Knives Out Director Rian Johnson Asks His Cousin Nathan How To Score A Movie

By
Photography Peter Cobbin

Published November 26, 2019

Before he took over the Star Wars franchise as the director of 2017’s The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson was the creative force behind Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper, a string of crowd-pleasing genre movies that showed off his considerable filmmaking chops. Along for the ride was his cousin and collaborator Nathan Johnson, who scored all three films, but who had to watch from the sidelines when the legendary John Williams returned to score The Last Jedi, his eighth Star Wars movie. But now that Rian has returned to his genre roots with his latest movie Knives Out, his cousin is right there with him, providing a sumptuously sharp score to this modern, star-studded take on the Agatha Christie-style whodunit. Rian, who’s been making movies with Nathan since their childhood, got on the phone with his cousin to ask him what it’s like to put music to his moving images.

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RIAN JOHNSON: Hi, Nathan.

NATHAN JOHNSON: Hi Rian, nice to meet you.

RIAN: Pleasure to meet you. So, Knives Out. This movie that we just made together—I wrote and directed it, you did the music for it. I’m going to do bad exposition for the reader. As you well know, Nathan, we are cousins. We’ve known each other all our lives. I told you about Knives Out years ago. We’ve been talking about this movie for a long, long time. I’d be curious from your perspective, talking about where your head was at coming into it, where your ideas were. Our conversations changed as you started to actually write the score.

NATHAN: I feel like the first conversation we had, you described the opening shot to me. Weirdly, I feel every movie we make never starts with music. But this was the one where you were like, “This whole movie is going to start with music.” So before I knew the details, I was already thinking about that opening sequence. I remember playing around with stabby strings really early on. I’m not sure if I ever showed you that—I don’t think we talked tone at that point—but it was already lining up in my mind. Then I remember when you were directing the LCD Soundsystem video, we drove up to that ranch location and we were listening to these old scores.

RIAN: I remember we were talking about how Nino Rota wrote his score for Death on the Nile, which was this big sumptuous score that had this grand reach to it. And then we started going down that path of, we’re going to bring a grandness to this movie that isn’t necessarily reflected in the parlor room aspect of it, but that’s what those old movies did.

NATHAN: Once I got that idea in my head, obviously we start with the string quartet, but then immediately we’d blow it open until the huge orchestra.

RIAN: This was your first time writing for an orchestra, which blows my mind. As someone who is not a musician, it seems insane to me, the notion of being able to write and compose for an orchestra, and be thinking about all those voices working together at once. How did you, as a first timer, wrap your head around it? 

NATHAN: I guess the simple answer is I start really small. I know with you, I feel more comfortable than with anyone to show you the smallest sketch of something. I think the first sketches I showed you were very simple piano melodies. Then, once we’re on the same page about those, it’s beginning to think about all the different sections in the orchestra. Your direction was really helpful: “Let’s not have this be a big wash of sound, let’s have it be really specific so we can hear what each instrument is doing.” 

RIAN: What was the learning curve? Did you have to Google what instruments are in an orchestra? Is that something you had to research to figure out what these different voices were capable of and how to use them? 

NATHAN: It was something that I had worked with, but never all together. For The Brothers Bloom it was essentially working with one or two players from each section individually and building them up. For Looper, we did a string section and a brass section, kind of in parallel with all the weird sound designing stuff. I’d done a fair amount of work with these individual sections broken down. I had been doing a lot of that stuff with the Echo Society performances that we’ve been doing for the last handful of years.

RIAN: Those are incredible. Catch our readers up. Tell us what this amazing little thing is that happens in Los Angeles.

NATHAN: A handful of composer friends and I got together about six years ago. L.A. is such an amazing town, but a lot of what happens here musically is within the context of filmmaking, so this group of musicians got together and we would just pick different weird ensembles and then each write a piece of music, and invite a couple of guests composers to write a piece, and then we would do a one-time performance event in a nontraditional space. Maybe in an art gallery, or in a soundstage, or in a warehouse downtown. Over the course of those five years, I was working with so many different interesting selections of an orchestra that when we finally got to Knives Out, we get to pull the whole thing together.

