‘Glass Onion‘ Composer Nathan Johnson On The Musical Secrets Behind His Collaborations With Director Rian Johnson From ’Brick’ Onwards

Nathan Johnson has scored all of Rian Johnson’s films — Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, Knives Out and now Glass Onion — with the exception of one. “We let a young buck named John Williams do Star Wars,” the composer deadpans. “I think he’s going places, I think he’s really got a future.” Perhaps in a galaxy far, far away there exists a world in which Johnson, the director’s cousin, was allowed to do the honors, and it’s worth wondering how much different The Last Jedi might have been in that instance. Johnson, however, remains gracious. “I got to be there for the scoring sessions,” he enthuses. “I was there on the day that they recorded the opening fanfare, and just being in that studio when those horns kick in … it was amazing. Yeah, it was bananas.”

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Johnson has been around the block a few times since making his debut with Brick in 2005, scoring Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones in 2014 and making waves last awards season with his work for Guillermo Del Toro on the director’s hallucinatory film noir Nightmare Alley. But his work with Rian Johnson continues to be the bedrock of his career, and in this interview he talks about the extent of their long-term collaboration, offering insights into his process along the way.

DEADLINE: Before you started working with Rian, how did you become involved in music?

NATHAN JOHNSON: It actually doesn’t really go back to before Rian. When Rian and I were little kids we had a band called Weirder Than Al; we took Weird Al Yankovic songs and then changed the words. So that was the earliest thing that I can remember, we just were always making music or movies or plays or something together from the time we were really, really young.

DEADLINE: Isn’t that very meta? Because surely that meant you were making parodies of parodies?

JOHNSON: Yeah. We thought we were brilliant. We didn’t realize we were terrible.

DEADLINE: What did Rian play in those days?

JOHNSON: At that time, none of us were playing anything, we were just recording our new lyrics onto a little cassette player. We were really young then. Rian played piano and banjo eventually, and we started actually writing songs of our own. We had this project that we referred to as The Preserves, making folk songs. But we weren’t drawing lines between all these different things. When we were making movies as kids, it wasn’t like I was scoring them and Rian was directing them, it was like we were just all making them together. We’ve told this story before, but our dubbing stage was basically a VCR, a camcorder and a Discman in our grandparents’ basement with the Hook soundtrack. We would pause everything and un-pause everything at the same time. That was how we would edit our movies together.

DEADLINE: How did Brick come about?

JOHNSON: Well, so I had just recorded a record with my band, which was called The Cinematic Underground, and it was a kind of narrative concept album with a graphic novel. It was very much telling a story. Growing up, I had always been making music and making movies, but I had never really thought about putting them together. So when Rian started to cut Brick, he realized he had no money to hire a real composer, so he was trying to figure out, “Who can I get to do this for free?” So he was like, “Hey, do you want to score Brick?” I was like, a) “Yes, of course, because I will do anything with you, and it feels like we’ve grown up doing this.” But also, b) I was super freaked out, because I had no idea how to score a movie. By that point, I was really doing songwriting and being in bands, and that was the road I was going down. So I just took what I knew from that world, which was at that time very DIY. The whole Brick score was recorded in my bedroom with a PowerBook and one microphone. We had wine glasses instead of a string section and filing cabinets and mallets instead of timpani drums. Partly because we didn’t have enough money to hire a real orchestra, but also because I didn’t know any better.

DEADLINE: Was it a case of scoring to what you were seeing? Literally just looking at the movie, looking at the images, and producing the music in real time?

JOHNSON: It was, to some degree, but I was also writing themes. Rian edited the whole thing in his apartment [in Los Angeles], on Final Cut Pro, while I was scoring the whole thing half a world away in my apartment [in Bournemouth, U.K.], but it definitely did start with themes. I would record something and send it to him. I’ve still got the old iChats where Rian was saying, “Give me ideas for each character,” because we decided to do the score sort of like Peter and the Wolf, where not only did each character have their own theme but each character literally had their own instrument.

DEADLINE: How did that work out?

JOHNSON: So for Tugger, for example, Rian was like, “Just the lowest notes on the piano.” So there was a lot of thought going into that ahead of time, and I had charts drawn up all over the walls and anything to give me something that felt like a handle to hold onto, to figure out how to do this overwhelming thing.

