Spirited VII Dystopia
Interview by Young Park
The broken-down, falling-apart world of the not-too-distant future in Looper gets brought to life by composer Nathan Johnson. The sound of Looper is sweepingly visceral and textured. It’s dismantled and pounding, scuttling and skittering, and at times quietly contemplative. There lies an ongoing rhythm, reflecting both the urgency of the characters and their bleak circumstances, as lost, imperfect humans in an industrial world made more complicated by technology. In order to create the atmosphere of an unhinged future, Nathan gathered sounds from everyday life and customized new instruments. His work on Looper vastly differs from the haunting wine-glass melodies of high school film noir Brick and the warmly meandering, adventure-rife themes of The Brothers Bloom. Yet with each film, his approach has been fresh and imaginative.
I first met Nathan at one of his living room shows with his band Faux Fix (a collaborative project with Katie Chastain) after a set that was at once intimate and ethereal. I was struck by how warm and genuinely excited about music he was. I was thrilled to talk with him about his experience scoring Looper and his creative processes.
You’ve said that you love imperfections in music. What is it about imperfections that draws you to them?
I think that ever since I was little, I’ve always been attracted to not-perfect voices. I feel like the voice of Tom Waits or Bob Dylan is always more compelling to me than a perfect opera voice, and that’s just an aesthetic thing for me. I find that those things become little musical hooks for me, and I feel the same way about music production in general. There’s obviously something great about really slick pop, but I tend to be drawn towards things that are a little bit rougher around the edges and in a lot of songs, those things are the bits and pieces that jump out to me that I obsess about and get really excited about.
With Looper, you implemented a lot of imperfect sounds into the score.
Yeah, with Looper, it was interesting because we were using a lot of technology to make the music. We were using synthesis and computers to create a lot of the sounds, and part of the game when you’re using technology is that everything can nudge towards that too-perfect sound. It’s really easy to put everything on the grid and you can autotune everything. If you’re not careful, you can end up sucking the life out of it. And so with Looper, we used a lot of advanced technology but all of the core sounds that we started with were field recordings, and they were made on a little field recorder that I took down to New Orleans. I was wandering around the city gathering these sounds, which meant that we weren’t in a perfect studio environment and there were lots of other sounds and lots of room atmospherics going on and all of that made it into the score.
Your work is characterized by a lot of experimentation. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to take more risks and challenge themselves?
Something that I’ve found is that a lot of those creative things come from restrictions. A lot of the stuff that I did on Brickcame about because we really didn’t have much of a budget. We had to figure out, ‘Okay, how do you figure out something that sounds like a string section, when we don’t have the money to record a string section?’ On Brick, we used a lot of wine glasses and it was just something that, as a kid, I had played around with. But when I was thinking about it, I realized, ‘Oh that’s kind of an interesting take on the string section because rather than having beautiful legato strings, you have beautiful legato tones happening and they can go on for as long as you want as long if you just keep rubbing your finger along the rim of the glass.’ So I found that for me, that “risk-nature” comes from wanting to try to do something and realizing that there are restrictions that won’t allow you to do it the way everybody else does it. So then, you have to just go for it and try to still make something with what you’ve got.
Do you feel that by having more restrictions, you had more creative freedom on earlier films such as Brick than on a film such as Looper?
Looper is obviously a much bigger film so we had more tools to use, but it felt like there were still as many creative restrictions, just because of how Rian and I talked about approaching it. Also, I had never done something with found sounds like that before. I had experimented before with found sounds but that had mostly been in a rhythmic capacity.
WITH LOOPER, WE WERE CREATING MELODIC INSTRUMENTS OUT OF FOUND SOUNDS, AND THAT WAS SOMETHING BRAND NEW FOR ME, SO IT STILL FELT LIKE A LOT OF THE TIME I WAS STUMBLING DOWN A DARK HOLE AND HOPING EVENTUALLY THAT THERE WOULD BE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL.
Narrative is such a strong element in your work, not only with your film scores, but with your other projects such as The Cinematic Underground and Faux Fix. What draws you to a project, in terms of story?
