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.
For one of its awards-related special end-of-year issues, Variety asked me to inquire of this year’s crop of potential score honorees about the challenges they face in a changing environment for composers in film. It was an interesting assignment, and I asked Johann Johannsson (Arrival), James Newton Howard (Fantastic Beasts), John Debney (The Jungle Book), Nicholas Britell (Moonlight), Alan Silvestri (Allied) and John Williams (The BFG) about time to compose, budgets, temp tracks, synth mockups and the controversial new practice of “striping” (recording different sections of the orchestra separately from one another).
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.
My last Variety story during the 2015 Oscar campaign examines each of the five nominees for Best Original Score: music by John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Thomas Newman, Carter Burwell and Johann Johannsson. Here is the link to the score story; also here is a second story, about this year’s Best Song category, that draws on my original interviews with nominees Lady Gaga and Diane Warren (“Til It Happens to You”), Sam Smith (“Writing’s on the Wall”) and J. Ralph (“Manta Ray”).
For Variety’s first awards-season section on potential Oscar contenders in music, I interviewed Harry Gregson-Williams (The Martian), Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs) and Johann Johannsson (Sicario) about their use of technology in music-making: The Martian combines electronics with traditional orchestra and choir, Steve Jobs a unique three-part approach including 1980s synthesizers, Sicario extensive processing of acoustic sounds. A second story concerns composers Mychael and Jeff Danna creating a surprising and unusual soundscape for Pixar’s upcoming The Good Dinosaur.
The Society of Composers & Lyricists screened The Theory of Everything last night for its members at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. After the screening, I interviewed Johann Johannsson, the Icelandic composer who has already won a Golden Globe and is now up for an Oscar for his largely piano-and-strings score. He gave us a great 45-minute interview, providing insight into his musical choices for the Stephen Hawking biopic.
Hollywood has always turned to composers from Europe, and elsewhere, in its search for great music for films. But increasingly, it seemed to my editors, the most acclaimed, and award-winning, scores for major studio films are being written by composers from outside our shores. So I interviewed five of this year’s crop of potential music nominees about the subject: Gustavo Santaolalla (The Book of Life), Antonio Sanchez (Birdman), Alberto Iglesias (Exodus: Gods and Kings), Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything) and Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game), along with Australian-born SCL president Ashley Irwin. This is the lead story in this week’s Global section of Variety.