Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood on scoring the brutal ‘You Were Never Really Here’

The Joaquin Phoenix-fronted film is out March 9

On March 9 Lynne Ramsay’s bleak but stunning You Were Never Really Here hits cinemas. The story of Joaquin Phoenix’s complex hitman, the score is the work of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, fresh from his Oscar nominated turn working on Phantom Thread. We spoke to Jonny about the film and well as what’s in store for the rest of 2018…

What appealed to you about working on the film?

Jonny: “I wrote to Lynne before finding out about the film and basically hustled her for a job. Asked her if she was working on anything, and if so, whether she needed music. She said she was working on a ‘noir story in NYC.’ I’m a huge fan of her films, and was just keen to be involved with her again. We worked together on her last one, We Need To Talk About Kevin, so I had a good ‘in’.”

It’s quite a brutal film – how did you go about making your score reflect that?

I had some string players (London Contemporary Orchestra) come to the Radiohead studio and be quite brutal with their instruments. Stings can do so much more than just be pretty…”.

Are you squeamish – did you struggle to watch some of the film’s more gruesome scenes?

I’m very squeamish yes – I’ve seen those scenes hundreds of times now, but I still flinch in a few places.”

Which part of the score are you proudest of?

There’s a cue called ‘Tree’ which is very tender – it’s used in the lake scene, and again in the credits. And some cues where I got to play along with the strings, on guitar and very violent cello. They got to the core of the film for me.”

How much guidance did you have from Lynne?

Lots. The original brief from her was a noir score. She gave loads of advice and helpful opinions: like with Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s like a partnership that serves the film and the story, rather than divisioned labour.”

Did you visit the set at all, or was everything done after the filming was finished?

“No, I came in after most of the filming was done. Probably a good thing – it made the story all the more believable. I can’t imagine visiting a set ever being helpful for writing a score.”

Were there any particular parts of the film you struggled with?

Getting the final cue right wasn’t easy: the end of the film needed some sort of resolution, without being triumphant. The recorders were the key, and the big fat synthesisers. The other headache was the orchestration. Working on paper is great, but it’s slow. Or anyway, I’m slow. Still, I’m too addicted to the process to get help. All those months preparing, and then suddenly one session with the players – it’s an excellent deadline to work towards. And, when you hear the real strings, you instantly forget the work figuring out harp pedals and viola harmonics. Instead, you just want to do it all again. It’s quite fun taking pains over that stuff, because even if it doesn’t always work, there are enough hits to get you hooked.”

What makes a good score, in your eyes – or should that be ears?

“Music’s a pretty great resource to have: you’re looking for the moments when the film and score combine to make something greater than the sum of their parts – to make both element better than they would be on their own. Sometimes it happens…”

You’re Oscar nominated now – does that mean you get to put your rates up for your next movie?!

Of course! Do you have Michael Bay’s number? Maybe some sad, atonal string music is exactly what Transformers 7 will need.”

Radiohead

What else are you up to this year?

Next is some Radiohead touring. Can’t wait to start it. First note of the first show is something I think about a lot.”

What would be your dream kind of movie to score?

“Sci-fi would be refreshing: something with no need to refer to the musical past/present. No reference to anything else. I think I’d enjoy that. I say sci-fi – but… maybe not Transformers.”