A gifted musician in his own right, film composer Nathan Johnson creates such unique musical soundscapes for every movie, short film and project to which he’s attached. This year he composed the score to Don Jon, which is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s modernized interpretation of the iconic thief of hearts.
With a sound and style that’s so varied and diverse, Johnson’s scores have given such a unique atmosphere to films like Brick and Looper. We got to chat with Nathan about his work on Don Jon, his process working with different directors and so much more. Below are the highlights of our time with him.
– An interesting take on the fabled Don Juan DeMarco, Don Jon really is a different kind of story. When did Joseph Gordon-Levitt approach you about the project?
I was actually working on the score for Looper out of Joe’s hitRECord studio so it was somewhere in the middle of that process when he gave me the script for Don Jon. It was kind of an early version and I read it and loved it but I don’t remember exactly when he asked me to do the music. It was kind of a fuzzy progression from that point until I officially started working on it.
– The score is very interesting. The two main themes echo the lifestyles/mindsets of the lead characters who couldn’t be more different. You’ve got this Skrillex-y “wubb wubb” theme for Jon that contrasts the classical and almost laughable throwback to the golden age of film theme for Barbara – it’s quite the hybrid soundscape. Where did that come from?
The sound was based on the characters and evolved into the genres in which we were working, both stylistically and musically and it all came from the script. But that was an idea that Joe had from the beginning. He wanted to approach it in three different musical genres and you’re right, Jon’s character is scored with this synth-heavy club music, Barbara’s character is scored with a big orchestral style sound and then there’s a whole third act of the film which is scored with solo guitars. But the music isn’t the only thing that was approached that way, the cinematography also sort of does a parallel shift through each of those different segments. So when we get to the third act it’s really raw guitars and the film gets a handheld style of shooting. Joe approached it in a very holistic way – everything from cinematography to the editing to the music all reflects what’s going on in the story at that time.
– Oh neat, I didn’t pick up on that.
Yeah there are different degrees to his approach. Some are very obvious, some are subtle, but as far as music, the same theme is woven through the entire movie so you hear the theme played on club instruments and then played by the orchestra and then the same thing is played by the guitar. I was really excited about Joe’s idea. I think that’s something I really love about the conceptual approach. It’s something that really helps me identify with a project as a unique thing and sets it apart from any other project that I may have done.
– I guess this is obvious but to really immerse yourself in a film it’s always better to get involved as early as possible, right?
Well here’s the way it generally works. Music is usually the last thing to come on board. Obviously with this and something like Looper whenever you’re working with anyone that you’ve developed a relationship with it’s really exciting because you get to climb on board a lot earlier, at the point when they’re still talking about characters and scouting locations. For me I just enjoy being a part of the world that early on. Yeah timing is a factor but it’s more than that, that feeling you get visiting a film set for instance can really come through in what you end up writing.
– There’s noticeable brevity to the soundtrack but then hearing the music in the film, what little there seemed to be, it’s surprising you got any music in the movie at all. Music was never present in scenes where characters were conversing (like the dinner table scenes) so the only opportunity to tell Barbara and Don’s story was through monologues or voice-overs. Was that the intent?
Completely! So glad you picked up on it, and again this all comes from the director. Joe wanted to have it very active during Jon’s monologues and very much taking a backseat during the rest of the film. So it was totally a stylistic choice Joe brought to the story. And part of that is because there’s such a rhythm to those monologue scenes. We talked a lot about this, Joe is a musician and he has a really great sense of rhythm and timing and he saw the monologues like lyrics and the music was the song supporting it. We worked really precisely with that in terms of crafting the music to his beats and actually cut the movie to that music.
– Joseph has been in front of the camera pretty much his whole life but this film is his first time behind it. Did you notice him have any problems making that adjustment? You’ve worked with seasoned directors like Rian Johnson so did you bring anything to the table to help him through some hurdles or offer any advice based on things you’ve learned?
Oh man, he didn’t seem like a first time director and that is the honest answer to that. *laughs* And if you look at it, he’s not. This is his first time directing a feature but he’s been directing short films for I guess more than a decade and I actually worked with him on a couple of recent shorts that he made. I did the music for two movies with his hitRECord production company so this is actually the third time we’ve worked together on scoring something that he was directing.
I feel like Joe did such a great job on this and it comes from all the work he has done with his smaller projects. Also it’s because he’s not the kind of actor who just shows up, says his lines, and then disappears. He’s very committed to each project he does and he’s super observant because he’s been learning from some of the best directors over the past few years.
– Yeah, Nolan, Spielberg, Webb, and he’s been in pretty much everything Rian’s done, including that little cameo in The Brothers Bloom, so his talent seems to come from osmosis I guess.
– So let’s shift gears just a bit, you scored everything that Rian Johnson has done, and if I get this right, you two are cousins correct?
– How does that work, when you’re technically quote unquote family?
*Laughs* Well I think it’s pretty positive in that we’ve been working together since we were kids, so we developed a sort of shorthand and the other thing that’s great about that is that there’s such a creative and shared sensibility that when I turn in new ideas there’s never the fear “oh, if he doesn’t like this then I’m off the project”. *laughs* I think there’s a trust there and that is something that I really love, specifically I love that he really pushes me outside the lines. It’s a place I like exploring anyway and the benefit of that long history and that family history we have is that we appreciate a lot of the same things stylistically. He’s also up for letting me go down a rabbit hole and sort of excavate and explore until I find something worth bringing to the surface.
– Okay so, now I’m confused. If he’s that involved and supportive I don’t know if the brilliant and innovative score for Looper was your baby, or Rian’s. So where did that come from?
