Red Stewart chats with Austin Wintory about John Wick Hex…
Austin Wintory is an American composer who has been working in the video game, film, and television industries since the mid-2000s. He is best known for his scores for games like Flow, Journey, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and Abzû. His latest video game project was the title John Wick Hex, based off the popular film franchise of the same name, from developer Bithell Games and publisher Good Shepherd Entertainment.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Mr. Wintory, thank you for taking the time to speak with me sir. One of my dreams as a journalist is to be able to interview every Assassin’s Creed composer, since it’s my favorite franchise. So thank you again.
Yeah, it’s great!
Now I know we’re here to talk about John Wick Hex, the latest video game you worked on, but I was hoping I could ask you a couple of questions regarding Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, if you wouldn’t mind.
Of course. Wherever you want to go.
Last October, it was exactly four years since Syndicate came out, which is more than enough time to look back on it. And I definitely feel it’s very underrated because it was smashed between the rushed launch that was Unity and the RPG rebirth that we saw with Origins. And so I feel the game is under a lot of people’s radars, and that extends to the score. It’s a wonderful score: emotional, impressionistic, and quiet and loud when it needs to be.
But one thing I was surprised to see is that there aren’t dedicated themes to Evie or Jacob. You have of course Bloodlines and Frye Family, that are homages to both, but most of the rest of the OST is thematic or mission-based. So I’m wondering, looking back, what was the reason behind not giving a dedicated character theme for each of the protagonists? Or was it decided early on that, because they’re both playable characters, it would make better sense to do it for both of them at the same time?
Yeah, so it definitely was a conscious choice, and that very last sentence of yours kind of gets to the reason why. From a writing standpoint, to me themes are always about ideas: they’re about archetypes or metaphors or some purpose, and I’m less interested in the idea of themes that are tied in a very literal way to say location or time period or a character or anything like that. For me, themes are supposed to be about subtext and the emotional evolution.
And so, when looking at it through that, yeah Jacob and Evie are basically the same character- they’re two sides of the same coin, because the whole point of them emotionally is the way they grow together, this relationship with their father, and the way they come together. So because we’re not exploring inner truths with one of them [and not the other], their arc is a shared arc. The only point of a theme is to be able to track those arcs, track that development.
So the idea wasn’t about the literal aspect of them both being playable, but the fact that they are both playable. And, in general, their story is one of how they have a sibling unity as a two-headed person. It was about that journey, not like, oh “Jacob learns the valuable lesson X,” and, completely unrelated to that, “Evie learns valuable lesson Y.” It was against the degree and the necessity that would justify a theme in my estimation. We wanted to give them a single theme that could encapsulate both, as well as their relationship with their family, as you learn playing the game.
That’s an interesting take on the concept of a theme, because you look at movies for example right, like superhero movies; each superhero has their own theme, and they’re consequently very character-driven. But for a video game where you’re spending an elongated amount of time with a character, it definitely makes more sense to do what you’ve done, which is make it more about the shared story and the ultimate destination that the characters go, not necessarily giving each character their own leitmotif.
To me, the idea of a leitmotif is actually a kind of shallow concept that’s taken too literally. Because if some old character walks on screen, film or game, and your response is to say “hey, here they are musically, also walking out alongside them,” what have you actually added? Because we already see them on screen, hear them talking, see them doing whatever they’re doing, and the music is just literally duplicating that; it isn’t actually justifying itself. You may as well have no music in my opinion there. The goal is to add something that only music can add, and that’s some kind of subtext, some kind of meaning.
I remember something my agent once told me about John Barry’s James Bond music, and let me see if I can remember how he phrased it, because it was a wonderful little statement, but it was something like “John Barry’s James Bond music didn’t tell us that Bond was a spy and elusive killer, it told us how fast his car drove,” or something like that.
It was all about the style, which is much more the subtext. We can look at Bond head-on and see that kind of ruthless assassin, but we know that he’s not just that, you can’t boil him down to just that. The theme is about bringing out and heavily amplifying that other aspect of his character. And I see that as being kind of the purpose of themes.
