Interview: 'Arrival' Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson On How You Score First Contact

Arrival is one of 2016's best movies, an intelligent and humane science fiction epic powered by big ideas that ultimately reveals a big, beautiful, and deeply heartfelt soul. And the soundtrack to those ideas, the key to that soul, comes courtesy of composer (and two-time Academy Award nominee) Jóhann Jóhannsson.

This is Jóhannsson's third collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve, following Prisoners and Sicario, the latter of which earned him one of those Oscar nods. If there is any justice in this vast, infinite universe full of aliens that only linguists played by Amy Adams can learn to understand, he'll have a third nomination early next year.

With Arrival in theaters today, I spoke with Jóhannsson about his creative process, developing a short hand with directors, and knowing when to utilize another artist's music in place of your own.

Before we get to the movie itself, I want to talk about how you got started in this. I've heard so many stories about how directors and actor broke into the film industry. How did you start making music for movies?

I've been writing music since I was 16 years old and playing in bands. I released my first record when I was 18 years old. I've been active as a composer for awhile. I'm in my 40s now. I started out... The first project I become known for internationally was my first solo album, Englabörn, which came out in 2001 and that become an album that filmmakers started using as temp music in their films and licensing tracks from it. The same thing happened with my next solo album, IBM 1401, and Fordlândia. Filmmakers started to notice my music through my solo work as a composer and then I started to get requests to work on original scores. It was really through my solo work that I entered the world of film composing.

Is there a specific way you approach creating a score for a movie? Do you think about the genre you're working in or attempt to isolate some kind of emotional core? Where do you get started?

It's different for every film. Sometimes, it's the visuals. For example, on a film like The Theory of Everything, I started writing fairly late. They were quite far into the editing process. Then it was a matter of being inspired by the performances of the actors and by the images and the whole mood of the film. It's very different than the work I do with Denis Villeneuve because I start very early on in the process with his films. On Arrival, for example, I started writing during pre-production. I was very inspired by the script, by the ideas in the script. It was very much a film's a piece of speculative fiction. There are some really interesting ideas about language and communication and time and about how we experience time and how our language effects our experience of time. All of this influenced how I approached the music and how I envisioned the sound. And the conceptual art. I was handed some conceptual art early on. For example, one of the main themes of the film was written during the first week of filming. I hadn't seen any images yet, any concrete film. The inspiration came from the script and discussions with Denis about the mood and the ideas of the film and so on.

This is your third movie with Denis Villeneuve after Prisoners and Sicario. Have you developed a short hand with him? Do you know what he wants? Or is it always about those conversations?

No, it's almost like we need to communicate less and a less. We know each other better with each project. He gives me a lot of freedom in the beginning to experiment. So he kind of gives me free rein and carte blanche to go ahead and try different things and experiment. The bolder and the crazier the idea, the better. That's a tremendous sense of freedom and find myself very fortunate to have that trust from a director. But then it always becomes a process of collaboration. Once the ideas are more concrete and once we're deeper into the edit... For example, on [Blade Runner 2049], they're shooting it right now and I've started composing, started writing and I've started sending them music and the back-and-forth has started already. And then it will start focusing more and more towards finding the sound of the film.

Arrival isn't a small film, but it's certainly more modest in size than a sequel to Blade Runner. Does your process have to evolve when a movie gets bigger? Does anything change?

It's very early on in the process, so there's no difference as of yet. It's always just a dialogue between me and Denis and our process of experimentation and research and trying out ideas and searching for a sound that's bold and original and interesting. Something that makes my heart race and sends a shiver down my spine. That's what you're looking for. And that takes time. This is the process we're going through now. It'll take some time. It takes time. This way of working takes time. It's not something that can be achieved on a schedule of two or three months or something like that.

In addition to your score, Arrival utilizes Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight" for a few key scenes. Did you have a hand in selecting the music you did not compose? Is that part of your collaborative process with Denis?

Yeah. The intro and outro scenes are very different in tone than the rest of the film. Denis wanted an approach that would be in strong contrast to the main bulk of the movie. The opening scene was edited to Max's track very early on and it worked beautifully as temp music. Frankly, I didn't really want to do a knock-off of the music, you know? [Laughs] So it was really... I did my own version for the intro and outro that was very different, a very different approach. It was down to Denis' choice to either use my approach, which was closer to the approach of the score itself, it was a vocal track, or to use Max's track. I very much supported his decision to use Max's track because it works beautifully and it supplies a very strong contrast to the rest of the score. I think, artistically, it was a very good decision to keep that track there. He had my full support to include that music.

How much does genre influence the choices you make? Are there certain instruments or sounds that you think belong in a science fiction movie but not in a drama? Was there anything you knew you had to use in a movie about first contact with an alien race?

I think there were more things to avoid rather than things to use! There are some things that are cliched or overused, elements that one associates with science fiction that I wanted to avoid. One thing that I latched on to and was very keen on using from the start was vocals. There is a lot of vocal music in the score, both choir and solo singers. I worked with a chamber choir, Theater of Voices, more experimental vocalists, people who are really doing very strange things with their voices. You know, really extended vocal techniques. Throat singing and harmonic singing. They really treat the voice as an instrument in a textural way. The reason I wanted to voices was really motivated by the script and the story. It's a story about communication. It's a story about language. It's a story about communicating with an alien species. How do we communicate with an intelligent species with who we have no common point of reference? It was this anthropological aspect, this linguistic aspect, that really influences my choice of orchestration and instrumentation.

Are there any specific filmmakers you'd love to work with? Any specific characters you'd love to write music for?

It's hard to say. A lot of the directors that I admire that are working today already have strong relationships with composers. People like David Lynch, for example, has a strong relationship with Angelo Badalamenti. But he is someone I deeply respect and admire as a filmmaker. There are many more. Guillermo del Toro is someone I really respect and admire as a filmmaker as well. There are so many people. Michael Haneke. But he almost never uses music in his films! [Laughs] Alejandro González Iñárritu is amazing. He's one of the strongest voices in cinema today. There are many directors out there I'd love to to work with.

Arrival is in theaters now, and you can stream the score online.