‘Glass Onion’ Composer on Mixing “Old Hollywood” Sounds With Modern Themes and Suspense
Like its film, Glass Onion’s score understands the power of characters.
Inspired by Italian composers like Nino Rota and the work of famed author Agatha Christie — with easter eggs to the fugue technique tucked in for eagled-eared listeners — Nathan Johnson’s score represents a type of composing he says has gone out of style, but that helped him unfold the film’s mystery and, more significantly, its equally mysterious characters.
Themes for Andi (Janelle Monáe), Birdie (Kate Hudson) and Miles (Edward Norton) lay bare what’s underneath the duplicity among a tech billionaire’s group of barely friends, as pieces like “Dinner Is Served,” “Snoop,” and “The Puzzle Box” engage in a careful tip-toe as musical embodiments of curiousity and intrigue. Meanwhile, tracks like “Ransacking,” “The Center of the Onion” and “Lights Out!” capture the increasing tension, stakes and danger of Rian Johnson’s latest Knives Out mystery.
It’s a spirited set of pieces that, similar to its Christie inspirations, feel both of their time and unconstrained by period. With that, the Glass Onion score manages what all good murder mysteries do: it feels uncannily specific and quintessentially timeless. Recorded in Abbey Road Studio 1 — another way both the movie and its score appreciate the perennial — with a 70-piece orchestra in May 2022, it took nearly a year, from early theme explorations while on set in Greece during July 2021, to complete.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Nathan about the score’s inspirations, composing to the characters and not the mystery, how he captured lies and power dynamics and what it was like recording at one of the most famous studios in history with his cousin and director Rian.
Below, The Hollywood Reporter also shares exclusive footage of the orchestra performing the main Glass Onion theme.
Rian has talked about Agatha Christie’s influence on him. Can you talk about those influences on your scores for Knives Out and Glass Onion?
Totally. All of these start with Rian’s love for Agatha Christie, but the thing that he was really excited about was setting them today, right now, talking about what we’re dealing with here. He was talking about how when Agatha Christie was writing, she was not writing old-fashioned things. She was writing to her time period. He was just really excited about what does it look like if we set this in modern-day America. So there’s an element when we start to think about the music where it is leaning on some of these classic scores that we grew up loving, but at the same time, it is a modern approach to scoring. We were talking about Nino Rota’s score for Death on the Nile, and I was listening to a bunch of French pop music from the ’70s and taking those scores that I grew up loving — these very melody-focused, thematic scores — and bringing that right into our modern world. Which is something that I love about what Rian always does. He takes a genre and finds what is fresh about it.
Scores can become mechanisms of obscuring and unearthing a movie’s plot, which seems apt for a murder mystery. Did you want your score to lead an audience into a thought or revelation about what they were seeing?
The honest answer is what I’m doing is purely trying to score the emotion of each scene. So with Glass Onion, obviously, we come back, we see things from different perspectives. And the way that it’s structured is almost like a fugue. So the first half of the movie then gets a new melody layered on top of it, and we’re seeing things from different perspectives. But rather than trying to do any clever thing, where I’m trying to reinterpret the music that was happening in that scene before, each time we see a new perspective, that scene is doing a very specific thing in Rian’s mind. So I’m really tracking Rian and tracking the emotion of each scene. All I’m trying to do is lend the audience what they need to be feeling at that moment.
Between Knives Out and Glass Onion, you have an entire ensemble change, a location change, a visual palette change. How were you drawing on the music and instruments differently?
With the first Knives Out, we decided that this was going to be set in a traditional orchestral world, but our approach to that is making sure everything is really precisely recorded. We want to be able to hear each instrument. We want to be able to hear the scrape of the bow on the strings and the breadth of the players in the winds. And part of that is we don’t want the score to be sort of an anonymous wash of sound. We want it to be very present, and we want to hear the imperfections as they’re pushing and pulling against the characters. But one of the things that I realized is, obviously, they’re operating on a bunch of different levels. So we’ve got the main theme, which is a bold melodic statement inviting us all to this journey that’s going to be fun. We’re planting flags in the ground saying this is going to be this grand old Hollywood feel. But at the same time, there’s this tension element, right? It’s a mystery, so we have to feel the suspense. What I’ve felt like I’ve found is, and what I think is at the crux of it is, we’ve got a protagonist here in Janelle Monáe’s character that the whole movie hinges on. So the movie has to be fun, the movie has to be scary and suspenseful. But at the core of it, if we don’t connect emotionally, with Janelle’s character, the whole movie falls apart. So I’m kind of operating at three different levels in terms of the grand journey, the mystery and, at the heart of it, connecting Andi’s theme to a deep emotion.
How did you approach composing then for Andi and Helen’s opposites — the villains of the film whose true natures we don’t really learn until their backstories are revealed?