But anyway, I digress.
No absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t actually thought of that, and the comparison to John Barry’s theme, as iconic as it is.
Yeah, here’s another piece of future thought on that subject, which is I also would say there’s no purpose to a theme unless the theme is going to evolve. And so if the theme is just going to repeat itself every time, and we don’t get any sense of trajectory, then all it’s doing is just, again, reminding us “oh, this is that person, oh this is that city, or that planet, or that whatever.” And so that’s also why I didn’t do any overt themes for any of the villains in Syndicate, because they don’t go anywhere. They serve as a vehicle for Jacob and Evie to make their next mistake, but it’s not like they’re undergoing their own evolution as characters. Therefore, I didn’t see the purpose in them having their own themes.
So the closest I came for that was that, anytime you were dealing with the bigger picture of the sort of ruthless industrialists, no matter which particular villain we’re talking about, I approached it with a kind of religious sound, because I thought that that would be more interesting; give them an almost ecclesiastic vibe, but not try to capture that with any specific melody. Because that can then channel it into areas that are not directly a part of them. For example, one of the side missions in the game is the liberation of a child labour factory, and those are always floored with a kind of religious cathedral quality on purpose, which is intentionally a morbid juxtaposition.
Anyway, themes, to me, justify their existence to the extent that they are mutating and evolving and telling us something about the character that they are portraying.
No, absolutely. And I remember those parts of the game, the child labor factories, it was very depressing yet memorable music you created for those sections!
You mentioned the industrialization aspect of the game, and it’s interesting that the setting is Victorian England, which musically was known for its ballads and folk songs and chamber music. But it’s also a setting that, from a contemporary standpoint, has been the basis for the steampunk genre. And we saw the game somewhat embrace that with the industrial revolution backdrop, the rope launchers the twins use, the giant train, some of the gear mechanism puzzles, and so forth. But the score itself is very firmly based in that classical, orchestral sound – I don’t think I detected any extensive synths the way I did with previous ACs like Unity and Rogue.
I’m curious, was there ever any consideration on your part to throw in some strong synthesizers to create something that sounded like steampunk tracks, or did you want to stay firm in the chamber era?
Yeah, we definitely never talked about the idea of steampunk, because it really wasn’t that kind of game. I worked also with Ready at Dawn with Jason Graves on The Order: 1886, which is way closer to what we would call steampunk, so on that project the sensibility of what that would mean musically came up.
Here, though, [Ubisoft was] very open and they said to me “what do you think the score ought to be?” And I said I think it would be interesting to score it with a kind of nimble sarcasm. The whole classical chamber music approach was not even intentionally an homage to the Victorian era- it’s compatible with that, which is something I’m happy about, but the basis of it was that they said “we want to do something different from all the previous Assassin’s Creeds, you’re not beholden to the sound or the aesthetic of any of them.” And so I was kind of intentionally leaving the guitars and the synths and things that Jesper [Kyd] had laid down and was subsequently played around with and built on by Lorne [Balfe] and Brian [Tyler] and Sarah [Schachner] and etc…all those folks who have done their own take on the same basic vibe, very synth-heavy. And Ubisoft said “you can do anything you want to to make this starkly different from prior ACs.”
And so, knowing that that was Ubisoft’s interests, I also was [asking myself] what can help properly characterize the Assassin’s Creed world? We know that [the assassins] move like cats, they’re lighter than air; they’re not these lumbering juggernauts, they’re more like Legolas from The Lord of the Rings, very light on their feet and catlike. Therefore, I thought a big giant orchestra or any kind of heavy sound was going to weigh the whole experience down: I’d much prefer that it felt like something on its toes, almost like a ballet dancer.
And as I started thinking about that, I was also thinking about the writing of the characters, and especially how they were very self-assured. Jacob and Evie have, at no point, doubted their own ability, and 90 percent of the fights you get into in the game are of no real threat to you or to them. There’s no sense of “oh sh*t, I have to really focus or I’m going to die.” It’s much more like looking down sarcastically, and you can almost think of it as rudely looking at the various folks who come at you and saying “do you really think that you could take me down?” And knowing that they don’t stand a chance.
