Award-winning composer Jóhann Jóhannsson scores Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve’s dark new crime thriller starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro, which is featured at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The flawlessly crafted film centers on an idealistic FBI agent whose ethical and moral values are pushed to the limit while trying to take down a Mexican cartel boss. Sicario is Jóhannsson’s first project following his Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated score for The Theory of Everything. The Berlin-based composer previously collaborated with Villeneuve on his disturbing suspense drama, Prisoners, in 2013.
In our exclusive interview, Jóhannsson talked about reteaming with Villeneuve, their shared sensibilities and intuitive collaboration, why he was fascinated by the structure and originality of the script, how Villeneuve didn’t use any temp music while editing which allowed Jóhannsson to begin writing the music with a completely blank slate, how he found the defining cue and drew on a lot of percussion, rhythmical elements, and electronic manipulation of recordings for the evocative score, how the orchestral writing was spectral and very much about texture and rhythm rather than melody, his work on Villeneuve’s new sci-fier Story of Your Life, and possible involvement with the upcoming Blade Runner 2. Check it all out in the interview below:
JOHANN JOHANNSSON: We met first when he asked me to write the music for Prisoners. That was our first project together. Then, that went really well and we enjoyed working together so he asked me to do Sicario as well. That’s how the project came about. I’m a big fan of Denis and I really love his films. I knew his work before Prisoners came up, especially his film, Incendies, which I was a big fan of and which he did in Canada. I was really intrigued and very excited by the prospect of him working with a script like Prisoners. When that project came my way, it was a project that I was very excited about. And then, Sicario again was a script that I really liked. It was a very strong script, very original and unique. I had a strong feeling that Denis would do something really interesting with it. So, it was a real pleasure to work with him again. He’s a great collaborator and very inspiring in terms of writing music for his films. What he does inspires me very much.
What was your reaction when you first read Taylor Sheridan’s script and how did that help inspire you?
JOHANNSSON: I was really struck by the sense of moral ambiguity, and the sense that these were characters that were complex and faced with very hard choices, and also this setting of the border and this really wild, semi-lawless area, which I thought was very cinematic and interesting, but also very topical and something that really speaks to what’s happening today. I was also very fascinated by the structure of the script. I thought it was very original how it was structured. I couldn’t really place it anywhere. It didn’t remind me of anything else. It felt like it was a really unique kind of piece. The script is full of atmosphere as well. It’s very atmospheric. Also, I read it with Denis’ visual style in my head. Reading it, I saw it through the lens of Denis in a way. It’s amazing, and DP Roger Deakins is a master, of course. I knew it would be a very strong project.
It’s a very dark, tense story. Can you talk a little about how you begin your approach when you’re starting on a project like this?
JOHANNSSON: Denis likes to involve me early on, which I like very much as well. When I work on films, I like to be involved from as early as possible. I think this is really good and beneficial in terms of absorbing the atmosphere of the film and for the music to become a part of the DNA of the film. It’s very good to have the composer involved early on, and Denis is very much of that opinion as well. Both on Prisoners and on this one, I was involved from before they started shooting. I went to the set, drove around, and visited the locations and the studio where they were shooting the tunnel, for example. Very early in the process, I was absorbing influences and getting a sense of the atmosphere and the feel of the film. The way Denis works is that he doesn’t use any music when he’s editing. So, the first edit of the film was without music. There was no temp music. Basically, he sent me a long rough cut of the film with no music at all, so I had this blank slate to work with. Of course, we talked about music and moods, and what the music needed to do, and what aspects to emphasize. Denis had a strong sense of what he wanted, but he also gave me a lot of freedom in terms of how to implement that. I think I wrote about four or five cues to this rough cut and sent them off. And that’s how the ball started rolling and this process of slowly finding the sound and the voice of the film in a way.
Was Denis on board early in terms of the sounds that you had in your head?
JOHANNSSON: Yes, I think so. We have similar sensibilities in many ways. I didn’t have to convince him too much. I sent him several different ideas and he maybe reacted very strongly to one particular idea and then that was the direction that I took. But that was the cue that I wanted him to react strongly to, so I was very glad that he did. We have a good rapport and we share certain sensibilities, so it’s a very intuitive collaboration. We don’t need to talk a lot. We don’t need to discuss things a lot. It’s almost like mindreading in a way. It’s been a very good collaboration on these two films.
What were the most important aspects of the film to capture in order to support the story and its scope and to strike the right balance and emotional resonance?
