Film composer Johannes Ringen is known for his eclectic approach to music. His recent work includes an action-packed score for Netflix’s No 1 original film Troll, dark ominous music for the disaster movie The Quake, and a symphonic score for the quirky Viking comedy show Norsemen on Netflix.
After moving to Los Angeles, Ringen has contributed music and/or arrangements to major Hollywood productions such as Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, directed by James Wan, and The Fate of the Furious, as well as TV shows such as MacGyver and Hawaii 5-0.
Ringen is a graduate from the prestigious Film Scoring Program at the University of Southern California. When not composing, he can be found at flea markets with his family, secretly hoping to find unique instruments previously unknown to mankind.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
To elevate the film. All departments of a film productions have certain superpowers, and I’m there to serve the movie through writing the music. The score can do a myriad of things when you break down a film scene by scene. I think people would be surprised if they attended a director/composer meeting, because we barely discuss the music itself. The conversation is almost entirely about the film, and how we can utilise music to tell the story in the best possible way. We discuss moods, emotions, characters, atmospheres, pacing etc. It’s all about storytelling, really.
One of your recent scores is for the movie Troll which is streaming now on Netflix, how did you become involved on the project?
I had been working with the director, Roar Uthaug, on a few of his previous movies (in the background as a composer’s assistant). Since then I had moved on from the assistant position, and worked on pretty successful movies on my own. Roar is a brilliant director and a breeze to work with, so when I heard he was making a movie about trolls, I simply let him know that I would love to score his movie. Fortunately, he was onboard with that idea.
In your score for Troll you weave in elements of Greig’s The Hall of the Mountain king, was this something that you thought of doing, and did the producers have any specific ideas or instructions regarding how the music should sound or where it should be placed?
When we started to conceptualise the score, the director and I tried to figure out if there was anything musical related to trolls that we could tap into. Both of us being Norwegians, we knew a lullaby about trolls that most Norwegians know, and of course Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. The latter is known way outside of Norway, so we went with that. We thought it would be fun to sprinkle bits and pieces from it throughout the movie – without being too “on the nose”. The theme reveals itself at the end, but I think 9 out 10 who watches Troll won’t recognise any similarities before you simply can’t miss it.
You were born in Norway, did you study music there, and what musical education did you receive?
I actually didn’t study music formally before I moved to LA, and started studying film scoring at USC.
Were any of your family members musical as in performers or composers, and what are your earliest memories of any kind of music?
No one in my family were professional musicians, but we had a piano at home. I had to take piano lessons, and I remember very well playing piano with my granddad. I can still play those pieces.
Was music for film and TV something that you had always wanted to pursue as a career, or were you attracted to music and then moved into film scoring as your career unfolded?
I grew up in Lillehammer, a small city most known for hosting the Winter Olympics in 1994, and later on the Netflix show “Lilyhammer”. We had only one TV channel when I was a kid, so I don’t think I even knew writing music for film and TV was a profession. I played in bands, and even toured, but I didn’t particularly like being on stage, and I didn’t like playing the same songs over and over. A friend of mine studied to be a director, and he needed some music for his short film, and he called me. I loved every minute of it, and hasn’t looked back since. Everything just clicked right there and then!
Troll is a fusion of both symphonic instrumentation and electronic elements, but I think it remains melodic and thematic, do you feel that themes for characters or locations are important within film music?
If clarifying characters and locations is important, I think character themes and themes for different locations should be considered, yes. It’s important to analyse and try to figure out what is really needed of the score, and how it can contribute to the overall experience. It’s easy to default into writing character themes, and use world instruments whenever the action takes place on some exotic location. Not to say that it’s wrong, but it could be that a different approach would serve the movie just as well, or even better. For Troll, the director wanted to highlight the adventure aspect of the story, and I think that translates well into a melodic and colourful score. On the other hand, it’s a monster movie, so it has to be somewhat hard hitting. Balancing all these considerations can be a fun challenge for the composer.
How many live players did you have for Troll?
A 60-70-piece orchestra with a reinforced brass section. But I also recorded a lot of the featured instruments (Hardanger fiddle, nyckelharpa etc.) as overdubs in a smaller studio setting.
You worked on Avengers the Age of Ultron, and other big movies such as the Fast and Furious franchise, what was your role on these?
