‘Knives Out’ Composer Nathan Johnson on His Cutting Score, ‘Looper’, and ‘Hook’

     November 26, 2019

Knives Out is one of the best films of 2019 for many, many reasons. It’s supremely entertaining, insanely smart, and incredibly well-acted, but really all of the superlatives I could heap on this whodunit can be summed up by saying it is tremendously well-made. Writer/director Rian Johnson knows what he’s doing, and he’s honed his craft over five feature films, each entirely different from the last, and a vital part of all but one of those films has been his relationship with his composer Nathan Johnson.

Nathan and Rian grew up making movies together (they’re cousins), but as Rian fine-tuned and evolved his filmmaking craft, Nathan similarly expanded his sonic horizons to create some incredible, wildly dynamic scores. The delight of The Brothers Bloom’s score could not be more different from the rough soundscape of Looper, and yet there’s a distinction there that makes it clear this is the same composer.

Nathan Johnson’s streak continues on Knives Out, which is—you guessed it—incredibly different from anything he’s done before. With this murder mystery, Nathan wanted to use a full orchestra, but in a unique way. Much like the film is precise and biting, Nathan’s score is similarly cutting and sharp. It’s a tremendous piece of work that is at once haunting and playful and mournful and surprising, and luckily Nathan was happy to discuss the score’s creation and executing during a recent phone interview ahead of the movie’s November 27th release.

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Photo by Steve Yedlin

During the course of our conversation, Nathan explained how Rian first pitched the project to him years ago, and how they tackled the score with very specific goals and outlines. He also discussed the evolution of his scores, and the immense challenge of creating a soundscape for Looper that turned out to be ahead of the curve. I also asked about Star Wars, which elicited a terrific story involving John Williams’ supremely underrated score for Hook. Check out the full interview below.

I absolutely love this movie. I saw it at TIFF, at the world premiere, and it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

NATHAN JOHNSON: Oh, man, that makes me so happy. We were there at TIFF, as well, and it was like, gosh, what a great room to be in, watching it with everybody.

It was like a rock concert. I’m really curious to see how it plays with the audiences, too.

JOHNSON: I know. I know. I was like, man, I’ve never been at a premiere like this before.

It’s fantastic. Rian is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, and I really love your collaborations, as well.

JOHNSON: Oh, thank you so much.

I’m usually curious with composers about their initial conversations with directors on projects, but with Rian, I mean, you guys have a really close working relationship. When he first told you about the project, how did he pitch it to you?

JOHNSON: Well, he told me about it a long time ago. It was just sort of the germ of an idea, and he basically described the opening scene to me. He was like, we’re going to start the movie like this. It’s just going to be music, and it’ll be like this three-minute opening sequence as we set up the whole chessboard, and then proceed to knock it all down. This was years and years ago, and so it was one of those ideas where I just couldn’t wait for this movie to happen.

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Image via Lionsgate

Over the years, I would occasionally be writing something and think like, oh, this could be good for Knives Out. I spent years imagining that opening scene, so when we finally got to shoot it, I went out to Boston, where they were filming, and got to be on set, and every day was spent it in this gothic mansion that we had been imagining for all these years. It was pretty cool to see it all finally come to fruition.

That’s crazy. You said you were noodling around. Did anything make it into the film, of music that you were working on before the film was official?

JOHNSON: No, not specifically, but it was definitely starting to play around with the palette for what it eventually became, playing around with strings. I ended up writing a string quartet piece for that opening sequence, and then expanding that into a full orchestra for the score.

Every one of your collaborations is different from the last. When Rian finally told you he was making Knives Out, what were your conversations like about how the movie would sound?

JOHNSON: We were talking a lot about some of our favorite melodic and motif-heavy themes from the late ’50s/early ’60s. We were listening to the score from Lawrence of Arabia, and listening to a lot of Bernard Herrmann’s stuff. Rian kept saying he wanted it to be sharp and cutting and precise. We knew we wanted to use a full orchestra, but we didn’t want it to be just a blurry wash of sound. The script is just phenomenal, and it’s this huge ensemble cast, and so there’s a lot of verbal activity. Rian, I think, wanted the score to play off of all of that. Every decision we made flowed from this idea of let’s do a classic orchestral score, but we really want to hear every single voice. We were really careful of how we showed our players and the room that we recorded in.

We ended up recording in Abbey Road Studio One, which is this beautiful, big room, but it doesn’t have a crazy long reverb tail. It could be really precise. Yeah, so all of that was flowing out of his desire for the score to really be in your face and sharp and cutting.