JOHANNSSON: It’s a very intense film and has this relentless intensity to it. That was something that I felt the music needed to emphasize and support. So, the idea of using percussion and rhythmical elements came very early on. But then, there was also the sense of feeling the loneliness of the desert and this kind of sadness of the border areas and the melancholy of the border. That was also something that I tried to capture. Also, the character of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who has this sort of dark past and this tragedy that is in his past and which he is haunted by. That was really a source of inspiration for some of the softer and more melancholic moments of the score.
Can you talk a little about the orchestrational choices you made for the sound of the score? What tool box did you draw on to find the right sound and to develop the score and its themes?
JOHANNSSON: I didn’t use any vocoders or voice synthesizers for this one. I have used them in the past, but not on this one. I did use some voices. There’s a singer, Robert Lowe, that I used who came in and did some vocals for the score which we ended up using a little bit. The palette is very much based around percussion and it’s based around orchestra, but the way I recorded the percussion and I recorded the orchestra was kind of unconventional. I recorded the orchestra in sections, and there’s a lot of editing and processing of the orchestras. It’s not like a live recording of the orchestra playing everything from bar one until the end. It was really a score that came together in the editing. So, there’s a lot of processing. All of it is live recording, but they are all processed to different degrees – processed meaning edited and manipulated sonically. There are a lot of solo featured players as well. There’s Hildur Guðnadóttir, the cellist and composer who I work with quite often. She played some solo cello and also some more textural kind of cello and string playing. There’s the bassist and guitarist, Skúli Sverrisson, who plays six-string bass. For example, on the score, there’s a track called “Melancholia” which he plays on. There’s also the sound designer, B.J. Nilsen, who I worked with to create some of the electronic sounds. It’s a combination. And the electronics are very important as well. I mean the processed electronic sounds. Again, they’re all acoustic in origin. There are no synthesizers on the score. Also, the orchestral writing is very textural. It’s very spectral and very much about texture and rhythm rather than melody, although there are melodic moments in the score. There are definitely some melodic moments, but the emphasis is on texture.
The sound design of the film is impressive in how it supports what we’re seeing on screen. How do you decide where to place the music and where not? Was this something Denis and you discussed quite a lot?
JOHANNSSON: This is something that happens in the editing. That’s why I love being a part of the film and writing the score as the film is being edited because then the music becomes part of the DNA of the film. It’s really kind of a back and forth process. I send the music to Denis and to Joe (Walker), the editor, and they cut it into a theme. They send me that back and I make some adjustments. It’s very much a back and forth. Then they maybe take another cue that I sent and put it into another scene where I hadn’t really thought of putting it. It’s really a collaboration. It’s very collaborative and that’s what I enjoy. When I’m writing film music, I feel like I’m more a filmmaker than a composer. It’s more about what the film needs. I’m basically part of the team that’s creating a film and the music is a very important part, but it’s just one part of many. Film is a collaborative medium and I very much enjoy that. I very much enjoy working with talented filmmakers who have a good sense for music, who have a strong feel for music and for what music can do in a film. Both Denis and Joe have a very strong sense of that.
What was the most challenging scene you struggled with in this film, in terms of navigating the emotional journey of complex characters or maintaining the thematic unity when a lot of information or different aspects of their lives was being revealed?
JOHANNSSON: It’s hard to say what was tough. I can’t really point at one particular scene or one particular element of the film that was tougher than the others. It’s always hard to start. It’s always hard to find the voice of the film and to really find the big, strong idea that defines the sound of the film, but once you find that, once you find the defining cue, then things really start to flow. For me, I think the first scene that I scored was this convoy scene where they’re going into Juarez for the first time. It starts with a fairly long helicopter shot, which slowly rises over the border, and you see the border fence, and then you hear this throbbing sound of helicopter blades, which slowly crescendos and rises throughout the scene and really becomes a part of the music in a way. I very much composed the cue around the helicopter sounds. The helicopter sounds almost become an instrument in the cue. That was a cue that I wrote very early on, which Denis and Joe liked very much. I was very glad they liked that one because it was something that I was very excited about when I wrote that cue. For me, that really defines the sound of the film. That was kind of the first cue that really hit home.
How long did you work on this score? Did you have months to work on this or was it a fairly short schedule?
JOHANNSSON: No, it was fairly long. I was working on other things as well, but like I said, I was involved from before they started shooting, so I had a long time to think about the music and to let the subconscious do its work. It was not a short schedule. No. I had enough time.
How do you approach scoring an entire piece like this when you realize the scope of what’s involved? Do you start from the beginning and work to the end? Do you plan out how much you have to write? How do you budget your time?
