Nathan Johnson Talks Music for LOOPER, THE BROTHERS BLOOM and Morgan M. Morgasen
Looper, which you can read my glowing review here, is a film about assassins who kill people sent back in time to them from the future. One day Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is sent his older self, played by Bruce Willis, and he gets free causing a series of crazed cat and mouse searches bringing about a great action spectacular.
Nathan Johnson, composer of films such as Blue State, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, while hanging around Toronto during TIFF found some time to sit down with me and talk about the music of his fifth theatrical score, which is currently available for purchase. Enjoy the following discussion:
So far you’ve mainly been doing score work with your cousin, Rian Johnson, and I see you also did work for a film called Blue State. However, when you look at the films you and Rian have done together; (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) with Brick it felt like a very toned down noir sound style, with The Brothers Bloom you kind of went up with a more fun jazz style and with Looper it was the first time that you had to go with what some would call a traditional action score. How did you find moving into that kind of music as opposed to what you had done before?
It was interesting. Rian and I talked about it at the very beginning that we didn’t want to go down the line of a traditional action movie score and Looper is definitely a big action movie in a way, but it’s also a very smart movie with an emotional heart. So we really purposefully thought about, how we can create a big sounding score without using everything you’re used to hearing in an action movie.
Were there any moments during the composition that you felt unsure of since it was almost new ground for you?
Yes. There were a lot of moments where I had no idea what I was doing. I remember distinct times at the end of a day talking to my wife and being like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” This is such a different thing than I’ve ever attempted before.
There are so many movies in that genre where the music feels like it wants you to pay attention to it, but when I was watching the film it almost felt to be the opposite of that. It felt very subversive. Was there anything you hope that people will pay attention to while viewing the film?
I don’t really thing about it that way. I don’t think there’s anything in Looper that while I was making it I was thinking, “this is a moment that I want people to be thinking about the music.” That’s what the soundtrack album is for.
For those people who want to just get the soundtrack and vibe out to that for two hours.
Yeah. I mean, I love that and we were very purposeful in making the soundtrack album something where you can hear all the details of what we had created, but this is a unique art form in that the main point is not to express my music, the main point is to express the director’s vision. It’s kind of liberating in a way because the only thing that matters is “does the director like this?”.
Someone asked me if I was nervous watching it at the premiere last night, and I didn’t feel any nerves. It was just excitement. When I feel nervous is when I send the music to the director and once they okay it feel okay and my job is done.
That’s the test. I’m happy.
So were there any, almost odd, points throughout the production that you and Rian maybe had? You mentioned that you had discussions before the film talking about what you were looking for. Were there any point where there was still conversations throughout and back and forthing trying to get things right? Anything that at first you felt would’ve been more interesting?
Not necessarily more interesting. Rian and I have a lot of back and forth throughout the whole process and what was difference about Looper was usually when I start a movie with Rian we talk a lot about references and ideas and then I spend a lot of time writing the main themes before I sit down with the movie. We sort of agree on the main themes ahead of time and then I start actually working with the picture. This was different than that, they were actually in the editing process and Rian called me and was like, “hey, we’re having trouble with a couple of these scenes. There’s just no temp music that’s working. What if I just send you these and just take a stab at it?” This was all before I had figured out anything thematically. At that point I just sat down and basically the first scenes that I did, and the first scene that I did was the time machine scene…
… or when Bruce goes into the time machine?
Yes, in the factory. I just started building instruments out of sounds and working immediately with picture. So it was really diving into the deep end because I was working with instruments that were non-existent essentially and I hadn’t figured out my big game plan for the movie. It turned out that it was a great doorway into it because when I sent it to Rian he flipped and was like, “This is the sound. This is exactly right.” It appears almost exactly as it is in the final film, that first thing that I wrote. There are very few changes to what that piece was.
With the music in the film there’s a lot of basic themes involved in it. One of the few times though that I did notice it while watching the film last night was a scene with the character that Emily Blunt plays – I can’t remember her name right now, character names go in and out…
Right. Sara. In the love scene when it switches to, if I’m correct, basically just a piano solo. Were there any questions as to whether that scene needed that or whether it needed more?
I remember with that one we played around with a number of different things but it felt really good to anchor that in reality. If you watch the movie the music starts out heavily industrial instrumentation. The first queue doesn’t really have any real instruments in it. It’s all stuff that we built from the found sounds that I gathered and then at the end of the movie the last thing that you hear is an actual cellist being played. So there’s this sort of general progression from very heavily manipulated sounds towards a more natural, organic feel.
So at that point in the movie they’re on the farm it’s the very rooted natural thing going on, I was talking to somebody else about this, and I think that it’s really nice at that point to just hear a real piano being played. Hopefully that represents the movie. I mean with the music that’s kind of my main goal. My first goal is telling the correct story that the film is telling.
So you believe in general that with music composition associated with film that the score has to be subservient to the film and tell the same story as the film?
Sometimes that might mean telling a different emotional story if that’s what the point of the scene is. I definitely don’t think it should just be playing with what’s on screen, I think it’s very powerful to play against the scene, but in the end its job is to be subservient to the movie.
Last night I was overlooking your IMDB and I saw there was a short film you worked on …
Are you talking about the Morgan M. Morgansen’s films?
Yes, the Hit Record films. How was it working on those? It’s my understanding that those projects are completely open source, so how did he end up getting you into that project?
I actually called him [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] after I saw the short and I was like, “I love this. I’d love to do music for it.” He was going to Sundance, taking Hit Record, and the short wasn’t finished at that point but his goal was to finish it at Sundance and show it at the end of the festival. They were setting up a rec room where people could come in off the street and record things.
So we were just talking on the phone and I was like, “What If I came out to Sundance, wrote and recorded the score all during that one week with people from the website and people off the street?” He was really excited about the idea, so basically I wrote the main theme for that, sketched it out, really roughly, over the time of the movie and just during the course of that week people from the website started sending in someone playing violin or one of the guys on the website did a string arrangement and recorded the strings with some friends from school, some guy at the festival played double bass, so we brought him in to do the bass. It was crazy. To have that score happen that quickly in one week with mostly people that I’ve never met before, it was insane. It felt like I was witnessing something special that could only be accomplished through this technological tool.
Would you ever consider doing another project somewhat similar to that?
Totally. I loved it. In a way that sort of plays to a way I enjoy working. With The Brothers Bloom soundtrack the reference points for that was kind of Dylan and the band rather than an orchestral score. It was kind of an ensemble piece and that sort of suits my background in producing bands. I love bringing a musician into a room and working with them to see what direction they would go that maybe I hadn’t thought of and getting tons of takes from them and then working with that raw material. That’s what doing a Hit Record thing really plays to that because you just get fifty recordings and you sort through them and put them together and figure them out.