Upon its release in 2019, Knives Out was a huge hit – and for good reason! The “Rian Johnson Whodunnit” was bursting at the seams with personality, heart, and a whole lot of subversion. A huge component of what made the film so memorable was its fantastic score by composer Nathan Johnson, the long-time collaborator and cousin of writer-director Rian Johnson. From Brick to The Brothers Bloom to Looper, Nathan has composed the music for all but one of Rian’s films, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was, of course, scored by John Williams. Likewise, Nathan Johnson has branched out now again to create the music for such films as Don Jon and last year’s Nightmare Alley, yet it was always a no-brainer for him to reunite with his cousin to compose the original score for Netflix’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Much like its predecessor, Glass Onion is a wildly fun time packed with twists, turns, social commentary, and the now-iconic detective Benoit Blanc, effortlessly portrayed by Daniel Craig. Other than that, though, the comparisons end, as Glass Onion forges an entirely new mad-cap path for itself. Craig leads an all-star cast featuring the likes of Janelle Monáe, Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson, Jessica Henwick, and more as a tech billionaire (Edward Norton) invites all his closest associates – and Blanc – to a remote island in Greece for a murder mystery party. In true “Rian Johnson Whodunnit” fashion, not everything is as it seems on the surface, and even in its many subsequent layers, not least of which is a nail-biting original score from Nathan Johnson that goes against the grain of what you would expect for the sequel’s lush, exotic getaway setting.
We were thrilled to sit down with composer Nathan Johnson to peel the layers of his Glass Onion original score, which was recorded and brought to life by a 70-piece orchestra at the legendary Abbey Road studios. In our candid exclusive interview, we run the gamut from the genesis of the many pivotal character themes in Glass Onion to his working relationship with Rian Johnson, favorite scores of the year, and even some not-so-secret ambitions to make a musical with his cousin in the near future. Through this conversation, a much deeper insight is gained on one of the more exciting composers of the modern era.
Exclusive Interview with composer Nathan Johnson for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery on Netflix
To start off, I was really taken by how different the Glass Onion score is from the first film. Of course, there’s some overlap, but how did your creative approach change as compared to your work on Knives Out?
Nathan Johnson: This one, I think it all comes down to this principle that Rian and I have talked about how we’re considering these each their own movie, as opposed to a sequel in the traditional sense. You know, that’s something that Rian is really interested in, in terms of writing movies in this world. Each one really needs to have its own reason for being, so we were talking a lot about what made this movie different. Also, what was going to make this score different?
In regards to your process, do you start building out specific themes and the score in general with Rian when he turns in the script, whenever the film is in the can, or maybe throughout the pre-planning stage?
Nathan Johnson: Once he sends me the script we tend to have some early, very broad conversations. With Glass Onion, we were talking about Nino Rota’s score for Death on the Nile, for instance. I was listening to a bunch of French pop music from the 60s and 70s. On some level, we wanted to lean into this sort of exotic, romantic 60s and 70s lyricism in the scores that we grew up loving. But for me, I go on set when we’re filming and I bring like a portable writing rig – just a little keyboard and a computer – and that’s really where I start exploring ideas for: “what’s the main theme going to be, what are some different motifs that might appear?”
It’s a really rewarding process for me to get to start that early. I’m watching the actors and Rian work together and watching the whole tone kind of develop [in front of my eyes]. At the same time, I’m exploring melodic ideas that are eventually going to find their way into the movie. So it very much feels like, almost like gardening, you know? It’s getting to plant seeds really early on and water them and then see which ones grow and which ones feel like “Yeah, this is what the sound of the movie is going to be like” because it’s fantastic.
The instrument in the Glass Onion score that jumps out to me is probably the one that’s going to stand out to a lot of audience members, and it’s that super satisfying harpsichord. How did you arrive at the specific instrument?
Nathan Johnson: That was something I think, in Rian’s mind, harpsichord equals mystery and attention. There’s harpsichord in a lot of those old murder mystery scores. But it’s one of those things that’s really funny [because] a couple of people actually have been like “Oh, and then there’s the harpsichord from Knives Out”. And there’s actually no harpsichord in the first movie!
It’s something that I love about Rian’s sensibility because I think he always likes, at least as far as music is concerned, undercutting what you think it would be and it’s true. Like the Manor House mystery feel of the first Knives Out? It definitely feels like “Oh, harpsichord makes sense there”. But this sort of lush summer sun-drenched Greek island feel? Harpsichord is not really the first thing I think of, though it’s something that we wanted to lean into just to bring some anchoring precision to what is eventually going to be this very over-the-top location.
Which piece of the score was the most difficult for you to crack? Which was the last to come to you?
Nathan Johnson: I think the piece that was the most difficult to crack was the main theme… that just took the longest to find. It was also the first piece that I knew I needed to crack and once we got that, once I saw Rian’s eyes light up about the main theme, then that was like, “Okay, now I understand what this movie is going to sound like. I understand what the themes are going to be.” I think the one that maybe came to me the latest was Andi’s theme. Janelle [Monáe] just gives such an incredible performance, but it’s so layered, right? She’s doing all of these different things.
For Andi’s theme, it needed to be something that was very powerful but at the same time very vulnerable. It had to have all of these different, almost conflicting elements in the theme because we really are tracking this enigma through the movie. We needed to be able to keep reinterpreting the theme. The theme I introduce the first time we see Janelle’s character in the garage with the puzzle box actually comes back in the very last scene in the atrium. That was a really fun challenge because I guess, in a way, I wanted Andi’s theme to not be too prescriptive. It needed to really be able to morph and follow her character’s arc through the whole movie.
