Behind the Scenes: Sicario

Meet Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Oscar-nominated composer behind one of 2015’s most chilling film scores. Click to enlarge, view the feature in its original home via Wayback Machine, or scroll down to read the raw copy.

Copyright © 2015 Universal Music Group  Reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group
Copyright © 2015 Universal Music Group
Reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group

Behind the Screens: Sicario by Christina Kenny

Hollywood’s feature length take on Breaking Bad has audiences on both sides of the Atlantic cowering in their cinema seats with its unflinching portrayal of the violence surrounding the US/Mexico drug wars. Christina Kenny speaks to Sicario’s Golden Globe Award-winning composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is fast becoming a name to watch on the Hollywood film music scene.

It’s fair to say that Sicario isn’t a safe bet for a date film.

30 minutes in, I’m slumped at the bottom of my seat using my hands – and sometimes my knees – as a shield against the events unfolding on screen. This doesn’t help much, though, because I still have ears, and the soundtrack is bedding down in my auditory cortex (in the section labelled ‘nightmares be here’) in much the same way that the imagery of the opening scenes has burned itself onto my retinas.

Set in the lawless no man’s land between the border cities of El Paso and Juárez, Sicario (‘hitman’ in Mexican Spanish) stars Emily Blunt as an idealistic young FBI agent who is drawn into the ruthless combat between law enforcement and the drug cartels. The film’s score is correspondingly dark, ominous and in places almost unbearably tense; resonant with percussion that accompanies the viewer’s heartbeat to a throbbing crescendo as each of the heart-racing set pieces play out.

It may, therefore, come as a surprise to learn that its creator, Jóhann Jóhannsson, was responsible for one of the most delightfully lyrical film scores of 2014, the Golden Globe-winning The Theory of Everything. It’s a change of pace that suits the Icelandic composer just fine. ‘Sicario is unlike other music I’ve written for film,’ he concedes. ‘But that’s one of the interesting things about writing for film. Each one has its own challenges and opportunities, and you have to approach every project on its own terms.’

Though he has now scored more than a dozen movies, Jóhannsson (who spent much of his 20s playing in bands in Iceland’s alternative music scene) has previous form writing contemporary classical music for ensembles ranging from the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra to percussion renegades Bang on a Can. ‘The set of people that I’m inspired by is very wide,’ he says, when asked about his influences. ‘For Sicario, you could say I was inspired by everything from spectral composers like Gérard Grisey or Horațiu Rădulescu – even Ligeti – to musicians from the rock world like Swans, and bands from the more industrial side of rock music.’

His score for Sicario has now been released as an 18-track album on Varèse Sarabande. My attention is particularly drawn to the disc’s final track, ‘Alejandro’s Song’: a curiously microtonal mix of keening vocals underlaid by savage stirrings of strings. It’s hard to fathom: is that a choir singing? A soprano saxophone? An individual soloist producing overtones? Or something else?

Jóhannsson, speaking from his home in Berlin, is audibly pleased to have been asked. It turns out that just one vocalist is involved: a singer of many years’ acquaintance, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. A single note from the orchestral basses aside, the entire track is a collage of digitally manipulated recordings of Lowe singing live in performance.

‘Robert has an amazing instrument,’ he enthuses. ‘He doesn’t have a classical training, but he can swap between singing in classical modes – using his countertenor range – to metal styles like Grindcore, growling and death metal singing.’ The overall effect in ‘Alejandro’s Song’ – named for the complex character played by Benicio del Toro – is uncanny. As well as that suggestion of overtone singing, there’s more than a hint of the buzz of insects circling a corpse.

Jóhannsson’s own favourite scene features some of the very first music he wrote for the film. It accompanies an aerial shot of a convoy of US vehicles making the perilous journey through Juárez to apprehend a cartel boss. ‘It’s a slowly crescendoing piece of music, with a very basic, gentle glissando line in the basses that slowly intensifies and is mixed with electronic drums,’ he says. ‘I wrote it with the sound of helicopter blades in mind, with the idea that they become almost a part of the piece. It was the first piece I wrote, and it became very much the template for the music for the film.’

Not all the film’s music is this tense, though. There’s some beautiful writing for cello – for example, on ‘Desert Music’. ‘This is a theme that Denis [Villeneuve, the film’s director] and I talked about,’ says Jóhannsson. ‘We wanted to evoke the melancholy of the desert in some way. For me, it also represents the sadness of the border area and the migrants, the emigrants.’ That sadness is also embodied by an arpeggiated theme played on six string bass in ‘Melancholia’, which manages to sound at once Spanish and not Spanish at all, perhaps representing the displacement and otherness of the inhabitants of the border towns.

Sicario is Jóhannsson’s second film with Denis Villeneuve. The first was the 2013 thriller, Prisoners, and the composer is already working on their next collaboration, Story of Your Life: a sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner slated for release in 2016. It’s a working relationship that is becoming rapidly more instinctive, despite Villeneuve’s lack of musical vocabulary. (One of his instructions to the composer, according to Sicario’s album sleeve, was to ‘create sounds that you wouldn’t only hear but that you could also feel’.)

‘It’s a process that becomes easier as we get to know each other better,’ says Jóhannsson. ‘I feel very at home with the way that Denis works: his atmosphere, the way he likes to work. We have similar sensibilities: we don’t have to exchange many words to know what needs to be done.’ He points out that Villeneuve is fairly unusual, as directors go, in that he prefers to edit his films to silence. By contrast, most Hollywood directors edit sequences to ‘temp scores’ – i.e., another film’s soundtrack. The fact that Sicario was edited in the absence of music meant that in effect, Jóhannsson was working with a completely blank slate, an opportunity he found both daunting and exhilirating.

‘But Denis involved me very early on, before he started shooting,’ he says. ‘We talked about the film, the script, and the feeling of the narrative, and I also visited the set for a few days last summer, to absorb the atmosphere of the locations. After that, it was really a process of talking through the film and finding its voice – that’s something that happens over the course of the editing of the film, a dialogue that happens between me and Denis.’

So, what can we expect of the music for Story of Your Life? ‘It’s a little bit early to determine where it will all go,’ says Jóhannsson, coyly, ‘but I can tell you that I’ve been working a lot with voices and wind instruments. Voices in particular are very much a part of what I’ve been doing so far’. Also in the pipeline is a sixth studio album due for release in December (a piece for vocals and cello called End of Summer), with a seventh mooted for 2016. Then there’s the world premiere recording later this year of his work for chamber choir and string quartet, Drone Mass, which premiered in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in March.

Jóhannsson’s schedule, I suggest, is looking pretty hectic. ‘What can I say,’ he says gruffly down the line, ‘I don’t like to repeat myself.’