Interview with Johan Söderqvist

Johan Söderqvist is the composer who created the marvelous score for the film Let the Right One In. Starting in 1991, he began scoring films and he has worked on literally dozens of films since then (you can you see the complete and ever-growing list on his web site, I have always felt that Let the Right One In was the result of planets aligning; a beautiful screenplay, an incredible director, talented young actors, and an amazing cinematographer all came to together to create a film without equal. Another planet that in this alignment was the score. The story of the film was told in stark, unsentimental visuals, leaving it to the music to carry on the emotional dialogue with the audience. The score manages to move from the delicate hopefulness of first love, to brittle, chilly sounds matching the film’s setting in Swedish winter. From full blown romantic love to heartbreak and loss.

A CD of the soundtrack can be purchased from Moviescore Media, and it may be purchased for download from the iTunes Music Store.

Johan was very friendly and accommodating when I contacted him. He was kind enough to answer questions that I had about his experiences working on the score for this film.

Your web site mentions that you have performed playing both jazz and folk music. Are these your primary musical influences?

I would say that maybe the most important thing for me as a film composer is that I come from improvised music, because it gives me the ability to improvise to a picture to find the musical feeling in the scenes.

But having said that, I think I’m really into any “sincere” music, no matter in what style.

Which of your influences are most apparent in this soundtrack (LTROI)?

I don’t know really. It’s a mixture of my ambient worlds combined with melodic themes. When Tomas (Alfredson) wanted to show me in what direction he thought the music should go, he was very open. He could show me some “cold” music & sounds – and even some big band stuff from the 60’s – only to give the right emotional direction. I really enjoyed this open approach towards the music.

Can you suggest some other music for people who would like hear pieces that represent the influences in this soundtrack?

I don’t really remember – sorry.

What I do remember is that they put my “old” film music into the film as temp while editing, and as I said earlier I do remember the Gil Evans piece from the 60’s.

I notice from your CV that you have been involved in more than half a dozen projects since Let the Right One In. Also, you had already been a busy and successful artist for years. Has the international success of LTROI had an impact on your career?

Yes it definitely has. It’s very rare that a Scandinavian film gets such an impact as LTROI got. So I’ve had many offers to go to different countries outside of Scandinavia to work since. Unfortunately I’ve had to say no to many because I’ve already been booked on films. I also think that some of the attention that I’ve got the last couple of years come from the fact that Susanne Bier, with whom I’ve worked for nearly 20 years, has been really successful with her last 3 films (Brothers, After the Wedding, & Things We Lost in the Fire). And her new film In A Better World that I also scored, will premiere at Toronto film festival later this year!

So you have now worked on a new Susanne Bier film? Is this your only current project or do you often have more than one project at the same time?

I try to have one at a time, but sometimes they do overlap.

How long does it take you to complete a typical soundtrack? How long for this one?

That is different from film to film. I would say that the optimal time would be 10-12 weeks but sometimes you have to do it in 4 weeks (and one of the films that I’ve made was made in 18 days). LTROI was really perfect. It was made from Sept. to Nov. 2007, in about 12 weeks. It’s about having the time to really get into the film in order to be able to get the right musical world to that specific film.

Are there some new directions that you would like to try in the future?

I always strive to find new directions and new “musical worlds” with every new film. Sometimes you succeed really well in doing this and sometimes not as well. The last 2 films – Susanne Bier’s In A Better World and Maria Sødahl’s Limbo – I’ve worked a lot with rhythm. And that feels new and interesting to me!

How did you get this job (LTROI)? Had you worked with Tomas Alfredson or EFTI before?

No, I had not worked with either Tomas or EFTI, but I think they liked my work on other films that I’d made, especially After the Wedding.

Had you read the novel before you wrote this score? If not, have you read it since?

I read it as soon as I knew that I was writing the score. And I loved it!! It’s such a great book.

How did the story come to you? Were you given a script, or did Tomas show you clips of the scenes where he wanted music, or did you have access to a finished cut? From the impeccable timing of some of the tracks with what is going on onscreen, I would guess that you at least had clips to view while you worked.

I always work very close to the film, so yes I had a finished cut to work to (It was one of these great times when the film was ready when I started working, so that I had a long time with the actual “locked” cut). I then see the movie a couple of times and then I try to not see it for a while, but just write themes and make sounds from the feeling that I remember from the film. It’s often good to not start to early to write directly against the film, but to try to grasp the underlying feeling of the pictures. So we (Tomas & I) spent some time just talking about the feeling of the film and trying out some of the sounds and themes that I’d made. And then later as we felt that we’d found a direction where we should go sound-wise, I started to fit the themes to the film and to write more scene after scene. The hard thing in film music is to be able to create a specific musical world that is really integrated into that film’s universe. Therefore we also worked very close with the sound designer Per Sundström (who’s made a fantastic sound for the film) to really integrate music and sound into one thing.

How closely did you work with Tomas? Did you come up with the musical phrases and run them by him before fleshing them out? Or did you go to him with mostly finished tracks?

Tomas and I worked pretty close. He would come out to my studio in the countryside of Stockholm for music meetings, and we talked about the film and the cues. I prepared songs and sketches that I would play for him, and then we talked about if they were ok or if they needed some changes. He was really inspiring to work with!

Tomas has mentioned in interviews that he had specific works of music that he would listen to that inspired his work on this film. He wouldn’t divulge to the interviewers what those works were (and I can respect that), but I’m wondering: Did he share those works with you in order to describe what he was looking for?

I don’t remember any specific music, but I do remember that he would find really cool ways to describe a musical feeling. Like the absence of sound in falling snow or the warmth in a Gil Evans big band song …

The soundscape of this film seems to place a great importance on the silence between sounds. My impression is that somehow your score manages to leave room for those silences even while it is playing. Am I interpreting it correctly? Is that something that you intentionally tried to achieve?

I feel that to give space and silence within or after a piece of music is often a strong emotional statement. Sometimes the space is more strong than the music itself. 🙂

How did you choose your palette of instruments (guitar and piano seem to figure prominently)? Did Tomas have a certain sound in mind that he wanted, or did you think they suited what you knew of the story?

For me, finding a films musical palette is one of the most important things in film music. Finding the film’s “sound”. I think that the most important sounds that I found for LTROI was the Bass waterphone. It has a very significant sound that’s both Icy and scary. I also made a lot of ambient sounds based on an electric guitar played with a bow, and loads of other sounds. Tomas wanted to get a balance between the “cold & scary” music and a more warm music. I think the piano and the guitar and the string orchestra add a lot of warmth to the score .

How did you come to choose the Bratislava Slovak National Symphony Orchestra to record this score? Had you worked with them before?

When I recorded LTROI I had just been in Bratislava once, recording a film by Tomas Vinterberg. But now (2010) I’ve made 8 films there! It’s a great place to record and a great orchestra.

Tomas has said, “…we, Johan Söderqvist and I, discussed that the music should emphasize the romantic parts of the film rather than the scary parts.” Did he express to you what emotions he wanted the music to portray for each scene? Or did he tell you, “Here is what is going on for the characters in this scene” and leave it you to decide on the emotional palette? Or did he just leave it all completely up to you?

We would talk about the scenes and the emotion of the scenes, and then I wrote songs for the different scenes that he often liked as they where, but sometimes wanted to change a bit.

How much did the visual imagery of the film impact your compositions? Were there any images in particular that affected you?

I think the pictures are fantastic in LTROI – it made it really easy to write music to the film. Hoyte [van Hoytema – the Director of Photography] & Tomas have made a stunning work! I have a separate strong visual memory for each of the songs in the film – but maybe the scene where Håkan drags the corpse in the snow, or maybe the scene when Eli climbs in to Oscar in his bedroom, or the picnic on the ice with the school class …

Based on the titles, the tracks on the CD seem divided between themes for situations and themes for characters. Which came first? Did you write themes for certain scenes and then the character themes evolved from them? Or was it the other way around?