I think part of it is the story, and also part of it is how well the story is executed. I really love reading scripts, and you can tell a lot in a script, in terms of both ‘is this story interesting’ and also ‘how well is this story executed?’ Part of it is this ability to escape into another world. If the world is exciting, that’s a big draw for me. And that’s something that Rian does really well. All of his films and all of his writings inhabit these really unique, interesting worlds. On top of that, he’s also just such an amazing writer, so it’s fun when both of these things go together.
Each of the films you’ve worked on create these vivid, fantastic worlds unto themselves, but they’re tethered by real emotional underpinnings. When you’re working on your compositions, how do you tap into that emotion and translate that into music?
That’s a really good question. I’m not sure if I’ve thought of how I do that before. [laughs] I guess from a very practical, pragmatic point of view, I sit with it. I watch it. I’ll often pull up a scene, pull out an instrument, and just start playing to it. I guess that’s something else that I’m really drawn to, the marriage between music and images.
When I’m writing music, even when it’s not for a movie, like when I was writing the Cinematic Underground record, I could picture all of these places in my head. I knew what they looked like and I could feel how the characters felt. When I imagine stories and the worlds that they take place in, it feels like it’s almost an immediate open door into emotion.
Would you say that you put yourself into the character’s point of view?
Y’know, I think that it might be more from the audience’s point of view. I don’t know that my go-to approach is to try to write the music that the character would be feeling. I feel like in a way it’s more a bridge, the thing that allows the audience to step into that and maybe that’s all a little bit of make believe. Sometimes I’ll put myself in the character’s perspective, but that’s not generally the main way that I approach it. I think it’s more of a stepping stone and from the perspective of the audience.
Looper is the third feature film you’ve scored for your cousin Rian Johnson. When did you and Rian first begin collaborating?
I mean, we have been making things together since we were like elementary school kids. Our families are really close. We have a huge extended family and so every family vacation, we would create a play to put on or write a song. I remember pretty early memories while we were in elementary school. Rian, my other cousin, Aaron, and I, we had a little band writing songs and making music videos so yeah, it’s kind of been a pretty constant thing all through our lives. As we got older and got video cameras, that turned into movies and we would record music and write songs together, so it’s kind of been how we interact. [laughs]
Has witnessing the way Rian directs influenced the way you make your creative decisions?
Yeah, definitely. With film composing, it’s not really about me trying to write my music. It’s very much about me trying to satisfy what the director’s vision is. That type of collaboration is really amazing because not only do you get to step into the world they’ve created, but you really put yourself in service of their vision, which means molding yourself and trying to adapt. You bring your sensibilities to what you’re imagining, and hopefully there’s some happy melting pot there. But I think the director really sets the tone of the movie, and something that’s amazing about Rian is that he’s really up for taking risks and for making interesting choices that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
What sort of interesting choices?
Well, I feel like Brick was a good example of that. That’s such a uniquely weird movie. It’s a film noir set in a high school. When Rian and I were talking about the music, he was talking about how he wanted it to sound rusty and broken down and rough around the edges, which isn’t like mainstream high school music. If you go out and watch any movie about high school, the soundtracks are kind of similar and they’re not what Brick is. I feel like in Rian’s mind, he created his perfect high school, where everybody listens to Tom Waits instead of Shakira or something like that.
How early on does Rian bring you on board in scoring a film?
Really early, which is rare for a composer. Usually composers are brought on fairly late in the game, but with Rian, I read the scripts really soon after he finishes writing it. I’m able to purely get excited it on just the story level before I’m thinking about music at all. It’s great to not be in a rush and just get to read his script, which always feels like Christmas to me, because I love his stories so much. When I get the script, I’m not immediately thinking, what kind of music is this going to have? I get to read it and enjoy it. You know, with Looper, we started talking about music pretty early. I think it was before they had even finished casting. I went down to New Orleans where they were shooting the movie and I got to basically live there for a month and be on set as often as I liked to and watched the performances when I wasn’t recording sound.
So you got to interact more with the film.
