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KNIVES OUT Composer Nathan Johnson On Crafting A Perfect Whodunit Score

Writing a score is like slipping a glove over a movie. It has to fit perfectly, or the audience will feel the discomfort. The score has to contain the storytelling, and accentuate it. It has to exist simultaneously with everything else, and know when to fade out and let the script do its thing.

Composer Nathan Johnson knows all of this. It’s the basis of his working relationship with filmmaker Rian Johnson, his collaborator and cousin. Their new film, Knives Out, is their grandest feature yet. It’s a whodunit with a lush orchestral score that’s as plucky and fun as it is melodic and somber. It’s a beautiful display of talent and growth for both Rian and Nathan; together, their storytelling has evolved from the percussive bells and noir design of 2005’s Brick to other genres and styles. Knives Out is a confident, joyful experience for the audience and for the cousins, who began their collaborative process as children.

“I started writing songs before I could play any instrument at all,” Nathan told Nerdist in a recent interview. “Funny enough, Rian and I had a band together when we were little kids called Weirder Than Al where we took Weird Al songs and changed the lyrics.”

The two also made movies together as kids. “We had grown up as cousins making music and movies together, but we had never sort of thought to connect them,” Nathan explained. “Brick was his first film, and he asked if I would take a stab at doing the score for that. I said yes, and we just jumped in.”

Nathan, who also scored The Brothers Bloom and Looper, first heard about Knives Out roughly 10 years ago. This was when Rian first had the idea, before a script was even completed. “I remember him describing the opening scene, and the idea that it’s gonna start with just music and we’re gonna be creeping up on this Gothic mansion,” he said. “So I’ve had this germ of an idea developing in my mind for nearly a decade.”

The score for Knives Out came pretty naturally to Nathan. That has a lot to do with the nature of the film, about a wealthy family recoiling after the alleged murder of their crime-writing patriarch. Most scenes take place in a Gothic mansion, filmed on location near Boston. “Often composers are brought in at the very end of the whole process and sometimes have only a few weeks to throw together a score,” Nathan explained. “But when I’m working with Rian, I usually move to wherever they’re filming. I was on set out in Boston for Knives Out, so every day I got to take in this crazy mansion and this amazing cast and then I would just go back and write.”

Ana de Armas outside the Thrombey mansion in Knives Out.Lionsgate

Rian and Nathan looked at old scores from the ’50s and ’60s to get an idea of the sound for Knives Out. Because of the parlor room nature of the story, Nathan thought about creating a more contained sound for the film, but Rian wanted to play against the claustrophobic feel of the movie. The result is a more brash take, loaded with melodies and motifs, with a lot of “sharp, stabby strings and woodwinds.”

The big exception is “The Thrombey Family Theme,” which begins with a soft piano and has a tingly, jazzy feel throughout. “I was almost imagining it as the music they would use for self definition,” Nathan says of the tune. “The music they would find themselves listening to in this mansion. And a lot of that just leaned into their emotional state. There’s this very successful, wealthy patriarch and he’s got all of these adult children. Each them feel like they’re drowning or floundering in his wake. And so I felt like that sort of haunting piano melody, that’s the emotion I felt that each of these kids were living.”

Knives Out opened to rave reviews at TIFF earlier this year and made $70.9 million globally in its opening weekend, well above expectations. It’s great news for a small, original film, and all but guarantees more collaborations between Rian and Nathan going forward. Nathan even teased one potential project we could see from the duo in the future: a musical.

Rian previously told Nerdist he’d love to do a musical, and Nathan agreed. “We’ve been talking about that for years,” he admitted. “It’s what I really want to do. We both grew up loving musicals and I just feel like his take on that would be so fresh. We giddily talk about that all the time.”

Even though he and Rian have worked in a number of different genres already, Nathan said he doesn’t approach projects with genre in mind. “No matter what genre, no matter what budget, I think, ‘Is this kind of movie I’d be excited to see and is this the kind of director I’d be excited to collaborate with?” he said. “There’s good music in every musical style, and there are amazing stories in all the different genres. I’m just excited to follow the narrative trail.”

Knives Out is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

Featured Image: Lionsgate