was very nontraditional. Was that something you guys decided to do from the get go? What was that discussion like?
Yeah, pretty much. I think in our first actual phone conversation about how we were going to do the score, we talked about this idea of not doing a traditional action movie score but the fact that we still wanted it to hit those same beats. We knew it was important for it to feel big, but we wanted to hit that from a different angle.
In that phone conversation, we actually did talk about the idea of gathering found sounds and field recordings. I had the idea of taking things I had recorded and turning them into playable instruments. That actually was a part of the goal pretty early on in the process.
How many hours of field recordings did you end up gathering?
Oh man, I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I would think probably a couple hours. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot, but they’re all pretty focused. So I’ve got a couple hours of recordings, but lots and lots of individual files and such a huge variety of different sounds.
What was the most interesting thing that you ended up recording?
I think one of my favorites was this industrial fan. I was just walking around the streets of New Orleans one night and it was on the side of a building. It just had this really great fluttering, rickety feel. That sound I grabbed and recorded from a couple different angles, and then that ended up becoming one of the main instruments in the score that we always would call the “fan synth.” You hear it in the very first cue right up until the very end. It is actually a fan, but then we bass shifted it and spread it across the keyboard so you could play it harmonically and melodically as well. That sort of became the defining sound of Looper, this machine sound that also feels slightly organic.
I know you’re really big on organic and imperfect sounds. Can you talk about that and how that plays a role into making the music?
Yeah, well one of the things when you’re using technology, it’s important to me that everything doesn’t get too perfect. I always lean towards imperfect recordings. I kind of feel like all the interesting parts of music are tied up in that, the little quirks in people’s voices and the sound of people actually playing an instrument. I knew we were going to be building a lot of the instruments for this and I didn’t want it to sound synthy and slick, so that played into how I went about recording the sounds and building the instruments from those raw materials.
Rather than using a premade synthesizer, I found it was important to go out and get something that had a lot of space in it, a lot of natural reverb and the sound’s actual habitat. I would turn that into the instruments we’d be using, so that it didn’t all sound totally slick. Even though we’re using technology, I still wanted everything to have an organic feel to it.
Another interesting thing you did was you built the score around the percussion first and then put the strings and stuff on top of that. What was that process like?
So much of the movie was action-based, it kind of was just our starting place. I’ve got a really good longtime collaborator, Chris Mears, who’s in the band New Volunteer out of England, so I brought him out. Chris was back with me on Brick. He did all the percussion on Brick, so we spent a lot of the beginning part figuring out tempos together, and patterns, and laying down these beat maps for us to later build the melodic and harmonic parts out of. I kind of felt like that was the key to unlocking the action parts of the score because so much of it was crucial in terms of making sure the action played correctly, and that it felt driving and full of tension the whole time.
Looper has these big set pieces but at its core feels more like a human drama than your typical action movie, especially in the second half. Is that something you latched onto when you were writing the music and putting it together?
Yeah, and it’s one of my favorite things about the movie. It feels really grounded. It’s real and gritty and messy. The characters talk about how time travel is messy, but the whole movie feels based in honest human emotion. It was really fun to play around with that in a big action movie and to still have these really intimate moments where we can strip it back.
There’s one cue called “Revelations,” where the beginning of it is just a bit of digital noise creating a bed for this solo piano to play. There aren’t a lot of times where that happens in the movie, but those were key to be able to take a break from all this crazy industrial stuff and let your ear have something familiar to grab onto.
Was there any particular scene that was the most challenging to get right for you?
I think the one we worked the longest on was the China montage. Have you seen the movie?
Yeah, I saw it at the midnight showing.
Oh, nice. So the montage where young Joe grows up into old Joe, and it’s like a 30-year montage. That scene was so important to get correct. I approached that a number of different times. The first thing I wrote for it was too bare, and then the second thing I wrote for it I felt like was too big and too overdramatic. We ended up working on that one right up until the very last minute, so it went through a bunch of iterations, but also the cut of the film kept changing on that part.
They were deciding up until the very end how much to show, because there’s actually a lot more that they shot for that scene. In the end, it felt like it was redundant and you didn’t need to see all that extra stuff, so we were able to cut down the score there as well and really make it a bit leaner and a bit more driving forward.
Is that the stuff that ended up getting included in the China release?
Yup, there’s extra stuff that you see that is happening when you’re in China there.
So I think this was the first time you and Rian were in the same city when you were working together. How did that impact things and what was that like to finally do?
[Laughs] To be honest, I don’t actually feel like it was that different. It was nice in that we could have breakfast together and then go over to the studio and listen through things, but there were still a lot of times when I was finishing things and emailing them over to him, and then he would comment and write back. There wasn’t that much different about it.
With The Brothers Bloom, I recorded most of that in Connecticut, but I finished it in L.A. with Rian. I feel like that’s the important part, to be together. When you’re compiling all the final details, it would be really hard to do that in a different city.
