Closing The Loop With LOOPER Composer Nathan Johnson

Scorekeeper brings us a lost interview with the composer of Rian Johnson's time travel movie LOOPER!

Welcome to the first in a short series of articles I’m dubbing The Lost Interviews. In actuality, these interviews weren’t really “lost” as much as they were unintentionally neglected. Back in 2012, I was still writing for Ain’t It Cool News and a few weeks before I made the switch to BAD in the Spring of 2013, I conducted interviews with several different composers. AICN’s primary transcriber was no longer working for them so I sent the raw materials over to AICN just before I transitioned over to BAD.

Two years later, I noticed that nothing ever became of those interviews, so with the help of film music fan Chris Hadley, I was able to get these interviews transcribed for publishing. They may be a couple years late, but they’re still extremely fascinating.

First up is Nathan Johnson who composed the über-cool score for Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012). The film received massive amounts of buzz, not only for the acting, writing, and narrative amazement, but also for its unique and provocative score. Looper was my #8 favorite score of 2012 which you can read about here.

The soundtrack was released on CD by La-La Land Records (LLLCD-1227) and on vinyl by Mondo Records (MOND-006)


ScoreKeeper: There’s already been a lot of coverage regarding your approach to this score. Just in case nobody is familiar with it, can you talk briefly about your unique approach to scoring this picture?

Nathan Johnson: Yeah, it started pretty early on. Rian and I were talking about the feel for the movie. We started kicking around ideas of going to warehouses and recording things falling and smashing. So I went down to New Orleans where they were shooting the movie and spent a month there wandering around the city recording various sounds. I spent some time on set gathering sounds from any place that sounded interesting.

Then, one of my really good friends and longtime collaborators, Ryan Lott, who makes music as Son Lux, had been experimenting with building software instruments on his computer. I brought him on board and out of that expanded this idea of using these sounds and weaving them into the fabric of the world…but not just totally weaved. A lot of them are rhythmic. We would also adapt and extend them into full instruments for melody and harmony.

SK: Was the genesis idea of the idea based on the desire to create industrial sounds, or was there a element of futurism involved? What motivated this approach?

NJ: I think Rian really wanted to hit you a little bit differently. To not sound exactly that recognizable but he still wanted there to be elements that were familiar. One of my favorite things about the movie is that it’s not slick sci-fi. It feels really human. It’s broken down and that’s something I think I lean towards aesthetically anyway, both in film and in music.

So, yeah, it was a response to the idea that this whole world is in the near future and familiar, but different. When you look at the cars in the movie, most of the cars aren’t slick, futuristic cars. Most of them are like cars that are on our streets now, but you know, in the future they’re a lot older and they’ve been modified. There are solar panels taped to the hood and wiring, the exhaust going back into the fuel lines. So yeah, I think it was part of the feel for the whole story.

SK: Can you specifically point out some of the more creative uses of sound in this score? What were the sources of these sounds and how did you incorporate them into the score?

NJ: One of my favorite sounds was the treadmill in the hotel that I was staying at. My wife was down there with me, and we went into the workout room one day. I had her basically run and walk at different speeds on the treadmill while I recorded it from every angle possible. That was mostly a rhythmic and tonal sound, but when you speed it up or slow it down, there’s this inherent cone inside of it and all this room noise. That was a fun one.

I think another one of my favorites was when I was walking through the streets one night. I would have my auxiliary cord on my headphones and I would walk around and listen through microphones with the gain jacked up really high. One time, I found this fan on the side of a building. It was this huge, almost like a turbo, big industrial fan. So I recorded it. That became the first musical sound you hear in the movie. We turned it into a fluttering, undulating synthesizer that would play melody and harmony but if you listen to it, you could hear that it’s fluttering.

We made a drum kit out of the sounds of Noah Segan’s GAT gun -- all the electric chambers spinning and the cocking mechanism. We cut those up and assigned them to play on pads so we could play them like a drum kit. We also used car doors slamming, things like that. A lot of percussive elements were altered and adapted.

SK: This technique has been used before; however, what I’m partial to is the fact that you didn’t over-manipulate them to the point where the sound looses its familiarity. There’s still a lot of the inherent sound maintained in your usage of it. Do you know the percentage breakdown of how many raw audio elements there were compared with how many you manipulated to the point where the sound is unrecognizable?

NJ: I think they’re all pretty much manipulated in some way, but you’re right and I totally agree with you. I love that you can still tell where they’re from. I think if we sat down together and I soloed out the tracks, maybe 20 percent of them you’d listen and neither one of us would have any idea where it came from.

