How to compose an award-winning Hollywood soundtrack

If you want to learn, learn from the best.

Since captivating us with the hushed minimalism of his 2002 debut Englabörn, Jóhann Jóhannsson has spent much of the past decade composing equally arresting music for films, picking up an armful of nominations and awards along the way. This year the Icelandic composer won a Golden Globe for his contribution to The Theory of Everything, a warmly emotional score that drew out his romantic side while avoiding Hollywood schmaltz.

His latest soundtrack sees him partnering again with director Denis Villeneuve to create the ferocious yet desolate sound world of Sicario, a drug cartel thriller set on the border of the United States and Mexico. Inspired by the “relentlessly slow and mournful assault” of Swans’ live show, Jóhannsson’s nerve-shredding score was performed by an ensemble including multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, Lichens’ Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, jazz experimenter Skúli Sverrisson, and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has played with the likes of Pan Sonic, Múm and Ben Frost.

As he prepares to release the score for his own film End of Summer, we grilled the Berlin-based composer on how to write an award-winning Hollywood soundtrack.

Don’t repeat yourself

“I don’t like to do the same thing over and over, I like to challenge myself with every new project – and this is true for my work as a solo artist as well. I’ve never made a similar record twice in a row, there’s always a progression and a kind of restlessness. What’s great about writing film music is that every film has its own requirements, its own mood and atmosphere that you have to establish, so I really relish finding that while still keeping my individuality and my signature as a composer. I wouldn’t have made a record like The Theory of Everything myself, so it pushes you into territories that you haven’t explored before.”

Trust your director

Sicario is the second film I’ve worked on with Denis Villeneuve, after Prisoners, and now we’re working on our third one, Story Of Your Life. Denis likes to involve me early on and bring me in before filming starts. The music is not an afterthought, as sometimes happens if the composer is hired late. I think this is very good for the film – it makes for a very strong collaboration and allows the music to become part of the DNA of the film. I read the Sicario script and we talked about the ideas and themes and moods before he started filming, and then I visited the set in New Mexico to absorb the atmosphere of the locations and get a sense of the environment. It was very open in terms of my approach, but Denis and I talked about music that comes from below, from deep under the desert – a sort of primal, subterranean rumble. You had to feel the loneliness of the Mexican desert, the melancholy of the border.”

Speak the director’s language

“It’s quite rare that directors are musicians, or that they speak a musical language, but it’s not really necessary. We’re speaking in terms of the story and the characters, so it’s more like I’m speaking their language than they’re speaking mine. I don’t expect them to speak my language so I’m speaking theirs.”

Embrace contradictions

“Denis told me that he wanted ‘subtle war music’ – a contradiction in terms really, but I liked that phrase and I liked that challenge. I interpreted ‘subtle war music’ as war drums, so I had this idea of working with low percussion instruments and I recorded five different drummers in Berlin, LA and Budapest. I processed them and edited them quite heavily, so it’s almost artificial even though it’s based on real performances. The other element was working with the lower end of the orchestra – I used eight string basses, contrabasses, a lot of low woodwind and low brass. Then I used a lot of low drones, many of which I recorded on a pipe organ in a cathedral in Copenhagen, using 32 foot pipes to create very low, rumbling drones.”

Take a risk and let the rest follow in your path

“I think there’s a tremendous hunger and thirst for something new, because a lot of film scores kind of sound the same. There’s a certain reluctance to take risks, and I’m lucky enough that Denis really wants to push the envelope and he creates an environment where you can take risks and do things on the more extreme end of the spectrum. But more people are taking risks these days and there have been some really amazing scores, for example Mica Levi’s Under The Skin score. Things are opening up for alternative ways of working with film music.”

Use time pressure creatively

“Lack of time is the most frustrating thing about writing film music. You inevitably run out of time because you are chasing the edit, even if you start early. I try to get ahead of the editing by writing material before the edit starts, while they’re still filming – which is what I’m doing with Story Of Your Life – but some things you just can’t write until you have the images, until you see the film really coming together. In some cases you can’t really start writing until you get that, and then you may only have a few weeks until you have to deliver the score – I always feel like I could use two or three more weeks! So it is high pressure, but I enjoy that as well. I try to use the pressure creatively and use the lack of time as a constraint that helps me rather than hinders me, so it can be a good thing as well.”

Restraint is key

“I came in very late to The Theory Of Everything and it was all there already – Eddie Redmayne was delivering an amazing performance, so I took a lot of inspiration from him and Felicity Jones as well. It was really a matter of writing music that had a lot of emotion, a lot of warmth, but also a certain restraint. That’s something James Marsh and I discussed a lot – how far do you go in terms of warmth, how far do you go without descending into sentimentality? I think we walked a very fine line there, and I hope we didn’t go overboard in the emotional aspect of the film and the score. I very much tried to keep things restrained, because I this restraint is something you really feel in the film, and I think it makes it stronger.”

Don’t say it twice

“You don’t have to say with music what’s already being said on screen. I think that’s really what I try to avoid when I work on films – I try to say something with the music that adds to the scene, that reinforces and complements but also brings something new to the scene and doesn’t say what’s already being said.”

Absorb ideas from other disciplines

“I studied music and piano but my academic background is in literature and languages. I’m an autodidact as a composer, but I think my background in literature helps tremendously with film music, and I think for an artist any education is good. You can study architecture and use that in your art – it doesn’t really matter what you study as long as you develop or have a command of some kind of discipline.”

Learn from the best

“The film composers I most admire are Bernard Herrmann, first and foremost, and Ennio Morricone. Bernard Herrmann is probably the composer that first made me notice film music as something that I would be interested in, because I came to film music quite late in a way, when I was in my early twenties. Mainly Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock of course – Vertigo and North By Northwest and Psycho and Marnie, they’re all pieces of music that I’m tremendously influenced by, and his work is a huge inspiration. Likewise, Morricone has had a hugely varied and interesting career. His work is extremely varied as well, but I think particularly his scores of the 60s and 70s are such an inspiration in terms of both composition and how they’re recorded, how he uses the studio and how he uses the orchestra.”

Don’t get stuck in Hollywood

“I’ve been focusing a lot on film music for the last four years, but in the next two or three years a lot more of my personal projects are coming out. End of Summer is another film score but it’s my film, a film that I shot in Antarctica. I was invited to go to Antarctica with some friends of mine – it’s not an invitation you turn down! So I brought along my Super 8 camera and some very odd film that I had acquired, a very slow 35mm film that’s been repackaged as Super 8. It’s a very special film that was used for title cards in the old days, and it’s not made anymore so mine is probably one of the last batches of this particular film stock.

“I spent a month there recording sounds and filming the environment. It’s like a series of still frames more or less, but there’s so much life there, so much variation in the nature and in the wildlife, that it’s completely fascinating. My camera got dirtier and dirtier the longer I travelled, so the artefacts become more pronounced as the film wears on and it becomes quite abstract and wonderfully blurred. The sound world is very clear, so it’s this disconnect of the sound being extremely detailed and the visuals having this glitchy, blurry quality.”

Get your people to deal with the rest

“I’ve decided to spend some time on my own projects so I’m really only doing one film this year, but there have been a lot of offers. All my agent does is say no.”


End Of Summer is out on Sonic Pieces in December
Sicario (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is out now on Varèse Sarabande

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