Nathan Johnson on creating a sound-based score for Looper
I caught up with Looper’s composer Nathan Johnson to talk about the dynamics between his sound-based score, the sound design of the film and between himself and director Rian Johnson. What follows is part of the transcription of our Skype conversation.
Can you talk about the dynamics between your sound-intensive soundtrack and the sound design of the film?
For any movie, I come on board mainly with the predominant thought to serve the director’s vision. I think that everyone involved in the movie is hopefully following that same approach. Rian (Johnson, director on Looper) has such a clear direction and such a clear idea of where everything is going…but he’s really open to collaboration as well. I think that’s probably a testament to Rian because he’s the ‘master in the middle’ pulling everything together and bringing all these disparate elements to the same park to play nicely together.
Did you and Jeremy Peirson (Looper‘s Sound Designer) ever discuss where music or sound should take the lead?
No, those were all conversations directly with Rian on both of our parts. We talked throughout the process, but it wasn’t “ok, you take this scene, I’ll take this scene.” That was all very much being directed by Rian. The whole movie is obviously about time and time travel, and I was really interested in the stopwatch sound that Jeremy had found, partially because it ticked at a weird number of ticks per second. I think it was five ticks per second, and that struck me as a really weird amount of ticks to divide into a second.
So I called Jeremy up and I asked him about that and did some research online and found that it’s not a very standard thing…but actually a handful of watches were made with five ticks per second. This was all very interesting to me because it opened up this whole new approach to the music in terms of doing subdivisions. We based a lot of the rhythms off of divisions of 60 beats per minute. (EB: Read Shaun Farley’s excellent interview with Peirson about those ticks and more).
So some of the choices that Jeremy was making influenced how I was going about building the music. But by and large there wasn’t tons of overlap in that regard.
I assume some of the choices you made influenced him as well…
There was an element of both of us influencing each other…the way that a movie is put together, you end up with iterative versions of it, and every time you get a new cut, there’s a little bit more original music in it and a little bit more original sound design in it. As those things build up, I think – more at a subconscious level – that they begin to influence each other. As a composer I want to stay out of the way of big sound effects most of the time. It’s sort of a dance to make sure that you’re letting each thing play in it’s own space.
Props to Jeremy though. Obviously my approach to this veered more towards sound design. He was really cool and I didn’t want it to come across like I was stepping on his toes. I definitely wasn’t trying to sound design the movie, I was trying to make music using sounds. Hopefully that worked in the end.
Was this a typical workflow for you?
It was completely un-typical and un-tested for me. I felt like I was going down a long, dark tunnel where I couldn’t see anything; I was just poking around and feeling my way around, so I felt really displaced and kind of on edge wondering if it was all going to come together and if I was going to be able to pull something out of it. I was definitely doing something and working with tools that I had never worked with before.
What was it like working with Son Lox (who programmed the virtual instruments for the Looper soundtrack)?
He’s an amazing composer in his own right and a really great musician; we’ve been friends for a long time and worked on a lot of things together so it feels like a very natural collaboration. One of the things that he has been doing for awhile is building custom instruments out of sounds.
I come more from a band background so when I compose I generally haven’t been using tons of MIDI stuff; that’s just not my style. I take the approach of writing sketches and melodies and then getting into a room with live players.
When Rian and I first sat down to talk, he had a handful of crazy ideas that he was thinking about for the soundtrack, and one of those things was “What if we went into a warehouse and pushed TVs off the roof and recorded those things and made the soundtrack out of those sounds?” Which is just awesome.
I’m such a fan of Rian’s; we’re cousins and we’ve been working together for a long time but I think one one of the great things that comes with that is this inherent trust that allows you to poke around and find something new; especially if it’s not readily apparent.
I worked on this movie for a year and just practically, the time that you normally have to score most movies, there just wouldn’t be enough time to record and build a whole orchestra of sound instruments.
When Rian started talking to me about that I got really excited, because I had been playing around with this idea for awhile of – for lack of a better term – microscopic sounds. It’s the visual term I use when I think about these really little sounds that nobody ever hears, but if you turn the gain way up on your mic and you’re in a quiet enough place, it’s this whole world within our world. They’re everyday sounds but they’re not commonly heard because they’re so quiet.
I was really excited about bringing some of that into the soundtrack. I had been talking to Ryan (Lott, aka Son Lux) about building virtual instruments. We spent a couple of days together in his studio before I went to New Orleans and he gave me a tutorial in working with Kontakt instruments. Armed with that, I set off for New Orleans and spent a month recording everything. He was very core to the whole process. Afterwards we worked a lot together both in building some instruments but also on arrangements….he was my right hand man throughout the whole process.
It sounds like a very collaborative process.
The way that I work, it’s never a one-man show. I know that there are composers that go and sit in a room by themselves and emerge three weeks later with a finished score, but that’s never how I’ve worked. I really love what happens when you stir up a big cauldron of different people and different talent and coax something new that reflects all these different talents and personalities, and this was very much that approach.
Will you revisit this idea of creating a score based on sound?
Yes. The thing that I like about it is this idea of being surprised by things. It’s one of my favourite ways to work. That material ends up changing and really affecting your idea. What you write will be completely different from if you had sat down with a guitar or a piano to write something. The tools have this almost magical, other-worldy affect on what you’re making.
Looper took that to an even greater level: I was sitting down with these sounds and building instruments out of them and they were completely surprising to me. I had never had the experience of playing a pitched industrial fan before!
Because I recorded all the sounds out in the real world, there’s all these great imperfections in the recordings: Some of that is natural reverb, cars driving by in the background, and then beyond that there are these inherent rhythms in the machines I recorded. It lines up with what I love aesthetically; this element of imperfection.
Did anyone think a sound-based soundtrack was too ‘out there’ or have any objections to what you could call a non-standard score?
If they did, I never heard about it. That may be due to Rian shielding me (laughs). The thing to keep in mind about this was that it was an independent movie, so we were making it off on our own to a certain degree. It was sold almost as a finished product and then Sony came on board and distributed it – and they were amazing. I realise that this is maybe not standard, but I really appreciate that the only person I have to answer to is the person who wrote and directed the film, and is spearheading the whole thing. That’s really valuable in a creative sense because I’m not trying to appease a board of 15 different people; I only have to worry about whether the person who wrote the film is smiling when he hears the score. I’m saying that with a lot of thanks and value for that process because it enables you to experiment and try a lot of things. We tried a lot of things that didn’t work, but the great thing is when you have time and trust, not everything has to work. You can go back, re-jig it, and come up with something new.