‘Theory of Everything’ composer says the precision of the piano made sense for Hawking

I expect composer Jóhann Jóhannsson will be getting hired more and more in the near future. Having come up through the documentary world, he was tapped last year for Denis Villaneuve's “Prisoners” and he ran with the ball, crafting a dynamic, layered, ominous score that really didn't get its due. That course is sure to be corrected with his work on James Marsh's Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything,” a piano-driven work that stands out as one of the film's most identifying features.

I spoke to Jóhannsson not long after catching “Theory,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and you can tell he's still warming up to this process and the attention. He's sure to garner awards traction for his work on this film, however, so he'll get used to it all soon enough.

Read through our back and forth below and get to know a guy who, again, you're sure to be hearing about more and more over the next few years.

“The Theory of Everything” opens in theaters Nov. 7.


HitFix: “The Theory of Everything” is interesting because, for a biopic that hits some of the expected beats, it has an elegant construction. It's a hard quality to describe, I guess. But when you first saw the images, how did they begin to spark music for you?

Jóhann Jóhannsson: I think it was that the music needed to underline the emotion and reflect the relationships at the heart of the film and be an emotional counterpoint to the story. It had to hit a lot of these emotional beats that run throughout the film. And it's a film that has a very large scope. I mean it goes across three decades of a man's life and his family. So we had to be true to that and we had to follow that thread and find a musical voice that would work through all this passage of time, while still having a a common thread and a musical identity throughout. So I guess that was the biggest challenge for me, to create a musical identity for the film that still was able to hit all those beats.

There was a lot of piano in this. Why was that the choice?

The piano came very early on as a lead instrument. Maybe it had something to do with the precision of that instrument. It's a very precise instrument and it has this mathematical quality to it, but it also is a very expressive instrument as well. So maybe it touches on those two kinds of qualities, which the film has. I mean it's touching on the science and the reason and the mathematics and the cosmology and the physics but also on the relationships and the emotion and the heart and the warmth of the story. I also like the piano. It's my main instrument, I guess, and I haven't really done a piano-led score before, to this extent. So maybe it was something that I had been wanting to do for a while.

I talk to composers every year and I'm always curious how it works, how the themes start to ignite. Because when you're watching the movie I assume you're dealing with temp tracks and stuff that might be getting in the way as far as what you might envision for the music. How does it work for you?

I think it's a combination. I think you hear things when you watch the movie for the first time and you get some initial impressions, which are always very important. I trust first impressions very much. Instinctual reactions are always very true reactions, I think, and you should trust those. But of course it's a matter of analyzing things also and going to the heart of the story, which takes a while. You have to get familiar with the film and you have to watch it over and over again and try to become as familiar with it as the editor and the director, who have been working on it for months and years sometimes. And here I am coming on board in the last three or four months of the process. Of course temp music is very often used as a tool for the director and the editor to find the rhythm and to see if scenes work, but they're always just a very, very rough guide. They're not to be taken too literally, and certainly in this case the temp was very much disregarded. So it's really about finding through discussions with the director and through getting to know and through analyzing and feeling the emotional core of the film you try to find the voice.

For me, in this case, it really happened with the intro. The intro was the first piece of music that I wrote for the film, and that came fairly early on. I mean I always try to attack one important scene early on, whether it's the beginning or the end, or try to identify very crucial scenes in the film and try to find a way into the heart of the film. And the intro was that for me [on “The Theory of Everything”]. Once that was approved by James, it was really – a lot of the subsequent music follows on from that. And actually the core notes or core notes motif, which the film starts with, that piano motif, that repeating riff is like a thread. It reappears in different forms, you know, deconstructed or broken up or in a minor mode and mirrored in different ways throughout the film. So you could say that a lot of the score is derived from that opening scene.

Purely out of curiosity, was it always planned to be purely instrumental? Like was there ever any consideration of a vocal element, choir passages, etc.?

No. We didn't consider a choir for this score at all. We talked about the moods and the role of the score, you know, what the score needed to achieve, which was providing warmth. It needed to be joyful. It needed to be uplifting and it needed to propel things forward, especially in the beginning. And then it needed to underline the emotion of the relationship. It wasn't really much more concrete than that.

What are some of your influences or idols in the world of film composition?

I think the reason I got into film music was Bernard Herrmann, particularly. And Morricone, also, especially his '60s and '70s scores are something I'm totally obsessed with and I have hours and hours of Morricone scores that I love listening to. And Bernard Herrmann is a huge influence in his minimalism; the incredibly strong harmonic thrust of his music and the insistent power of it is something that has influenced me a lot. And I would say also a lot of East European film music. And people like Wojciech Kilar and Georges Delerue, Nino Rota, of course.

One of the great like honors of my life was meeting Ennio Morricone. We did not understand each other too well but just being able to meet him was awesome. Are you a big “Once Upon a Time in the West” fan? I think that's one of the best scores of all time.

Yeah. I love most of what he's done and there's such a breadth of – he has such a wide scope. It's amazing. And his melodies and the way he works with harmony is just unparalleled. I mean he's a genius. It's absolutely a huge inspiration. And also the way that he works with the studio, that he's very much a composer who has used the studio in a very clever way and a very compositional way. I mean he really used the studio as an instrument and writes for the studio in a way. You can especially hear that in Sergio Leone scores and many of his '70s scores, where he's doing some very extreme things with electronics and with guitars and with organs and effects and things like that.

Absolutely. Well congratulations on this one. And on “Prisoners” last year, too. I thought that was an excellent piece of work that flew under the radar.

Thank you so much.

Best of luck and I'm sure we'll be talking to you again.

Thank you. I really appreciate it.