One of the things that I’ve heard actors talk about is even when they’re playing the villain, they want to try to identify with the character. They don’t want to judge them. It’s something that I’ve found really helpful in approaching the music as well. So when I’m writing Miles’ theme, I want to play it straight. I want to treat it fair. I don’t want to always be judging from a musical perspective. I think the same thing as I’m approaching all these different characters. It’s trying to approach them in the same way that the actors would approach them by identifying with what their plate is. However, when Miles is up in the Glass Onion talking with Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and he’s looking at the picture and saying, “Oh, I miss Andi. She was the only one who told me the truth. I miss that bar” — at that moment, I suggested to Rian, what if Miles steals Andi’s theme in the same way that he stole her company? Because at that moment, I thought, I don’t know if Miles can tap into this emotion. He’s almost spinning a tale, right? So he uses the theme of Andi, who we’re already on board with and who he had so much history in creating the hurt of her theme. This type of scoring has fallen out of vogue in the last 10 to 20 years — this very melody, motif, melodic character-driven score. But I think it’s really what I grew up loving. When we are scoring for the characters, when we’ve got motifs for the characters, it opens up this wide range of possibilities, because it’s almost like we’re training the audience to identify this little hook with what they feel about a certain character.
With these specific character themes and motifs, can you talk about how you crafted their sound? Specifically, how did you imagine key characters instrumentally and the way audiences would aurally recognize them?
This was a really fun thing, and I think this is a great way that Rian’s brain works because we talk about all of this stuff. Rian often will zig when you expect him to zag. So for instance, with Brick, it’s this film noir set in a high school. In Rian’s mind, I think in his ideal high school everyone was listening to Tom Waits instead of pop radio, so it almost doesn’t make sense, but then it weirdly does. With Glass Onion, I had a lot of people say to me, “Oh, you brought back the harpsichord from Knives Out.” There’s no harpsichord in Knives Out, even though it would seem like that would make sense for an enclosed manor house mystery. So I think that’s something that Rian just has this instinct about. We were talking about harpsichord even though it’s on this Greek island in a very modernist billionaire house. There was something about that that felt like, even though it on some level didn’t make sense, on another level, it felt very applicable. So there are elements like that. But for Blanc’s motif, it’s often expressed on clarinet, and I feel it’s got this nice sneaky sound. There’s a little bit of a smile to it. It’s how I imagined Blanc’s character often. Andi’s theme is very piano-forward but also very lush string-based. Hers, I think out of all of them, had to embody multiple things at the same time. She starts the movie as an outsider, halfway through, she’s clearly our protagonist, and so her theme had to be very beautiful yet very broken. It had to be very powerful but very humble at the same time. It had to be ominous and yet very romantic. It had to be able to embody all of these different things as we keep understanding new attributes to her character throughout the movie.
And that’s because it’s not just Andi but also Helen.
100 percent. We call it Andi’s theme, but it may be more accurately called Helen’s theme. It is a theme that follows that character throughout the whole movie. We hear it from the very beginning when who we think is Andi gets the box, but that’s actually Helen in the garage. So that’s the first time we hear Andi’s theme. Then we hear it all the way through to the end. So for spoilers, we don’t want to call it Helen’s theme on the soundtrack, but it is very much in the way that Helen plays Andi through the movie. I think the theme really stays at its core home with Helen throughout the movie.
This approach feels a little different than other murder mysteries or dramas you’ve composed for, like Brick or Nightmare Alley. I’m curious how you approached composing on those two movies and if you brought anything from that experience into the Knives Out films.
So I’ll talk a little bit about Nightmare Alley because that’s, in some ways, very different from Glass Onion and Knives Out. Nightmare Alley was all about impressions — impressionistic feelings. Everything is below the surface. When I wrote Lilith’s theme for Nightmare Alley — Cate Blanchett’s character — that was all about this dissonance. This very powerful shark is swimming below the waters. That’s how I thought about her theme. It was calm waters, but underneath it, there’s something really powerful and really dangerous. The thing that I really love about movie music is, when it’s working well, it refuses to be too prescriptive. It leaves dissonance there. It leaves uncomfortability. It leaves room for people to read their own things into it. And so even though Glass Onion is a very different movie from something like Brick, I also don’t want to be too prescriptive when I’m scoring for those characters. Rian talked about this with writing Edward Norton’s character, Miles.
Rian said anytime he thought too specifically about someone in our modern world, it became very uninteresting. Rian wrote Edward’s character based on this very simple thing, which is that Americans tend to mistake power for competence. It’s inherent in some of the problematic things about inherited positions. I love that he is writing not as a mirror of one person, but writing about a core thing that we all see. Because then that means when we watch it, we can apply everyone from our own lives onto that. This is a funny weird little thing, but when I score, I often will write lyrics. I come from a songwriting background. So I feel like if I can sing it, that might work as a theme, and that might stand up to everything we’re going to do about it. But with Miles’ theme, I was writing that from his own perspective, from the way that he yearned for the Mona Lisa, from the way that he feels misunderstood. It’s very easy for everyone to watch that and be like, “Man, that horrible person.” But no one thinks about themselves as a horrible person, so it’s just a weird magic trick that you’d have to play to tap into.
