How Thom Yorke came to score his first movie, a remake of cult classic Suspiria

by Helen Barlow / 08 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke. Photo/Getty Images

When the reticent frontman of art-rock giants Radiohead, Thom Yorke, said yes to scoring his first movie, it meant facing the media spotlight he’s done his best to avoid. 

Forget Lady Gaga – Thom Yorke was the hottest ticket interview-wise at the Venice Film Festival. The media-shy Radiohead frontman felt obliged to speak to selected journalists because he has finally composed his first movie soundtrack, for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, a loose remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal Italian horror film set in a ballet school. The new film stars Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz.

What took him so long? “I know, right,” says Yorke, who has been the voice and main songwriter for Radiohead since the influential British band formed in 1985. “But I don’t f---ing know.”

Surely he gets offers? “No, these are the first people really crazy enough to think I could do it,” says the softly spoken Englishman. “The only other people who have ever asked me – and I have a joke with my friend Ed Norton about this – was for Fight Club. But I was too strung out at that point as I’d just come off the OK Computer tour and I couldn’t even think straight, let alone do a soundtrack.”

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who has composed the music for every Paul Thomas Anderson film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood and won an Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread, offered advice. “Mostly, Jonny was taking the piss out of me because he knows how I work,” Yorke chuckles. “There’s a level of chaos that I go with. Jonny’s a little more methodical, but I’ve been watching him do this for years, so I sort of understood – but not really. He gave me a few tips: ‘Work in the abstract and don’t work to the screen because that’s not what you’re used to.’ He also said to work to the script before they start sending stuff, and in about three weeks I got most of the core ideas for where it would go.”

Yorke is a horror-movie fan. “During the OK Computer period, when I was struggling somewhat, I would sit at the back of the bus on my own watching The Exorcist,” he says, laughing.

The original Suspiria used music by Italian prog-rock band Goblin. In recent years, the group have toured and played the soundtrack live during screenings of the cult flick, which included a performance at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2013.

“I really like Goblin’s music but I didn’t know the original film because I’m not a big film buff,” says Yorke. “I watched it several times and it was obvious to me that they did it really fast in a really intense way. It’s really extreme and of the time. It’s the narrative of that film, which is almost like an extended rock video, whereas this is an entirely different thing. In a way, it was a relief to go into the completely different world that Luca was trying to create.”

Guadagnino had written “a nice letter” to Yorke and they first met in Turin. “Normally in these conversations I’d go, ‘Nah, not me’, but there was something in the way they were speaking about it and the confidence they had that I could do what they were looking for that made me stop and think.”

Yorke also responded to Guadagnino’s Italian eccentricity. “There were comedy moments through the whole process. Luca came to me early on, ‘Darlink, I need something for sabbath [a witches’ incantation scene], but it needs to be in German and I need it next week,” Yorke recalls.

Musically, he didn’t want to be influenced by the sounds of 1977. “I wanted to look previous to that, to Krautrock, Tangerine Dream, early synthesiser stuff. There was a sort of freedom and energy that was obvious in that period.”

Yorke, who has recorded two solo albums outside his band’s nine studio albums, has found a new freedom in performing of late. On stage at a recent solo concert in Milan, he was clearly enjoying himself. “Performing is now a form of celebration,” he says. “Before, I was never comfortable with the idea that I am a performer, and that sounds stupid, but I grew up with a lot of bands who I felt would resist that. Then I realised it’s sort of not true. One of my biggest heroes is Michael Stipe and he’s a natural performer all the time.”

Playing solo takes some adjustment. “I’m just starting to figure it out because I suddenly find myself on the stage and there is nobody around. It’s a bit like theatre, but I’m not an actor.”

And being part of a movie publicity machine has proved daunting. “It’s like pulling teeth to come here; it’s not my world. I feel like a fish out of water.

“I’m here because I’m really proud of what we did and the music we’ve created, and I’ve forced myself into a place I would never normally choose to go. I’d prefer to be outside. Inside it’s quite scary.”

He says the secret of his career has been to keep them guessing and himself nervous about where the music was taking him – and doing the film fits that plan.

“I’m unable to do what people want me to do. It feels like a curse, but it’s a blessing. I get nervous when it’s easy.

“The whole point of choosing to do the film in the first place was because I’m out of my comfort zone. There’s a Bowie quote about how, if you feel comfortable in what you’re doing, you’re in the wrong place. You have to veer out somewhere where you don’t quite know what’s happening. That, to me, is the secret.”

The soundtrack features Yorke’s teenage son, Noah, on drums. He and his sister, Agnes, lost their mother, Yorke’s former partner, university lecturer Rachel Owen, to cancer in 2016.

“They’re great,” the 50-year-old says of his kids. “They’ve grown up with my life so have a good understanding of how this all works. We’ve figured it out.”

If Suspiria has given Yorke a chance to create something playfully scary and psychedelic, he’s also maintaining his serious and political side with the release of an instrumental single and a striking video entitled Hands off Antarctica for a Greenpeace campaign for a sanctuary in the icy continent. “There are some places on this planet that are meant to stay raw and wild and not destroyed by humanity’s footprint,” Yorke said in a statement. “This track is about stopping the relentless march of those heavy footsteps. The Antarctic is a true wilderness and what happens there affects us all. That’s why we should protect it.”

The Suspiria soundtrack album and the movie are out now.

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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