Denis Villeneuve and his composer Jóhann Jóhannsson discussed their work, past, present and future
Many director-composer duos have marked the history of cinema. Alfred Hitchcock had Bernard Herrmann. Steven Spielberg has John Williams. The Coen brothers have Carter Burwell. Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve, known for directing Incendies, found an unlikely partner in Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson, a minimalist musician.
Villeneuve and Jóhannsson took part in a discussion organized by the Montreal International Documentary Festival held last Saturday at Concordia’s Alumni Auditorium.
Villeneuve started by explaining that his collaboration with Jóhannsson has not been typical of industry standards. As he shared, composers are usually brought in to write a score well into the post-production process, after filming has been done and the film has been edited.
While Villeneuve worked this way for his first films, he decided to do things differently ever since he started working with Jóhannsson. In fact, he chose to involve the composer in the filmmaking process, from screenwriting to filming and beyond.
“It’s really a process of back-and-forth communication between [Jóhannsson], the editor and myself,” said Villeneuve.
“It’s a very organic way or working, and I really appreciate being brought on so early … I feel more like a filmmaker than a composer,” added Jóhannsson.
“The impact of music on a scene can totally modify the perception of the scene, it can modify the meaning of the scene,” said Villeneuve, who also recognized that his own knowledge of music was very limited as he had flunked a flute class in primary school.
Jóhannsson, however, has taken up filmmaking and was in Montreal to present his 30-minute experimental documentary film called End of Summer. Additionally, he said his approach to writing music was very visual, which led to a stronger connection with Villeneuve’s film language.
While many composers have transitioned to creating music digitally, Jóhannsson has mostly stuck with traditional methods. “I rarely use synthesizers or purely electronic sounds, ” he said. “It tends to always be organic or acoustic sounds.” Jóhannsson is in fact so specific about his needs and so open to mixing very different sounds together that Villeneuve likened him to a “mad scientist” and described his music as a “science.”
For their latest film, Sicario, which was set partly in Mexico, Jóhannsson deliberately avoided any local music or instruments, which he said would’ve been too obvious. “The harmonies are very Nordic,” said Jóhannsson, who was instructed by Villeneuve to suggest a recurring feeling of threat—“subtle war music,” as Villeneuve put it. Jóhannsson, whose grandfather was a church organist, has often been compelled to write music that reflected his heritage, even on unrelated projects.
At the same time, Jóhannsson’s music in Villeneuve’s films is surprisingly non-intrusive. “Silence is my favourite sound,” said Villeneuve, whose aim is to integrate music so naturally that it is almost imperceptible and yet impactful on a subconscious level.
Villeneuve and Jóhannsson have worked on 2013’s Prisoners and this year’s Sicario. They will reunite on next year’s Story of Your Life and will then collaborate on a sequel to the classic Blade Runner.