Since you’ve been working together for so long, do you have a pretty good shorthand down at this point?
Yeah, Rian’s brutally honest with me and I’m brutally honest with him, which is really helpful to get to the point quicker. So there’s that element, but also I think we both understand each other’s sensibilities pretty easily. I was talking with Rian recently, and Rian was telling somebody with Looper he didn’t think he ever actually said to me it should feel gritty or it should feel broken down. I think that’s true. That is something we never talked about, because we kind of get that about each other and the stuff that we like. Obviously, that’s such a big part of the score, but I think at this point we can bypass all those things and just talk about the unique elements for the project we’re working on.
Does he have any musical background as well?
Yeah, he is a songwriter. He plays the banjo. We grew up playing music together and writing together, so it’s not really from a trained perspective, but he does. He also has a really great taste in music.
I’m sure that helps a lot as well.
Yeah. No matter what, it’s hard talking about music. When you’re trying to describe something that you want musically, something that I find is really hard whoever you are, you have to bring out what you mean by the words you use to describe music. But because we’ve worked so long together, I feel like we get our descriptions a lot quicker.
Were there any influences you looked to while working on this movie, or did you try to keep it as open and original as possible?
There were a handful of influences, but this one was not marked in the same way as Brick and The Brothers Bloom. With Brick, Rian was really specifically referencing Tom Waits and Morricone. With Bloom, he was talking to me about Nino Rota and the Band. This didn’t have that same easy quick link that those two did. It was more exploring this atmospheric sound.
Your main focus these days is on scoring, but do you still have time to do band stuff?
I actually do a lot of stuff with Faux Fix. I don’t know if you’re aware of that project. That’s a project I work on with Katie Chastain. She’s the singer, and I co-write with her and produce and perform with that. That’s a current project that we’re working on together. I haven’t done an official Cinematic Underground next project, but I got stuff that’s been bubbling on the backburner for a little while. So we’ll see when that comes around.
One thing that’s become more prevalent with soundtracks is they seem to be released digitally and have a very small-scale physical release, if at all, which was the case with Looper. What do you make of that? Is that something you’re disappointed with or excited by?
I don’t really mind. I’m happy people are into the soundtrack, and however they access that feels like a good thing to me. From a personal perspective, I feel like I see both sides of it. I like physical things, especially when it’s a nice physical edition of something, but I travel with my music on digital devices, especially because I travel so often. I feel like that’s obviously a bigger music industry question in general. Soundtracks account for such a small percentage of that that it seems normal they’re following along with that.
I was wondering if you could talk a little about what it’s like putting a soundtrack together, because obviously it doesn’t have all the music that’s in the film. What’s it like paring it down and picking the cues that eventually do get included?
Yeah, it’s a fun process. It kind of takes awhile. With Brick, I think I pretty much put everything from the movie into that soundtrack, kind of because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like, OK, I’ll just put all this on. The reason there’s some things not on that is because it’s too long for the CD. Also, if you look at the Brick soundtrack it’s 40 tracks long, and there’s a ton of short 30-second cues.
With Looper, I’ve crafted it a bit more. In fact for the Looper soundtrack, we spent quite a bit of time on it. I wanted to create an album that felt easier to listen to and didn’t have a million 30-second tracks. Part of that involved going in and expanding some of the parts, where for whatever reason we had to shorten things in the cut, expanding them out and letting the music live and breathe more on its own. I combined different cues that felt they went together nicely. The music for a film, obviously its first goal is to support the film, but with this I felt like it was helpful to tweak it a little bit to make the album more listenable.
I thought it flows together really well.
Thanks. That’s good, especially since it’s such an atmospheric soundtrack. I spent a lot of time with Ryan Lott, who worked with me on the instrument creation and the string arrangements. We spent a lot of time together crafting it so it felt like you’re listening to a record.
Looking back on this process is this something you would like to do again, or would you like to go back to a more traditional route the next time?
I don’t know. It all depends so much on the movie. It doesn’t really make sense to do a crazy nontraditional thing if the story doesn’t call for it. I love jumping around between genres, but there is something about my aesthetic sensibility that always draws me to unique instruments and nontraditional approaches to things. Even when we’re using an orchestra or traditional instruments, I’m exploring different ways to play them or different ways to record them.
Do you have another film project lined up already or are you kind of playing it by ear?
I’ve got a couple things I’m working on. I can’t actually talk about them publicly yet, but I’m excited about the next couple things coming out.
Then I assume whenever Rian gets his next thing written, you’re going to be doing that as well.
I hope so [laughs].
He’s been saying it’s going to be another sci-fi one, which I’m sure you find pretty exciting.
Yeah, totally. He’s talked to me about a couple of the ideas and I’m really excited about where he’s going with it.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk