From Radiohead to the Oscar-Nominated ‘Phantom Thread’: Jonny Greenwood on His Musical Process

The composer will be in attendance at the Oscars on March 4.

Jonny Greenwood
Photo by Shin Katan

Radiohead guitarist and film composer Jonny Greenwood, who has done little to promote his Oscar-nominated score for “Phantom Thread,” will attend both the ceremony and a live-to-picture concert presentation of the film on March 2, Variety has learned.

However, he is not expected to attend a Feb. 28 Oscar concert at Disney Hall, at which the Los Angeles Philharmonic will play a suite from his score for the Paul Thomas Anderson film. The other four composers — Carter Burwell, Alexandre Desplat, John Williams and Hans Zimmer — are slated to attend and portions of their scores will be performed.

The March 2 film-with-live-music presentation sold out so quickly that promoters Wordless Music and Spaceland have scheduled a second show at midnight, also at downtown L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel. Robert Ames will conduct the London Contemporary Orchestra in Greenwood’s complete score (along with the classical excerpts by Brahms, Schubert, Faure and Debussy, also heard in the film).

Variety was one of just two publications to which Greenwood granted interviews late last year as “Phantom Thread” was first screened. Excerpts were published in the print edition on Dec. 11. The complete exchange follows:

You and Paul Thomas Anderson have done four films together. When did he approach you about “Phantom Thread” and did he have ideas about what the music should be like?
Yes, this is the fifth if you include “Junun” (a 2015 documentary about making a record in India). He asked me over a year ago. We talked a lot about ’50s music – what was popularly heard then, as well as what was being written/recorded. Nelson Riddle and Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings were the main references. I was interested in the kinds of jazz records from the ’50s that toyed with incorporating big string sections – Ben Webster made some good ones – and focus on what the strings were doing rather than the jazz musicians themselves. As well, I looked at what classical music was most popular amongst that generation.

What, in the most general sense, did “Phantom Thread” need, musically? Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) isn’t really a romantic character, and yet there is a love relationship here. Talk about your overall approach.
For Reynolds, I decided if he ever listened to music, it’d be loads of Glenn Gould. Lots of slightly obsessive, minimal baroque music. I couldn’t imagine him listening to much jazz. So as well as the grandly romantic music for the story, there could be more formal music for him. Those were the two contrasting strands. It was very enjoyable writing the baroque stuff – I love that kind of music, it’s so satisfying – and it’s one of the few things I learnt to do at school. As well, Paul often referred to vampire stories – there’s certainly an element of that to the tale – the village girl lured to the big house, so some of the cues are a little darker.

Much of the score seems to be for piano and strings. Why that combination? Why was that the right sound for the film?
It was the Ben Webster thing: jazz piano (i.e., upright piano) meeting lots of strings. And it meant we could use the piano as the common ground between the romantic music and the formal, slightly more buttoned-up themes that suited Reynolds.

You also seem to use smaller forces — solo piano, sometimes string quartet, or a small string section. Where did that material work best?
The smaller groups (and solo players) work like close-ups: not necessarily to accompany visual close-ups, rather they focus your attention on the individuals and make you feel directly engaged with the characters. The bigger orchestral things often worked best for drawing you back to see the bigger situation – though again, regardless of the scale of visual shot. I’m sorry — it’s very unhelpful reaching for visual metaphors when describing film music, but sort of inescapable!

I’m also curious about the piano. Were you after a specific sound, and did that require a specific kind of piano, or possibly a way of recording the piano that lent itself to a very individual sound?
I love the sound of practice pianos – they have felt draped between the hammers and the strings, so you can soften the sound to nearly nothing. Useful for not disturbing neighbors, less practical for recording: you get lots of mechanical clatter. I enjoy that about them, though. It’s like Glenn Gould’s quiet singing/moaning, which accompanies most of his recordings – you’re reminded that it’s not clean, clinical samples that you’re hearing, it’s a person and a big unwieldy mechanical box.

Did you need to acknowledge the period or the place in any way with the music?
I guess I wanted it to sound like it could have been written and recorded then. Lots of the temporary titles for the cues referenced Bill Evans, Glenn Gould, Nelson Riddle – ridiculous over-reach, I know, but that’s what I was listening to. Paul also wanted lots of it to sound very English — though in fact the ’50s were quite a twee period in English music — lots of orchestral writing influenced by folk-music, which was’t right at all for a London fashion designer. So I went instead to the music that was popular then, or could have been owned/enjoyed by the characters.

Did you write recurring themes in the traditional sense for characters or situations? Or was it more about striking the right mood for individual scenes?
It was scene to scene, mostly, though one recurring plot in the story acquired the “Phantom Thread” theme as a way to tie it together.

Did I notice a cimbalom at one point?
Yes, you’re right. Paul was keen for there to be an un-English, European color to that one cue. Alma is Luxembourg-ish, and though that’s hardly eastern Europe, we thought the cimbalom could be a gesture towards that. It plays a version of the baroque theme that recurs in the film a few times.

How challenging was this assignment by comparison with your other films for Paul?
The romance in the film is all decidedly sincere, so the music had to be as well – but it couldn’t cross into pastiche either, or be in any way ironic. It took a long time to figure out how do do that, so I guess that part of it was pretty hard. Nor could it really be overly atonal/microtonal, which is always where I’d want to steer any score if I can. Not much romance in [20th-century avant-garde composer Krzysztof] Penderecki though, great though it is. Instead, it was mostly about writing genuinely romantic music for Paul’s peculiar story.

The end credits suggest that you used the Royal Philharmonic, the London Contemporary Orchestra and a string quartet. Why three ensembles? Were they needed at different times during the process?
It’s just about having more than one scale to work with. For all that 32 violins in unison is beautiful, and like no other sound, I still find solo strings really affecting.

How large was your largest orchestra? Late in the film there seems to be a pretty healthy string section, and some powerful percussion.
Sixty strings was the largest, including eight basses. Ridiculous — the biggest I’ve ever been allowed to use. I’m a fan of all those ’60s and ’70s recordings of Baroque music that are totally inauthentic – orchestras far too large and romantic playing Bach and Vivaldi. They’re kind of frowned on now, because that music was never intended to be performed with hundreds of players. But they sound glorious to me. Talking of glorious, Ricardo Muti’s recording of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” is a good place to start if anyone’s curious.

The film contains several classical pieces. Were you involved in choosing them? Did your score need, in any way, to be similar in style to those pieces?
The prominent source cues are by Brahms, Schubert and Debussy: it’s always a relief when you don’t need to pastiche the temporary cues — and anyway, that music’s perfect. Paul hears lots of classical music. He knows all that stuff, and rarely needs me to suggest anything. There was the very prominent Brahms Violin concerto in “There Will Be Blood,” after all.

How do you and Paul work together? Do you create mock-ups or demos in your studio that Paul hears (and maybe even temps the film with)? How much music is there (of yours) and how long did the entire process take?
For this, I sat at the piano and played him some suggested themes. These were turned into a whole body of work for him to draw from, and to request longer, shorter, or faster versions and variations. Some cues were written specifically to scenes, others were just sketches of the characters, or of the story. There’s about an hour and a half of music in the final film. When I told Robert Zeigler [who conducted the score] he just said “That’s not a soundtrack, that’s a musical!” So yes, lots of music, half of it unused. But I know I’m pretty lucky to work on films like this, where there’s so much scope for developing a score over such a long time. Real soundtrack composers are under far more pressure, and have much less freedom than I do.