It isn’t often that a film composer consults with the star of the movie about his theme. But it happened on “Nightmare Alley,” as Bradley Cooper attended some of the recording sessions for Guillermo del Toro’s spooky noir film.
“We did the piano sessions in L.A., on an old Motown Steinway,” says composer Nathan Johnson (“Knives Out”). “Guillermo and Bradley were both able to be there, which was really nice, and it was great to look over and see his response.”
The piano is central to Johnson’s score, essentially the voice of Cooper’s character Stanton Carlisle. “He actually had really great notes,” adds Johnson. “It’s such a rare thing to hear the perspective of the person that you’re trying to embody.”
At one point, Johnson recalls, Cooper suggested that the piano enter a bit later than planned, so as not to telegraph a story point too early. “And we were like,`You’re so right, let’s just hold off for half a second.'”
Johnson’s score adds to the moody ambiance of del Toro’s period piece about Stanton, a con man who goes from a carnival sideshow to posh hotel performances along with his sidekick Molly played by Rooney Mara before getting mixed up with a psychoanalyst Lilith (Cate Blanchett) who has an agenda of her own.
The composer was fascinated by Carlisle as “a character that essentially never changes. He puts on masks, presents himself to the world as different, and starts conning people. And by the end, we realize, this is the same dude that we started the movie with.” So he starts the score with a single piano note.
“And then that piano note repeats and becomes a motif. We go to the carnival and start bringing in other textures and flavors. We go to Buffalo, and it becomes this lush beautiful score, but that note is incessantly there. Sometimes we bring in dissonances, sometimes it’s very harmonious. And by the end of the movie, we strip everything away and we’re left with that exact same note that we started with.”
Johnson felt that each main character needed her own theme: Lilith, “an odd rhythmic feel, with complex string harmonies”; and Molly, “an innocence that hopefully breaks your heart.”
He had just five weeks to write about an hour of music, played by a 65-piece London orchestra. “Guillermo has this beautiful brutality in his filmmaking,” Johnson says, “and it’s really a treat to get to score those moments.”