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.
A: What does this unique sound you created say about the “futuristic” world of Looper, as well as the characters?
NJ: I think it actually says a lot. The score runs very closely in parallel to what the movie is doing in that regard. Part of that is the world of Looper is a recognizable world, yet still slightly different. It’s not that kind of sci-fi world where everything is perfect and pristine, it doesn’t feel ultra futuristic, it’s more grounded in reality. And so we were looking to create something with the score where we’re using recognizable sound, these inherent rhythms in the machines, and also the feeling of space (that you don’t sometimes get in the studio, but is there when you’re recording in a parking garage or a city street) …but on the other hand, part of the film takes place on a farm, it’s organic, anchored in honest human emotion. So we combined these weird industrial sounds with traditional instruments —stripped back imperfect versions, (a single piano playing or a single celeste), to try and create a raw and rhythmic sound, one that’s both organic and mechanical, which plays into the feel of this world, and the characters of the film.
Nathan discusses the field recordings he and his team used to create the musical fabric for director Rian Johnson’s film LOOPER.
A: You’ve composed for film, and your band, the Cinematic Underground, has an album, “Annathesia”, that features a graphic novella accompaniment. How did you come to the point where you knew you wanted to tell stories through music?
NJ: I’ve always really loved telling stories, from the time I was a kid to when I first began writing songs. A lot of the songs I would write would have this narrative, storytelling vibe. I guess my brain loves how structure works and being able to combine different elements. I love the idea of a record that’s also story that’s also a graphic novel that’s also a projected stage show.
I never grew up thinking I was going to be a composer… I always wanted to go down the road of movies, or performing music. But I guess… I never put those two together in my childhood head. (laughs) As I look back and trace the thread now, I see that all of those elements were there… and when Rian asked me to do Brick, that’s when it came together.
A: OK, let’s go way back…. You mentioned that as kids, you and your siblings and cousins made films together. How did that start? How did you divide up the production roles? Did Rian just take over and be like… I’m the director. Nathan, you’re my PA. Go get me coffee.
NJ: (laughs) I don’t think it would have lasted very long if that was the approach. I remember one summer Rian came to visit us in Colorado, after his family moved to LA, and he brought along a video camera. His dad had gotten it for him, and Rian had been making movies with his friends. Before then, we (my brothers and cousins) would always do Christmas plays together, write songs… we had a band, sort of a Weird-Al type band, where we’d change the lyrics to famous songs and perform them… So I think making movies was just a natural thing for us. Rian would definitely take the lead on those, but still, we were making the movie together. We’d edit it together, choose the music together. It was a collaborative effort, with Rian leading the charge.
A: I have a feeling, even now, with Brick, Bloom, and Looper, Rian and you guys are still making films like that. Like it’s a family production.
NJ: It definitely feels like a family-vibe on the set. And Rian is really awesome about purposely creating that, and I say purposely, I’m not sure how much he thinks about it, but that’s how he approaches it. All through film school, he and Steve (his cinematographer and good friend) would go out and shoot movies together, just like they made short films together while waiting for the budget to come together with Brick. But obviously you can’t make a movie by the seat of your pants when there is someone else funding it. They’d like to see that you’re going in a direction that sounds good, they want to see a script, a scedule. But that’s also an interesting thing, when you don’t have budget involved you’re free to do whatever you want.
A: I think a lot of young filmmakers, musicians, artists, see that budget crunch as a hindrance… “we have no budget, we can’t make the project we want”, rather than seeing the creative freedoms you have being in that situation.
NATHAN: Yeah, totally. I think that it’s sad if that “we don’t have any budget” idea gets in the way of actually making something. Obviously budget is important, but just because you don’t have a budget doesn’t mean you can’t go out and make something. I think that’s how you learn how to do it, that’s when you get good so when the time comes and you have a budget, you’re practiced and ready to go.
A: You’ve been had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented people: you do design with your brothers and sister-in-law for The Made Shop, the design/production company started by you all started. You’ve composed for Rian’s films, made music with your band, the Cinematic Underground, as well as music artist Son Lux, and collaborated with Joseph Gordon-Levitt with his company Hitrecord, just to name a few.
What does it mean to you as a creator to be able to collaborate with others?
NJ: It’s one of the most important things to me. As someone who grew up being into making things, it was really important to surround myself with other people who were also making things, especially when none of us was doing it as our full time job. I feel really thrilled to be able to create as my full-time job now, but if I step back and look at like, high school, where you had to get jobs that didn’t have anything to do with what you were vocationally interested in, that was just a part of life.. you have to work as a caddy, or at the donut shop, or whatever. So this idea of trying to pursue something vocationally, something I really loved, was important to me, but I knew getting to do that for the rest of my life was not a common thing.
I remember, in the days of the Cinematic Underground, living in Boston, I felt that it was incredibly helpful to surrounded myself with other creative people, because every time they had a success, there was a little bell that would ring inside my head reminding me that it was possible. To keep working at it. To keep making stuff, and maybe I’d find myself at the point where my vocation and passion merged.
A: It seems that many creative people feel that distance between their vocation and passion, and they’re scared they’ll end up in that “Donut Shop” job for life. It’s a constant struggle.
NJ: I think it’s really important to just start now, with your friends. That’s kinda the advice that I often give people. Maybe that’s not how everyone does it, but that’s how everyone I know did it. All of those projects you mentioned, these are all people I grew up with, who were friends first. It’s so important, when you’re starting out, not to wait and hope that someone is going to find you. I think those connections just always start with people you know, and work with on little things, and then they get a bigger opportunity, and they bring on board for that.
A: Ok, in the spirit of Looper… some time travel questions. Rapid fire. Best time travel film ever?
NJ: That’s so unfair. A “best ever” question (laughs).
A: (laughs) You’re right. That was an unfair question, it’s hard to pick a best ever, as is… not to mention, if you didn’t say Looper… let’s just go with one of your favorites then.
NJ: One of my favorites is Back to the Future. It doesn’t strike many as a serious time travel movie, but that just got ingrained in us, as kids, ya know? I feel like Back to the Future is a time travel version of Star Wars.
A: I would have to agree. OK, would you rather go forwards, or backwards in time?
NJ: Well, I really love living in the time where we’re at now. At least from an artistic and technological perspective, the time we’re in now is great. From an interest perspective, I’d like to go back and see some different eras, but I wouldn’t stay there. I think I’d be slightly scared to go forward.
A: If we went back, say 20 into your childhood. What would little Nathan Johnson be doing right now?
NJ: Wow. (laughs) Well.. let’s see, what’s twenty years ago… how old am I now… I think one of my favorite times was when as kids we’d make up those plays and stunt shows all the time. So if we went back to little Nathan, that’s what he’d be doing. He’d be in a basement somewhere, making up a stunt show with his brothers, choreographing fight scenes to perform for the adults.
A: (laughs) Awesome. That’s a good place for little Nathan to be. Would you give him any advice?
NJ: Maybe something like… take piano lessons earlier. But then again you don’t want to screw up the way you got to where you are. Like, if I took piano lessons earlier, maybe I’d never have tried turning a fan into an instrument.
A: True. Good point. So, same question as before… only, twenty years into the future.
NJ: I’d hope I was able to have my hands in a bunch of different projects. That I’d get the chance to create, and to help realize both the vision of other people’s projects, people I really respect, as well my own. If I was able to do that, I feel like I’ll be really happy.
Looper (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt) opens today in theaters.