Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson could earn his second consecutive Oscar nomination this year. Fresh off the Oscar trail for his work on The Theory of Everything, Johannsson comes back with something very different—a startling, tense score for Denis Villeneuve’s border thriller Sicario. The film marked Johannsson’s second collaboration with the French-Canadian director. Next year he’s going for a third, with Villeneuve’s Amy Adams sci-fi starrer Story of Your Life. Here, Johannsson speaks to his exciting collaborative relationship with Villeneuve, the instrumentation and palette of the score, surprising influences and more.
Coming off last year’s Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything you chose to do something very different. What attracted you to Sicario?
I love working with Denis (Villeneuve) and feel that I do really good work with him. His films, and his aesthetic and visual sense really appeal to me. When I read the script, I didn’t have to think twice about doing it. I was absolutely committed, from the start, to work again with Denis.
You’re collaborating with Denis for a third time on his upcoming alien film, Story of Your Life. How do you define your process with him?
I wouldn’t say it’s easy. He gives me some really, really strong challenges, and I feel that he wants to hear music that he hasn’t heard before—music that’s challenging and that pushes the envelope in some way. I’ve seen the possibilities of what he can do in cinema. I’m really excited about those kinds of challenges, and he always responds best to the most extreme ideas that I send him. You know, it’s never the kind of middle-of-the-road, it’s always the most extreme, the most daring .The boldest idea that I send is the one that he will latch onto and respond to, so I really like that aspect of him.
What sort of instrumentation did you use in this score? It seems there is a heavy drum presence.
The percussion is definitely a huge part of the film and that came from our discussion about the film very early on. Denis said that he saw the film as a war film and that he wanted me to write “subtle war music.” That was the phrase that he used, which I found challenging. What is subtle war music? It seems almost a contradiction in terms, but I found that was kind of a phrase that I latched onto and used as some kind of guide. The music is driving and has this sort of pulse that drives the film forward. The percussion was a very important part of that. That was one of the first things that I determined in terms of orchestration.
I was working with a large, 55-piece orchestra, strings, brass, woodwind, but they serve more of a textural function—they’re not really melodic. It’s more textural, with a lot of extended techniques and spectral, textural writing. I also use some six-string bass guitar, which is mainly used in the track called Melancholia, which plays during the closing credits. That’s actually one of my favorites cues in the whole score. And I used vocals as well, a vocalist named Robert Lowe who did some work on the film. There’s also a lot of solo cello and multi-track cello that I did with my friend Hildur Guonadottir, who is a composer as well as a cellist that I work with regularly. There’s some electronics as well, but mostly it’s acoustic recordings that are processed electronically. There’s almost no synthesizer on the record. The electronic sounds are all acoustic sounds that are processed and manipulated digitally.
What is your process in coming up with the sonic palette for a film?
That’s a slow process that happens over time, really, and I guess a lot of it is determined when I see the first images. With Sicario, I read the script before they started filming, and I visited the set to get a feel for the environment, to get a feel for the desert and the locations, and I think that was an inspiration as well. But things really started to happen when I got the first images, and I think it just happens very organically when you start writing. In some ways, it’s determined by what feels right with the images and with the music, and I’m lucky enough to work with Denis and with Roger Deakins, who is one of the best cinematographers in the world. It comes from there, and I think the the percussion came first, and then I started to weave the orchestra into it. Very early on I decided to focus on the low end of the spectrum—focus on basses, contrabasses, low woodwinds, contrabassoon, contrabass clarinets and contrabass saxophone. It sort of slowly comes together and it’s evolving all throughout the composition process.
Were you inspired by the sound or the music of the region in which the film takes place?
No. I made a very conscious choice to avoid anything that was evocative of the region, or evocative of the culture of the region south of the border.
Do you work from any other influences in terms of scores from other films, or other music, generally?
I tend to use references and influences from outside of film music, and I think for this one, there’s the percussive approach and the power of the percussion and this kind of relentless pulse, and also this kind of slow, mournful beat.
For example, in this cue, which is called “The Beast,”—and all throughout the score, really—I was influenced by industrial music of the ’80s, groups like Swans, Test Dept., and even Throbbing Gristle. In terms of the orchestra, the writing was influenced by certain spectral composers like Gerard Grisey and Badulescu, for example. In terms of film scores, one of my all-time-favorites is Planet of the Apes by Jerry Goldsmith, and I think there may be some influence there. I think there’s a little bit of Jaws in there somewhere as well.
Most of the score is driving and propulsive, but there are some softer, slower moments mixed in. What was the thinking behind that?
There were two themes that the music needed to evoke and two thematic beats. One of them is this idea of music coming almost from underground almost, and this sort of warlike, martial rhythm. And then there’s also this idea of the sadness of the desert and the melancholy of the border areas, and also a little bit evoking the sadness and the melancholy of Alejandro, Benicio Del Toro’s character. He has this tragic backstory, so we kind of feel his tragic past is echoed a little bit in these sort of sorrowful scenes, which punctuate the more propulsive cues.
How was it collaborating with editor Joe Walker? He said he gave you a blank slate to work with, sonically, and that’s part of the reason your score is so innovative.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the things I really appreciate about working with Denis and Joe is that Denis insists on editing, in the first edit, without music. He does the first fine cut with no music at all. With Sicario, for example, he sent me the first fine cut, which was maybe 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours long, with no temp music at all. I had a blank slate, basically, and only our conversations were about the moods and atmospheres that the music needed to evoke. I think Denis really wants to be surprised and to hopefully hear something he hasn’t heard in the cinema before. I really enjoy that aspect of working with him; he really challenges me to push the envelope in that way and to be radical and bold in my creative choices.
Part of what stands out is how the Sicario score and the surrounding layers of sound effects are so tightly and effectively integrated. What’s that like to hear in the final mix?
The electronic or the sound processing aspect of my scores is always very important. I write traditionally for an orchestra, but for me, almost 30% of a score happens in post-production. Taking the orchestra recordings and manipulating them and creating sound processing and sound design amplifies the orchestra recordings and creates a hybrid sound, where sometimes you don’t know where the orchestra starts and the electronic sound ends. I really, really love this way of working. This is something I’ve done a lot. I really love integrating that with the sound design. I tend to write around the sound designer, and I try to anticipate what the sound designers are going to do and really incorporate that into the composition so it feels seamless. It feels like it’s really integrated; it doesn’t feel like the music is a layer that’s tacked on. It has to be an integrated part of the whole sound fixture.
Was there a hardest scene to compose for?
I think maybe the shoot-out scene on the border. It was a very tense scene and I guess it’s because it went through quite a few revisions in the editing, and I’d never really scored a scene like that before—a tight action scene. It’s like almost every beat has to be in the right place. It took a while to get the feel of that scene right, but I could say that about many scenes in the film as well.
What can you tell us about the projects you’re composing for next?
I’m working on Denis’ next film, Story of Your Life. It’s a science-fiction film starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. It’s a very exciting film with a really great script, and it’s fairly early in the process. I wrote some music this summer just before they started shooting, and it looks like some of that music is going to end up in the film. I’m really just beginning the process now of writing and composing the score, so it’s kind of early days. Another project I’m finishing is a score for a series called Trapped, which is created by Baltasar Kormakur, who directed Everest.
To hear some Johannsson’s “The Beast” from the Sicario score, click play below:
And to hear “Alejandro’s Song,” click play below: