Fall/Winter 2016-17

Taking Sound and Music to Another Realm

Director Denis Villeneuve and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson discuss their modus operandi as they team up on their fourth film, Blade Runner 2049


Director Denis Villeneuve and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Photos: (L-R) Mike Pont/WireImage; Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic)

There have been many classic director-composer collaborations over the decades, from Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann to Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Arrival marks the third collaboration between Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, after Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). They are now working on their fourth film together, Blade Runner 2049 (scheduled for release late next year), a sequel to the 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott. DGA Quarterly asked them to discuss their long professional relationship via conference call—Villeneuve on location with Blade Runner in Budapest, Jóhannsson in New York while on tour for his new album Orphée.

DGA: How did the two of you first get together?

VILLENEUVE: I was looking for something specific for Prisoners—something that would sound like Arvo Pärt, a kind of classical music that would have that kind of Nordic sadness. I had all these CDs on my desk, something like 40 composers to choose from. When I heard Jóhann's demo, I was totally seduced by the freshness of his voice, the singularity. He was totally in that vein.
JÓHANNSSON: On Prisoners, we spoke before pre-production. We were still finding a feel for each other. It was more on Sicario that this real collaborative process kind of gelled, and became a real mode of working. On Sicario, I started to send music after I received the first cut. But on Arrival, I sent music during the first week of shooting.

DGA: How did the two of you develop such a harmonious relationship?

VILLENEUVE: Music is a very powerful art form. It has a massive impact on a movie. Instead of asking Jóhann to do the music right at the end, once the editing process is finished, we are doing the opposite. Jóhann comes on location; he reads the script. Then, early in the editing process, we send him scenes, so we can start brainstorming. With my editor, Joe Walker, we do not use any music as we are editing. Then Jóhann brings maybe two or three ideas and there's always one that strikes us and blows us away. We re-edit with the music. It's like a dialogue between the editing room and Jóhann. It's a dance I really love.

DGA: Are your early compositions based on reading the script, and maybe discussions with Denis?

JÓHANNSSON: For Arrival, especially, it was the script which obviously contains so many strong ideas and so many strong themes. Denis and Patrice [Vermette, production designer] were generous enough to share with me some of the concept art, including the shapes of the spaceships. So it was very much inspired by the ideas and the concepts behind the film. For example, that first recording session that produced this music I sent to Denis during the first week of shooting was all created using analog tape loops. That's just the first salvo. Then there begins a dialogue. It still takes time to find the true voice of the film. That happens between Denis, myself and Joe, during the editing process.
VILLENEUVE: The goal is to try and avoid "temp" music. Joe and I, we try as much as possible to remain musical virgins. Jóhann will come with very strong, powerful tracks, maybe two or three massive themes that will become preeminent in the movie. But I am not a musician, and sometimes there are moments where I'm looking for something specific. So I send Jóhann some examples of something I would like. But that is quite minor in the process.

DGA: Can the two of you talk about the blending of music and sound effects that we sometimes hear in your films–and if the audience can't tell the difference, is that the effect you're looking for?

VILLENEUVE: Jóhann's music is very sophisticated and very atmospheric. Because we are doing that process early on, and our editor Joe Walker is also a sound editor, the sound design is done thinking about Jóhann's music, to try and create an atmosphere where music and sound design are married together.
JÓHANNSSON: We have a lot of discussions about where and how the sound effects and music interact. It was especially important in the scenes where we hear the alien language. The sound design there is really strong, very powerful, unique and original. I had to be very careful to create music in a frequency range that stayed out of the way of those sounds. In some cases, people feel that they are part of the same thing. The lines are very much blurred. The quality of sound, the texture, is a very important element in my music. Those two worlds are gelling, increasingly. People like Denis and Joe are very aware of this. That is really the way for this to work, for everyone to have a very strong understanding of the role of each element of the film.

DGA: Arrival's music seems especially complicated, considering the use of voices, real instruments and electronic processing. How much did you two discuss before beginning this ambitious effort?

VILLENEUVE: We discuss the themes and ideas of the movie, the emotions that I'm looking for, the sensations. On Sicario, for instance, I was talking about the violence and brutality along the border, and I let Jóhann go. Then I receive one of those weird messages in my email box where I see Jóhann doing some crazy thing somewhere in the world, with a heavy metal guitar riff in Berlin, or making loops with tapes in Iceland, or recording things in insane places, with a very daring and experimental technique. I still remember when we heard that first track that he composed for the desert: Joe Walker and I were dancing in the editing room. It was so powerful and perfect for the movie.
JÓHANNSSON: The thing we talked most about was the necessity for two different musical approaches. One was the emotional side of the story, the more human side; and then the science fiction side, the story of the aliens and the whole process of communicating with them. What really struck me first was, the film is so much about language, about communication. How do you communicate with an intelligent species with whom you have nothing in common? The voice seemed to me to be the perfect element to use—but I wanted to use the voice in a way that I had not heard before in film. When you think of science fiction and voices, you immediately think of 2001 and [composer György] Ligeti and his approach to the monolith. I didn't want that sound. I wanted something different, more avant-garde, using harmonic singing, throat singing, very extended vocal techniques.

DGA: So you spend months, as opposed to weeks, on every score?

JÓHANNSSON: This approach means you need more time. This is not something you can do if you start working when you receive the final cut, and the mix is in two months' time. This requires you have to have something close to a year, or at least six to eight months. I'm writing a lot of music, and much of it doesn't work. It requires experimentation, to try and find something unique and original. Denis is definitely giving me a challenge, and I want to live up to that challenge. I want to send him something that will knock him off his feet. That's not something that happens at the drop of a hat.
VILLENEUVE: I love Jóhann's generosity as an artist. When he provides tracks, those different approaches, he's really serious. He will make three, four, five attempts at an exploration of different worlds. Then something comes out of that exploration that is very powerful, that is singular, that deeply touches me. He is not being afraid of going back and trying again.

DGA: The two of you have already started work on Blade Runner 2049. How is that going?

VILLENEUVE: As soon as I said yes to Blade Runner, I knew that Jóhann would be part of it. And I knew the studio would agree right away, because they really loved the music of Prisoners. We can't talk too much about Blade Runner, but it's the same process. He read the screenplay and came on the set. We are at the beginning of this process, where Jóhann is sending us insane, experimental, powerful tracks that blew our minds.
JÓHANNSSON: Everyone working on this film is very aware of the legacy and power of the original. That film was pivotal and something that affected me very deeply. Vangelis [composer of the original Blade Runner score] has always been a huge influence on what I do: The way he uses space in his music; the way he uses reverberation; his use of very strong and simple phrases. The challenge is to create something that lives within the world of Blade Runner and is faithful to that world, but is still something new.

DGA: What would you say makes for the best possible outcome when a director and composer are working together?

VILLENEUVE: Don't be afraid to bring the composer on early. The more you develop a relationship, the stronger the marriage will be. That's the thing I loved about Sicario and Arrival. It's a long process. Embrace the length of the process.
JÓHANNSSON: Music has to be treated in the same way as set design, casting or choice of location—it has to start at the same time. Give the composer time to experiment, time to try out ideas. Also, the time to fail. When the composer has very little time, the temptation is to reach for stock ideas—ideas they know will work and have worked in the past. But if you have more time, and the confidence of the director, the composer has more freedom and is, in a certain sense, able to reach out into the unknown.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

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