Jóhann Jóhannsson on Composing as Storytelling

by Brice Ezell

8 May 2015

PopMatters talks with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson about his role in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, for which he won a Golden Globe.
Photo by
© Antje Taiga Jandrig from JohannJohannsson.com  
cover art

Jóhann Jóhannsson

The Theory of Everything

US: 4 Nov 2014
UK: Import

I spoke with Jóhann Jóhannsson in between the 2015 Golden Globes and the Oscars. Having just won the Globe for his original score to James Marsh’s biopic of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything (2014), Jóhannsson appeared to be poised to take home the Oscar statuette. Furthermore, buzz was building around the already acclaimed The Theory of Everything, due in large part to the high caliber of all of the participants involved, particularly the stellar turns by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking, respectively.

Ultimately, Jóhannsson did not nab the Oscar for his score; that honor went to Alexandre Desplat for his contribution to Wes Anderson’s opus of whimsy The Grand Budapest Hotel. Desplat’s win was a somewhat surprising one, given that he was also nominated for the score to The Imitation Game, and there is a common perception that a double nomination like that would result in some form of “vote splitting”. Nevertheless, while The Theory of Everything didn’t take home the big music prize on the night of the 2015 Academy Awards, Jóhannsson’s Golden Globe recognition was well-deserved—and a long time coming.

I interviewed the Icleandic composer for this column last year (”A Melancholy Never Far Away”), on the subject of his work on the 2013 indie cop drama McCanick, directed by Josh C. Waller. The significant leap in style and compositional depth between that score and the one for The Theory of Everything is considerable. This is in part informed by the kinds of movies those are, one being a low-budget indie and the other a major studio biopic that many filed under the category “Oscar bait”. (Based on how many nominations it garnered come awards season, that label wasn’t too far off.)

However, while The Theory of Everything may fit a particular type—what PopMatters‘s Jon Lisi calls “the life-spanning biopic” (”Enough with the Biopic”)—Jóhannsson remains a rarity in the world of contemporary film music. His chops as a composer for visual media date back to the mid-to-late ‘90s, when he began providing music to theatrical productions in Iceland. Not long after, he began composing for film with his debut, Íslenski draumurinn (The Icelandic Dream, 2000). Two years later, his debut solo album, Englabörn was released.

Early achievements like these helped bolster Jóhannsson’s international profile considerably; by the end of the decade, he had a record deal with the legendary indie label 4AD, and demand for his film scoring had only increased. In recent years, he’s given sterling musical contributions to many films, most notably with scores like Prisoners (2013, directed by Denis Villeneuve).

The Theory of Everything‘s score is a deviation from what has been come to be expected from Jóhannsson in some ways. The broad, sweeping string sections bring to mind mainstream cinema, whereas Jóhannsson’s best work is largely known for its atmosphere and texture. Prisoners, for example, is an extended exercise in ambient minimalism, a thread that is common to his 4AD solo records in the latter half of the ‘00s. The vivid color of the strings and piano on The Theory of Everything seems maudlin by comparison, but if you listen to the score all the way through, subtle washes of Jóhannsson’s style are more than present.

Like a good film scorer, Jóhannsson knows that for however distinctive a sound he may have, his mandate is to craft a piece of music that is most befitting of the cinema at hand. By that metric, he not only produced a fine score for The Theory of Everything, but he also remained true to who he is as a composer. His most commercial moment yet did not come at the cost of his musical personality.

My conversation with Jóhannsson focused on his role in The Theory of Everything, his inspirations for its music, and what it means to be a composer of film music.

* * *

How did it feel to win the Golden Globe?

It was great. It was amazing to be recognized for this; I’m happy that everyone involved in the film is getting recognized for their hard work.

You’ve been making music for so long, but this marks your first Golden Globe. Do you feel like The Theory of Everything is a sort of turning point in your career?

I don’t know. I get restless very easily; I don’t like to do the same thing twice. If you look at my career, you’ll find that the same record doesn’t show up more than once. I try to challenge myself with every project. What I find exciting about working as a composer is discovering those new challenges. They’re always different because there are two sides to my work: my own music and my film scores. There is overlap between the two, however.

Ultimately films have their own laws, their own rules. You have to find the voice, or the DNA, of the film. With The Theory of Everything, it seems that people really like the voice I’ve found with the music, which is great. But I may not do that again. Every project is different.

At the start of 2014 your soundtrack to McCanick had come out, and there are significant style distinctions between it and the score of The Theory of Everything. Is that in part because of the films in question? The former is an indie drama, and the latter a big studio biopic. Did you feel like you had to make things more traditional because of the kind of picture The Theory of Everything is?

I think so, but I did want to try doing something more along those lines. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I ended up having a lot of fun doing it.

But I also wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a traditional Hollywood score. It certainly has elements of that, but it also has music that could have been on any of my solo albums.

