Nathan Johnson on the Roaring Classics that Inspired ‘Knives Out’

We talk to the composer about the many influences that inspired the grand score of Rian Johnson’s latest.
Knives Out
By  · Published on November 28th, 2019

Go big or go home. Knives Out is not some tiny locked-room mystery. It’s a grand attack on entitlement. The film may be contained mostly to one estate, centering around a collection of Richie Riches leeching off their recently-deceased patriarch, but writer-director Rian Johnson had no interest in telling a cute little caper to please your grandparents looking to fill the space between Jeopardy and bedtime. No. This is theater screaming to the cheap seats. This is opera bellowing to the heavens. Pay attention.

To make the spectacle work, Johnson needed his composer to imagine beyond the literary influences affecting the script. Think Hitchcock. Think Lean. Think Herrmann. Think Jarre. Knives Out demands orchestral bombardment to pound alongside its messaging. This film is a 2019 epic of economics.

Nathan Johnson has musically defined all of his cousin’s films since Brick (minus Rian Johnson’s slight detour to Star Wars), and the key to their collaboration rests in their ability to confab during the preliminary stages of their projects. “I read the script very early on in the process,” he explains. “Rian’s kind of a master of dipping into different genres and turning them inside out. Part of that has to do with the music and how we will nod to the history that we’re in the wake of, but also turn that on its head a little bit.”

Expectations are a problem for the audience, not the filmmaker. Instead of falling down a rabbit hole of Agatha Christie, Nathan concentrated exclusively on the story Rian was telling. “I was just trying to lean into the movie itself,” he says. “Early on, we were talking about the different references. We were talking about some of the scores that we loved from the late ’50s and early ’60s. The thing that marked all of those was that they were very melodic, motif-driven scores. We knew we wanted to do a big orchestral score.”

Knives Out doesn’t live in Cabot Cove. It sizzles under the sun of the Ottoman Empire. “We were listening to the score from Lawrence of Arabia,” Nathan says. “I was listening to a lot of Bernard Herrmann‘s stuff. I remember we were talking about some of Nino Rota‘s scores.” These are the bonafide classics we all obsessed over. They took on lives of their own, beyond the films we associate with them. “I think the thing that sets them apart is that they are great, melodic, and motif-driven, but at the same time, it feels like you can hear every instrument. It’s not a blurry, washed-out sound. Every voice has its place. That’s how this movie feels to me. Every actor in this amazing, big, eclectic cast has their own place in the story.”

With grand, imposing scores comes the danger of blasting above the narrative, a fear that Nathan leaves for critics to ponder but one that never crossed his mind. “I think Rian has a really clear understanding of everything that he wants,” says Nathan. “For me, as a composer, I kind of come at it potentially as an actor would.”

What can he do to serve the story? The question is not at all daunting with his director leading the charge. “I’m bringing whatever I’m bringing to it, but I get to relax because I know that at the helm is a director who has also written the movie, and he knows so clearly what he wants,” he says. “I get to play in this incredible sandbox without having to think too much about, ‘Oh, what is this going to feel like on the other side?'” That’s Rian’s problem, not Nathan’s. He listens to his director, and he delivers on his wants.

Nathan read the opening scene of Knives Out years ago, and he spent a lot of time conceiving how he would tackle it musically. “Usually, when we talk about a project, I don’t start thinking about the music,” he explains. “I’m always compelled by the story and thinking about it from a narrative point of view.” His process changed on Knives Out. “Weirdly, this was the first thing with Rian where I heard the music first. I heard these sharp angular strings, and a rhythmic quartet thing, which I ended up writing for that opening scene.”

The strings unlocked the score for Nathan, but he still had to convince his director that this was the right path for the film. “Rian was like, ‘No, I think we want to blow it open,'” he says. “‘We want to blow it right out of the parlor room and have this lush, big orchestral score that was at the same time very cutting and precise.'” Sure, sure, sure, but the strings! The movie was in the strings, and that’s where the score for the film ignites before erupting into the volcano of Herrmann, Jarre, and Rota.

All art is born from its influence or its pursuit of those influences. Knives Out is indeed chasing Lawrence of Arabia. No reason to deny it or run away from such comparisons. “Well, you know, I think it was Thom Yorke or Jonny Greenwood, but they said a great thing about that,” says Nathan. “They were talking about recording OK Computer, and they said, ‘That was us trying to be DJ Shadow and failing.’ It’s such a generous thing to realize that all of us are inspired by our influences.” Creation is a tree with roots grounded in a thousand different directions and branches spreading even further. “What is great about making art is you’re taking these inspirations, but then as you reference them, and maybe fail, it comes out in your own voice.” What works for Radiohead should work for us all, and it definitely does for Knives Out.

Knives Out opens everywhere on November 27th.

The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check out our last chat with Bob Byington and Kaley Wheless (Frances Ferguson). Special thanks to William Dass and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)