History is the God We Serve: Composer Nathan Johnson discusses the score for NIGHTMARE ALLEY
Nathan Johnson is a composer whose work in the film industry began with the award-winning 2005 neo-noir thriller Brick– directed by his cousin Rian Johnson. 2022 will see him return as the composer of his long-awaited sequel to his critically acclaimed 2019 thriller, Knives Out. However, in his latest job he teams up with cinema visionary Guillermo del Toro and once again creates a musical soundscape for the dark and dangerous world of the dark.
Johnson sat down with marked to death author J. Blake Fichera to discuss his score for del Toro’s new crime thriller, Alley of nightmares (2021) and what it’s like to work with the auteur filmmaker.
How did you come to work on Alley of nightmares? Did you know Guillermo del Toro before?
I didn’t know him before. He liked what I had done in Knives Out. I think they took some of the Knives Out music and tried in different scenes like temp [temporary score]. He told me that when they tried to temper the film, working with different temporary scores, the film kept pushing and rejecting the music. And he said when they started putting together some of the parts that I had made for Knives Out, the film kind of attracted them.
With technology these days, the variety of sounds you can use is endless. So how did you decide which sounds and instruments you wanted to use for this score?
It’s out of character. In Western storytelling, everything usually revolves around the character arc. The character starts here, then goes through this great experience, and they end up being a different person than when they started. What fascinated me was that it seemed to me that Guillermo was telling the story of a character who does not change. It had such an impact on me, and I felt like it — Stan [played by Bradley Cooper]- just kept hitting the same note throughout the movie. He puts on different masks at different times and convinces people that he’s someone else, but when we finally take it all off, at the end of it, it’s the same person. And he comes to a realization and a final acceptance of who he has been, essentially, since birth. So, during my first conversation with Guillermo, I launched this idea: you start with a single piano note, and that’s the first thing you hear. Then we slowly start to add more notes next to that, and some are very dissonant. [sound unpleasant], some are consonants [sound pleasant]. As we step into the carnival we expand the palette. Then as we walk through the big city and more and more masks appear, we suddenly find ourselves in this large, lush string orchestra with woodwinds and brass. But below that same piano note is still there. And then, at the end of the film, we remove everything. And the last note you hear is the very first note we heard in the score. So from that point on, it was almost like an architectural approach to the score in response to what these characters were doing.
The score has a good sized orchestra, and when you listen to it separately outside of the movie some parts look very lush and big, but when I watched the movie I was surprised at how subtle the score was. in the movie. – and very strategic. He feels very carefully placed. How did you and Guillermo decide on the musical placement?
We were both very conscious of starting out sparingly, especially at Carnival. The movie felt like it didn’t want a lot of music in the carnival, and I wanted to push for that bold approach by letting some scenes run dry. And Guillermo was okay with that. For example, the first time we saw the Geek Pit at the start of the movie, we retreated completely there. For me, it was important to let this happen viscerally and not color it in any way. Just let the audience sit down with this event somehow getting inside Stan and haunting him throughout the film.
Then again, it was kind of this architectural approach where we settled in the big city, especially with the introduction of the character of Lilith. [played by Cate Blanchett]. We introduce these open and disturbing harmonies under his melodic oboe motif. It’s a question of destabilization, and it was really important to us. We didn’t want to hold the audience’s hand and immerse them in a particular positive or negative emotion. A large part of the score does this dance where we oscillate between the beautiful and the ugly. And we just wouldn’t land on one side or the other. And then we get to the climax of the movie, and it’s basically 15 straight minutes of music until we get to the campfire scene, and then the last footage in the movie is completely dry. With Guillermo, everything is very intentional. We try different things, but at the end of the day it’s about letting the characters and the storytelling take center stage.
As a director, how does Guillermo communicate to you what he needs or wants for the film?
It’s really beautiful. He would come to my studio every week and we would work together. I would show him what I was working on, then we would polish and compose things. He has this element that I find in the best directors, which is that he knows him very well, from a general point of view. , where we’re going, and it feels like we’re all making the same movie. But in terms of details, it doesn’t micromanage. At the very beginning he kept telling me, “I trust your instincts, and I want you to do whatever you want.” And I hardly want to tell you too much. And I think part of that is a desire to be surprised and excited. But then we would do things together. So it felt very collaborative. I remember when he left the first day it was like, “Oh, that was so much fun!”
Additionally, Guillermo’s ratings are almost always story-based. For example, I had played with a celesta [a piano-type instrument that uses hammers that strike metal plates to make sound instead of strings] for a tail. And, Guillermo said, “For this movie, no celesta, because it makes me feel magic, and there is no magic in this world. They are peddlers.” This type of note is a “story note” that aligns completely with the film we are making and is completely understandable. And these types of notes are a gift because they always refocus us on the story we’re telling, and the story really is the God we serve.
Even though most of the movies you’ve worked on are about dark subjects and moods, you haven’t scored a horror movie yet. Since this interview is for FANGORIA, I have to ask you, are you a horror fan interested in writing a horror movie?
Great question. My brother always gives me a hard time because, in my head, I feel like horror scares me. I feel like I don’t like horror movies. My brother always says, “You think you don’t like horror, but what you actually don’t like are previews of teen horror movies, like scary horror. . [laughs] But, when I think of all those movies that I love, everything since The brilliant (1980) to Cabin in the woods (2011), my brother says to me: “No, you love all those great horror movies!” So I have this perception that horror scares me, except that I love these dark psychological movies. So maybe I’m already operating in this playground. Maybe next time we talk, I’ll find out that I made a real genre horror movie, and we can talk about it. [laughs]
I would like to.
Alley of nightmares is now playing in theaters.
To learn more about J. Blake Fichera’s interviews with film music composers, see his books Scored to Death: Conversations with some of Horror’s greatest composers & Scored to Death 2: More conversations with some of Horror’s greatest composers.