How Randall Dunn produced Jóhann Jóhannsson’s metal-influenced score for Mandy
Panos Cosmatos has carved out a new breed of revenge horror with his second feature. By subverting the genre film and injecting it with cinematic splendour, raw emotional depths and sonic finesse, Cosmatos blends art and artefact. With equal measures of sledge-hammer force and elegant ingenuity, Mandy – starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache – is sure to be one of the most divisive films of the year.
One of the critical layers in Mandy is the soundtrack by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Cosmatos felt an immediate connection after discovering they shared many of the same musical touchstones growing up. Mandy was one of the last projects Jóhannsson was working on before he tragically died in February this year.
Producer, engineer and musician Randall Dunn (whose debut solo Beloved is due out November 9th) co-produced the score and with a reputation for bringing out the emotion in stereotypically uncompromising music, it’s no surprise Jóhannsson chose Dunn. Known for his producing the blackest of black, ambient metal including Sunn O))), Wolves in the Throne Room, Anna Von Hausswolff and Earth, we talk with Randall Dunn about the making of the Mandy soundtrack.
How did you come to be involved in the production of the Mandy soundtrack?
I had been working with Jóhann on a few other projects. Through his conversations with Panos, luckily, he thought of me to help co-produce and bring the Mandy soundtrack to life.
At what point in the production did you start work? What was your brief and your first thoughts on the concept?
We started talking on February of 2017. We had been given pretty strong and specific ideas from Panos, who had been mentioning Queen’s Flash Gordon and Van Halen’s Sunday Afternoon at the Park. Panos had supplied a playlist of things he was inspired by. A few of the songs on that list were things I had worked on. I was huge fan of both Jóhann’s work, in particular with Arrival, and I loved Panos’ work on Beyond the Black Rainbow, so I was immediately in.
What was it like working with Jóhann in terms of processes and creative discussion? Had you worked with him much prior to Mandy?
I had worked with Jóhann on a record a few years earlier for a legendary Danish band called Sort Sol that I was producing. Jóhann was working on string arrangements for that record. I had been aware of his music prior to that as well.
Jóhann and I worked together directly and shared ideas and demos prior to recording. We were also preparing the sessions, personnel and places that we would make source material for the score. We talked a lot about what he didn’t want to do. Things to stay away from. We had a lengthy conversation about what era keyboards to involve and how to make them live in a new time period. There was a tremendous amount of pre-production and discussing instrumentalists. We used some of the ideas and some will remain a very incredible dream that didn’t quite work with the locations and budgets involved.
"We were looking for something familiar yet unplaceable"
Film music is something you’ve always been interested in. What was it like to work on your first feature film soundtrack and how did it differ from your expectations?
This was a very specific film with a super specific mood all under the guidance of Jóhann and Panos. I had an amazing and challenging time. It was harder and easier sometimes than I ever could have known.
I am very excited to do more. With a score, you create things in ways you would never do just sitting and making music for a record. To work with the amazing people involved in the score was a huge learning experience that I think I’ll be reflecting on for a long time.
You’ve said the Mandy soundtrack release is quite different from the film. What are some of the differences?
The release of the soundtrack and the film differ in some of the music chosen. The soundtrack release contains different mixes and versions of some of the music in the film. I think the two are very complementary, and after all, they must serve slightly different purposes. Yair Glotmann and Pepijin Caudron did great work in selecting the music for the soundtrack release from all of the material created and from some of my mixes.
Jóhann’s sound is instantly recognisable to those who know and love his work, and it’s been said that he was relishing the opportunity to try something new. While I can certainly hear elements of his ‘voice’ in this soundtrack, I can also hear a lot which rings true as your voice. What did you bring to the sound of Mandy?
Jóhann and I discussed the pieces that I mixed and co-produced at length. We were looking for something familiar yet unplaceable. He really let me explore sounds that I felt could contribute, from synths to drums and the hazy chorus guitars.
I contributed to the production and sound of the score in a way that is audible, but you can also hear the voice and style of some of the people that I work with often. For example, I really love the feeling of the guitars from William Hayes and Stephen O’Malley. The way we worked on the inclusion of the guitars on this score still really fascinates me.
I was also responsible for producing and bringing to life the folk song that Jerimiah Sands plays with my good friend Milky Burgess. That was a piece made in addition to Jóhann’s score and was really fun; more like musical acting. We wanted the right feeling and Panos came to the studio to work with us. That will forever be one of my favorite sessions.
This soundtrack is being regarded as important because it’s some of the last works of Jóhann’s. What do you think about the significance of this soundtrack, both as a legacy and a cultural artefact?
The soundtrack lives inside the film in a very deep way. Together, they are something special that people seem to be responding to. I feel very grateful I was involved.