It’s the perfect marriage with the script, because as you said, the script is exactly that same way. Every single scene just feels so perfectly executed and meticulous and cutting. This is a really massive ensemble, and I know some composers write motifs or themes for certain characters. Did you go that far? Did you try to work in separate themes for all the different characters?

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Image via Lionsgate

JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, it’s not so granular, so it’s not as granular as every single character has a theme. Brick was almost like Peter and the Wolf, where each character had a musical voice, but for Knives Out, there’s definitely a family theme that flows from Christopher Plummer’s character, Harlan Thrombey. He was the patriarch, and then there are, obviously, all of his adult children, who are drowning in his wake. There’s a family theme that leans into all of those different key characters. Then there’s a theme for Marta, which is Ana de Armas’s character, and then Daniel Craig’s detective has a couple different themes that are sort of these slightly playful, exploratory pieces. The great thing about his character is you’re kind of never sure whether he’s one step ahead of everybody or two steps behind. It was really fun to play with his theme, to definitely go into that detective-y searching thing, but also to keep it a little bit lighthearted, as well.

It is a film that’s full of twists and turns. You have point of view switches. I don’t want to get into any spoilers or anything, but structurally, it’s very complex, and the film changes quite a bit. Did those changes reflect in how you approached the music for the film?

JOHNSON: I don’t think it changes too much, structurally. The music is pretty linked directly to the characters and the emotions that are going on. I think that was one of the ways that we were able to anchor that, to have the music as this bedrock, emotionally at least, that is keeping us in the zone of what everybody’s feeling. Then plot-wise, the whole movie gets to twist and turn on top of that.

Was there a specific scene or section of the film that was the most difficult to score?

JOHNSON: Oh, that’s a good question. In some movies there definitely are these problem scenes, but I don’t actually think there really was for this, yeah.

Every frame feels meticulously crafted, and I imagine the editing was a pretty intense and meticulous process. To that end, did your music evolve or change at all, as the film started to take shape, or was the editing just refining what the script was?

JOHNSON: Yeah, so this is a really interesting thing. For this movie, the first cut he showed me, it felt basically like the finished movie. I mean, they tweaked and refined it, but it didn’t feel like it was rearranging everything to try to find it in the edit. It really felt like, wow, this is what the movie is, and it’s going really smoothly, which is really nice, you know, because often in the editing process, you’re writing music, and then you realize like, oh, everything has changed, and you have to scrap it and go back, but there was very little… [it was] just little refinements here and there, but no gigantic changes, and not really anything that was affecting the music. It was really nice to keep that consistency. It almost felt like we all knew what game we were playing from the very beginning, and everybody was on the same page.

That’s honestly not super surprising, because looking at the film, you feel like if you pull one piece out, the whole thing topples over, kind of like an Edgar Wright movie.

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Image via Lionsgate

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah, totally, totally. No, and it’s one of the things that I loved about this script. I mean, I just love Rian’s writing so much, and just reading the script, it was like, from the moment I read it, it was so exciting. Just watching it take shape was a reinforcement of that. It wasn’t a reimagining at all.

You’ve been working with Rian for a long time now. One of the things I really love about your collaborations is they each feel unique, but there’s still kind of a signature there. From your perspective, do you feel like that’s an evolution of not wanting to repeat yourself consciously? Or is it just the reflection of the fact that a con artist movie is going to sound different than a time travel movie?

JOHNSON: Yeah, definitely the latter. I mean, it’s all driven by story. I think one of the things that’s really fun in working with Rian is he’s very adept at jumping between different genres, so when we’re getting ready for a new movie, it really does feel like playing in a whole new sandbox. We’re just thinking about what is the right music for this story that we’re trying to tell here?

Is there one that was the most difficult to crack, between Brick, Brothers Bloom, Looper, or Knives Out?

JOHNSON: I think Looper was the hardest one for me to crack. When we were talking about that early on, Rian was saying, “What if the whole score is one chord?” (Laughs) It’s just like, “I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s going to work.” We didn’t end up doing that, but it evolved to be… I mean Looper was a very textural score, and it was also really sound design-y, and I don’t know if you are familiar with all this, but for Looper, I moved down to the set and just spent a month gathering field recordings from the city and from the set. I basically took those field recordings and turned them into playable instruments by stretching them and tuning them, so there was a treadmill in our hotel room, and I used that and tuned it, and so there are things like cycling rhythms. They’re also tonal and atmospheric. It was a really fun process, but I remember being halfway through that movie and feeling like I still don’t know what I’m doing. It was such a weird approach. There’s one motif that repeats through the whole movie, but mostly it’s textural, and it just, it took me a long time before I felt like I’d got my head around here’s what this score is.

It’s interesting because you were really ahead of the curve on that, because then a few years later, you have people like Johann Johannsson coming to the forefront, where these composers are blending sound design and score, which is kind of what you did on Looper, it sounds like.

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Image via Lionsgate

JOHNSON: For sure, yeah, totally. It was, I mean, watching that movie, even mixing that movie, it was hard to tell what is score and what’s sound design. I mean, there are all these industrial fans that are—that was kind of what Rian was talking about. He was saying like, what if, for this score, what if we go into a studio and push TVs off the roof? Obviously it’s a sci-fi movie, but we wanted to go in this direction of a really broken down future, which that’s kind of my favorite sci-fi aesthetic, a world that feels lived in, and so, yeah, it was very much a combination of score and sound design.

You were talking about on some movies, in editing things can change, and it really changes the score. Did that happen on Looper or Brothers Bloom?

JOHNSON: I think more so than on Knives Out. There were more explorations on those movies, in terms of the edit, and trying different things, and finding things, to a certain degree, yeah.

As a composer, you really changed up your style with Looper, and then you changed it up again on Knives Out. Were there things in your experimentation on Looper that influenced or impacted how you approached the score on Knives Out? Then, are there things in Knives Out, that maybe have influenced how you may approach music in the future?

JOHNSON: I don’t know that I think about it that way, so that’s why I don’t have an answer off the top of my head, but I really do approach each one with a real blank slate, so it’s only now that I’m starting to think about comparisons or contrasts between the two processes. Obviously, Looper was a largely sound design score, and Knives Out is largely motif driven and melodic.

I mean, I think with Rian’s movies, there is that great tension of like, it’s never just a happy story. There’s always a lot of tension there, which is, of course, the thing that makes art that I love. I think that’s something that I love consistently about getting to make music for his movies. For Knives Out, we got to really go for the throat, but also in an imperfect way. I had the string players just really digging in with their bows, so you can hear that scraping against the strings. It was really fun to take this classical orchestral approach, but also bend it a little bit and bring some of the tension and imperfection into that model.

Obviously there’s one film of Rian’s you didn’t score, which is The Last Jedi, which is a movie that I love. I think it’s brilliant. And no disrespect to John Williams, who I thought did a fantastic job, but when Rian was first announced, I was honestly really looking forward to hearing what your Star Wars score might sound like. Were you a bit bummed that you didn’t get to take a crack at that one, or were you relieved that you didn’t have to try and do a score for a Star Wars movie?

knives-out-posterJOHNSON: (Laughs) All of the feelings. I mean, the thing is, if you’re going to lose out on a movie, you’re proud to lose out on it to John Williams.

Yeah, it’s hard to argue with that.

JOHNSON: Oh, he really scored our childhood. I mean, almost literally. This is a fun story, but you probably know that Rian and I grew up as kids making movies and music together. For our family videos, we had like a couple film soundtrack CDs, and one of the only soundtrack CDs we had was John Williams’ score from Hook.

I love that score.

JOHNSON: It’s such a good score.

It’s so good.

JOHNSON: So all of our childhood movies are scored with the Hook CD.

That’s awesome.

JOHNSON: At the end of The Last Jedi, Rian went to John Williams, and he had him sign two things. He had him sign a poster for himself, and then he brought me a gift. He was like, “I got this for you.” I opened it up, and Rian had basically tracked down an original vinyl copy of the Hook score, and had John Williams sign it for me.

That’s amazing.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it was. It was like, yeah, so, so nice. It was like, oh man, that’s this legend, who felt like he scored our childhood, so for me, it was just a pleasure getting to be in the room on those scoring sessions, just to be there as a fan, but also to be learning from just watching how he worked with the orchestra and being in the room with his incredible score. It was a real treat.

Yeah, yeah, that’s incredible. That score was also the score of my childhood, that one specifically; I mean, all of his scores, but I was obsessed with Hook.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Rufio! (laughs)

Yeah, it’s incredible. It’s underrated, too. I know Rian’s into early development on potentially new Star Wars movies, but have you guys talked about you maybe doing the score for those at all?

JOHNSON: All I’ll say is I’m happy to be a part of whatever he invites me to be.

Listen to Johnson’s excellent Knives Out score below. The film opens in theaters on November 27th.

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