I thought that if the music was very aware of this, it starts to dance and becomes more like when a cat is playing with a mouse and the mouse has no hope of winning this fight but the cat kind of lets it escape a few times before ultimately going in for the kill: that was, to me, what Jacob and Evie were. They were very cocky and very arrogant in a charming way. They did not doubt themselves the tiniest bit, and so the translation to music of that was the kind of 19th century waltzes. They are more modern than a true 19th century waltz, but nonetheless they were meant to feel like “this is fun and this is not dangerous and I’m kind of sadistically enjoying it.”
And to my amazement, Ubisoft actually liked that idea. I thought surely they were going to insist I go with something more traditional or they were just going to fire me!
And somehow, neither of those things happened and I still, to this day, am quite shocked over that.
Well first off, I think you underestimate your own reputation. Because, to this day, you are the only video game composer to ever be nominated for a Grammy which is, on the one hand, kind of a crime because there is so much video game music that is worthy of the Grammy Awards, but still a testament to your ability.
Yeah, that’s definitely my feeling as well. There are a lot of scores before Journey and after that are as deserving if not more. And while that was an honor and a very exciting experience, I can hardly let it translate into the notion that Journey is somehow the apex of all video game music. I refuse to let that be the takeaway there. There’s just, as you said, so many great scores that have been written in the years before and after. Video games have been eligible for the Grammies since 1999, and the fact that it took until 2012 is rather curious, and that none have been nominated since then is also rather curious. But it doesn’t reflect the quality of the work they’ve done in the industry.
Absolutely. But going back to what you said, it’s amazing learning how much the script and characterizations of the protagonists influenced you deeply. That idea of a cat playing with a mouse helps give me a newfound appreciation for the sounds I heard in Syndicate’s score when I was playing through it.
You mentioned previous Assassin’s Creed composers and, in particular, Jesper Kyd’s work on the Ezio Trilogy [editor’s note- Jesper Kyd co-did Assassin’s Creed: Revelations with Lorne Balfe]. You didn’t want to go back to previous AC styles, but one thing I’ve noticed, starting with Rogue and continuing with Unity and Syndicate and Origins and Odyssey, is all of them have taken Ezio’s Family, which is arguably the most iconic piece from the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and put their own spin on it. It’s basically become the theme of the series at this point, and I believe Ubisoft has embraced that.
And so I was wondering, what was it like getting the chance to add your take on this track, and was there anything you wanted to do with it specifically? Because I do remember when it played in the game’s story- that’s how much it stands out.
Well, it was one of those that, on a high-up executive level at Ubisoft, they at some point realized that that melody had just kind of caught on with the general audience for the AC franchise, in a way that is separate from the others, and decided that, while it is supposed to be Ezio’s Family, it’s just kind of become the theme of Assassin’s Creed solely by virtue of its popularity. And so they said “we don’t care where you put it or how you handle it, but find somewhere to use it.” And they were very open and I thought, well, as a kind of finale statement, and maybe for the end credits or something, I can thread my theme and it together.
And the fun little twist was that, while finishing the score, before much of the game was made public, my publicist at the time mentioned that he had just started representing the actress who played Evie, and so I said “oh, can she sing?” And he said “yeah, apparently.” So Victoria Atkin, who plays Evie, came over to my studio and I thought it would be cool if she was the one singing Jesper’s tune, and then I add, on top of that, the soprano that I had had sing all the various, more operatic moments of the score. Her name is Holly Sedillos, she’s a soprano singer I’ve worked with a number of different times before. And then of course have a soloist like Sandy Cameron on violin.
And actually that cue is one of the few, referring to your earlier question, that actually uses synthesizers fairly openly. They are taken in a lot of the cues throughout the score, but they’re usually very background compared to the more orchestral sounds.
But in any case, it was just one of those where I thought “well, I’m going to play with it,” but for me the real fun is going to come from the fact that it’s Evie herself who is singing it.” And that’s Victoria.