*Laughs* I think the lines do get pretty blurred. I should say that’s the case with every director I work with and I think that’s the case with good directors too. It’s not like they shoot a movie and then give it to me and then I go away and make something and surprise them, although there are surely element of surprise, but to me it feels like I’m just trying to get inside their head and bring my interpretation of their world to them. It feels, at least with the people I work with, really collaborative and I don’t know, I just I love that process. With Looper, Rian and I were talking before they had even started shooting. We were talking about all of the ideas that ended up making their way into the film.
I distinctly remember Rian was saying, “what if we went to a big warehouse, pushed TVs off the roof and recorded that??”. That kind of gave a spark to this thing that I had been thinking about that had to do with something I like to call “miniature sounds” which are things that are so small we just don’t hear them in our day-to-day lives. So we record them, whatever they may be, then amp them up and we find there’s this whole exciting and interesting world in each of those sounds. So when we got to working, there was a lot of back and forth where Rian would toss out ideas and references and I’d toss out ideas and references and then hopefully *laughs* all that talk turns into something that feels like it fits.
– Well you hit it perfectly for Looper, and each of your scores are so different and specific to just that world I imagine you probably use everything you’ve got in the film. I bring that up because I interviewed James Newton Howard and he talked about some cues or themes not making it into the final cut and how he may or may not use them on another project. He calls them “lost sheep” so do you have anything saved that you really like but go “It isn’t going to work in Looper, but maybe it’ll work in the next movie“? Is there anything left over or do you just scrap everything at the end of a production?
That’s a really good question and I like that lost sheep idea. I have a lot of what I call “song starts” which are essentially like 30 second recordings on my iPhone of an idea that is just waiting for something. Maybe it’s not a full idea, maybe it’s just a start of something but occasionally I will go through and listen to that stuff and I’ll think of some use for it. Interestingly enough actually this sort of relates to how we did The Brothers Bloom.
When I started writing for that, Rian was like “no, no, no, this is too dark”. So I started going through the song starts and Penelope’s theme for instance actually had lyrics. Her theme was a song that I had begun but I changed the meter and the key so it very much transformed along the way, but almost all of the music for The Brothers Bloom began as songs with no lyrics.
– As with anything artistic or creative it’s all just a guessing game so tell me what kind of challenges do you as a composer look for when you take a project?
I love that question because it matters to me so much, and I think the things that I look for are the story and the script and the people that I’ll be working with. Those are the main things. I don’t know if I’m thinking about the music very much when I take on a project, what I’m really thinking about is Do I love this? Is it a great story? Is the writing good? Who is the director? Do they feel like someone that I can really get on the same page with, or simply are they someone I like? I definitely think about it from a project level and almost not at all from a musical level to begin with.
– That kind of goes back to that holistic mentality to scoring Don Jon you were talking about earlier, right?
Totally! And that’s a good question you asked a second ago, I don’t think I’ve ever put that into words before but it’s kind of exciting to me to think about and ask “what is this whole thing going to exist as and what is this project going to be like?”. I think the music is very much the second conversation.
– Well that’s a really good answer and interesting approach. Taking what you said a bit further, as a creative person sometimes when you work on a project you have to set aside your personal tastes in light of finding what’s best for the story. So does that mindset factor in when you take a project?
Well maybe I’ll clarify that a little, I do take something based on my personal taste but not my personal taste in music. I feel like it’s just more weighted toward my personal taste on story, writing and directing. But that’s one of my favorite questions I think I’ve ever been asked in an interview so thank you so much for shining a light on that.
– Well it’s the least I can do because I do admire your work and appreciate the time you put into your music [long pause] and now I’m shamelessly going to make an exclusive out of this interview *laughs*
*Laughs* Totally, go for it! *laughs* Well that question really hit on something that I always felt is really important but never had the chance to clarify it that way, even in my own head.
– Before our time is up I’ll wind things down with a broad question – how do you top what you’ve done so far, what are you working on next and what are you looking forward to in the future?
Oooh *laughs* well I’m not trying to top what I’ve done so far. Not at all, that’s definitely not in my head. I feel like that would be a way to drive myself crazy. *laughs*
– Okay *laughs* I’ll retract the question and rephrase it…
*Laughs* No, no, that’s a good question, but I think that when working on someone else’s project I get to put myself in their world and try to make the best thing I can for what they’re after.
– Sure. Doing what’s best for the project and working with the director to create something native to the story.
Yeah and that goes back to what you were saying before about the length of the tracks to the Don Jon score. The reason they’re so short is because that’s what the movie asked for and I wasn’t making it with the soundtrack album as the driving idea. But I guess what I love about working with different people and working on different projects is the idea that each of them are pretty unique and different in story and the stories themselves, I promise you, take me in directions I never would have imagined on my own.
– Well Nathan it’s been a privilege and a thrill talking with you, so for our last one, let’s get to know a little bit about you. Give us one of your favorite composers of all time and tell us what you’re listening to now.
I think Nino Rota is one of my favorites, and there are so many great ones but his use of melody and the offbeat joy that’s in his music is something I just love.
And I’ll throw a little shout out to a good buddy of mine for what I’m listening to right now – the new Son Lux record that just came out today [Tuesday] and it’s fantastic! It’s about as far on the other side of the spectrum from Nino Rota as you can get but Son Lux and I worked on a bunch of different stuff together and he, as well as being awesome composer and arranger, is also a great writer and performer. His solo project just came out today. It’s called ‘Lanterns‘ and it’s really, really great.
Thanks very much to Nathan Johnson for his time in this interview. Don Jon is currently in theaters and the soundtrack is available on iTunes now.