One of the best films of 2016, and one of the best sci-fi films in years, is Denis Villeneuve’s (Sicario, Prisoners) Arrival. If you are not familiar with the story, the film is about what happens when twelve alien ships land across our planet. In an attempt to make contact with the ship located in the United States, an army colonel (Forest Whitaker) recruits renowned linguist Dr. Louise Brooks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help unravel the mystery.
Unlike some Hollywood movies that are all action and explosions with little time spent developing characters, Arrival is one of those rare films that is an amazing blend of art and spectacle. And unlike most films that you enjoy and forget about, I woke up the next day thinking about the story and what it all meant. Like I said, Arrival is a really special movie that absolutely needs to be seen on the big screen.
With the film about to be in theaters, the other day I got on the phone with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for an exclusive interview. As a big fan of his work with Villeneuve (he previously scored Prisoners and Sicario), it was extremely cool to get to find out how he works and how he got into composing. Of course with Jóhannsson in the very early stages of scoring the Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, we talked about where he’s at in the writing process and his love of the original film and the score by Vangelis.
Check out what he had to say below. Arrival is in theaters November 11th.
Collider: When did you know that you wanted to work in movies and make music?
JHÓANN JÓHANNSSON: I don’t know. I’ve been sort of playing music since I was probably 8 years old or something like that. Even when I was studying piano, I always preferred to play around with my own improvisations rather than do my studies. So I’ve always been interested in writing music from a very early age.
But it took me a while, I think I’m sort of a fairly late bloomer in terms of finding my sound. I think it took me until—my twenties were really a time of exploration and experimentation with different groups and different types of music. Then I kind of developed the sound, which first appeared, I guess, on my first solo album Englabörn, which came out in 2001. And that was a sound I developed over time working with string quartets, working with classical instruments, classical players, and combining that with electronic. So it was kind of combining my interest in classical music with my interest in electronic music, experimental music, and that’s really how it all began. Englabörn is really the first example of the sound that I’m known for, I guess.
You’ve worked now with Denis [Villeneuve] a number of times. I’m curious what your working relationship is like and maybe how it’s changed now that you’ve worked together a few times.
JÓHANNSSON: Well, I think it’s developed in terms of as you work more together, you get to know one another. We’ve gotten to know one another better both personally and also in terms of taste and in terms of sensibilities, artistic aesthetic sensibilities. I think we have a lot of shared sensibilities in terms of aesthetics and in terms of the things we like musically and in terms of cinema as well.
I really love the way he photographs his films, the way he shoots his films, the way he edits, and the pace of his films; and I think it suits my music very well. In terms of how we work together, there’s really a trust that develops over time and I’m very fortunate to enjoy a tremendous amount of trust from Denis in terms of experimenting and going for and looking for sounds that are new and interesting and bold and characterful. That’s really what he’s looking for, and he always encourages me to be as bold and go as far as possible in that sense and in terms of being as extreme as possible in some ways.
I send him a lot of ideas, I send him a lot of different material and then we sort of narrow it down slowly. He has a preference for a certain sound and we kind of develop it from there. He gives me a lot of freedom but he also very much knows what he’s looking for when he hears it, he’s very –You know, I’ll send him five ideas and he’ll latch on to one of them. ‘This is amazing! This is the sound of the movie!” And very often it’s the sound that I prefer as well, that’s fortunate.