Wow, I didn’t realize she was the main voice behind ‘Family’, so that’s amazing to hear. And it’s a very beautiful rendition for the record. I think every composer who has taken on Ezio’s Family has made it unique in their own way, and yours more than stands alongside them.
Thank you so much for indulging those questions. Without further ado, let’s talk about John Wick Hex. This is the first video game to come from the famous film franchise of the same name, and listening to the score, it felt very much in line with Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s scores for the trilogy. So that made me wonder, how much freedom did you have with regards to the music- how much leeway were you given to experiment?
Well, it depends on how much you’ve been able to hear of it, because an artist, or a composer particularly, is always in a tricky position when trying to self-analyze. But if you ask me, the first few cues, specifically the second track on the album, were the only areas where I was conscientiously staying close to the nest as it were. I’ve never met Joel, but Tyler’s a friend I actually know and, as I recall, the scoring situation was that Tyler was rather swamped on Guardians of the Galaxy when John Wick came about, and so he had to bring on a co-writer to be able to tackle it. But it’s pretty much Tyler, it’s very much his work in general and of his standard model, even if it is stylized to fit John Wick in certain specific ways.
And by the way, it’s not actually the first game to come out attached to John Wick. There’s a franchise called Payday that did some kind of John Wick game- I’ve never actually played it and I’ve never heard music from it, but I know that there is an officially licensed John Wick Payday game (*editor’s note- John Wick is featured as an officially-licensed playable character in Payday 2, and there was a previous John Wick VR game released in 2017 titled John Wick Chronicles).
But nonetheless, it certainly was the first time I dipped my toes in the John Wick waters, and so the beginning of the game, as with many games, sort of doubles as an intro to the story as well as a tutorial for the player to wrap their head around how the gameplay works. And so it’s much more understated, it’s much more simple, and I thought I want to make the music connect with Tyler’s aesthetic more obviously. And then, as we get further and further in, the music gets farther and farther away from that. Now, it still has to feel like whatever that intangible quality is that makes John Wick sound like John Wick, and obviously that means it never becomes orchestral and it maintains its strong sense of rhythm and has very much got its groove.
That’s part of what makes Wick Wick. And if I had pulled out a bunch of Assassin’s Creed-style waltzes or chamber strings, I would be very immediately abandoning that vibe, or anything else- there’s a lot of ways to abandon that aesthetic that I was avoiding doing.
But within the toolkit that I had already laid down for me, it felt, to me at least, that it was rather un-cautiously abandoning a rigorous loyalty. Now, the reason I made that preface about someone evaluating their own work is that that may or may not translate- you may look at it and say “that actually sounds quite a bit like the other John Wick scores.” But I can tell you that my goal was not to do that- my goal was to, as you get further and further into the score, become as interested in the John Wick side.
That’s a cool association you made between the player’s own advancement into the storyline versus the changes expressed in the score itself. I do apologize if I implied that you were, for lack of a better term, copying Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richards’s work.
No no, you didn’t say that, and I didn’t get that impression.
It all goes to your point that, when you’re an established artist and musician, you develop a different ear from those of general audiences like myself.
And do you get to see any beta footage for inspiration on the score? Or do you have to rely purely on information communicated from the staff? Cause, looking at the game, the art style is so beautiful: it’s like a neon cell-shaded look. I have to think that seeing that would change how you approach it compared to, say, looking at storyboards or listening to someone’s descriptions.
Oh yeah, it’s not just footage, it’s very important for me to play the game while I’m working on it, and to put the music in the game as a work in progress or early draft or whatever and make sure that everything is functioning correctly. And not just aesthetically, but also on a technical level, because you never detect this from listening to a soundtrack album since, at that point, everything has been edited and compiled together.
For me, though, the technical, interactive floor is at least 50 percent of the experience, if not more, of writing a score. The interactivity is essentially everything to me. And so, merely looking at concept art or even looking at video capture is such an opportunity missed. It’s me, for lack of a better way of putting it, not doing my job, because I think a composer operating in a vacuum or just reacting to a few photos or screen captures or something is getting a wildly incomplete piece of information. I would liken it to if a composer scoring a film were to read a few pages of a script and then decide that they had enough information and just worked on the score. They’d be flying cripplingly blind.
