Guillermo del Toro is a master of weaving a dark fairy tale. In his latest film, Nightmare Alley, he lures audiences to a strange noir-tinged world where no one can be trusted. While del Toro supplies his trademark aesthetics and emotionally driven character arcs, the film is drenched in the brilliantly atmospheric score of Nathan Johnson. His work brings a dissonant and fantastical tone to Nightmare Alley, which elevates the movie at every turn. To celebrate the release of the neo-noir we chatted with Johnson and dug deep into his process, collaborating with del Toro, and the freedom of scoring Nightmare Alley without influences.
Nerdist: Could you talk about your process going into Nightmare Alley and the way you mapped out the aural landscape of the film?
Nathan Johnson: The thing that was really interesting after I watched the movie the first time is that I realized most of the storytelling we’re used to in Western narratives is all about character arcs. We start with someone in one place, and then they end in a totally different place. And when I finished Nightmare Alley, I realized Guillermo had essentially made a movie about a character who doesn’t change. Bradley Cooper’s character, Stan, he just keeps hitting against the same thing. He’s incessantly pounding forward and sort of winds up with a realization that he’s in the same place as he started.
So I immediately thought of this repeating piano note and that became the basis for the thing. It’s the very first thing we hear. Then, as we move into the carnival, we surround that and support that. Then when we go into Buffalo we encountered this lush, orchestral sort of jazzy element, but underneath it’s the same note that’s always there. And then, by the end of the movie, we strip everything back. The last sound we hear of the score is the very same note that we heard at the very beginning. So that was sort of my doorway.
Your score really evokes the unpleasantness of the film and its settings. It’s a very bleak film and it’s about a man making the same terrible choices again and again. Could you speak to the challenges of scoring that journey?
One of the things that I love about this movie is there’s a bleakness along with a beauty, both at the same time. We really leaned into that. As I talked with Guillermo and as I was writing, I was compelled by that idea, that we’re gonna pull out these beautiful motifs and then underneath them it’s going to be this uncomfortable dissonance that we have to sit with.
We kind of hear that for the first time in Stan’s motif at the very beginning. But then it really sort of elevates to the next level when we get to Lilith’s room. And we encounter Cate Blanchett’s character. She’s, you know, she’s like this calm, placid surface and then under the water is this depth and this darkness. It’s like a hurricane. I loved that dynamic because she’s so much more powerful than Stan’s character, but he just doesn’t realize it yet. To me, that was really where we got to lean into that beauty and dissonance at the same time in the score to communicate, sort of the beauty and the shark in Lillith’s room.
We meet Stan at what seems to be the lowest point of his life, but the rundown surface of the circus actually represents a solidarity and security that belies its grotesqueness. Yet when we head to Buffalo where things seem shiny and successful, there’s a violence and danger running under the surface. What was it like to create those competing soundscapes?
When Guillermo and I talked, he was really clear. He consistently kept saying, “I don’t think we need a lot of music in the carnival here.” We purposely let a lot of those scenes just be dry. Like when Willem Dafoe is explaining how you get a person to geek, we really felt like you just let his character tell that story. But then as we move into Buffalo, you realize Stan had a family in the carnival.
Even though his circumstances in life have gotten better, when he goes to the big city, emotional circumstances are pulling him apart at the seams. The whole score shifts there; the full orchestra, the lushness, the jazzy piano. But at the same time we lean into pulling away from the tone centers. We’re introducing dissonance and microtonal bands, and everything begins kind of pulling apart.
One of the amazing things was the first thing that we got to do live with the orchestra in London after the pandemic. I got to be in the room with the players. That was really crucial for dialing in the precision of those moments. So from there we’re kind of introducing this microtonal dissonance as things progress. And it looks like things keep getting better, but we can feel in the score that things keep getting worse and worse.
It sounds like you and Guillermo had a very collaborative approach to the soundtrack. What was that experience like working together on this?
It was just an utter joy. From the very beginning he gave me the movie with no music on it. There was no temp music. He said to me, “I trust your instincts, and I want you to do what you do.” This was the first time I’ve worked with him, so it’s just a real vote of confidence for him to say, “I want you to do your thing.” What was great was I just got to respond to the movie. We weren’t referencing other film noirs. Everything I was writing was a response to the amazing performances, the amazing set design, the world that he was creating. I feel like I got this golden ticket to come in at the end and very purely respond to what I was experiencing.