When Ryuichi Sakamoto was asked to score The Revenant, he was unsure.
It was a dream opportunity – to work with director Alejandro González Iñárritu in the afterglow of Birdman’s success, Leonardo DiCaprio and his win-an-Oscar-or-die-trying performance, and one of the greatest cinematographers in history, Emannuel Lubeski — but, still, he was unsure.
This time last year Sakamoto was still recovering from throat cancer, a disease he first publicly spoke about in 2014. At the time he promised fans he would recover and return to work, and that’s exactly what he did. Sakamoto recovered and delivered the haunting score to this true story of another man fighting back from the edge of death. He wasn’t alone either, enlisting his friend and past collaborator Carsten Nicolai, the producer best known as Alva Noto, to work with him on the score (The National’s Bryce Dessner also contributed, but worked separately). Channeling the awesome power of nature through acoustic and electronic swells, Sakamoto embodied the same fighting spirit of The Revenant, a word that means to “return from the dead”.
It’s a hopeful story too, in a year that began with a reminder of the . I met with Sakamoto and Nicolai the same day the world was processing the news of David Bowie’s death. Sakamoto, who had worked and even briefly lived with Bowie, remained thoughtful, precise and warmly funny discussing that tragedy and his own struggle through cancer. We also discussed his return to composing with The Revenant and his desire to re-score the films of his favorite director, the legendary Yasujiro Ozu.
When did you get the news about David Bowie?
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Last night after the ceremony.
What was your first reaction?
Sakamoto: I still cannot believe. Even now I can’t believe, especially because the new album came out two days ago. This morning I carefully listened back to each track of the new album. His vocals sound not like a cancer patient — because I know that. I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, so I know what it is. It doesn’t sound right.
I watched Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence this afternoon. That was the first film you scored. What was that experience like, acting and composing?
Sakamoto: I never pursued an acting career, it was not my intention, but it’s a fact that I acted in a film for the very first time with David Bowie, who was amazing. And it was my very first film music. So two very new things came to be at the same time. Working with David Bowie, I was with him for a month, every day, on a very small island in the South Pacific Ocean. For a month! [Laughs]
Carsten Nicolai: My god!
Sakamoto: It was an amazing experience. He was very nice guy. Very straightforward.
Nicolai: Did you hang out in evenings?
Sakamoto: Every night. There was nothing else to do except hanging out. There was a swimming pool and restaurant lounge, but that’s it.
Did you talk to him about the music you were doing for the film?
Sakamoto: No, no. I hadn’t started working on it yet, I was totally concentrated on the acting. I also sort of hesitated to ask David to work with me on the music at the time, because he seemed very concentrated on acting.
Not the right time to ask?
Sakamoto: I totally hesitated.
Nicolai: But it’s weird. Two musicians as actors.
Sakamoto: Weird, right?
You mentioned your diagnosis two years ago, and there’s a quote in your statement, very simple: “I promise to return after a full recovery.” I mean, that’s The Revenant! You returned.
Sakamoto: [Laughs] The return from death.
How has that experience been, coming back to work?
Sakamoto: When I got this offer from Alejandro I was still not fully recovered yet. So it was a hard question to take this offer or not. I was not confident to be going through the kinds of stress and work that Alejandro would give me. I knew he was a difficult man, but on the artistic side, my instincts knew this was my one time to work with a director like him.
“When I got this offer from Alejandro I was still not fully recovered yet”Ryuichi Sakamoto
What was your first impression of the film? Not necessarily in terms of musical ideas.
Nicolai: I came in later. So I saw what was very close to the final edit. It was very interesting for me because I flew in, came in at eight o’clock, and then Alejandro talked to me for an hour and then I was sitting in this theater alone.
Sakamoto: I was in Japan at the time working on another movie.