Now, there are some filmmakers that actually like to work that way. David Fincher worked that way with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on movies like The Social Network and Gone Girl, and I know that, for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan experimented a bit with Hans Zimmer like that in having him write a bunch of music based around an idea for the film and not based around footage; in fact, I don’t think they’d even shot anything yet.
But [in general] it’s very uncommon, and for me it’s also that everything just happens to come back to the footage in the end because, at the end of the day, you are delivering an experience, so even if you write a bunch of music separately, you still have to, at some point, narrate for the footage, and edit or do whatever it takes to make it work together. And so, if a composer is just officially shoving that off to somebody else like a music editor or internal sound designer or whoever’s job, you’re falling short in your own commitments, in my opinion.
And I have arguments with colleagues of mine over that, but I consider it to be a woefully missed opportunity to not play the game and play it deeply and learn it well and see an expert in the game by the time it’s finished.
Yeah, wow, that’s very intriguing. I never realized that that was an opportunity given to video game composers, but in hindsight it makes complete sense that you’d be provided that. Did that apply for your past works? Did you play Journey? Did you play Syndicate to help you with the scoring?
Every game I’ve worked on. Journey, in particular, I played literally every day for three years straight while working, because that was a three-year development process and I was able to get set-up where I just played the game. They would automatically generate new builds of the game every 24 hours, so my pattern became show up into my studio, download the build while I’m drinking my coffee, and then play the game as a way to start my day. And it’s been the same on essentially every score since. In fact, a few of the developers I’ve worked with have propagated their builds to me through Steam, where I could actually see how many hours of play I’ve resulted in. I remember on like The Banner Saga, for example, by the time the game shifted and was available to the general public, I had already put in over 200 hours in Steam, which is probably pretty normal for me.
I think with John Wick [Hex] I wasn’t able to play quite that much because their pipeline was set up where they were only able to output builds every few weeks, and at some point I would do a playthrough but half the game was not accessible, and so I would be forced to rely on video capture from the folks internally, which works fine- it’s not my preference, but it works fine.
And similarly on Syndicate, because of Ubisoft’s confidentiality concerns, every time I wanted to play the game, I essentially had to jump a flight up to Canada and would spend a day or two there playing through it and going through everything and looking for ways to make it work. I was particularly lucky because I had a music supervisor on the Ubisoft side; he and I really gelled and became thick, so I didn’t feel at a huge disadvantage the way I normally would.
I can’t even imagine, because of how integral music is to gaming, playing a game without music. The fact that you’re able to do that and come up with the tunes through that gameplay is an indication of your skill as an artist. I’m glad it’s proven to be a successful venture for you.
Yeah essentially. The thing that blows my mind though is that there are so many composers who don’t really bother playing the game. I never understood that. It’s becoming more normal, but for years so many of my friends and colleagues in the business just didn’t seem like they were into that aspect of it- they just wanted to write music based on what the developer asked them to write. And I thought “well, you would never score a movie that way, you would never score a TV show that way.”
And part of it is just that, completely unrelated to my career, I’ve always been a gamer. In the same way that I’m passionate about movies- I could go and see a movie, and chances are that I’m familiar with that director, that editor, that cinematographer, those actors, that composer: I often go into movies knowing a lot of that kind of stuff because I’m just a movie fan, and I know a lot about the industry- I love reading the trades.
And that’s all true for games as well. Knowing who the interesting game directors are, the interesting artists, the interesting composers, and the interesting developer/publisher relationship and all that kind of stuff. To me, that’s always been intriguing, and so the notion of being a composer in the game industry and not being a gamer, I don’t understand that, because I also would never understand being neutral to movies and wanting to score movies. It’s similarly bizarre. But that is very rare because there’s almost no one on the planet who just rejects movies, but there’s still plenty of people who will overtly say “games are not my thing” or “I don’t understand games” or whatever. That’s fine, but I can’t understand then wanting to make a living in that industry while holding those beliefs.
