Ludwig Göransson is one of the most enrapturing composers working in film music today. Hailing from Sweden, and having meticulously honed his musical craft from his early childhood onwards, Göransson brought his talents to the University of Southern California, where he met director Ryan Coogler, for whom Göransson has scored every feature film to date: Fruitvale Station, Creed, and both Black Panther films.
Göransson’s work on the Black Panther films, blending traditional African instrumentation with triumphant, orchestral, modern superhero cues, netted him both of his Academy Award nominations to date: a win for Best Original Score for the first film, and a nomination for Best Original Song with Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” in the second. Göransson seems a sure lock for a third Oscar nod with his score for Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, Oppenheimer, a score developed off the heels of their very successful collaboration on Tenet.
Göransson’s work with Nolan on Tenet came from the absence of Hans Zimmer – Nolan’s long-time composer – due to the latter’s commitment to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. The score that resulted is a wild exercise in experimentation, with melodies that sound the same way forwards and in reverse, which was arguably as much of a sensation as the film itself. It features Travis Scott prominently in the soundtrack, harkening back to Göransson’s work in popular music, particularly as a producer on Childish Gambino’s first three albums.
Unlike the score for Tenet, Oppenheimer eschews Göransson’s comfort zone of working with popular artists entirely. There are no needle drops to be found here. Instead, Göransson digs entirely into his own vast mind of intricate, winding orchestral arrangements. Combined with sharp, distorted synths, it’s a score that places the audience in the minds of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his nemesis, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). In many ways, his score defines the film, and so it was an irresistible opportunity to speak with him. Our conversation covers – among other things – most every main motif in Oppenheimer, how music plays into Nolan’s editing process, and the possibility of Göransson putting on a live show of his compositions a la Hans Zimmer.
Griffin Schiller: First of all, congratulations. [Oppenheimer] is a masterpiece. I guess for me, what kind of took me by surprise, was the fact that so many people wanted to go out and see this film. It’s three hours long, it’s a historical biopic, it’s not necessarily the easiest sell to your average person. Yet, it wasn’t just something that the cinephiles gravitated towards. This was something that regular people came out in droves to go see, and that’s why it has attained the success that it has. So I’m kind of curious to get your perspective on it. Why do you think this film resonated as strongly as it did with the general moviegoing audience?
Ludwig Goransson: I was as surprised as you. I knew that people that are interested in film and know Chris Nolan, obviously were going to go see the film because, when I grew up, anytime a Nolan film came out, I was one of the first people in the cinema. But I thought, especially with the times, how everything is, you can’t really predict anything today. I feel that especially in the music business, but also the film business, about what’s going to be successful and what’s not. But for this project, I think people could really tell the amount of effort and originality, and the craft that Chris put into this movie, shooting it on IMAX film, making it look so beautiful. And when you make everyone go see this in the theater, people feel that difference. People see that light. People see those colors. You can’t put your finger on that feeling, but it transcends.
GS: You brought up your work in the music industry. Obviously you kind of have a toe in both worlds, so I’m curious: do you find that it’s the same sort of thing when you’re working on an album or you’re producing an album, that the stuff that hits is usually the stuff where the craft is present, the artist’s passion is right there, with their heart and everything in it? Because I mean that’s what everyone hopes, but I don’t know if it necessarily turns out that way.
LG: Absolutely. I’m very fortunate to be able to work with true artists. Chris Nolan is pushing boundaries in film, but he also does it with all the crafts in his film. He does it with music, he does it with costume design, he does it with the editing, and he does it with cinematography. And the people he chooses to collaborate with are there with him. He just runs such an interesting, creative, strong team, and the way he pushes people is remarkable.
GS: I’m wondering if you could go back to the beginning of your collaboration, because I’m a massive Tenet fan. That is one of my most listened to scores of all time. I adore the movie as a whole, though. What was it in those initial meetings where you were like, “oh, I can really see myself working with this guy,” not just for one film but as an ongoing creative collaboration?
LW: Well, it’s been my dream ever since I saw Batman Begins. Just hearing how he uses music in his film, and the incredible score that Hans Zimmer created, and how their collaboration’s just been growing. And I think all the work that Hans did on Chris’ movies has been incredible. And how influential! I’ve always thought that, the way Chris Nolan uses music to push his stories, the music is almost like its own character in his films. So to ever get the chance to work with him would be a dream, and then I got that phone call to meet up with them. I didn’t know what it was about, but they asked me if I wanted to read the script.
GS: I’m curious what your reaction to reading that script was, because I have to imagine that was just kind of a mindfuck, right? It’s just kind of an insane thing.
