Janelle Monáe stars as Andi in the film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Nathan Johnson wrote his first film score for the 2005 mystery thriller Brick, which began a long-running series of collaborations with his cousin, director Rian Johnson. In the 2012 film Looper, he got into samplers, sound design and instrument building. But for his most recent projects, Nathan Johnson has turned to a completely different sonic palette. From 2019's Knives Out to the 2021 noir film Nightmare Alley and, now, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Johnson has explored the seemingly endless possibilities found within an orchestra.
For his Glass Onion score, Johnson had to navigate and illuminate the film's conflicting range of emotions — from absurd humor to shock and suspense. We talk about how he pulled together all of these elements and the sweeping romantic scores he heard and fell in love with while growing up.
You can hear the full conversation with the listen button at the top of the page and read edited highlights below.
On wanting a classic sound
I think the first thing [director Rian Johnson and I] were talking about was really leaning into the fun, sort of exotic, lush, almost European landscape of the movies that we loved growing up. We were referencing the Nino Rota score for Death on the Nile, and, you know, the first Knives Out was very much a contained, manor-house-mystery. And I think it was really important for Rian that we plant some very obvious flags in the ground so that the audience realized this is going to be a not only completely different cast, but a completely different story. The movie is structured totally differently.
So the music, we just really wanted to almost kind of blow it open. Obviously, it still has the precision that I think has come to define these movies and I hope will define them going forward. But it was it was getting in a room with a giant orchestra and and really leaning into that fun, romantic, very lyrical style of scoring that some of the old Italian masters that we grew up loving would would employ.
On working with conflicting moods and the main theme
I think the main theme actually took me the longest to crack. With Rian's movies, I bring a small writing rig with me and I'm out on set. So I was in Greece working, just starting with theme explorations. And the main theme was the one that I was trying to crack. And it kind of took me a while because it needs to hint at all the different things that are to come. And I thought about it as an overture a little bit in a way, you know, where we obviously weave in [Detective] Blanc's motif, we weave in [the characters known as] the Disruptors' motif and it wants to do that thing where it it invites us all on a on a fun journey with with this very melodic statement, but also very much sets the stage for the mystery that's going to come.
On the importance of melody
I consider myself a very melodic composer; it's what I grew up loving. It's a style of composing that has fallen out of vogue in the last couple of decades. But I love melody first, because it's almost like we get to link those motifs with characters and with feelings. But when you have a melody like that, you can surround it, you can harmonize it, you can you can strip it down. You can play it on a different instrument. And I kind of weirdly approach my film scoring like a songwriter — that's definitely my background. But a lot of the themes that I'm writing, I'll just have sketched out lyrics to them because I feel like if I can sing it, then I have a feeling that it will stand up as a theme to kind of everything that we need to do to it, in terms of pulling it apart and re-contextualizing it through the whole movie.
On working with a full orchestra
When I did [the 2005 film] Brick, I didn't know what MIDI was. So we recorded that movie with a single microphone and a PowerBook and I just layered everything on top of each other. So, I have learned what MIDI is [and] for the movie Looper, that was made largely with field recordings that were stretched across the keyboard into playable instruments. So I come from this very DIY approach.
But but when we started the Knives Out movies, I was kind of joking with Rian and saying, "Okay, the the big restriction for this is we're just going to use a giant orchestra at Abbey Road." And that was the first time that I had gotten the opportunity to do that. But also it opened up a whole new world to me. I mean, after after Knives Out, I was like, "I never want to write a different way.'" I love working with an orchestra so much. And it was sort of like, "Oh, this is why composers do this." I feel stupid talking about it because obviously it's such an amazing thing that composers have worked with forever. But because that wasn't my journey to get here, it just feels like the newest, freshest thing for me.