That’s a tricky question that I really can’t answer … It kind of happens all at the same time once you’ve found the “musical world” of the film. So one thing leads to another …

There are at least two specific tracks that users at web site want me to ask about, and in fact I have some to add. Can you please comment on what your inspiration was and what emotions you were trying to convey in each piece?

“Oskar Strikes Back” – Tomas has said of this track “…it’s one of the few moments in the film where the music is really narrating the action rather than counteracting.” Was this a guiding principle for you – counteracting the action?

Again I have some problems to tell what I thought, because I really work hard NOT to think when I write music, just to do. I think that Tomas is right on the spot – the music in this scene is following the action in a way that most of the songs don’t do in the rest of the film.

“Eli’s Theme” – At least one user on my site has commented upon how most of the character themes start out with uncrowded arrangements, while Eli’s theme is fully fleshed out almost immediately at with a broad orchestral sound. Does this consciously represent a contrasting of the Eli character versus the other characters?

The theme comes in after Eli has killed Lacke, and at this point in the film it felt right to give it a warmer and bigger dress. The theme is also connected to the guitar theme “The Father”, that we’ve heard before in the film.

“The Father” – This track seems to convey a sense of sorrow or poignancy; the slow guitar duet with initially no backing accompaniment. Yet it is the character theme associated with Oskar’s father and it is used behind scenes that seem happy for Oskar. Am I correctly interpreting this track? Is this sort of emotional dissonance the ‘counteracting’ that Tomas had intended?

I think that the music often plays more on a deeper emotional level. I don’t think so much about characters but more about the pictures and the light and colours and so on. I also think the happiness in these scenes is “bittersweet”. He is a lonely boy …

“Oskar In Love” & “Then We Are Together” – I think of these pieces as sort of being Oskar’s theme. You are credited on the CD as being the pianist for these tracks. Did you choose the piano for these tracks because you identified with Oskar, or because you felt these were important enough that they required a familiar hand on a very familiar instrument?

I don’t remember specifically but what I do remember is the feeling I got when I played the piano and found the theme. It felt instantly right and Tomas loved it directly. It’s a very simple but pure theme. It’s also in one of my favourite scenes in the film, the scene where Oscar and Eli lay in the bed and he asks her if they can be a couple.

“Death of Håkan” – This track uses an altered form of the piano phrase from “Oskar In Love” and “Then We Are Together”. Were you specifically trying to draw a parallel between Håkan and Oskar? Did Tomas ask for such a parallel?

Once again – I don’t know. It’s all about intuition and emotion. 🙂 In some way it maybe binds the characters together Eli,Oscar and Håkan… Tomas liked it, but he didn’t ask for it.

Were there any scenes that you wrote something for that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film?

Not much, only a theme that originally was when Oscar comes to Eli’s apartment and she tells him that she’s a vampire.

Are there any scenes in the film that you would also like to have written something for?

No, I really think the music is in the right places now. It’s a well balanced soundtrack (ie sounds & music). Sometimes it’s really quiet (falling snow) and sometimes it’s loud and scary music +fx, so the sound in the film is really dynamic.

It seems like much has been made of your use of the bass waterphone in this soundtrack. It almost seems as though many people have found that to be the most interesting thing about it. Do you think too much has been made of that? Would this soundtrack have been possible without the waterphone?

Yes, definitely, I could have chosen other metallic or glassy sounds, to obtain the icy, cold feeling. Having said that, I think it was really fantastic to record and sample the Bass waterphone and also that Tomas liked it instantly.

In the musical world of LTROI there’s a balance and struggle between the warm, melodic & beautiful music and the icy, cold and scary (but still often kind of beautiful) music.

Thank you very much Johan, for putting up with my pestering and for providing fans of Let The Right One In with an insight into your marvelous score.

For those who wish to know more about Johan’s work and methods, there is an excellent interview with him at the Main Titles film music community web site. Also, you may discuss this score with other fans in here.