LW: Yeah. I didn’t know. I mean it was a pretty cool read because I also went to his office, and I sat there for three hours just reading the script and being in that world, and obviously I was nervous. I was like, “Okay, what’s going to happen? What is this?” And that was something I’ve never read before. The story was pretty complex, but it had a depth and a storyline that I thought was super interesting. And also the whole inversion, and how you can bring the music into that and play around with it, that was super cool.
GS: Nolan’s movies are obviously a cinematic event, but music, like you said, is a leading character in them in and of itself. To my knowledge, he doesn’t have a musical background, but he’s incredibly musically inclined in the way where it’s like maybe he doesn’t know the specifics of instruments, but he just has a feel for it. You feel it in the films, right? They’re very sonically driven. So I am kind of curious if you could talk about that from a musician’s standpoint.
LW: He works with music in pre-production. So when he starts shooting the film, he already has the sound he wants made. And the way that it’s part of the collaboration is really unique. I write about five minutes of music a week, and then we meet up once a week, sit down, we listen to it. It’s just really a time for experimentation. We go through ideas, we listen to sounds, we talk about the movie, we talk about characters, and it’s almost like we throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. And then when he takes off to shoot the film, he has about two or three hours of music.
GS: I was talking to [editor] Jennifer [Lame] about that process, and she was telling me that he doesn’t even let her cut the movie to your music until there is an assembly there. I’m curious, from your side of it, what’s your working relationship like with editing? Are you constantly making changes?
LW: Yeah, me and Jen and Chris, we’re a very tight trio when we’re in post, because Monday through Thursday, they’re cutting the film, I’m working on the score, and then on Fridays we meet up and watch the film together. And it’s always so interesting how the movie and the music comes out. For example, the third act of Oppenheimer is the courtroom scene. Chris asked me, “Can you write a 30-minute piece of music for the courtroom scene? I want you to score it like an action film.” So I write a 30-minute piece of very intense music and send it over to Chris and Jen, and Chris and Jen spend a week editing the scene, putting the music in. They make it 20 minutes, they send it back to me. They send the scene back to me, and I finesse the music, make it 20 minutes long, and I’ll send it to them. And then they cut it down again to 12. It’s very much a back-and-forth collaboration.
GS: It sounds like the process is alive up until the very sort of end of it. You guys are the first people on and the last people off, in a way.
LW: Yeah. Literally on the last day of dub, that’s when the last cue came up.
GS: I want to talk about the similarities and differences between the process on Tenet and on Oppenheimer. From what I’ve read about the process for Tenet, Nolan had a very specific idea of what he wanted, so you had more constraints, but when it came to Oppenheimer, the only thing that he came to you with was that idea of the violin. So how did that sort of affect your experimentation on both films? Did you feel more constraints on Tenet allowed you to, I don’t know, be in the space of controlled chaos? And then, on the other side of it for Oppenheimer, was all of that freedom almost a bit daunting?
LW: It was daunting in a different way. Tenet was daunting because it was so technical, and I knew that I wanted the inversions to play a big part in the score. And there’s so many, you can go really deep down the hole with inversion. You do it on the page, you do it with audio, you can play something backwards and then reverse it again. There’s so many different ways. And, as I wanted music to sound the same forwards and backwards, I went so deep down that rabbit hole. On Oppenheimer, the most important part for me was the emotional core of him, and how you really need the audience to feel like you’re feeling all the emotion that he’s feeling. You’re going through the movie and this story the way he is. I didn’t want to hide behind any production or sound design. In the beginning, what was most important was just to find the emotional core of his journey, and that started with the violin.
GS: And going back to what you were saying earlier about music being a leading character in his films, is that kind of a composer’s dream? Do you like the spotlight to be on you like that? Obviously, you’re supporting the characters and the story, but people are looking forward to the score to a Christopher Nolan movie as much as they’re looking forward to the film itself. So is that something that’s ideal to have, or do you prefer a more subtle and supporting role, where the music isn’t so noticed?
LW: Whatever is best for the film and for the director’s vision, that’s always what’s most important, because the way that Chris is telling his story is very much fueled by the music, and that’s why the music has that presence. That’s a very interesting way of working.
GS: So much of the movie is centered around Oppenheimer not being this really good mathematician, but he can kind of feel math. He can understand it through feeling. Musically, I felt like you did an excellent job of this idea of balancing science and art. Was that something you were thinking about when you were composing Oppenheimer‘s theme?