RIAN: I remember just how much fun you were having. Almost a giddy amount of fun.

NATHAN: After I finished, I was like, “Oh, I always want to do this.” When we did Brick, we had no budget, so instead of a string section, we used tuned wineglasses, because it sort of had the characteristics of a string section. And instead of timpanis we were like, banging mallets on filing cabinets, and then with this it kind of suddenly felt like, “Wow, it’s so much fun to use real instruments.”

RIAN: We can finally afford real instruments! We had a really fun experience recording this. We got to go out to Abbey Road to record. Give a very brief illustration of what the process is from when you finish writing the score to when we show up on the stage. Because I know there’s an orchestrator that’s involved and there’s all sorts of things that have to happen that are kind of mysteries. 

NATHAN: I create mock-ups of every piece of music for the whole movie. When you’re working with an orchestra, you can’t keep hiring the players to come in to play your mock-ups. So I’m using samples of a real orchestra to play that in one note at a time. But then, once you sign off on everything, once we have everything dialed in, then it goes through this whole process of getting everything ready for the orchestra. So there’s an orchestrator who is making sure everything is arranged correctly. Then there’s copyists who go through all of those nodes from the computer that I played in and transcribing them, creating the actual sheet music for the players.

Then there’s a contractor or, what they would call it in England, a fixer. She’s the one who basically has the phone number of every amazing player in London on speed dial. So we tell her, we want this many strings, and this many harps. And she basically puts the whole group together. Then I’m talking with engineers. We worked with an amazing team of engineers, and I’m having conversation about what room we should record in. We decided to record in studio one at Abbey Road, which is this amazing lush room. We showed up and we stepped out into the room and thought, “Holy shit, we’re standing in Abbey Road. What is going on?”

RIAN: That’s the part I got to experience. I got to skip right to the fun part.

NATHAN: I remember all of us kind of giddy on that first morning. All the players have the sheet music in front of them. They’re seeing it for the very first time. I was like, “Oh man, this is going to be amazing.” We had been on a rollercoaster, going up this long hill, and then we crested on top and it was all downhill from there. 

RIAN: Your eyes were like saucers, and that was incredible to me, because besides being on the stage with John Williams when we did The Last Jedi score, this is the second time I’ve watched you work with the orchestra, and to me it’s magical. It feels like you guys are seeing through the matrix, but it seemed it was instantly comfortable for you. That was a cool thing. Maybe working with the Echo Society primed you for it.

NATHAN: Yeah. And doing the score for Looper and Young Ones and Kill the Messenger where we’re in these same types of settings just with a much smaller group of players. I’ve heard you talk about this a lot, when people are like, “What’s it like to do a Star Wars movie? That must be so much different from doing Brick.” And you’re always like, “The catering is better and there’s a lot more people. But actually the heart of it is the same.” That’s what it feels like. It felt like I’m doing what we’ve been doing for years and years, except we’re in the room where all of our favorite albums were made with the best players in London. It felt like the smoothest, most natural score that we’ve done. And I think part of that is getting to work with this caliber of people. All you’re doing is listening to the emotion.

RIAN: It’s like working with a great group of actors. It makes your job easy.

NATHAN: Totally. What you get to do is not worry about technical things. You can just focus on the performance.

BEN BARNA: I have a quick question for you, Nathan. You’ve worked with Rian on all his films except The Last Jedi. And it just so happens that the one movie that Rian does without you, he works with, I think, inarguably the greatest film scorer of all time. Did you just grill Rian on what it was like working with John Williams? Did you mine him for information? 

NATHAN: Oh, 100%. John Williams scored our childhoods. That’s what it feels like. When we were making movies when we were like 10 together, the only soundtrack CD we had was the Hook record. We would use the Hook album to score all of our movies that we made growing up together. I remember we were on the scoring stage when they did the opening fanfare, and it’s hard to describe what that feels like to see the great John Williams conducting the orchestra—and they re-record that for each movie. He is the most gentle, kind, amazing person, and to get to see how he worked with the orchestra, to see the respect that the players had for him, and to see the speed with which he works, it was a total childhood moment.