Nathan Johnson recording the sounds of a gun to create new instruments for the original score of Looper. (photo by Noah Segan)
a brief introduction: Nathan Johnson is the innovative composer of Brick, the Brother’s Bloom, and Looper. Nathan’s work on films is unconventional; using “modified, organic instrumentation with unique approaches to recording and performing” to create scores that are both unique and memorable.
In Rian Johnson’s new time travel action film Looper (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt) Nathan broke new ground, creating entirely original instrumentation through found sounds and field recording, adding live orchestration, to create the film’s powerful score.
THE ATOMY: You were just up at the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of Looper. What were your initial thoughts after watching the film in front of that audience, knowing the creative process for the film was finished and out there for the world to see and hear?
NATHAN JOHNSON: Really just pure excitement. Seeing it as the opening night movie in Toronto, with this huge crowd who was really into it, just felt amazing. Like that buzzing feeling of excitement, know that this film we’ve been working on for the last year or so, was finally ready for people to see.
A: Was this a different experience compared to Brick, and the Brother’s Bloom, considering the wide release, and a bigger “buzz” surrounding Looper?
NJ: Yeah, I mean all three of them were independent movies, but the buzz around Looper, and so far the reception around it, has been a lot more heightened, and it feels like a new experience. Plus Sony’s on board for the distribution. They’ve been doing an amazing job of getting the word out. It’s incredible to see people getting excited about it. You make a movie in the hopes that it will connect with people. So it’s rewarding to know that people are excited to go see it.
A: What were your first thoughts about the project after reading the script?
NJ: I remember thinking how different it was. It’s a lot more minimal, in terms of dialog, than I’m used to from Rian. But it kinda felt that he honed it down, and it’s meaner and leaner, and quite a bit different from Brick and Bloom.
A: Apparently you and Rian worked together through ichat on Brick, you were in England. He was in California. How has the process evolved for you since then?
NJ: It’s kinda gotten, one step of a time, closer together. (laughs) For Brick I was in England, for the Brother’s Bloom I did that in Connecticut, with Rian in LA. For Looper, I actually moved out to LA. Which to be honest, didn’t feel that different. When it comes down to it, it’s me, in the studio, or at a workstation, writing. The only difference is, in LA Rian can hop on over to the place, rather than me emailing him the stuff to listen to.
A: How has you and Rian’s creative relationship/partnership grown since Brick?
NJ: Well we’re cousins. We grew up working together. Since the time we were kids, we were always making music and movies together. I love working with Rian, that’s one of the benefits of working together for such a long time, you can really explore new places, because you trust each other. And that’s what’s required when you’re going down a new road like that. Trust.
A: Do you have a specific ritual when beginning a new project? What’s your creative approach like?
NJ: Um, it changes based on what the movie calls for. But I guess there is sort of a similar process, I usually come up with the main themes first. And that was really different on Looper, Partly because it’s not a hugely melodic score. For Brick we had a theme or instrumental voice for every different character, and for Bloom there were a lot of different melodic themes. But for Looper, our beginning process basically started with building these custom instruments out of the field recordings that I gathered. So that’s much more of an atmospheric starting point. I didn’t begin with the melodic, or thematic idea at all.
A: So the Looper score is more about the textures of the world. Does that mean the character themes are absent?
NJ: It is focused more on creating the texture and emotion of the world, but there’s also one, simple theme that’s stretched throughout the whole movie. There are other melodic elements in there, but it mostly just comes down to one theme. In my mind, that theme relates to the main character (Joe), and since there’s an older version and younger version of him, my approach was to have this one theme represent both of them, as well as the change they experience throughout the film.
A: You’ve taken such a unique, ambitious angle for the score. Creating your own instruments, drum kits, and orchestra, through “found sound” (e.g. car doors slamming, industrial fans, gun clicks). The end result is something extremely original in sound, a score that’s beautiful and organic, rhythmic and epic. Though it seems like it was an extremely long and difficult process.
NJ: (laughs) It took a long time. I don’t think it’s something you could do in say, a month in a half. That’s one of the benefits of coming on board so early. I don’t have to start writing right away, I can be developing my ideas and building my sound library, recording and creating instruments. And yeah, you’re right it did take a long time, but it allowed us to go down roads, roads that we couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. It was like setting off, down a dark hall, hoping eventually you’d find something that was worthwhile down there… and sometimes you didn’t, and sometimes you did. But that’s one of the exciting things working in this way, you’re writing with new instruments, ones that you’re not familiar with, and those end up impacting what you create.