For instance, one of my bass sounds is like a big, bassy, subby synthesizer. It actually came from the hotel nightstand door closing. It has no connection. There’s no way you would be able to tell. So I would guess probably 80 percent of the instruments, you would still be able to hear what the source of that sound was, even if it was significantly altered.

SK: When you’re creating your own sample library like this, and the score is very eclectic and unique, do you find that your library tends to get exhausted mid-way through the scoring process? How do you keep everything fresh and invigorated?

NJ: One of the things I enjoy in a film is the idea that this film is cut from a limited amount of cloth and you can hear that all the way through it. To be honest, getting to the end, when I was putting together those videos that we put up online, I dove back in and separated the stuff, so I could talk about how we brought the sound from point A to point B, where it ended up.

I found all these other great sounds that I just never got around to using. Like, “oh, that would have been so good to use in the movie.” So, I feel like I just had gathered so much stuff that it was more of a question of “okay, I’ve got to stop now and start making something rather than keeping on listening through this raw material library.”

SK: What was the first piece of music you wrote? What was the last?

NJ: Rian sent me two scenes right in the beginning. Usually the way Rian and I work is, I’ll be around for production but I’m on my own writing. He edits it together and uses temp music to give an idea of what he’s looking for. There were two scenes where he emailed me really early on before they even had finished the rough cut. He told me, “We’re really having trouble finding temp music for these scenes. Do you want to dive in and take a stab at it?”

That’s actually antithetical to my process. I generally tend to start with the picture writing themes. I remember feeling like, “I don’t have the main themes written. I don’t know the world yet.” If felt too early for me to just dive in and do two cues. The first one was when Cid was playing the multiplication game with Sara and he gets mad at her and overturns the table. It gets really dark. You see the beginnings of what is starting to come out.

The second scene was when they go pick up Old Joe in China and bring him into the big factory to send him back in the time machine. Those were the first two scenes and I worked on both of them together.

At that point, I didn’t have set sounds and instruments ready. I went directly into my raw library and started messing around with stuff so that really impacted the instruments I built . (They) basically informed the way I wrote the music for the whole scene.

I got it to a place where I felt pretty good about it so I sent them over to Rian which is the scariest part of the whole process. When you’re sending music that early on, you don’t even know if you’re in the right ballpark because you haven’t had that many talks about it. I remember his response was, “This is it! This is what it should sound like.” Both of those scenes hardly changed at all from the very first demo sketch to the final movie.

The last cue I composed was the China sequence. It’s the montage where Young Joe turns into Old Joe. Rian had written that scene to a Chopin piece and early on figured out that wasn’t really working. I had three or four different things for that scene. Partly the music wasn’t working but also partly the scene wasn’t working.

They kept editing it differently right up to the very end…really late in the process, like really, really late in the process. Rian was talking about jazz drums. For a while, I thought me meant, “Do your crazy equivalent of a jazz drum set.” There were no real drums in the entire movie. Finally, I realized he actually meant, “Let’s go get a drummer and record jazz drums.” As he talked through it, I started clicking to what he was talking about. The way the scene starts off, it’s Young Joe. He’s just closed this loop. It’s a new life.

This is his first stab at living on his own and he’s saved up all his gold. Rian just kept talking about how he wanted to have a freewheeling feel of a jazz drummer. Against my better judgment, I said, “Okay.” I felt a little bit nervous introducing such a different element for this once scene, but at the last minute we got a great drummer, Stewart Johnson. We went into the recording studio and had him record a bunch of free-form takes. Then I went back in and picked one that I felt really worked. Right at the last minute that became one of the key parts for unlocking what that sequence needed.

SK: This is all very fascinating. We as an audience experience this film and the music but it’s all already there. It exists; however, the journey to get to that point can be more interesting that the final result.

How long did you have to work on this film? Was it comparable to other projects you have done in the past?

NJ: I had about a year for this…

SK: Wow! That’s luxurious!

NJ: It’s probably a good time to rag on Rian a little bit. You were talking about the process…I can’t say enough about what it’s like working for Rian because he’s my cousin and I love him and I’m a fan of him creatively. But you use the word luxurious, and you’re exactly right!

There’s something so luxurious about having that much time and being able to come on board early in the process. But there’s also something luxurious about the way Rian works and trusts his collaborators. I think that allowed us to even consider this idea of spending months to build our own sound library, because sometimes he backs the entire length of time you have to make the score. But you just can’t go down and loop onto the set and experiment for two months.

So, that very much was just the core part of what unlocked our ability to approach it in this way and Rian was super excited about the idea. He was into the idea of us trying to push it in a different direction making sure it had its own fingerprint sonically. He was also up for following rabbit holes and seeing where they end up, even if we end up throwing them away, eventually.

