EXCLUSIVE: This month marks two years since the sudden tragic death of Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, a two-time Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner noted for his work on Sicario, The Theory Of Everything and Arrival. To mark it, I invited some of his closest collaborators to share memories of the man and his work.
Icelander Johannsson died in the prime of his career, at a point when he was set to compose one of his biggest projects to date, Disney’s Christopher Robin, and was also working on his debut feature as a director, Last And First Men. The movie, an experimental art film narrated by Tilda Swinton, has now been completed posthumously and premieres at Berlin Film Festival tomorrow (February 25).
Contributing memories are Sicario, Arrival and Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, The Theory Of Everything director James Marsh, mother! director Darren Aronofsky, Johannsson’s former manager Tim Husom, and The Mercy producer Pete Czernin.
“I was looking for a composer with a singular voice for Prisoners,” recalled Villeneuve on initially identifying Johannsson. “I fell in love with Johann’s music instantly. In his work there is a solemn melancholia. For me, at its deepest core, all Johann’s music is about one profound question: why does God not answer any of our phone calls?”
“He was a true collaborator and I felt quickly, as I was working with him, that the act of creativity would not suffer from the dance between our egos. He was a creative brother to me,” he continued. “Johann was sincerely ambitious but very humble at the same time. He really wanted to push the boundaries of film composition. He had an extraordinary appetite for exploration. He loved taking risks and wasn’t afraid of putting his feet in new soundscapes. He was an explorer.”
Villeneuve and Johannsson collaborated on three features, and the director said he can’t pick a favorite score from those projects.
“I love the three scores he created for me, equally. Prisoners’ music breaks my heart each time I listen to it. It is imbued with a beautiful depressive Nordic sensibility. Like when snow falls at the end of a day. His music brought a lot of humanity to this dark story.
“Sicario’s score is a tour de force. I asked Johann to create music that would be inspired by the violence and the sadness of the border between United States and Mexico. He came back with what is by far one of the most influential scores of recent decades.
“Johann composed true alien music for Arrival. He used human voices to create new mesmerizing sounds that felt like they are coming from another solar system. He was experimenting like a mad scientist. There was something more feminine about this one.”
After Johannsson got his Hollywood break on Prisoners, his collaboration with Marsh on The Theory Of Everything propelled him to composing stardom and earned him his first of two Oscar nominations (the other coming for Sicario) and a Golden Globe win.
“I went to see Prisoners while I was working on The Theory Of Everything. I noticed the really interesting score, it added a whole new dimension to what was quite a straightforward Hollywood film, giving it a mysterious, dark, malignant quality. I decided Johann was a great idea for Theory, the film needed a new voice that was different from mine and the screenwriter’s.
“It was a tussle to get him in the frame with my producers but the Prisoners credit helped that somewhat. It became an incredibly interesting collaboration between us. He comes from quite a dark place generally in his music, it had an overall quality of melancholy and sadness. I had to force him, to push him – he put it that way – into a slightly more optimistic register. That was a struggle for him, but what he then produced was incredibly helpful to the film. For him, it was a different way at looking at the emotional spectrum of a film, and we needed that flavour. The lightness and shade had to come from the score too. We made lovely discoveries together. It was an intense and personal collaboration,” remembered Marsh.
“This led to second collaboration on The Mercy. That was more complicated politically, it wasn’t a happy experience for me in many ways. But me and Johann’s collaboration was again very important to the film. There was more in that one for Johann to respond to – it’s about a man alone going increasingly mad, of course he liked that very much, he responded to the solitude and the madness and wrote some really strong pieces. It redeemed a film that I was somewhat disappointed with.
On a personal level, Marsh remembered Johannsson as a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, “There was never a band or piece of music that Johann hadn’t heard of. I had quite an eclectic taste in music too. During the making of The Mercy, I encountered this weird phenomenon the ‘Numbers Station’; during the Cold War Soviet agents would communicate via shortwave radio by numbers, and you’d have these weird, schoolgirl voices reading out numbers with electronic tones lurking in this code for their sleeper agents across Europe. Crowhurst, the protagonist [played by Colin Firth], would listen to these and write them in his diary. I became obsessed, and Johann of course already knew all about it, and had done a musical piece with Jonsi from [Icelandic band] Sigur Ros about it, a musical performance based on the numbers. He was also widely read, he was an intellectual, quietly.
“He was a very nice person. It sounds silly when you say it, but he was genuinely a decent person, and that’s a good starting point for any collaboration. He was a good person with a very strong moral compass. And he had an enormous amount of music within him. That’s one of the great tragedies of his death, there was so much more that he would’ve done, so much music that was within him that we’ll never hear. His ambition was to diversify and have more creative control. It a tragedy to have lost that voice. He was cut off in the prime of his creativity.”
[On Last And First Men] “It’s a really unusual piece in so many ways, it shows the extent of his creativity and his ambition to be more than just a composer for people like me. We had an extended conversation about the film.”
Johannsson and Aronofsky’s collaboration on mother! was notable because, quite far into the process, they decided to eliminate the score entirely and re-focus on a low-fi soundscape with no music, with Johannsson working closely with sound designer Craig Henighan.
Aronofsky recalled speaking to Johannsson about his directorial debut, “Johann spoke about Last And First Men with a passion and excitement I will never forget. I remember him telling me about the patience and level of detail he brought to the project. It was inspiring.”
Tim Husom, Johannsson’s manager, remembered first signing the composer.
“[Composer] Dustin O’Halloran and I were flying to London to sign a record deal. He mentioned to me that his friend Johann Johannsson was in town. I was like, ‘Holy f*ck, you’re friends with Johann Johannsson? That’s amazing’. I was already a huge fan of his music.
“We hung out with him and he invited us to his concert in London, which was fantastic. After the show I asked him to meet me for breakfast the next day and I told him about my management company. He wanted to do internationally recognized movies so he wanted to be signed up.”
“I came back to LA and started sending his music around. People were like, ‘wow’. As soon as I got him an agent, Denis [Villeneuve] called about scoring Prisoners. Denis was a music fan, like me, and he loved Johann’s records. After that it was clear he should be making music for film and TV.
Husom also recalled how Johannsson had been determined to make Last And First Men to such an extent that he self-financed much of the project.
“It was his passion project that he worked on for years, self-funding it. Once he started getting more popular and doing bigger films, he wasn’t the kind of guy who wanted the big house, he took his money and he invested it in his film, his pet project,” he remembered .
Husom added that after Johannsson passed, he lost a good friend. “He was a sweet man, intellectual man, wicked smart. All he ever wanted to do was make music,” he said.
Pete Czernin, producer at Blueprint Pictures who worked on The Mercy, told me, “We were lucky enough to work with Johann on The Mercy, largely because of his relationship with James Marsh. I always felt that while musically he was obviously extraordinarily talented what made his compositions so extra special was that they came from such a human and soulful place – within him.”