It was a shock to receive word on Saturday morning that Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson had been found dead in his Berlin apartment. As Variety‘s resident film-music writer, it was my sad duty to talk with his manager and write the story as quickly as possible. Here is that obituary. I had known him since his Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything (the photograph of us is from a post-screening Q&A we did together in early 2015; our first interview was in late 2014) and we did a fascinating interview in late 2016 for the Directors Guild magazine that also included his longtime collaborator Denis Villeneuve; that story is here. I was a great admirer of his scores for Sicario (Oscar nominated in 2015) and Arrival (unfortunately disqualified for Oscar consideration in 2016; here is the full explanation of that). It’s been a tremendous loss for the film-music community, and the days since his death have seen an outpouring of emotion.
I thought that Johann Johannsson’s music for Arrival was one of this year’s most interesting and creative film scores — yet the use of Max Richter’s 12-year-old classical piece “On the Nature of Daylight” (which bookends the film) was startling in terms of its stylistic differences. So it came as no surprise that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ music-branch executive committee disqualified the entire score from consideration in this year’s Oscar race. Having interviewed both Johannsson and Richter about their music earlier in the awards season, I thought it might be instructive to hear what each had to say about the use of this “temp music” in the final version of Arrival. I also talked, on background, to members of the committee who made this decision.
One of the year’s most interesting musical scores, for the sci-fi film Arrival, was the result of a close collaboration between Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose previous films Prisoners and Sicario were also notable for their music. DGA Quarterly editor Steve Chagollan asked me to get both on the phone (Johannsson in New York, Villeneuve in Budapest where he is shooting Blade Runner 2049) to discuss the details of Arrival and, more generally, their long and artistically fruitful partnership. The story appears in the fall/winter 2016-17 issue.
The top story in this week’s special music edition of Variety deals with music for science-fiction films. Arrival — about learning to communicate with alien visitors — is already much-talked-about, and Johann Johannsson’s fascinating, voice-based score is widely considered a strong candidate for awards. Passengers, which hasn’t yet opened, is sure to be much-discussed, too, and Thomas Newman’s music combines traditional orchestra and contemporary electronics in ways that only Newman can. I talked at length to both composers for this story, one of four I’ve written examining music in 2016 movies.