SK: Now that it’s behind you and you’re moving on to other things, is there anything about the music you would do differently? Anything you wish you could have done or not done?

NJ: That’s a great question! That’s the question you want to avoid asking yourself for a little while after you finish! I think, maybe partially the answer is like a catch-22 because I think, from a practical standpoint, I would have loved to have been able to release some of the restrictions in terms of the scope of it. You can look back and say, “Oh, it would have been great if we could have done more here and more there.”

One of the things I’ve really come to realize is that often the restrictions, though they often feel hard to deal with at the time, are things that make you go down certain roads. With Brick (2005), which was the first thing Rian and I did together, that had almost a zero budget so we ended up using wine glasses instead of a string section, partly as a creative expression but also really practically as a budgetary restriction.

With a zero-budget movie, you can’t record an orchestra. So I feel like when I look back on Brick, all those restrictions put the fingerprint on what made that score sound the way it did, and I feel really, really happy with that at this point. I wouldn’t actually want to go back and change very much. Even with Looper, which a massive-budget movie, we didn’t have the resources to go to London and record with a huge orchestra. It was much more about getting a small ensemble of people and squeezing in as much as we could into a few days when it came to that point. We found this awesome modular orchestra called Magik*Magik run by Minna Choi in San Francisco. It was a friend of a friend thing, and she ended up being so great. The players were awesome. We had all of these found sound instruments, but we also wanted them to mix with strings and horns and things that were familiar.

Because they were small and agile, we got a really cool thing that I’m sure we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It would have sounded surely bigger and different had we done the traditional massive orchestra, but there was something really, really cool about working with these guys, and the stuff they added to it.

SK: You talked about the budgetary restrictions on BRICK and how that inspired creative solutions. Even though LOOPER didn’t necessarily have budgetary restrictions, were there any other limitations that forced you to think as creatively with similar results?

NJ: Totally. Yeah. I think that one of those restrictions, if we’re like looking at it with that language, was the fact that I had to start before I knew what it was going to be. Ryan made me start before I thought I was ready, and we had talked for quite a while about this not being a heavily melodic score, which was a pretty big departure from what I’ve done in the past.

I was really up for that. I allowed the ball to get rolling. I was really deep into the movie, but still hadn’t found that thing where I said, “Yes, this is it, this is the theme. I’m ready to sign off on it.” Personally, I don’t know if I’d call that a restriction, but in the terms that we’re taking about, it certainly was for me. It felt like I was wandering down a darkened tunnel hoping that I would see light at the end of it.

I know theoretically, that’s a great place to be in when you’re making something. It’s the way you want to do it because there’s this idea that you can’t make something new unless you go about it in a way that’s new. But there were definitely moments where I felt like, “Man, I don’t feel like I have this. I don’t know where it’s all heading.” It was much more an instinctive reactionary process.

SK: Is that unique for you? Do you usually have a more firm grasp on the process as you’re moving along?

NJ: Yeah, I think so. I feel like the way I generally approach things is that I tend to write scene-based material. I really love structure, so I want to see it all ahead of time. I want to know that this is Joe’s theme. Or even if there are not personal themes, I want to feel like this is the theme that presents this part of the movie. With this, it just felt like the cart was ahead of me being the horse.

SK: You took the words right out of my mouth. I know what you mean when you say, ‘You’re walking in a dark tunnel and you don't know where you’re going. You just rely on instinct and experience and you just keep going.

When you hear that coming from a composer on a certain project, it’s a very revealing thing. LOOPER is a score that is garnering you a lot of attention and making your name known to a lot of new people. It’s interesting that uncertainty itself reaped these rewards and ultimately created a distinct score for this film.

NJ: Yeah, thank you.

 SK: What’s next for you in 2013?

NJ: I just finished up Joseph Gordon Levitt’s new film. It’s called Don Jon’s Addiction (Editor’s note: This film was later titled and released in 2013 as Don Jon). Joe wrote and directed this movie, and stars in it as well. We just finished it all up and it’s premiering at Sundance. I’m really excited about that. It’s totally different than LOOPER, both the movie and the music. It’s a completely different stylistic approach, and was a lot of fun to work on.

Then, I have a handful of other projects that are just about to start up. My wife Katie and I, we have a band project together called Faux Fix. She’s halfway through writing songs for the next record, and we both just moved to L.A. I’m wandering around our new place with boxes all around me right now. It’s fun to be out here.

Click the images below to buy the Looper soundtrack.