For the second consecutive year, Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson is nominated for an Academy Award. Last year, his score for “The Theory of Everything” lost to Alexandre Desplat and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” This year, Jóhannsson once again faces stiff competition. His thrilling, percussive music for “Sicario” is up against “The Hateful Eight,” with a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and John Williams’s work for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
But Jóhannsson won’t be there to see who wins. The musician, who’s also a touring artist, will be in Australia playing a concert. It was a commitment he made a year ago, long before awards chatter began.
During a recent phone conversation from Berlin, where he’s based, he reflected on that decision, his experience at last year’s awards ceremony and his work on Denis Villeneuve’s border-crossing thriller.
Let’s start with “Sicario.” What you’re process like? Did you have visuals before you started writing the music or did you get started earlier?
It’s different on every project but Denis likes to involve me early, so before they star shooting, and this has been the case on both films — on “Prisoners” and “Sicario” — and also on the one we’re working on currently, which is called “Story of Your Life.”
For Sicario we discussed some ideas, some themes in very general terms before they started shooting. And Denis already had kind of a feel for what he was looking for in terms of the role of the music. Already, before shooting, he was talking about what he wanted the music to be — very physical and visceral, he wanted it to affect you physically as well as emotionally.
And so I read the script and then I actually had the opportunity to visit the set while they were shooting, so I went and hung out for a couple of days to get a feel for the environment, get a feel for the locations and the landscape which is important for the film. The desert and the border area are almost like a character in the film. But I didn’t really start writing until I received the first cut of the film. Denis likes to edit without music initially so the edit I got had no music at all. So it was like a blank slate to work with.
Does he tell you where exactly he wants music to go in the movie?
We didn’t discuss that initially. That was a discussion that gradually emerged. Really the music and the editing evolved together organically. When I got this first cut, I started writing and the first scene I worked on was the scene where it’s a long helicopter shot of the convoy going into Juarez so we see the border and the city of Juarez and the border fence sort of rising slowly in the distance. It’s a very strong scene.
I began by writing a few different ideas for that scene and I sent them to Denis and he latched on to one idea in particular which was the most extreme idea actually — the most powerful idea. I was really happy that he chose that one. It was this very simple but powerful crescendo in the low strings which sort of slowly builds up over a beat, a distorted drum beat, which slowly rises with the sound of the helicopter blades. It’s a scene that starts out slowly but you have this tension that builds … it has this sort of violent, aggressive quality in a way.
That was a blueprint for the rest of the score. It set the tone.
You split your time between writing your own records and working on music with directors, who have a certain vision. I would think working on movies would be a lot less freedom, but maybe that’s kind of a nice change…?
I guess half my time is spent on film music and half my time is spent doing my own work. Filmmakers started to approach me because they heard my albums, they heard my music, so there’s a lot of overlap between my film music and my solo work but they’re also different beasts in other ways.
In film music you are basically creating one element of many that comes together to create a film, and you’re in dialogue with many different artists — with the director first and foremost but also the screenwriter and the actors. And I really enjoy that. I enjoy all the collaborative aspects of writing film music and I’m lucky enough to have been able to work with great directors, very creative directors with a strong vision. So it’s a real pleasure for me. Not just because I’m huge film fan — I love film — but because I relish the opportunity to contribute to a film like “Sicario” or “The Theory of Everything.”
So, as a huge film fan and musician, do you have a favorite score?
There are so many. But I would say the one that leaps to mind immediately is probably “Vertigo,” Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s film. I think that’s almost the high point of film scoring. I don’t think it’s been better since. It’s just an amazing combination of images and music, and it’s beautiful, it’s operatic. It’s atmospheric and evocative and such a strong piece of work.
You’ve burst onto the film scene in a way with two Oscar nominations in two years. Does that affect your work at all?
I think it opens a lot of doors and people notice your name that wouldn’t otherwise. It gives you a certain profile, besides being a tremendous honor and being recognized by your peers in such a way. So yeah, it’s definitely made a huge difference to my career. I’ve been busy for a long time — there’s never been a shortage of projects — but I guess definitely the number of projects I’m offered is increasing. That means you can have more choice, which is great. It’s been quite a remarkable couple of years.
And I hear you aren’t attending this year.
I will be on tour in Australia. This was booked like a year ago, so we didn’t want to break a previous engagement.
Did it cross your mind to cancel or reschedule the show?
We did look into it. I won’t deny that. But it’s a couple of headlining concerts, and we didn’t want to put the promoters in a situation where they would have to deal with a canceled show. So, for me, it was a question of a commitment I had made. So it was no real question about canceling once we analyzed the situations.
Did people associated with the movie think that was crazy? Or were they supportive?
I’m a touring musician, I’m an artist that makes records and I do concerts and this is something that I do, so everyone has been very supportive. I hope you’re not going to make a big deal about the whole fact that I’m not going to the Oscars…
I just think it’s great that you’re honoring your commitment. You went last year, right? What was that like?
It was really amazing and kind of surreal in many ways. I was also mixing my score for “Sicario” in Los Angeles during that period. So the night before the Oscars I was at the mixing desk until late that night and the morning of the Oscars ceremony, I came into work, as well, at 10 o’clock and I worked for a few hours before going back to the hotel to change and prepare for the ceremony. So I didn’t really have a lot of time to be stressed and nervous about it all. The work was there to distract me, which was probably a good thing.
[That night] there were film stars and famous people everywhere you looked, so I got a little intimidated then, but it was also a lot of fun. I was there with some great people, so I just tried to enjoy it.