Among this year’s batch of Oscar nominees, a few of the most-discussed surprises came in the form of several nods for Paul Thomas Anderson’s darkly comedic, high-fashion drama Phantom Thread. Among the six nods the film received—including for Best Director and Best Picture—one of those that surprised the least was a nomination for Best Original Score.
Composing memorable scores for a number of recent PTA films—including There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice—the fourth time proved to be the charm for Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, whose lush and haunting score stood up to Anderson’s crisp images of ’50s London high society, and the typically committed performance of Daniel Day-Lewis.
With Phantom Thread, no literal translation of ’50s London musical tastes would do. Led by piercing, dissonant strings, Greenwood’s music needed to capture the complex, bristling personality of fictional costumier Reynolds Woodcock, whose toxic dance with his young muse drives the film.
Finding an ideal collaborator in Anderson while forging a relationship with director Lynne Ramsay—most recently scoring her Cannes-premiering thriller You Were Never Really Here—Greenwood can’t see a day where he commits himself full time to composing for film, preferring to instead work with a handful of auteurs through whom his work can be heard in a new light.
“I don’t think many people make films like Paul—meaning, I don’t know that the way he works with scores is very common. I wonder if other filmmakers would be a bit nonplussed by the methods we use,” Greenwood says. “In any case, doing the orchestrations takes me so long, I don’t know how I could do much more for anyone else.”
What was the process of collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson when it came to Phantom Thread?
Mostly I’d send him piano demos of various romantic themes—and once we’d agreed on what was working, I’d develop these short ideas and then orchestrate them for a string orchestra.
What did Anderson convey to you early on about the tone he wanted to strike with the film’s score?
Romance and more romance, with a hint of vampirism. After all, part of the story features an apparently innocent country girl lured to the big house by the solitary older man. So I don’t think he wanted it to be just romantic.
Were there particular musical inspirations behind your work? Did you look broadly to the era of the ‘50s, or to the music of ‘50s London in particular?
We looked at lots of English music from the ‘50s—however, lots of it was too “light.” It was quite an optimistic time musically, with lots of pastoral, folk-influenced orchestral music—which didn’t really suit the film’s mood. Though I’ve since found some very dark [Ralph] Vaughan Williams, which I love.
Popular music in the ‘50s was quite odd: lots of weird exotica, which didn’t fit the characters in this film, and the tail end of British big band music—again, not really a fit for Reynolds. So instead I tried to work out what music Reynolds would listen to, and settled on the Glenn Gould piano recordings, and the big, over-the-top orchestral recordings of Baroque music that were popular then (but now considered wildly inauthentic, with their enormous orchestras and huge, romantic sound).
How did you land on the primary set of instrumentation used within this score?
My original idea was to write for a very small group, with the intention of doing lots of live score performances at cinemas everywhere: just send a copy of the score and parts along with the film, and invite local cinemas to put on their own shows with local players. But as the film progressed, the need for that big string sound just grew and grew—and with it, the size of the orchestra.
What inspired the use of dissonant, high-pitched strings?
I will always favor that kind of string writing, so if there’s any part of the story where I can explore that kind of orchestration, I will.
Can you speak to specific techniques used when it came to the playing of piano and strings to create an emotional effect?
I used a practice upright piano: they have a strip of felt suspended between the strings and the hammers so that you can play in an apartment and not bother your neighbor. They’ve got a very soft, muted tone, which I love—and a good deal of mechanical clatter when you record them, which adds to the charm. The end result is quite affecting—you hear the physical effort that goes into playing it, instead of a clean, well-recorded sample.
Has your experience as a multi-instrumentalist helped you in your scoring process? Did you play on any of the tracks we hear in the film?
It helps being a string player—I could never play in tune reliably enough for a recording, but I can check all the parts through when I’m scoring, and work out double-stops, bowing, etcetera.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in composing your Phantom Thread score?
Probably the orchestrations themselves: I’m too much of a control addict to hand over the job to anyone else, so it becomes very time consuming when you have to work on paper and set out every note for every player. I enjoy it though: all those months of planning, and wondering how it’ll sound. Then, two hectic days where it’s all recorded (and impossible to change). It’s a very interesting dynamic, and a nice crunchy deadline to work towards.