Q & A Session with Jóhann Jóhannsson

On Monday 29 Feb I had the privilege of attending a Q & A session with Icelandic film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Here in Perth for the Perth International Arts Festival, he thankfully had time to speak with the Australian Screen Sound Guild. Jóhannsson has scored recent films such as Prisoners, The Theory of Everything and most recently Sicario, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

I found the discussion very interesting for a number of reasons, which I will outline in the notes that I took below.

Jóhannsson’s entry into the world of film music was somewhat unusual – so far as I can tell from the discussion, Jóhannsson ‘fell’ into it. Despite being a big fan of film in general, Jóhannsson never set out to be a film composer. He began playing in alternative rock bands, formed his own contemporary ensembles and also wrote music for a theatre company in Reykjavik. It was through these avenues that he began to develop his own sound as an artist, with the release of his debut album Englabörn in 2002.

Fast forward a few years and film directors in Iceland began to license some of his works for various films. After that, directors starting asking Jóhannsson to write original music – based on the musical style that he had now created. Jóhannsson also mentioned working in Denmark for 8 years, stating that the country had a strong film industry.

What I find interesting about this – is that Jóhannsson wasn’t one of the many aspiring young film composers who arrive in Los Angeles hoping to make a career. He created is own musical identity first – which then attracted the attention of film directors.

In fact, when asked by one audience member “what advice do you have for new film composers today?” his advice was to create one’s own musical identity. This is in contrast to the frequent advice I have heard over the years – that is, to be as versatile a composer as possible in order to accommodate the varying needs of the industry, make strong professional connections etc.

On Sicario:

(A thrilling and tense drama based on the Mexican drug cartels, I saw this film recently and loved it – it’s full on! Not for the faint-hearted.)

Jóhannsson’s first communication with director Denis Villeneuve was via text message: “The music has to be powerful”, wrote the Canadian.

After reading the script, Jóhannsson began writing a few cues even before filming. While most of the music was written at the rough-cut stage, which is the norm, occasionally Jóhannsson writes some music prior to production to play to Villeneuve. “He loves that…” says Jóhannsson. Villeneuve continued to refer to these early musical excerpts during the production process.

At the rough-cut stage, Jóhannsson received the footage with no temp music – highly unusual – and mentioned that this is the way he and Villeneuve prefer to work. Having formed a working relationship together on Prisoners and The Theory of Everything, Jóhannsson says that there is less and less dialogue between them with each successive film/score they make.  The relationship is none-the-less challenging, as Villeneuve “expects something he hasn’t heard before”. Both men are now working on their fourth film together, Story of Your Life.

Jóhannsson visited the set during production, something he loves to do – in the case of Sicario, the vast & barren landscape in particular was of interest to Jóhannsson, and this inspired part of his approach to the score. The music had to be ‘visceral’, ‘powerful’ and ‘physical’ – music that you feel, rather than hear. Consequently, drums and percussion feature heavily. (And wait until you hear that ominous cello/bass glissandi – a key motif in the film).

War music was an influence, but only a subtle one. Regarding precisely where music should start and stop in a film, Jóhannsson states that Villeneuve usually has a good idea of musical placement from the outset.

When asked about the relationship between music and sound design, Jóhannsson tends not to draw too heavy a line between the two – “think of the whole” was his approach. “Write with the sound designers in mind”.

Thanks again to ASSG for putting this together, its not very often that us folks in Perth, Western Australia get to hear from such an experienced and unique film composer.