Director James Marsh pays tribute to composer Jóhann Jóhannsson: 'He was a genius'
When news of the death of composer and musician Jóhann Jóhannsson broke on Saturday, it stunned music and film communities. Jóhannsson is known to film lovers primarily through his many beautiful scores for films such as Prisoners, Arrival, Sicario and The Theory of Everything, the last two earning him back-to-back Oscar nominations. But James Marsh, The Theory of Everything‘s director, is quick to note the Icelandic musician should be remembered for so much more. “He was a genius,” Marsh says. “The headline shouldn’t be ‘The Theory of Everything‘ composer has died’ it should be ‘Brilliant, innovative experimental musician and composer has sadly passed away.”
The two men had become close over the years, and Marsh says he is still trying to wrap his brain around the reality of Jóhannsson’s death. “It was very unexpected,” Marsh says. “There’s the shock of it and the fact of it and both are hard to process quickly. There was so much more work to do and could have been done. That’s something to regret on his behalf: He’s lost his life with so much more to do. What we’ve lost is not just a person, but a whole loss of new work we could have really enjoyed.”
Marsh and Jóhannsson had met while both working on the 2010 Danish documentary, A Good Life, but he’d already been acquainted with Jóhannsson’s music as a fan of his albums, 2006’s IBM1401, A User’s Manual and 2008’s Fordlandia. “We met and got on very well. We kept in touch,” remembers Marsh. “When Theory of Everything came along I wanted him to do it because I knew the score could really take the film somewhere. You know, you can damage or elevate a film with a score. It’s a delicate process and you have to be careful who you work with, like in any creative collaboration.” Marsh says that Jóhannsson always knew intuitively what the film needed. “He always grasped the intentions. He’s a brilliant [script] reader.” The two also worked together on Marsh’s Colin Firth-starring biopic drama The Mercy, released in the UK earlier this month.
Marsh says there are other things about Jóhannsson to mourn beyond his talent. “He was a really nice person,” he says. “That doesn’t always track with being very talented. He was a pure person and a very nice person. Nice sounds like a soft word but that’s what he was; decent, kind. Those are the things that are really valuable in a collaboration. And kindness is a virtue you don’t find much in my business, I can tell you.”
Marsh says he was touched by the outpouring of grief he saw on social media over the weekend. “I was really surprised and really pleased to see it, so many different people who loved his music. I wish he’d known it, I really do. I don’t think he did. But I was really pleased so many people could see what we’ve lost. I lost a friend and someone I was very fond of. The world’s a worse place for it, for sure.”
However Marsh did find solace in listening to his friend’s creations. “When it all began to sink in, I listened to his music—and there he was. His personality, his brilliance and even his kindness is in that music. I found it incredibly consoling. Listening to his beautiful music made me feel better.”
Below are some links to Jóhannsson’s work. (Do check out “The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black” which Marsh refers to as a requiem. “That’s what I really was listening to. It’s very emotional and consoling at the same time.”)