Taking a Deep Dive into the Eerie and Outworldly Soundtracks of Denis Villeneuve’s Films

Denis Villeneuve is arguably one of the most artistic, imaginative and visionary directors in Hollywood right now. He approaches each project with elegance and thoughtfulness, creating incredible worlds that are visual masterpieces. The stories he tells within these worlds almost always have a deeper meaning and a profound effect on the viewer. The way he combines grand-scale worldbuilding and cinematography with philosophical undertones is a skill not many can master, and the music he uses to convey the tension in his scenes underlines his desire to completely immerse the viewer.

Villeneuve’s latest installment, Dune, is the director’s biggest film in terms of scale, and the movie’s original score doesn’t shy away from absorbing us completely into this incredible world he managed to put on screen. He never fails to continuously raise the bar, whether he is showcasing breathtaking landscapes in Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, the inner turmoil of his characters in Prisoners and Enemy, or the nail-biting tension in Sicario. But how does the music in his films express so incredibly well the way he wants us to feel?

With this article, Cutting Room Music is taking a deep dive into the music of Denis Villeneuve’s three distinctive films: Dune, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. We’re looking at how the director and the composers who worked on these films managed to breathe life into these projects, and how the perfect manipulation of music makes viewers more engaged and invested, without them even realizing it.

Dune – Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer said in an interview with the New York Times that Dune was one of his most ambitious projects ever. The acclaimed composer has been fantasizing about scoring Dune ever since he first read Frank Herbert’s novel as a teenager, almost 50 years ago. He even turned down Christopher Nolan for Tenet in order to work on his dream project.

Zimmer worked with a handful of musical collaborators who sang, made music from banging and scraping metal, and even invented new instruments for the score. The movie’s soundtrack is Zimmer’s most unorthodox and most provocative project yet. He made use of synthesizers, bamboo flutes and Irish whistles, and even the sound of the desert in Utah to bring forth the outworldly sounds of Dune.

The combination of all these elements resulted in the sounds we all fell in love with during the movie. The weird, futuristic, and Saharan-esque soundtrack accompanies us throughout the entire film, tying us, the viewers, closer to this intergalactic civilization and their struggles – and of course, to the giant sandworms. The score can be described as spiritual, and it plays a key role in the narrative of the film.

Blade Runner 2049 – Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch

Another epic tale that takes place in space is Blade Runner 2049, a visual masterpiece that embraces the elements of outer space mystery and emptiness. The soundtrack, helmed by maestro Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, manages to tell a story of its own. Following up the original Blade Runner soundtrack must have been a daunting task for the composers, but they managed to deliver.

Benjamin Wallfisch told FACT in an interview that they tried to create a contemporary sound using 40-year-old technology. It was hard, but the process gave soul to their compositions. Zimmer added that Villeneuve’s films are often hard to describe using words, insisting that music is the only other language that can convey the intended message, and most importantly, the heavy feelings. 

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score accompanies Ryan Gosling’s “K” throughout the movie. Truth be told, it’s nearly impossible to imagine those breathtaking visual shots without the two composers’ incredible musical contribution.

Arrival – Jóhann Jóhannsson

The late Jóhann Jóhannsson crafted an impeccable work of art in the form of music for this global crisis science-fiction movie. Arrival is a story about alien contact, but also a deep, personal story about a mother and her child. In an interview with NPR, the Icelandic composer shared that he knew from the start that the score needs to move the audience and to have a “humanity” feel to it.

Arrival is dark, and to create that feeling of dread, Jóhannsson often used both conventional and non-conventional elements when producing the tracks. Strings, low and high horns, and woodwinds are present in some of the tracks, as well as eerie loops and overtone singing. Jóhann Jóhannsson was highly inspired by the shapes and signs that are conjured by the aliens throughout the movie when it came to crafting the soundtrack.

As communication, or the lack of it, is one of the main elements of the movie, the music sometimes serves as the bridge between Amy Adams’ character and the visitors.

Before you go…

It’s incredibly hard to put into words the atmosphere Denis Villeneuve and the composers he works with conjure on screen. These films take you on an epic visual and sound journey, often leaving you wanting more, and having more questions than answers when the credits start rolling. Villeneuve is a genius when it comes to making the viewer experience and feel certain emotions, and he strategically works with composers who can bring out the best in his work with music.

If you want to breathe life into your projects with music, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Cutting Room Music team. We’re a trio of passionate composers that can’t wait to work on new, creative and exciting projects.

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