‘Looper’ Composer Nathan Johnson Talks Sound Manipulation, Customization and Creative Freedom

By  · Published on September 28th, 2012

Out today, Looper tells the story of mafia hit-man Joe (Joesph Gordon-Levitt) who spends his days offing victims, but there’s a twist here: these victims are sent to him from the future. And when he comes face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis), things really start to unravel. Part sci-fi, part action, part drama, Looper flows between these different genres just as the story flows between different time periods and it is Nathan Johnson’s score that helps guide us from one place to the next.

I spoke with Johnson about creating his completely original score, full of found sounds he then manipulated into actual instrumentation – no easy feat! But one that is fully achieved and gives this original story an equally original sound and feel, creating a new world that does not completely take us away from where we are now, but hints at where we may be going.

You and Rian Johnson have worked together before on films such as Brick and The Brothers Bloom – what prompted your collaboration this time around for Looper?

Rian sent me the script for Looper right after he finished it, but I had been aware of the story for nearly ten years, ever since he had written a short treatment of it. Something about the central conceit had always stuck with me and I was really excited to see how he had expanded it. I’m such a big fan of Rian’s writing, both in how he constructs the stories and in what he writes about to begin with.

The script for Looper actually surprised me. It was so much leaner than other things he’s written, with less dialogue. More show than tell. I knew from early talks that he was looking for something different with the score and I was really excited to follow the breadcrumbs into the dark to find something that would work for this great world.

What inspired you to go out and record found sounds to then manipulate into music to create the score? How did you select the sounds you wanted to record?

Looper is obviously a fairly big sci-fi action movie, but Rian wanted a score that struck your ear a bit differently. We were talking about trying to evoke the elements of a big score by using a slightly non-traditional approach and I started getting really excited about making field recordings, so I basically moved down to New Orleans (where they were shooting the film) and just wandered around the sets and the city recording anything that sounded interesting.

A good friend of mine named Ryan Lott who makes music under the moniker Son Lux had been experimenting with building custom software instruments, so I brought him on board and we started going to town with all the stuff I had recorded.

My aesthetic sensibilities are really drawn toward imperfection in music, and I was able to capture so much of that in the field recordings. We were using modern technology, but I wanted everything to sound more organic than synthetic. So by using recordings of metal and treadmills and parking garages, we retained all the space and clutter of the real world. This was important to me and my sensibilities, but, more importantly, to the Dystopian feel of the world that Looper creates.

It seems like such a daunting task to gather a month’s worth of found sounds, decide which effects to use to manipulate them, and then, on top of all that, use those sounds to create an original scored piece. What was your process for tackling such an undertaking?

I suppose I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into at the start, but from a practical perspective, we had a lot of time. Composers are usually brought in near the end of the process and sometimes they’re only given a few weeks to score everything. One of the benefits I have when I work with Rian is that I start before they go into production, so I’ve got time to experiment. I approached it step-by-step and was able to look at each part of the process separately: exploring, recording and gathering the sounds, cataloging, instrument building, beat-making, theme-writing, orchestrating, live instrument recording, editing, and, finally, mixing.

I’ve got an amazing core team I work with, but we keep it pretty small. It’s not like we have minions of assistants editing and creating instruments for us… I personally recorded the sounds I thought were interesting and cataloged all of them and then Ryan and I built the instruments. I worked with the same core team on all the rhythms and orchestrations, so we kept a tight hold on everything. But for us to do it this way, it took time.

Was there anything unexpected you discovered during this process? A seemingly random object that ended up working really well within the score?

One of my favorite discoveries was this old industrial fan I found one night in the side of a building somewhere in the warehouse district. I was wandering around with my headphones and I just paused and spent a few minutes recording it from different angles. I didn’t have any idea what these sounds were going to become, you know, I was just gathering stuff that sounded cool. But I ended up turning the recording of that fan into a melodic fluttering instrument.

I pitched it across the keyboard so that I could actually play it and it sort of became the defining sound of Looper in my mind. You can hear it all through the score, starting from the very first cue. It’s very rugged and mechanical, but it also feels strangely emotional and organic.

How did you decide where you wanted to bring in the more standard instrumentation to either play along with the found sounds (like the end of “A Life in a Day”) or play in place of them (like on the more piano driven “Revelations”)?

It really came down to what we felt like the scene called for. I suppose that, generally, the non-traditional instrumentation is more apparent in the atmospheric or action-based sequences, whereas the traditional instrumentation comes to the forefront in the softer, more emotional moments. A lot of the movie actually takes place on a farm and it was really nice to bring in the piano from “Revelations” to go along with some of those scenes to give your ear something a bit more familiar to grab onto.

I really enjoyed the “preview” videos you released leading up to the film’s release that showed audiences how you came about creating the score since it was such a unique process. Normally you have wait until the DVD extras to get content like this – did you always plan on releasing these behind the scenes videos to share before the film even came out?

Yeah, I just thought it would be cool to make them leading up to the film and release them on my Tumblr, especially before the soundtrack came out. I hadn’t thought about it at all until after I finished the score, though, so I didn’t have very much documentation of the process. Thankfully, there were a lot of photos and I did video some of the sound-gathering. Note to self: film everything!

As someone who is involved in many different creative efforts from composing to writing songs to creating visual art (even running your own record label) – is there a medium you prefer most or does what you learn and experience in each different aspect end up influencing your work as a whole?

That is such a good question. I really enjoy the combination of different mediums and I love hybrid performances. I always get a bit excited whenever I can combine different elements together. Around the time I scored Brick, I was working on a project with my band that was a concept-narrative album with a traveling stage show.

We were playing these little dive bars all over the country as a twelve person band, carting in projection screens and trash cans and wine glasses. My brother Zach (who recently did the painted animation trailer for Looper) was our drummer, but he also did a graphic novella that we projected onto the stage and my other brother Marke (who runs The Made Shop) was playing guitars and doing the design and programming for everything.

Our stage tech was also looking after our bus, which was converted to run on vegetable oil. Everyone had a bunch of different jobs and it felt like some sort of ridiculous circus, but I loved it because of how many different artistic expressions we were able to pack into the show.

I suppose those performing and storytelling vibes come out in a weird way in these film scores. I’m not afraid to follow a wild hare of an idea into the dark and I feel pretty confident that something interesting or different will come out of it!

The score for Looper is now available for purchase on either Amazon.com or iTunes.

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