Nicolai: At first I saw so many opportunities for music because there’s very little dialogue. There’s a lot of room for ambience. The story is very straight, very chronological. There was this real sense that the story moves as one piece. It feels like one piece — the first scene is eight minutes, then it’s all one minute, two and half minutes. So by the end we’d created two hours of music. And with all those scenes without dialogue, you’re the ones carrying that. It’s also interesting how often you’re hearing no music, just nature. Wind, rushing water, trees moving — that becomes part of the score in a way.
Sakamoto: Since the beginning, I always thought the real main character in this film is nature. Not only the images but the sounds of nature act — including the sound of the bear [laughs]. So to respect the sounds of nature, I thought the music shouldn’t be too narrative. I wanted my music to be like a part of the sound of nature. You want it to show the emotions of the characters, so finding a balance — it was fun.
Nicolai: I think we both created a lot of sounds where you could think of nature. A lot of sounds that are like a breath. They don’t always have a melodic quality — we’re just creating a space, a feeling. So I think they’re things that people might understand as sound design rather than music.
Sakamoto: That’s kind of the problem with the Academy not going for the score.
Nicolai: Yeah, for them it was not — they couldn’t understand that these many noises had musical qualities. Which is very important, because we both come from a strong electronic background where every sound is important, not just the melodic ones.
When you spoke to Iñárritu, did he give you direction or inspirations for the music?
Sakamoto: Those guys are like maps. We had his words, his inspiration, temporary music.
Nicolai: He’s very specific, but at the same time you can’t describe it.
Sakamoto: Very abstract. He might say “more emotion”. But it’s very hard to judge how much more.
Nicolai: I remember there was one day in LA where he invited [composer and previous collaborator Gustavo Santaolalla] and we just went scene to scene to scene. And this meeting was eight hours. Someone was writing everything down and I found it really incredible. He was always giving some kind of specific change.
I’ve heard you say before the first impression is often the right one. What was your first step here?
Sakamoto: In my case, the first step was when the son of Glass [Leonardo DiCaprio] is killed by Tom Hardy. That’s where I started. It’s the most tragic, the most emotional. So I got the very first two notes from that scene and that became it. Just two notes.
Nicolai: It’s simple, but not simple.
“The Academy couldn’t understand that these noises had musical qualities”Carsten Nicolai
Carsten, you performed with Ryoji Ikeda as Cyclo again last year. What was it like getting back together?
Nicolai: Well, we’re old friends. We started this project Cyclo 10 years ago and it’s really interesting because when we’re playing, we’re still playing tracks from 10 years ago. We never toured, we only do request shows if we both have time we do it, so there are very few performances, but every time that we do we’re completely surprised. Every time we play it we think, “This is crazy!” We both surprise each other. It stays, it’s not decaying at all. Of course every time we do it, we always say the same sentence: “We should do it more!”
Sakamoto: You should! Everyone would like that.
Ryuichi, I read something interesting that I wanted to ask you about too. A dream of yours was to re-score films by Yasujiro Ozu.
Sakamoto: [Laughs and nods]
He’s one of my favorite directors. What was it about the original scores that made you want to do that?
Sakamoto: First of all, I’m a huge fan of Ozu films, since I was very young, and Tokyo Story is always my favorite film. But the one problem I have with Ozu’s films is his music. It’s so corny to me. It’s so nostalgic, but to me it’s not quality. So I always wanted to do something –– of course, it’s out of my hands. But when I met the late, great composer Toru Takemitsu in London we naturally talked about films and talked about Ozu and strongly agreed, “Argh! I don’t like that music in his films”, “Maybe we should do it together?” “Yes! Let’s do it.” But he passed on a few years later and it never happened. Still now, when I see any of Ozu’s films I want to hear some better music with it.
I was watching a few of his films last week after hearing that Tokyo Story actress Setsuko Hara died and had a similar thought. What would you have done differently?
Sakamoto: It’s always abstract when I talk about music, but it must be… better music. [Laughs] The style’s okay, the very classical strings, that’s okay, children’s choir, that’s okay. But I could do better.