JOHANNSSON: I do try to set certain goals, like I have to have this amount of music or 50 percent of the score written by this date. Usually you have a recording date and then the mix date is set, so you know when you have to finish. It’s a matter of setting yourself goals that you have to reach to be able to make that. I’m always doing a lot of other projects. I’m doing my own solo stuff and I’m doing commissions and things like that, so I have to plan my time very carefully. It’s about scheduling and settings things in the calendar and setting yourself some kind of goals to reach.
How have your roots defined you as an artist and influenced the sensibility you bring to the work you do?
JOHANNSSON: I think no matter where you’re from, as an artist you’re always drawing on your roots, your past, your origins, and the environment you come from. Definitely, growing up in Iceland and really developing as an artist and as a composer in Iceland had a huge effect on me. Even though I haven’t lived there in 10 years, I go back there a lot and I work there quite a lot. I work a lot with Icelandic players. I think there are three or four Icelandic players on Sicario. It’s always a part of my DNA literally and it’s always a part of me as an artist. Those roots are always there.
When you’re writing film music, how do you maintain your identity and characteristics as a composer while serving the film?
JOHANNSSON: I would say that because I established myself as a composer before starting to do film music, I had put out some solo records and so I had a sound already. Then people started to license that music for films and then filmmakers started getting in touch about writing scores. So, they approached me before because I’m me and I’m writing these kinds of sounds and I have this sensibility as well. I don’t find it that hard to maintain my identity as a composer. But I also very much like to challenge myself with new things. I’m someone who doesn’t like to do the same thing twice. I always like to set myself a new challenge with each project and do something I haven’t done before. In this way, working on film is great because every project brings its own parameters and its own set of challenges. But also, I’ve been lucky enough to work with really great filmmakers and great directors. So, I think I’ve been extremely lucky with the projects I’ve been given. They have suited my character as a composer very well. It’s also about knowing a little bit which projects to pick and having a good sense for what projects will suit me well.
At any point in your artistic career, was there music that really impressed you and made you say, “That’s what I’m aspiring to?” Who or what were your inspirations?
JOHANNSSON: It’s sort of hard to say. There are many stages of growing up musically. I remember one record that my siblings had when I was growing up, which was the first “Velvet Underground” record. That was a record that I listened to a lot when I was 10 years old for some reason. I was really fascinated by that album, mostly the first side which has all the pop songs, maybe less so the second side which is a little bit more abrasive and experimental. That was an early influence. And then, maybe 10 years later, I figured out what this record actually meant and what kind of significance it had in the history of music. When I was 10 years old, I just listened to it because it had these nice songs, but I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of them. Also, in terms of classical music, my parents had a huge collection of classical music, and I remember listening to Bach and Handel and also the romantics like Beethoven and Brahms and Schubert. There are so many things. And then, later on, I think minimalism became a very [strong inspiration], both the American and the English and European minimalists – people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass in America, and people like Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars in the U.K., and then in East Europe, composers like Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt and people like that. Then, there was a period where I discovered 20th century music and serial music and Karlheinz Stockhausen. There are so many different periods you go through when you’re discovering music. It’s hard to say which one thing influenced you most. It’s a little bit hard to pinpoint that.
Can you talk a little about the international nature of filmmaking today and why you enjoy being based in Berlin?
JOHANNSSON: Berlin is a very vibrant city. The art community and the music community there are really strong. It’s also very international. There are so many people from all over the world, creative people who come there to live and work. There’s a huge pool of musicians and artists to work with. It’s a very creative and very inspiring place. So I really enjoy living and working there. A lot of my projects are here in the States, but I do a lot of European projects as well. But these days, it doesn’t really matter so much where you’re based. It’s so easy to collaborate over the internet that it’s not as important to be in Los Angeles as it used to be if you want to work in the film industry.
What else can we expect from you? Have you finished other scores in the meantime for films that will be coming out? Or are you working on anything now that you can talk about?
JOHANNSSON: Actually I’m working on Denis’ new sci-fi film called Story of Your Life (starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stulbarg) which he just finished shooting and which they’ve started editing now. I’m also working on a TV series called Trapped, which actually is being shown here (at the Toronto International Film Festival). They’re doing a screening of the first two episodes here in Toronto as well. That’s a huge show that’s created by Baltasar Kormákur who directed Everest. And then, I’m doing a lot of solo projects as well. I finished a piece for a choir, a chamber choir and string quartet, which was premiered in New York a few months ago, and which I’m recording in a few months. I’m working on a string quartet commission as well and a solo album which I hope to finish in the next few months as well, which should come out next year. There are a lot of my own projects that are coming out in the next month and the next year and a half or so.
Is there a possibility you’ll be involved with the upcoming Blade Runner sequel?
JOHANNSSON: No, it’s far too soon to talk about that. There hasn’t been made any decision about that yet. It’s far too early.
Sicario is now in theaters.