Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson broke out into the mainstream with his score for 2013’s Prisoners. Now with a score that is essentially the antithesis of his previous ambient work, he’s duelling with Alexandre Desplat and Hans Zimmer with his score for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. I was able to interview him just a few hours after his Golden Globe nomination was announced. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Congratulations on your Golden Globe nomination today! How does it feel to have such huge recognition?
It’s very exciting to be nominated and it’s very nice that the score is recognized in this way. So I’m very happy with that.
How are you celebrating?
I’m actually traveling through the Balkans with a film crew doing a documentary so I’ve been working all day. I just got the news at around 3pm my time. We just had a very nice dinner in our little cabin in Bosnia and had some celebratory toasts. It’s been very nice.
Coming off the back of the bleak mainstream film Prisoners, what drew you to this warmer and certainly more energetic project?
I really wanted to do a project after Prisoners that would show another side of my musical personality. In The Theory of Everything I had an opportunity to play with a more colorful palette, using the orchestra to create more of a lush and ornate sound, to kind of make the orchestra shimmer and sparkle like the stars. That was really something that I found very exciting and interesting. Of course the source material drew me to the project combined with James Marsh as a director, who’s someone I’ve admired for a long time. It was a no-brainer for me. The tone is more joyful in a way, whereas I’m known for darker hues.
It’s almost ironic that you’re the most uplifting part of the film.
Yeah, absolutely. The opening was actually the first piece that I wrote. You could say the score grew out of that intro. There are elements from it that appear again in various guises, renditions and modes. I approached the music on emotional terms first and foremost – it’s a film about a physicist but it’s mainly about a love story. It’s this tension between Hawking the Man, and Hawking the Scientist.
When you watched the first rough cut, what was the most important aspect of the film for you?
It’s the performances that really drew me into the film. Eddie [Redmayne]’s performance is virtuosic but Felicity [Jones] is also very strong in a much subtler way. The way they work together is absolutely masterful. I was very affected the first time I watched it without any music. [Cinematographer] Benoit [Delhomme]’s images are also amazing, it’s very epic in a way in a strange way because the film is mostly set in quite claustrophobic conditions.
What was the most daunting part of the task?
That’s a good question. The biggest challenge for me was the scope of the film. It spans decades and I’ve never really done a film like this, which has this sort of biographical scope of a man’s entire life. The challenge was to create a musical world that had enough variety to do that story justice but still maintain a stylistic and a thematic thread. The music leads you on a journey throughout all the decades.
As the film is set in England through the 60s, 70s and 80s, how did cultural and period backgrounds influence the score?
I think we wanted to keep it very timeless in a way. The main thing was that we wanted the score to live in its own sort of time and not to reflect the period too much.
Were there any composers and films that you looked for inspiration?
I think parts of it were certainly influenced for example from any of Ennio Morricone’s scores. Some of his great melodramatic scores he did in the 70s were certainly an inspiration. La Califfa is one score I really love.
What is your proudest piece from the film?
I was very happy with “Domestic Pressures.” It’s for quite a long scene that is a combination of a montage. Those were a lot of fun to score and they were also very challenging. It took a lot of different tries to get right.
What types of films are you hoping to compose for in the future? Are you aiming to continue expanding your versatility?
Yeah, this is what I like about writing film music. If you’re lucky, you get to work on a lot of different projects. Every project has its own requirements you have to find the right voice for it and that’s what’s fun. I don’t want to kind of say I want to work on this kind of film. I think it’s more about the people involved and the material, if the script is amazing and the director is great. I hope to continue to be able to work with people who are of the caliber of James Marsh and Denis Villeneuve. I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with these people.
Writer Anthony McCarten has said that the most gratifying moment for him was Stephen Hawking crying when he first saw the film. Do you share his joy in the same way, especially as your music contributes so much to the emotion?
I think it’s very important for everyone connected to the film to have Stephen Hawking’s approval of how we treated his story, and as a composer I’m very happy to hear that he approves. In a way I’m not surprised. Eddie’s portrayal is so good. It’s so real and truthful.