DEADLINE: How did you learn to do that? Were you looking at other movies to see how themes were used?

JOHNSON: No. It came from … Gosh, that’s a good question. It’s hard to even think back about it, but I think part of it was this album that I had just made: I did the same thing, putting charts up on the walls, tracking characters. It was a pretentious concept album record! [Laughs] I don’t think most composers approach it that way. Also, we were talking a lot about Tom Waits as a reference. I always say that, in Rian’s mind, his ideal high school was a high school where all of the kids listened to Tom Waits instead of pop radio. So it suited our recording approach. I remember a story about Tom Waits. I think he was recording in a barn, and he was like, “Open the doors, there’s not enough grit in the recordings!” So the fact that we were recording with a shitty microphone in my bedroom served that purpose. There was an old piano in the hallway that was slightly out of tune, and we were hanging light bulbs on it so that it would buzz when the strings were hit.

I remember when Rian got to the dub stage, the mixer said to him like, “Sounds like there are real instruments in here.” Rian was like, “What do you mean?” We I didn’t know that, at that point, all zero-budget movies were scored using a sample library. That just wasn’t my background, so I just got my friends together and we recorded it all.

DEADLINE: RZA’s advice to would-be composers is never throw anything away, because that one idea you have that doesn’t quite work could become a sting or a cue. When did you start developing your skills as a film composer?

JOHNSON: It was a fluid process. Honestly, I still think about it in terms of songwriting. A lot of time when I score I’ll have lyrics that I write, because I feel like, if I can sing it, that’s going to stand up as a memorable theme. But for Brick, I did do that. I don’t throw anything away, I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of audio recordings, and that’s when I started to mine those ideas, which maybe were initially ideas for songs, but then I started pulling melodies from them and finding the things that tickled Rian’s ears. So I feel like it’s been a long transition. You practice it by doing it, then you learn what works and what doesn’t.

DEADLINE: Does Rian give you homework? Because all his films so far have been genre films, does he have you watch movies, if only to get a sense of what the vibe might be?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. But in a weird way, I remember for Brick, he sent me The Third Man. Partly because that’s a film noir that has a zither score, which doesn’t make any sense on one level. But that’s such a thing about Rian, both in his writing style and in his music approach: he zigs when you expect him to zag. So, obviously, we didn’t want to do a zither score for Brick, but there was something about the wrongness that felt so right about that, that we were trying to capture with the score for Brick.

That’s been the same thing for each movie. I remember when we first started talking about Looper, Rian was really excited about Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’, and he was like, “What if we make the whole score one chord?” I was like, “Oh, no.” Or he was like, “What if we go into a studio and we just push TVs off the roof and record those?” At that point, I was really into this idea of… this isn’t a real thing, but for lack of a better word, the idea of ‘microscopic sounds’. Everyday normal sounds that are so quiet that we’re not used to hearing them.

So Looper grew out of this idea of like, “OK, can we make a score with field recordings and turn those into playable instruments?” That’s the best thing about working with Rian: he has generally an instinct, and he’ll say, “What about this?” Usually, I feel like, “Oh, that’s not what I was expecting at all. That feels a little bit uncomfortable.” Which probably means it’s going to be a good garden to plant.

DEADLINE: We’ll come back to Looper … The next film you did together was The Brothers Bloom, and, as Rian keeps saying, the conman movie is not a huge genre. How did you prepare for that one, and what conversations did you have about the music?

JOHNSON: If Brick was the DIY orchestra, Bloom moved that orchestra onto the back porch, that was how I was thinking about it. So it feels a little bit down-home, it’s still not in a studio, but it feels like maybe a little bit evolved beyond all the broken-down, out-of-tune stuff we were doing for Brick. Bloom was really melody-forward, so we were referencing Federico Fellini and Nino Rota for a lot of Bloom. In a sense, we actually did record Bloom in a professional studio, but I approached it the same way, just recording one instrument at a time and building on top of each other. It’s like the bedroom recorder’s approach to creating music: I’d have the drummer come in, then I’d have the guitarist come in for a day by himself, and then I’d have the harpist come in, and then bring in the clarinet, bring in a trumpeter. But these are still very much like I’m recording hundreds and hundreds of tracks and constructing the score from the ground up.

DEADLINE: It seems a bit late to ask in the interview to ask this, but did you study music?