Your approach changed with the material then, it was a fluid process. Were there any parts of the Glass Onion score that you had set near the beginning, or certain themes that you found to change the more you ruminated on them and the more you worked with the final cut?
Nathan Johnson: I think [Benoit] Blanc’s theme… he’s got a couple of motifs that we bring back from the first Knives Out movie, but they’re only fragments. I found that to be really valuable because he’s almost a red herring. Blanc is not the central character in any of these movies, even though you come away and you sort of think that the detective is the lead. But the detective almost functions as the audience’s way into these movies.
The detective gets to interact with all of these different suspects. So that’s something that, in terms of malleability, involves getting the right character motifs for Blanc that sprinkle in and interact and almost push and pull with each of these different suspects. That’s something that I love, and thank god that Rian likes melodic themes because we’re really doing that in these movies, we’re assigning very specific melodies to each character. That means that these themes get to play off each other and change and even in some cases get to be stolen by other characters throughout the whole process. For me, it’s like a Rosetta Stone that enables me to help track the different characters through the movie with their themes.
You talked about how Benoit Blanc is like an anchor for this push and pull that allows you to explore other kinds of motifs in the score. Are there any genres or motifs that you like to explore in later works that you haven’t gotten to touch yet? And what would it be?
Nathan Johnson: Usually the answer to that question for me is I’m less concerned about genre, it’s all about the story. However, I really want to do a musical (laughs). James, I want to do a musical! It’s something that Rian and I have talked about for a while since we both are really big musical fans. And it’s something that we’ve talked really excited about doing in the future. I think that’s such a wonderful playground. I also come from a songwriting background. It’s something that I still do. Even when I’m scoring these movies, often the themes have lyrics to them. That’s just a doorway into it for me. I find that if you can sing the melody, that means it’s going to exist in a good way for a theme.
You have me curious, is there a possibility we could ever potentially see the lyrics that you’ve written for these scores officially released?
Nathan Johnson: I mean, I don’t think anyone really wants to (laughs). They’re not like fully written lyrics. It’s almost just an internal way for me to process it. For Miles’ theme, the way I developed that was writing it as Miles singing to the Mona Lisa, and there are all these different ways into [the themes]. But, yeah, they’re not like actual publishable lyrics.
Obviously, you and Rian have worked together a lot. Whenever I think of his films, your themes are a massive part of them. How has your creative relationship grown and evolved throughout the years?
Nathan Johnson: Well, we’re cousins (laughs). We’ve been writing music and making movies together since we were kids. It’s a great question because I’m sure it has changed, but at one level, it feels like this is just what we’ve always been doing, and we kind of just never stopped doing it. I think at another level, there are now years and years of shorthand. The way I would sum it up is there’s a pattern that we have of working together, but the pattern is a structure that enables us to explore and push out in a way that’s very safe. In other words, when I’m working with Rian, I’m almost free to push as far as I can without the fear of “Oh no, he’s not going to like this, and that means it’s not going to work”.
You know, the structure that we have is almost a fantastic freeing thing. I’m not worried about if he’s not going to like it. If he doesn’t like something, it means, “Awesome, we’ll pivot and I’ll try something else.” It’s this great sandbox to explore, almost pushing me further than maybe I would even be able to with someone that I hadn’t collaborated with for such a long time. Because there’s a safety net there, it almost means we can hopefully do a more extreme high-wire act.
So as a composer yourself, what would you say are a couple of scores from this year that really jumped out to you? Other than your own, of course!
Nathan Johnson: My wife and I watched The Wonder recently, Florence Pugh’s movie. I loved that score, and I was like, “Who did this?” and then I realized it was Matthew Herbert who was someone that I really got into when I was living over in England. So I really loved his score. Trying to think back through all the different stuff I’ve seen this year, I really liked Carter Burwell’s score for The Banshees of Inisherin. I love a score that boldly plays with a very singular theme throughout, and that score was really felt over the course of that entire movie, just so so iconic. What he did with that I thought was wonderful.
Going into the next Benoit Blanc mystery, what can we expect from your score? And can I push for it to be a musical?
Nathan Johnson: That would be amazing! It would be amazing to have our musical actually take place in the Knives Out world. The honest answer is: I don’t know. But that’s what feels super exciting. I mean, it’s not like I plan these scores with Rian before we know what the movie is going to be. So right now, Rian is coming up with a story. This is maybe something worth mentioning… when Rian sends me the script, I’m not thinking about the music. I am like a kid on Christmas morning, getting to read a new book by his favorite author. Rian sends over the script and it’ll often just appear in my inbox without warning. Then it’s like, “Clear the rest of the day!” I’m just going to read this as a fan.
That might sound obvious or dumb but I do think it speaks to the way that we approach these films. I never think about “What music can I write for this?” I’m always thinking about, “What is the story?” After that, we kind of start talking, and it’s really about me picking Rian’s brain. Then I start to think about how I can interpret that musically. So, right now, I don’t know as I’m in the same place as you – I’m just waiting with bated breath to see what the next story is going to be about. Then we’ll start figuring out how we can crop up a score to best help tell that story.
I think there’s no better way to wrap up than that. Before I go, I would be remiss not to let you know, for all the Nightmare Alley fans at DiscussingFilm and beyond, how much we love that score.
Nathan Johnson: I am so glad you brought that up. Because that film I think is really special. That whole experience was really special. For me, getting to score that and work with Guillermo del Toro was really a “pinch me” moment. It’s such a powerful movie that I think says such an important thing. I’m so glad you brought that up. That’s so meaningful, that one holds a really special place in my heart.