Let’s talk about the larger ensemble and how you wrote for them. There’s a lot of coupling happening in this movie and through that there’s a lot of play with power dynamics. How did you think about representing these other duos, like Birdie and Peg, and their relationships through the music?
Rian has talked about this. The whole engine in a murder mystery is about power dynamics and, historically, that’s the case. We very much see that with Kate [Hudson] and Jessica’s [Henwick’s] characters. For this movie, I wrote a disruptors motif. It’s this very simple chromatic ascending and descending motif. Then, what I did for that is altered it in different ways for the different disrupters. So sometimes that’s playing it on a different instrument. For the Birdie character, it’s a bit more wistful. It plays on piano, and it steps out of the chromaticism a little bit. But then there are these moments between Birdie and Peg, where it’s almost like walking this very delicate line. Rian and I were really careful of not stepping on their scenes because it wants a little bit of music. But ultimately, their scenes are really these comic revelations. You’ve got to be so careful, especially when you’re dancing around comedy, because what makes their comedy work is the crushing reality that Birdie is just so unaware of what’s happening in the world.
So the sweatshop scene for instance — this was something that Rian and I were really precise about. How much music do we want? We got to be careful of not getting in the way of the joke. So those scenes, the way that I scored them are very subtle and very hands-off. It’s that thing of when you explain a joke, it’s not funny. I feel like in music, the way jokes work most effectively is if the music takes us seriously because that’s where the weird humor is. I’m generally trying not to get goofy or funny in the score. Although at times, it gets lighthearted. I think the great thing about having actors at this level is oftentimes, a composer is brought in, and the director’s like, “Hey, can you fix this? We didn’t quite get it.” That never happens in these movies. We have this amazing all-star cast, and they’re doing these incredible performances. So really, often, in those types of scenes, my job is just let them do what they’re doing. Don’t try to put a hat on a hat. Just stay out of the way, and if anything, just tap into some of the stuff that’s just a little bit deeper below the surface.
Did you have more discussions about where you were going to pull back on the score because having music there just didn’t feel right?
That’s always talked about really early when Rian and I sit down and spot this. Rian and his editor [Bob Ducsay] have a pretty good idea already at that point of what scenes feel like they need music and what scenes don’t. But we watch it all through together. We’re talking about that, we’re analyzing it. Sometimes we’ll make adjustments as things are going along. But generally, Rian has a pretty good idea to begin with of we just want to let this be dry. But Rian is such a great collaborator. He is someone who knows very specifically where he’s going, but then creates a sandbox for you to play in. He’s not micromanaging. Rian very clearly sets the tone, and we talk about all of that at the beginning, but then he wants me to surprise him. Even down to where we’re going to have the music, what we want it to feel like, we have these very clear really marked-out sandboxes. It’s almost like a canvas. You don’t want an undefined canvas. When you sit down to do a painting, you want to know where the boundaries are. I feel like that helps push you even further. It’s the difference between saying go paint something and I don’t care how big it is, versus can you come up with a painting that’s this small? That feels like an exciting challenge to me. The movies are so precise and so structured that my canvas is very clearly defined when I start and that in and of itself is a really fun challenge.
You recorded this at Abbey Road, which is a place that I think resonates generationally — like murder mysteries — but differently depending on how you’ve become aware of its place in music history, and its notable relationship to The Beatles. What was it like recording there, and did you and Rian have any relationship to it prior?
Going to Abbey Road is almost like taking a pilgrimage. It’s a studio where some of the most amazing recordings in the world were created. And it’s the one studio that is famous to people who are not just musicians. So you bring a director to Abbey Road, chances are, that director is going to have some connection with it, where they’re excited to see this room where this was recorded or this room where that was recorded. For Rian and me, we grew up in a family that were huge Beatles fans. I remember when Rian and I were in high school, we spent like a night photoshopping the two of us into the back of the Abbey Road Beatles cover sitting on a broken car. So this studio has a lot of meaning to us. The thing that’s amazing about it is it is not a museum. So you go to Abbey Road and our engineer, Pete Carbon, was walking us through, and he pointed to the two mics at the front of the cello section, and said, “Oh, yeah, we call those John and Paul because they’re the vocal mics that John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] used, but they sound great on cello, too.” It’s this very operational studio. It’s not behind glass. It’s not a museum piece. It’s a functioning studio where we’re using the same gear that our heroes have used.
At the same time, we’re working with some of the best musicians in the world and in one of the greatest scoring stages in the world. So it’s a little bit of a pinch-me moment, but then you kind of have to turn that off because you’re there to make something fresh and new. In terms of relating to people generationally, I think my answer to that would be, I wouldn’t know the first place to start if I tried to think about how could I connect to and reach all these other people. So I think what you hope is the things that you love, maybe there will be other people out there that love that as well. And you get to be a little part of the history of this recording studio with all of these amazing things that have come before. It’s just about bringing your influences into something, when it gets interpreted through your weird brain, hopefully, it maybe becomes something a little bit new, with some rough edges and some heart in it. Then all you can hope for is that when we put it out into the world other people see what we love and what we’ve tried to say and that they connect with it.