I did additional music/arrangements on those movies. I just got out of USC, and before I knew it I was working on those giant blockbusters. Quite an experience for someone who just got out of school.
You are now based in LA how do facilities and the way in which movies are scored differ between the United States and Norway?
I still work both in the US and Scandinavia, and the difference isn’t between the continents as much as it is the size of the projects. In the states, the budgets are generally higher – and with that comes more politics, and more corporate culture.
The music from Troll is available now on digital platforms, were you involved in selecting what music would go onto the release and will there be a CD release?
Netflix trusted us on putting it together ourselves. The director and the script writer love film scores, and I think they came up with every single song title on the album. I don’t think Netflix do CD releases, but I’m not sure to be honest.
What composer’s either in film music or classical music and also artists would you say have influenced you or inspired you?
I listen to as many genres as possible for the pure joy of it. I consider myself a music lover, and I have no boundaries whatsoever when it comes to what I listen to. Even if it doesn’t appeal to me, I try to find qualities in the music, and try to figure out why someone finds it enjoyable. I have a lot of fun with it! In my film work, the movie itself is the biggest influence.
In 2016 you worked on a TV series entitled Norseman, this was 18 episodes, do you approach a series such as this in a different way as opposed to scoring a feature?
It’s not that different, but there is more re-use of material to cover that many episodes in such short amount of time.
You also have worked on many short films, is it more difficult to establish a musical identity when working on movies that have a short duration?
Absolutely. When scoring a feature film there is so much more room to let things develop.
How many times do you like to see a project before you begin to formulate any ideas about the style or sound that you think will enhance the film or TV project?
Sometimes I’m onboard even before they start to shoot, and that is my preferable way to work. If I’m approached later when they have a rough cut for me to look at, I often ask if I can watch a version without any music, and I find that tremendously helpful. If the picture editors have put a lot of temp tracks in there, it limits my imagination. However, when I start working to picture, I can watch the scenes quite a few times.
Do you conduct your film and TV scores, and do you ever perform on any of them?
I did a fair share of conducting when I studied at USC, but conducting really is a profession on it’s own. It is generally better for the project if I’m in the control room communicating with director and the producers if any questions or feedback comes up. I do perform on most my scores; percussion, guitars.
Do you orchestrate all of your film scores, and do you consider orchestration an important part of the composing process?
That’s a good question. I think what “orchestration” means in context of film scoring has changed a lot over the last 25+ years. Nowadays everyone has heard a surprisingly pretty decent computer version of the score many times already before the recording session, so in a way the music is already orchestrated. The director and the producers have already approved the computer version, so you’d run the risk of getting into trouble if you go too far in either direction. My process is that I work in the computer, and everything is split out between the instrument groups in my sketches. Once a piece is approved, I then hand it off to my orchestrator who cleans it up, writes out any shorthand I may have in the demo, and correct any errors etc. He and his team makes sure everything looks great on paper, before it ends up on the stands in front of the musicians.
Do you think that a good score can help a not so good movie
It can definitely help a mediocre movie, but no way it’s gonna save it completely in my humble opinion.
There are a few of your credits that are for additional music, how does this work, is it a case of the composer has moved onto their next project and cannot write any more and if producers want extra cues you then step in?
I’ve done quite a lot additional music, and I usually bring one additional writer onboard per project myself – unless the schedule is very comfortable (which is rare). I normally bring the additional writer in late in the process to help tie up loose ends etc. Film scoring is a race against the clock, so typical assignments for the additional writer are tasks that are very clear and concise, but takes time to do. For instance take a theme I’ve written, and arrange it for a new scene. I still have the full creative responsibility of course, so I normally give a few notes and fixes before I greenlight the piece, or even do tweaks. It’s all about getting to the finish line in time. After working on those gigantic American movies, I realised that you need a team to survive, and I mean “survive” in the truest sense of the word. It can get pretty intense before the deadline 🙂
What is next for you, if you can tell us that is?
I’ve been working on a show called Captain Fall Guy with the directors from Norsemen. It’s been a lot of fun! I’m not 100% sure when it’s released, but I think between Q1 and Q2 this year.
Many thanks to composer for answering my questions, and for his time and patience.