Recess film editor Ted Phillips interviewed Nathan Johnson, composer of the soundtrack for Looper, the new time-traveling sci-fi film due out tomorrow. Johnson also wrote the soundtracks for Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008).
Recess: How did you first get started playing and composing music?
Nathan Johnson: My cousin Rian Johnson (writer and director of Looper, Brick and Brothers Bloom) and I grew up making movies and music together. Any time we would have a family vacation we would spend two weeks corralling all the younger cousins together and come up with a movie or original song. With all of those projects, I’m sure you could dig up some embarrassing footage. In high school, and after high school, I was in a number of different bands, including work with The Cinematic Underground on a conceptual narrative album called Annasthesia. Rian heard that record right around the time he was doing Brick (2005), so when it came time to do the music he called me and asked if I wanted to take a stab at it. I love the way that visuals and audio work together, so I totally jumped into it. I sort of jumped into the deep end—I had never done something like that before—but it was definitely a great first experience.
R: I love that film, and it’s a great soundtrack.
NJ: Thank you!
R: How early on in the filmmaking process did Rian approach you about the score for Looper?
NJ: Usually as a composer you get brought on right at the last minute. Everything’s done, there’s a rough cut, and you’re given a very short amount of time to jump into the world and make the music. But one of the great things about working Rian is that I come on much earlier. With Looper it was before they’d even cast it. We started by talking about what was in Rian’s head in terms of what he wanted the world to look and feel and sound like, and as production started, I really ramped up and started working on it in earnest.
R: How did you first approach scoring Looper?
NJ: Looper is a big action/sci-fi movie, but it’s smart and grounded. We wanted to create a big-sounding action score without resorting to the big melodies of traditional action scores—we wanted the music to hit you slightly differently. Although it’s a science fiction time-travel movie, it’s not slick sci-fi. You don’t ever feel like it’s “The Future!”, you know what I mean? A lot of the film takes place on a farm in Kansas, so we wanted to find something that felt a bit home-grown. One of the things we talked about was the idea of recording found sounds. I moved down to New Orleans where they were shooting the film and spent a month with a field recorder and headphones collecting a library of sounds. I recorded everything I could find, from fans to treadmills to alarms to gunshots. I would look for interesting little snippets and then severely manipulate them by shifting the pitch or slowing them down or sending them through different effects.
R: Were the instruments tonal so that you could play out melodies on a keyboard?
NJ: Sometimes the instruments were tonal, but sometimes we would place them on pressure-sensitive pads so we could play them like a drum kit.
R: Parts of the soundtrack were recorded with a live orchestra. How did you mesh the live recordings with the manipulated found-sounds?
NJ: We started with the custom instrument world and first focused on the rhythmic elements, especially the pulsing action stuff. We approached the orchestral music as a supplement to work with our found-sound world. We spent three full days having everybody play the parts we’d written and also improvised elements I could take back to the studio and play around with further. It was awesome because we were looking for a group that could really get into the vibe of what we were doing and come at in a cool way, and the Magik*Magik orchestra [the San Francisco-based group that worked with Johnson on the soundtrack] was able to do that. They’re such a nimble group of players.
R: Well, I can’t wait to see Looper.
NJ: It’s special, man. I’m super excited about it.