How ‘Nightmare Alley’ composer Nathan Johnson found the one note to unlock his haunting score [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Composer Nathan Johnson was brought onto “Nightmare Alley” only months before its theatrical release after original composer Alexandre Desplat was forced to exit the Guillermo del Toro film due to scheduling issues.

“It was definitely a whirlwind but kind of amazing. It was such a smooth track from start to finish,” Johnson tells Gold Derby about his collaboration with del Toro for the noir drama. (del Toro and Desplat, who won an Oscar for “The Shape of Water,” are set to reunite on del Toro’s “Pinocchio.”) Johnson, whose cousin is director Rian Johnson and who has written the scores for all of Rian’s films outside of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” was actually on the set of the “Knives Out” sequel when he received a call from del Toro about participating in the project.

“I emailed Rian and wrote, ‘Hey, obviously this is my first commitment, but I think we can do this before essentially before you’ve got an edit together,’ and he just wrote back in all-caps, ‘You have to go meet him, you have to do this,’” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of love between Guillermo and Rian.”

Based on the 1946 noir novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, which was previously turned into a 1947 film, del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a con man who cuts his teeth in a roadside carnival and climbs his way up the ladder of high society in Buffalo, New York. Along the way, as Stanton gets in deeper and deeper, he forms key relationships with two women: Molly (played by Rooney Mara), his kind-hearted girlfriend from the carnival, and Lilith (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist with a secret. It all builds to a shockingly downbeat ending, with Johnson’s score providing emotional lift throughout the running time.

“[del Toro] sent me the movie with no music in it, no temp score, no references, no nothing,” Johnson reveals. “I just watched it dry. After sitting there for five minutes and kind of dealing with that ending, I kind of began to think about it in an architectural way. I met Guillermo the next morning and we talked a little bit about the music and talked about what the movie was and what these characters were doing.”

One theme in particular that Johnson immediately cited in his conversations with the director was a lack of change in Carlisle from beginning to end.

“I think in Western narrative, we’re used to character arcs, where the character starts here, goes through this big thing, and ends in a completely different place. My main thought was like this is so powerful that he’s making a movie about this character that keeps hitting the same note,” Johnson says. “He puts on all these masks but by the end of the movie we strip everything away and he still hits that same not that he started with. That was what I proposed to Guillermo — starting with a single piano note, just a very simple repeating note and then bringing in dissonance right next to it and consonance.” As the story moves along, Johnson’s music adds lush orchestral flourishes, but he never betrays the initial single piano note — an “A” on the piano. “That same note is there throughout the entire movie and when we strip everything away, the last note we hear is the exact same note we started with,” Johnson says.

Of course, within that structure, Johnson is able to add grace notes and themes for each character. “For Lilith, Cate Blanchett’s character, that first morning, I remember Guillermo saying that character is the reason I made this movie,” Johnson says. “I went home from that meeting and started writing. We have this simple beautiful oboe motif but underneath it, we have these very nondescript string harmonies that are very unsettling. She’s like this placid calm surface and underneath is a hurricane of power that Stanton doesn’t clock in the beginning.”

For Molly, the Mara role, Johnson was tasked with writing something that highlight her hopeful nature — which is summarily snuffed out by Carlisle as the movie progresses

“Stanton is responsible for stealing a lot of the hope he promises her,” he says. “Guillermo said, ‘Don’t give me a love theme for this, but you have to break my heart.’ It’s this element again of leaning into her and that’s the lovely thing about getting to come in as a composer and respond emotionally to these amazing performances.”

Early reviews and responses have pegged “Nightmare Alley” as a major awards player in part because of the top-level crafts work del Toro and his below-the-line teams exhibit on screen. Johnson says working with del Toro was a dream.

“To get the call from Guillermo, you’re sort of pinching yourself, to be honest,” he says. “He’s such an artist and I meet with him and he says, I trust your instincts I want you to do your thing. It’s so collaborative.”

“Nightmare Alley” is out on December 17. Johnson’s score is streaming now on all major music services.

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