No absolutely, it’s a dissonance that unfortunately pervades. But I know that as video games continue to become newsworthy and works of art, people will turn around. And they already are for the record, but elitists will continue to exist until more time passes and the cultural landscape, in general, changes.
Now I could talk to you forever, but I have one last question, and this is something I love to ask every musician to speak with, which is what are three pieces of music that have had the greatest influence on you as a composer? They can be band albums, movie scores, classical compositions, or video games. But three that have had the biggest impact on you?
Off the top of my head, because there are many many more than three, and different things have meant different things to me at different points in my life. So it’s hard to generalize, even if I had a top five; it’s sort of like a top five now versus top five in my 20s versus growing up, etc…But I can name a few that I really do cherish.
The first, from the game world, would be Peter McConnell’s score for Grim Fandango, which, to me, was not just musically inventive, but also a beautiful and exciting, almost unexpected, part of that game’s world. It was an incredibly beautiful collision of Mexican folklore, sort of Day of the Dead vibes, with this 1920s Film noir in all its multi-greasy glory. All of it was just spectacular. But the thing in particular that hit me hard about it was that it gave a platform to of the musicians themselves, when you listen. Particularly the clarinetists and the sax players, they’re really playing as solo artists- it’s not just “okay, I need a clarinet performer, here’s my generic clarinet line.” It’s like, “I want you to play this thing like no one else on the planet can play it.” It’s unforgettable. For me, that score exposed me to not just the artistry of games and the potential they have, but of music itself. I was in high school when it came out and it fit a lot about how I felt about the world.
And another one that comes to mind that I appreciated much more the older I got was a very specific Jerry Goldsmith score for the film Basic Instinct. I always liked that score- I became obsessed with Jerry Goldsmith around the age of 10, and just started radically consuming his whole body of work. And he had done, up until the time of his death more than 10 years ago, hundreds of feature films and thousands of episodes of television and themes and all kinds of stuff. And his score for Basic Instinct is one that, when I first heard it, I thought it was cool, it was an interesting, wonderful kind of thriller.
But as I digested it later, I realized how psychologically intriguing it is, how it genuinely adds something to the film that the film is not providing on its own. That’s where I started to find myself rethinking the idea of what a film score or a video game score or a television score could be. It’s not just adding some music that compliments what’s there, it’s adding music that’s supplementing what’s there. You don’t take vitamin supplements because you’re getting a loss of Vitamin D and you just want a little boost- you take it because you are not getting Vitamin D, and so you take a supplement to make sure you are. And that’s what Jerry exposed me to- what the greater scorers do. They don’t double down on what’s on-screen, they add something that’s fundamentally not on-screen. It’s one of my earliest memories of sort of shockingly internalizing that and being just utterly blown away at the kind of easy and beautiful dance he was doing.
Another that’s come up in recent years, I just love it to death, is another video game score- Jessica Curry’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. That was one where it soaked me- I don’t know if I would say it influenced me, although anything invariable will, but to me it raised the bar for what composers need to do and need to consider themselves capable of in games in general. It literally elevated the bar for the medium as a whole, and I love it.
All absolutely wonderful choices. Grim Fandango, in general, is an underrated game, even with the remaster. And the way you talked about the clarinetists and solo artists makes me want to listen to its OST just so I can hear those specific moments you’re talking about.
And thank you again Mr. Wintory for taking the time to speak with me. You more than stand among the Jerry Goldsmiths of the world. Journey and your consequent works have no doubt influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of composers and aspiring composers out there. It’s a testament to your skill as an artist and it means a lot that you took the time to meet with me. I can’t thank you enough.
You’re very kind and certainly overly generous, but I appreciate the kind words and the pleasure is mine! I was happy to talk with you.
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Wintory for chatting with us. John Wick Hex is available now on PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, and Macintosh operating systems.
Special thanks to Maike Eilert and Andrew Krop of White Bear PR for making this interview possible!