JOHNSON: No, no, no. Not at all. I have been making music for as long as I can remember, but I’m not classically trained. It’s just very much coming from the songwriter band background. For me, my approach is really, always, that the  story is king. That’s something people always ask me: “What kind of music do you want to do for your next movie?” But I just never think about it that way, it’s always about the story, it’s always about the script and, Am I excited about the story? Am I excited about working with this director? That, to me, feels like the engine that you need to propel you through writing whatever music is going to serve that.

DEADLINE: Music was a very, very big feature of that film, which it wasn’t with Brick.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

DEADLINE: Am I right to think that The Band was a big influence on that soundtrack?

JOHNSON: Yep. The Band, Dylan, Nino Rota. That’s why I refer to it as the back-porch orchestra, it has that folksy vibe with a bit of that wonderful squirrel-y Italian influence in there. But yeah, The Brothers Bloom, I think, is probably the most, maybe the most melodic theme-heavy score that we’ve done together. Although, we definitely get back to that vibe specifically in Glass Onion, I think.

DEADLINE: Now, Looper… I don’t actually remember much about the score for Looper, and I don’t really know why that is.

JOHNSON: Well, I can tell you why. Looper was the most out of left-field for me, because it’s not a thematic melody score. It’s a tonal atmospheric score. So with Rian talking about the idea of broken TVs and “What if it’s one chord?” after doing Brick and Bloom, I was beginning to feel like I understood how to score a movie. With Looper it’s about field recordings. Melody is not at the forefront, it’s about percussion, it’s about atmosphere, and really more about generating something in this tonal impressionistic world. So although there is a key motif that repeats through Looper, it’s not the main job of what that score is doing. It’s much more about the sound of this industrial, broken-down city in the future that’s just operating on an underlying deeper feeling.

DEADLINE: What were the motifs?

JOHNSON: There’s just one, and in my mind, the way I thought about it is young Joe and old Joe and how they relate together.

DEADLINE: So then we get to Knives Out. Was that your first time with a string quartet?

JOHNSON: That was the first movie that Rian and I did together where it was a full orchestra playing live together all at once. Obviously, the other movies had string sections and horn sections, but this was the first time where it was like, “OK, we’re using a live orchestra.” That was our big restriction, after coming up from recording in our bedroom, the bold grand idea was, “OK, for Knives Out, we’re going to restrict ourselves to the best players in the world playing at Abbey Road.”

DEADLINE: How did you approach a score like this, with so many characters, and also characters that people don’t realize will come into play later in the movie? How do you approach a whodunit?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, here’s the thing that I think is really interesting about a whodunit, which I didn’t fully appreciate before I started working on them. This is maybe a little reductive, but I think about the scores for these films as operating on different levels. You’ve got the fun, “We’re going on an adventure” melodic statement, but then, of course, you have to feel the tension and the danger through the whole movie. But what I think is really brilliant about the way that Rian is approaching these is you really care about the protagonist, and the protagonist is not Benoit Blanc. The protagonist is not the detective: the protagonist is somebody that will be new in each of these films.

At the heart of them, aside from the excitement and the mystery/danger aspect, the core of these movies is their central characters, and if we don’t emotionally connect with them, if we don’t emotionally care about them, then the whole movie falls apart. Which is not something that I would have assumed going into it, because you just think like, “Oh, this is a puzzle box.” But as Rian has said, that’s not what’s compelling about these movies. Those are the trappings, but the heart of it has to be a character that you fall in love with and someone who you really care about. And that’s a broad thing that applies really to both Knives Out and Glass Onion. Specifically with Knives Out, I remember my first conversations with Rian about that when we decided we were going to use an orchestra, we were talking about keeping everything really, really precise and really cutting. We didn’t want to go in this direction of just a big blurry wall of sound in the background. Everything had to be really precise. With Knives Out, Rian talked a lot about feeling like that sharp, cutting element in all of the music.

So, with the string quartet, that’s probably the defining musical piece of Knives Out. It starts the movie. But I got them to really dig in with their bows. It’s almost like a bow-shredding, scratchy thing, which is really, really hard — it’s hard to play that fast and that aggressively. But I think that was really key to setting the tone of what these movies were going to be like, we’re going to hear that imperfection that I love, that’s in all of my stuff going back to Brick, but this time it’s world-class players capturing this aggression and this tension.

