Having worked together for literal decades (they are cousins after all), composer Nathan Johnson and filmmaker Rian Johnson have forged a fruitful working relationship, and Nathan says the “Glass Onion” director’s secret is in his methodical approach to storytelling.
“Honestly, the secret to Rian’s movies is that he’s never asking the music to fix something,” Nathan Johnson told TheWrap during a recent interview. “Rian scripts are so tight that thankfully he’s never coming to me and saying, ‘We didn’t quite get it in the scene, can you help us across the line with the music?’”
When it came to tackling the score for the “Knives Out” sequel “Glass Onion,” Nathan (who has scored all of Rian’s films aside from “The Last Jedi”) says his early conversations with Rian were about leaning into the “fun, romantic nature” of the follow-up film, pointing to Nino Rota’s score for “Death on the Nile” as an influence for the Greece-set sequel.
“I was listening to tons of 60s and 70s French pop music, kind of this lush, Old World lyrical, romantic approach, [and] it became clear that that was going to be the key to sort of unlock the sound of this movie.”
Read on for our full conversation with Nathan Johnson in which he talks about crafting character motifs and utilizing a string quartet for the “most fun” scene to score. “Glass Onion” debuts on Netflix on Dec. 23.
What are the early conversations you and Rian have about “Glass Onion,” and has that early conversation changed over the years since you started working together?
It’s pretty similar. I think the way it works each time is Rian sends me the script. We’re not usually talking about music before that point, although he was kind of telling me just loose story ideas, but he sends me the script and even at that point, I’m not thinking about music. He’s one of my favorite writers, and so every time he sends me a script I just block out the day and just read purely from a fan’s perspective. Soon after that, we just started talking very broadly and in sandbox terms. So for “Glass Onion,” we knew it was going to take place loosely in the same world as “Knives Out,” but this one he really wanted to lean into that that sort of fun, romantic nature of it. We were talking about the Nino Rota score for “Death on the Nile,” I was listening to tons of 60s and 70s French pop music, kind of this lush, Old World lyrical, romantic approach, it became clear that that was going to be the key to sort of unlock the sound of this movie.
The film starts with this harpsichord that brings to mind the first film before really exploding into this lush new location. Can you talk about crafting the main theme?
The weird thing is there’s no harpsichord in “Knives Out.” That’s one of the things that I love about Rian is he kind of he’s zigs when you think he’s gonna zag, so the harpsichord almost would have felt more appropriate for that New England manor house mystery. We wanted to bring that precision into this movie, and then obviously explode out. So we use the harpsichord at the beginning when everyone’s getting the invitation, and then on our first cut to the Grecian waters, we kind of go full force into our big “Glass Onion” theme. That one took a minute for me actually, I remember a couple sort of false starts on that. It took me it took me a second to find what that main theme was going to be. But once I found that, Rian’s eyes lit up, and it was like, “Okay, this is what the movie is gonna sound like.” We’re able to use that almost as a bit of an overture in terms of stating the main theme, but bringing in Blanc’s motif, bringing in the disruptors’ motif and just kind of giving a very quick prelude to everything that’s about to come in the movie.
How did you approach crafting those motifs for the different characters in this film?
Blanc’s came from the first movie, but then there are a few key motifs and themes in this one. There’s the disruptors theme, which is sort of this chromatic step thing that I use in different instruments of the orchestra and kind of reinterpret based on which of the disruptors we’re following at the moment. Andi’s theme was really a key one for me, because although these are very fun journeys and also there’s the tension mystery element, one of the things that I think is so brilliant about the way Rian writes these is it’s not really about trying to solve a puzzle. He talks about it as wanting to be a roller coaster ride instead of a crossword puzzle, but at a deeper level, we have to really care about the characters. If we’re not feeling Andi’s pain, then the whole movie sort of falls apart and doesn’t work. So Andi’s theme was really important because at the beginning she’s very mysterious. There’s that air of mysteriousness, but there’s also power in it, there’s also a vulnerability and, that theme needed to be a very adaptable theme across the whole movie so that it can kind of change and adapt to all the different things that Andi was going through, but still function as the emotional core of the story.
Does that feel like a weight on your shoulders of sorts, to ensure the emotion is pitched exactly the right way?
Honestly, the secret to Rian’s movies is that he’s never asking the music to fix something. We have the amazing pleasure of working with these incredible actors at the top of their game, just bananas cast of characters, and Rian scripts are so tight that thankfully he’s never coming to me and saying, “We didn’t quite get it in the scene, can you help us across the line with the music?” So I don’t honestly think of it as a weight. I think the other thing about that, and this speaks to the way that Rian makes movies, is when we’re working together, it’s Rian and me in the room and no other voices. So if Rian’s eyes are lighting up, if he’s feeling it, then I have a pretty good sense that I’m in the right vein.
That must make that was make for a really creative environment then, because it’s removing the problem solving aspect from a job that can become a problem solver, and makes it an entirely creative endeavor.
Totally and not to mention, it’s trying to figure out what one person is trying to say as opposed to 12 people — producers and studio executives. It does feel very siloed and protected. And I think that’s part of what speaks to the strength of Rian as a director, because I get to be close in the whole part of the process. It is very much in that sense a singular vision of a director, but he’s also so collaborative. He knows where the story wants to go. The notes that he gives me are always story-based notes, and then each of the heads of department, he says, “Here’s the sandbox, but I want you to now surprise me and bring what you do into the sandbox.” I always find that those are the best collaborators, someone who has that clear of a vision, but also that open of a generous invitation.
When is the bulk of the score written? Is it during production or after they’ve finished filming?
I start writing when we start shooting, but at that point I’m just exploring. I’ll show things to Rian but there’s no picture so I’m not writing to picture. I’m kind of just exploring what some of the main themes are gonna be, maybe exploring what the tone or the instrumentation will be. But then all of the main writing happens after we’ve got a rough cut. That’s when I bring the themes that we’ve started playing around with, and then really start writing to picture. That’s one of the key things about these projects with Rian is everything is scored very specifically to picture. It’s so much of a dance of, what do we need to be saying at this moment?
Was there one scene or sequence in particular that was the most challenging to nail down?
I’m like struggling to think now what it would be. I’ll talk about one of the most fun scenes to do, which was the breaking glass scene. Usually when a director is putting together the movie, they’ll cut in some temp music. And Rian actually cut in the string quartet piece from the first movie, and I usually hate it when directors cut temp with my music because it’s like, I already did that once, I don’t know how to redo that. But in this case, it actually felt really exciting because I knew that it meant I got to write a new string quartet for this. But of course, in that scene, it it’s kind of doing a pretty specific thing, because it is all coming from Andi’s character. It’s a very precise, specific place, so the string quartet works really well for that in that jagged, individualistic playing style. But we surround it with a 70-piece orchestra just going nuts, so that was actually really fun to play around that small personal expression of venting and rage, backed up by a huge orchestra.
What are you working on next?
Rian wrote a TV show for Natasha Lyonne sort of in the vein of “Columbo” and some of these old case-of-the-week series called “Poker Face,” so I’m finishing that up right now. I can’t wait for people to see Natasha in all her glory.
Did you get to do like a big TV theme?
Natasha’s character is named Charlie and I wrote Charlie’s theme. It’s not like a main credits theme, there’s no grand main title theme, but we had fun with this this notion that Charlie’s theme enters in each of these episodes to kind of coincide with her arrival on the scene.
“Glass Onion” premieres on Netflix on Dec. 23.