Yeah, and I also got to see what the world felt like. That’s pretty amazing, for a composer to get to be on location. It’s not like I was watching them act and writing music for that scene. I think there’s something really nice and sort of luxurious about being able to be around when all of that is being created.
Which scene in Looper did you most enjoy scoring?
One of my favorites was the time-machine sequence, where Old Joe gets captured and is drawn into the warehouse and sent back in time. Part of the reason, and this actually is not common in our process, is that Rian was having trouble finding temp music for his first assembly edit. Once the movie’s finished filming, they’ll assemble it, put it together, and use some temp music to color in the scenes a little bit. He called me up before I had written scenes, before I had really started getting anything together. I had just spent time recording all these sounds.
HE WAS SAYING, “HEY MAN, WE’RE HAVING TROUBLE FINDING TEMP MUSIC FOR A COUPLE OF THESE SCENES. DO YOU WANT TO JUST TAKE A STAB AT THESE RIGHT NOW?” AND SO I JUST DOVE IN. AT THAT POINT I DIDN’T REALLY KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING IN TERMS OF HOW I WAS CREATING THE INSTRUMENTS AND I DIDN’T HAVE ANY OF THE THEMES WRITTEN. BUT I SPENT A DAY OR TWO WORKING ON THAT SCENE FROM THE GROUND UP, JUST BUILDING THE INSTRUMENTS AND WRITING IT, AND IT ALL MESHED TOGETHER. IT TURNED OUT THAT WHEN I SENT IT TO RIAN, HE SAID, “THAT’S IT, THAT’S THE SOUND OF THE MOVIE.” AND THAT SPECIFIC SCENE CHANGED VERY LITTLE. THE MUSIC THAT APPEARS IN THE MOVIE IS ALMOST EXACTLY THE SAME AS WHAT I WROTE THAT VERY FIRST DAY.
There’s a track you wrote in Looper called “A Day in the Life” which plays during a scene that goes through Joe’s daily life as a hired gun. I was wondering, what would be a “day in the life” of Nathan Johnson?
[laughs] Wow. Well, the answer to that is it pretty much depends on what project I’m working on. But that’s one of the things I really enjoy, the fact that I get to have my hands on a lot of projects, so there’s not really a normal routine. It looks the same way for three months and then it looks totally different for the next three months.
I do try to keep a good rhythm going though. I pretty religiously try to take a day off every week. That sounds really boring, but for me I find that it really lends itself to being sane and healthy and also it helps my work be better, I think. I got really excited a while ago of this idea of “breathing in”, which sounds ridiculous and mundane to say that, but as a sort of visual analogy. When you’re creating something that feels like a “breathing out” period, I realized that it’s really important to replenish and take in again– to read, to take in movies, to take in life experiences– so you have kind of a rich well of stuff to draw on when you’re ready to pick your next thing. Didn’t expect to answer it that way, but that is actually something that I really value, taking a rhythmic day off out of whatever I’m doing to just get out and experience other stuff.
Yeah, Joseph Gordon Levitt, who I met doing Brick and who was in Looper, he and I have worked on a handful of things, and he has recently finished writing and directing his first feature film. So yeah, I’m working on music for that with him. We’re kind of wrapping things up and I’m getting close to getting done with the score.
Lastly, what would be your main piece of advice for creating something?
Just start with what you’ve got—like, start now. I think there’s a danger in how we think about creativity, which is, we tend to have an interesting idea, and then something happens between when we have that idea and when we get it out into the real world. Sometimes it’s the fear of “maybe it won’t be as perfect as I imagined it in my head”. Sometimes there are practical restrictions like “I don’t have the tools or the abilities to make what I want to make”.
BUT I THINK THAT THE THING IS, YOU ONLY LEARN HOW TO MAKE THINGS BY DOING IT.
It’s not something that you can read about and get good at theoretically and just start. It takes a while and it takes a lot of doing it. So for me, the thing that I’ve always tried to do is just start with what I have in front of me. That could be designing record covers for friends, and it mostly starts with friends. That’s just how these things work. Whether it’s artwork or writing music or making a short film, I think it’s important to just do it with what you’ve got.