When I make film music, I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. It’s about serving the needs of the film. You’re telling a story; in a way you stop becoming a composer and become a storyteller, instead. You tell the story with the most appropriate themes. How you approach these things is a very personal matter, but your goal is to tell the story first.

The Theory of Everything was a challenge, as I was a bit out of my comfort zone, but I enjoy being pushed into new musical territories. It was exhilarating in the end.

What would you say your starting point for the score was? Did you have a temporary score or footage to work with?

Yeah, I started working when they had a very rough assembly of the movie. They had some music of mine on it from earlier scores I’d done, especially from one I did for a movie called Free the Mind. But for the most part, there was not a lot of music in the film when I started writing.

If they had some of your previous work in as temporary music, they must have had you in mind to do the score.

James (Marsh, director) wanted me from the start, yes.

What really inspired me, what was really my oxygen as I started coming up with my ideas, were the performances. I really absorbed the power and emotions of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ roles. Eddie’s transformation into Stephen Hawking was amazing; the way he could express emotion with very little means or movement, sitting immobile in a chair, was a really inspiring place from which to start.

Did you have any previous experience with Hawking’s writings and life story? If so, did it change once you worked on this film?

I knew his work; I read A Brief History of Time in college. That’s part of what drew me to the project; a story about Hawking seemed like a perfect fit for me. The combination of that and of James, who is someone I’ve greatly admired for a long time, made it even better. I’m a big fan of James’ documentaries, like Man on Wire. I thought he was an interesting choice for a project like this.

I tried to reacquaint myself with Hawking’s writings before making the score. I read through some of his work again to try to get a sense of his voice as a writer, and to get a sense of what his thoughts are like.

One of the more daunting things about doing a film about Hawking is that he’s still alive, and could thus comment on the movie. Did you feel a special burden to get your part right for that reason?

Well, I’m sure that weighed more heavily on the director, screenwriter, and actors than it did on me as a composer. But that is always a concern when you’re dealing with someone who is still living. I do know that they were very careful about getting the Hawkings’ approval for the script and how they were treated. Fortunately, the Hawkings were very generous in allowing the film to be honest; they didn’t expect the filmmakers to vulgarize or gloss over the unflattering aspects of the story.

Hawking’s reaction when he saw the film was very strong. When it was over, there was a tear in his eye, and he wrote on his computer, “Broadly true”. That’s a pretty good endorsement, I think.

I like what you said earlier about how as a composer you ultimately have to find the “voice” of the film. What would you say is the voice of The Theory of Everything?

The film is… well, you can never capture the totality of a man’s life in one 90-minute film. You can only capture small parts of it, little aspects of it. What this film tries to do is to deal with the love story between Jane and Stephen Hawking; it’s based on her memoir. It’s very much about their life together: the way they deal with his illness, the way they overcome adversity.

It’s also about the tension between Hawking the scientist, Hawking the celebrity, and Hawking the man. It very much shows his human side, with all his foibles and quirks—and it’s not always flattering.

So the music has to reflect all of this. It has to underscore the love story, without painting it in too broad of colors. I had to find a way to amplify the emotions that were already there.

There’s also the challenge of trying to capture Hawking’s admiration for the physical world in all of its grandeur. That comes up in scenes that are largely wordless, where there is just music and images. The love story is the main thing, but channeling Hawking’s wonderment was also important.

Do you feel like there’s one theme, motif, or melody that rises to be the dominant one in the score?

There are several themes and motifs that relate to the various relationships, such as Jonathan (Jones, Jane’s second husband) and Jane. There’s a theme related to Jane and her frustration at being powerless and overwhelmed by her predicament, her inability to cope with the pressures of her life related to Stephen.

In many ways, the opening theme is the central motif of the film. On the soundtrack album, it’s called “Cambridge, 1963”. It opens the film; it starts with a four-note piano motif, a kind of ostinato, which runs through the whole cue. It weaves through this thread of melody that slowly blossoms into the tapestry of patterns that explodes into this dramatic, vigorous piece of music. This plays as Stephen is shown cycling through Cambridge.

Now that you’ve gained a large profile through your film scoring, do you feel you’ll keep focusing on this path, or do you have something else in store?

I always try to find a balance. I’ve been focusing a lot on film music for the last three or four years. That was a conscious decision in many ways, mainly because I was always being offered really interesting projects by people that I wanted to work with.

But there’s definitely a lot of my personal work that’s been lying on the backburner for a bit. In the last year, I’ve been working on my own stuff, but none of it has been released yet. In the next year or two, there will be a stream of new work coming out which is in the realm of my solo material.

There’s one piece that’s premiering in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in March (“Drone Mass”); it’s an hour-long composition for eight-piece choir and string quartet. Roomful of Teeth is the choir, and ACME is the quartet. (Read more about “Drone Mass” in PopMattersphoto report by Sachyn Mital.)

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