Interview: Johann Johannsson, Composer of “Sicario”

Posted on November 8, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Jóhann Jóhannsson is an Icelandic composer who created the moody, evocative score for the intense law enforcement drama, “Sicario.” Previously, he wrote the score for the Stephen Hawking film, “The Theory of Everything.” It was a pleasure to speak with him about the way the bleak settings and the emotions of the characters influenced his composition and how he used the music to help build the tension of some of the most intense scenes.

This was his second collaboration with the director, Denis Villeneuve, after “Prisoners.” “He involved me very early o,n before he started shooting so I read the script and we had a discussion about the music and then he invited me to the set as well. I was able to go to the set in New Mexico and to sort of observe the locations and the environment of the landscape and to get a feel for the setting.” But it was not until he saw the first cut of the film, “I really started writing basically getting inspired by the images and creating a sound for the film. We talked about the need for the music to uphold the tension and the sort of sense of dread and the sense of moral ambiguity that the characters are facing with these serious moral questions. We see the moral universe fall apart, especially for Emily Blunt’s character. Denny talked a lot about kind of an analogy with a war film. He used this phrase which I liked a lot which was ‘subtle war music.’ It is an interesting contradiction. So we had these percussions on these sort of low tom-toms and those military steel drums as a very big part of the score, creating this kind of throbbing pulse that runs as a thread throughout the score. So that was one thing we talked about, we talked also about a lot of other music coming from below the earth in a way, coming from underground. So the sound of the tunnels and also about the melancholy of the border, the melancholy of the border areas, of the border fence and of the experience of the illegal immigrants and the sadness of the border, and the melancholy of some of the characters like the Alejandro character, the Benicio character, his tragic back story. So there’s a sort of melancholy and sadness also that we had to captured and communicated. So it’s kind of these two poles this sense of tension and melancholy.

He continued: “It is not a war with any heroes. It is kind of a desperate, hopeless war. The music communicates that and it is kind of deconstructive in a way, there are a lot of horns in the score they are just not playing fanfares. They are playing these sort of atonal burst of sounds, a sort of textural burst and flourishes that is the opposite a military flourish.”

When he was growing up, Jóhannsson watched a lot of American and European films and first noticed the scores that Bernard Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock and later for DePalma and Scorsese. “‘Vertigo’ is the best collaboration between a composer and director ever and his music really made me want to write film music. I think his influence can be felt in some way in ‘Sicario’ with my use of low woodwind and these kind of relentless low sounds are something that for me echoes Herrmann very much.”

He says that he drew a lot of inspiration from the landscape as well as the mood and atmosphere of the images. Cinematographer Roger Deakins “showed me a lot of the kind of amazing aerial footage that they had of the desert and of the border area and some of that ended up in the film. That was a huge inspiration for me. And I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from the landscape and from the atmosphere of the images.”

He prefers not to work with synthesizers. “There are electronic elements in there but they are all based on acoustic sources that are treated and processed through effects and through plug-ins and through digital manipulation. But all of it is based on acoustic recordings. So I recorded musicians in Los Angeles and in Berlin where I live. I recorded the orchestra also in Berlin and also in Budapest and it’s a 65 piece orchestra, full string and brass and woodwind and there are number of soloist and some feature players as well.”

One of the tensest moments in the film comes at a scene where a character finally approaches the man he has been waiting to kill when he is at dinner with his family. “Danny and I agreed that it needed something very minimal and something very subtle basically to underline the sense of dread and the sense of tension. And so Danny didn’t want anything complex or anything that was too manipulative. So it was all about scoring it in the most subtle but effective way possible. And I used recordings of a 32 foot organ pipe, the lowest notes on the pipe organ which I recorded in a cathedral in Copenhagen and I processed those sounds as well electronically and combined them with processed orchestra, like the orchestra playing drone, like a sustained note and processed electronically and manipulated. It’s a combination of the many, many elements to create the kind of complex texture textural drone. And a drone can be a very fascinating and complex sound. It’s not just playing one note on a keyboard and sustaining it, it is about creating this very complex sound world that is minimal but has this complexity when you sort of stay with it and when you give it your full attention.”

The music alternates with silence in the opening scene. “We had score right in the beginning when they were driving towards the house and when they burst through the wall and then the rest of the scene has no music and then the score comes back when they discover the bodies and it’s basically a reprise of the armored vehicle music which then develops through high and low strings. And so again it was about evoking dread and the kind of tension and the horror of finding these bodies without it being obvious.”

He will work with the director again on his next project, “Story Of Your Life,” with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, a science fiction film. “It is a very strong script and really fascinating story which I have only just started working on couple weeks ago so it’s very early days but it’s a very strong project.”

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