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Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson used a 32-ft pipe organ to create suspense in ‘Sicario’

"Sicario" composer Jóhann Jóhannsson

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Director Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” is a drama about the drug war as it plays out across the U.S.-Mexico border. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, “Sicario” takes viewers into the trenches for a terrifying glimpse into the shadowy world of government agents, police corruption, torture and ruthless drug cartel bosses. Villeneuve and his editor, Joe Walker, use some innovative visual tricks to give the film its tense feel. But the movie’s maxed-out suspense wouldn’t be possible without its score.

For that, Villeneuve turned to someone he had worked with before, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who wrote the music for Villeneuve’s “Prisoners.” The Frame’s John Horn spoke with Jóhannsson about how he used music to amp up the stakes in “Sicario.”

Jóhannsson: I tried to communicate very directly with the listeners and tried to, you know, evoke emotions in a very direct way. I try not to obfuscate or to be to obscure or to be too cerebral. I like to work on a visceral, emotional level.

On the track from the "Sicario" score called “The Beast”

This is actually the first thing I wrote for the film. Denis [Villeneuve] sent me a rough cut of the film that he did without music. So he did the first cut without any music at all, no temp music. And I started working with a scene that is in the first third of the film, which is like a long helicopter shot.

I remember I did three or four different ideas for this scene which were all quite different. But this idea was the one that I was really excited about. And I was hoping that Denis would pick that one and I kind of knew he would. And it also involved the sound of the helicopter. Through the scene you can hear the helicopter blades slowly crescendoing with the cue. And so it’s almost like the helicopter becomes part of an instrument in the cue.

On collaborating with director Denis Villeneuve for “Sicario”

We did talk about, abstractly, that this needed to be music that comes from the depths of the earth somehow. That also it has a primal feel, something like war music. Denis talked about like, "subtle war music."

On the instrumentation in the “Sicario” score

[I automatically gravitate towards] this idea of things being quite visceral and affecting you physically in a way. For me that meant working with the lower end of the spectrum. Working with string basses, working with low woodwinds contrabassoons contrabass clarinets. And also working with drones. I recorded a lot of pipe organs [with] 32-foot pipes and things like that. [And I recorded] in a huge cathedral in Copenhagen actually.

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