DEADLINE: That’s obvious in the opening sequence, but how does it develop through the film?

JOHNSON: So we started with the quartet, but then the whole rest of the score is basically full orchestra. Again, our approach to that was not letting it get washy, but making sure we’re mic-ing up all the characters. I’ve got to give a big shout-out to our recording engineers Pete Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley, their approach is just so tailored to this. I start sending them demos and they’re responding to those demos and my mock-ups, they want to capture everything as precisely as I’m writing them. So although the string quartet starts the movie as four interlocking lines, the whole orchestra is written in that same style. We’re hearing interlocking lines from the winds passing off to the brass, passing off to the strings. Essentially, it’s like using the orchestra in a very close precise way.

DEADLINE: Moving onto Glass Onion, when did you realize there was going to be another Benoit Blanc movie?

JOHNSON: I don’t remember, but definitely not until after. That was not what we were thinking about while we were making it, and it’s definitely not what I was thinking about while I was scoring it. I’m glad for that, because … Whenever Rian sends me a script, it’s like Christmas morning, and at that moment I’m not thinking about the music at all. I just am like, “Oh, my gosh. What is this going to be like?” It’s like getting to read one of my favorite authors, getting to read his next project. So I’m just purely reading it as a fan.

But when he sent me the script for Glass Onion, I remember finishing it and I was like, “Holy shit. How did you do that?” Because it’s not only a whole new cast of characters, but it’s a whole new tone, it’s a whole new structure. I was just so excited that he didn’t rehash Knives Out. I think, musically, what that does is it clears the slate. We’re still obviously operating in the same general sound world, and Blanc’s theme comes back, but really it’s 98% brand-new music. So it’s like starting the whole conversation again with Rian. It’s like, “OK, what are we going to do for this? What’s the vibe going to be?”

DEADLINE: Before we get to that, what is Blanc’s theme?

JOHNSON: [Whistling] It’s a very simple short motif. In my mind, he’s got a handful of those, there are three different ones, but that’s his main one in my mind. It’s in a minor key, and it uses this Hungarian scale, so there’s notes in it that feel a little bit odd. To me, it really evokes this sense of mystery, this sense of, “OK, we’re in Blanc’s brain.” There’s also Blanc’s hunting motif, which is a little bit more cheeky. You get a hint of his smile. But to me, it’s just so much fun to get to have this character interact with a whole new cast of characters.

DEADLINE: So now we come to the new characters. How do you write for them?

JOHNSON: Well, the first thing was not a character theme, it was just the main theme. That was the first one, and it actually took me the longest to crack. I was working on that while I was over in Greece and in Serbia. Rian said, “We want to plant these flags in the sand right at the beginning, we want to let everybody know this is a grand adventure. It’s bigger, it’s more lush.” So we were tipping our hats to Nino Rota and his theme for Death on the Nile, this lush grand opulent mystery.

Then there’s the motif for The Disruptors [Miles Bron’s group of friends], which is something that I interpret differently, based on who’s on screen at the moment. So when Birdie’s on screen, it’s this very wistful romantic memory: she’s looking across the pool remembering how she first met Miles. It’s the same theme, but a little bit more beautiful. Duke’s version of The Disruptors’ theme is low and chromatic. It’s really fun to toss around to all of them. The core for this one is Andi’s theme. Obviously, Andi starts the movie as a total outsider, then halfway through she’s our protagonist, so it has to be powerful, but vulnerable at the same time. It has to be beautiful, yet broken. There needs to be an outsider-ness, but then at the same time we’ve got to get pulled in with this wistful string movement. So her theme, I think, is really the emotional crux. In my mind it exemplifies the pain that she’s experienced, and it’s a key tool for linking us with her character as the protagonist of the story.

DEADLINE: And am I right I thinking that Andi’s theme gets ‘stolen’ by Miles?

Yeah. So this idea of theme-stealing is something that I introduced back in Brick: when Laura and Brendan sleep together at the end of the movie and he’s thinking back to Emily in his mind. I’m really intrigued by what you can do when you have a motif-driven score, when each little motif is linked to a character. So during the scene where Miles and Blanc are up in the glass onion [Miles’s office], Miles is looking at the picture of all The Disruptors together, talking about how he misses that bar, and how Andi was the only one who would tell him the truth.

