While Rian Johnson is hard at work on Star Wars: Episode VIII, he also just celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his first feature film, the 2006 neo-noir Brick. Set in a high school out of time and place, populated by wildly eloquent fast-talking students, Brick feels like the lovechild of Tom Waits and Raymond Chandler, following Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a career-defining performance as the gumshoe of the piece; a pugnacious, intelligent master manipulator determined to uncover the truth behind his ex-girlfriend’s murder and the shady drug-fueled underground that stole her life away. Highly stylized, whip-smart, and heavy with mood, Brick is a true cinematic rarity, based in the archetype of its genre but unlike anything that came before, and it’s got an arresting, unconventional score to match.
Rian Johnson recruited his frequent collaborator (and cousin), musician Nathan Johnson, who later scored The Brothers Bloom and Looper, to take on the task of building an aural atmosphere to match Brick‘s surreal, hard-boiled world. A true shoestring production shot on 35mm for a half million dollars; Johnson composed the soundtrack using household appliances and modified instruments. The result is a haunting, definitive score, and a wonderful testament to the technical revolution that allowed for the rise of aspiring filmmakers and artists who could finally create outside the conventional Hollywood model.
Johnson composed the entirety of Brick‘s score on a single microphone in his apartment, cutting the whole thing together on his personal Mac laptop. Which just downright is insane considering the quality and cinematic impact of the final product. But everything about Brick‘s score is innovative, and that’s what makes it a triumph of its form.
Taking cues from the Ennio Morricone‘s iconic spaghetti western scores and Anton Karas‘ subversive noir score for The Third Man, Johnson spun a slightly slanted, left-of-center soundscape defined by the characters in the film. Together Nathan and Rian collaborated on identifying a singular sound or instrument for each character — a technique that would carry on through their future collaborations (In Looper, Nathan created the signature sounds for Noah Seagan’s Kid Blue using sounds from the gun he used in the movie).
For Brendan, the ever-observing, always deducting hero who appears in nearly every moment of the film, Nathan invented the “Wine-o-Phone,” a spin on the old wine-glass trick, which saw him meticulously filling cups, glasses and bottles with varied levels of fluid to create and orchestra of eerie, resounding tones. For Emily, Brendan’s tragic lost love, Nathan repurposed a metallophone, flipping the mallets around and jiggling them inside the chime tubes. The result is the haunting melody that became the film’s main theme. For Laura, the regal femme fatale, he composed a classic, elegant piano riff. For Brendan’s ally, the exposition heavy “Brain”, a track of propulsive rhythmic noises created from a variety of household object — but no drums. Finally, for the villainous Pin and his henchman Tug, Nathan tied bolts to piano strings to create a weighted clanging discordance and stuck a steel pin on an acoustic guitar for a similar effect.
Ultimately, the result is an organic, almost tactile score that is alive with idiosyncrasy and personality. Along with Rian’s visual flair and unapologetically challenging dialogue and wordplay, Nathan’s score is a fundamental ingredient in the commitment to style that defines the queasy allure of Brick‘s universe. An entirely unusual composition that vacillates between touching and chilling with ease, that feels at home in the intersection between junkyard and high art, and that I still return to a decade later.
(The details of Nathan Johnson’s creative process on Brick are both interesting and inspiring and I highly encourage you to check out his old Appletalk about the experience if you want to know more.)