I was thinking about that and I suggested to Rian, “What if Miles steals Andi’s theme here?” He just cackled with glee, because it’s operating on a couple levels. Obviously, he steals her theme the way he stole her company, and then on a second level, Miles is spinning a bit of a story to Blanc here. I like the idea that he needs someone else’s emotion to tap into, to make this believable. But then at a core level, Andi’s theme, the sound of it and the emotion of it really does work for what he’s talking about there. He’s saying, “I know it’s hard to feel bad for the poor rich billionaire, but goddamn, I miss that bar.”

I think I just really liked the idea that, at this moment when Miles is sharing a vulnerable moment, even then he chooses to steal somebody’s theme. Edward has talked about this a lot — in his mind, Miles has probably never had an original thought in his life. So that felt very appropriate for that moment.

DEADLINE: Glass Onion is probably the first of Rian’s films that has a big climax. How did you build towards that?

JOHNSON: Well, that was a really fun moment, because I realized that I was going to get to write a new piece for a string quartet. We started Knives Out with a string quartet, so this was our chance to keep it in this world. But it really made sense for Andi at that moment, when she starts breaking the glass, but it’s this very singular action. She’s the only one doing it, she’s surrounded by these powerful people, and bringing back this very small string quartet felt like it really embodied the rage that she was feeling and the emotion.Again, they’re really digging in, they’re shredding their bows. However, at the same time, we’ve now got a 70-piece orchestra backing her up, so it’s been building the whole movie. We start it with a small string quartet, but then everyone else starts joining in. It was really rewarding to get to revisit that language, but really back it up with the full orchestra, just going bananas.

DEADLINE: What directions do you give to the orchestra at that point?

JOHNSON: Well, it starts with the string quartet and the directions are, “I want to hear all that scratch on the bow. I want this to be fast and intense, and I want it to be hard, and I want it to be imperfect.” But the orchestra as well: the low strings are playing staccato, where they’re slapping the strings against the fret boards. The horns are a little bit going like elephant horns, over the place. So working with that is just like, “We want to feel all of that rage. We want to feel all of that coming out of your instruments.”

DEADLINE: I know you like that kind of imperfection, but have you found that professional musicians like to be let off the leash?

JOHNSON: Totally. Something that I love about this playground is that I truly am working with some of the best players in the world, they’ve spent their whole lives working again and again at how to perfectly reproduce something. And then we come in and we’re saying…  For instance, before Andi drops the glass, there’s this string gesture where the [string section is] hitting the strings with the back, with the wooden parts of their bows, it’s called collegno, but the music is random for that point and we’re just having all of them hit at different times and do this cascading thing. Each time they do it sounds different, but it feels like… I don’t know… like spiders fluttering down a window. It’s foreshadowing. Like, “OK, this is a little bit off the hook. It’s unleashed. We’re stepping away from perfection and we’re about to just let some raw rage come out.”

DEADLINE: How many times do you read a script before you embark on a soundtrack?

JOHNSON: Multiple times. I love script stage. It’s not something that every composer does, sometimes the first thing a composer will do is see a rough cut. But for me, I always ask that they send the script first. Partly because I love that art form, but partly because reading the script and then seeing the first cut is really, really informative to where is this started and where is it going. Everyone talks about making a movie when they write it, and then remaking the movie when they shoot it, and then remaking it again in the editing room. I just find, personally, that I like to be involved as early as possible, and I think knowing all of that stuff helps my journey and helps me understand how best to land this thing.

DEADLINE: Final question: what can you reveal about Knives Out 3?

JOHNSON: Nothing. I’m just waiting for that day when Rian’s name pings up in my email inbox and I get to read the script. But yeah, Rian’s coming up with it and writing it, and then we’re going to figure out how to do a whole new version of this.

DEADLINE: So you’re going to wait until he gives you the script?

JOHNSON: Yeah. That really is the best thing about these, I find that it’s not very helpful to have musical thoughts before you see what the story’s going to be. I think about it as a pyramid and Rian is up at the top, but he’s not actually the top. In this type of setting, Rian is actually serving the very top of the pyramid, which is the story, and all of that then flows down. Which is not always the case, but it’s something that I really appreciate. Even in all of Rian’s notes, when we’re dialing it in, his notes are so great because they’re very specifically story-based. So the music needs to be doing what it does because of the story.

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