LW: I wasn’t consciously thinking about that, so much as I was just trying to feel what he was feeling, go through his feelings, and take in everything that Chris was giving me. Chris was giving me a lot of material. I got into an early test of the visual effects that he was doing with Andrew Jackson at the time before he shot the film. They had done the molecules swirling around, they had done the fire, and they showed some of that imagery for me, some of the visuals for me. It was all silence. Just seeing those images, seeing those colors hitting me, that sparked an idea of, “yeah, this is what I want the music to sound like. I want the music to sound like this energy, pushing something forward, pushing being at the brink of discovery.” I also connected with the feeling of loneliness, how the movie’s opening up when he’s by himself laying in the bed. That’s something that I can very much connect to myself. But then also some of the trickier parts that took a little bit longer, was to go to those uncomfortable spots when he’s having his breakdown, the nightmare-ish horrific scene when he is talking to his team right after the Trinity test, and finding that emotion and going to that place. That was the last cue that I wrote for the movie, because it was just so difficult to get to that feeling.
GS: I think there’s something interesting about, I would have to imagine, writing music with a POV in mind versus writing music for the entirety of the film, because you have to be kind of delicate of not telling the audience how to feel, but trying to get inside the psyche of a character like that. But you don’t want to push someone in a certain direction. How difficult is that?
LW: Thankfully, Chris held my hand through it all. He knew where we needed to push and where we needed to pull, and the scenes where the music needed to be more intense because there’s so much to keep track of, but he has it all in his mind. He has it all in his head. So when I saw the first cut that Jennifer and Chris had, most of the scenes were filled with the music that Chris and I had done during those first three months in pre-production. Normally in a film, you have something called a temp score where people put in music from other films, but that’s not how Chris works. He pulled from the music we’d already done. So it really helps with Chris and Jennifer building a roadmap like that.
GS: I have to imagine you guys, before you even start working on a project, before you even know what that project is, are just kind of talking about film and music just as fans of them as art forms. Specifically, when it comes to music, what are those creative jamming sessions like? What is he drawn to, and that you also might be drawn to, that kind of informs the way he works with music or the way he wants his film scored?
LW: One of the things we did before I started working on the film was we went to the LA Philharmonic and we saw a performance of “Rite of Spring.”
GS: Oh, wow.
LW: Because that was in the script. You see Oppenheimer through that “Can You Hear the Music” montage, he’s putting on that record, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” So that was in the script, and I was kind of upset with Chris. I was like, “Are you really going to put that piece of music in the movie?” He’s like, “It’s one of the best pieces of music ever written.” So he set the bar really high and he was just kind of laughing. So we went to see that together at the LA Philharmonic. That was incredible. And then we’re always talking about music, sending music back and forth, listening to music, watching a movie, all kinds of stuff.
GS: What would surprise someone about his taste in music? He’s kind of an enigma, right? So I’m just kind of curious. He seems like someone who’s very knowledgeable in all different genres of music, but what would surprise someone to learn about that?
LW: Well, one of the things I was surprised about was his knowledge of film scores, for example. He has a tremendous knowledge obviously about the history of film, but also the same with the scores. He has listened to, and knows detailed stories about the scores to so many films. But also, he has kids that are teenagers and so also stays up to date with current music too. We had Travis Scott on Tenet, for example, and that was something that turned out to be very, I think, successful for the film, and Chris was really open to and a big fan of it.
GS: I want to talk about your collaborations with Donald Glover, starting with someone like that and having that free-flowing just stream of ideas. Has it had an effect on the filmmakers you choose to collaborate with?
LW: I’ve been working with Donald for almost 15 years. The way we started, we were working on his records. We’ve done mix tapes, albums, and gone on tour together. He does many things really well. He’s a musician, he’s an actor, he’s a director, he’s a writer. And one of the things that, similar to when I moved to LA, in a way I was thinking that I was just going to work on film scoring and be a film composer, but then working with Donald, I started producing music, going on tour, playing live. It opened up a lot of things that I knew how to do, but I always thought I had to push down. And I think that helped me also to understand that using those two worlds of songwriting and producing and writing film scores, how they can overlap with each other and help in any kind of project. I’ve used those techniques. I used it a lot obviously in Wakanda Forever, the soundtrack and the score, but also what we did in Tenet, how we take Travis Scott and put the song in the end using his voice throughout the movie as well, and tying it all together.
GS: You mentioned the live component being something you were kind of unfamiliar with, or I guess not used to. Is that something that you’ve toyed around with, having live shows, similar to Hans Zimmer or John Williams?
LW: Yeah, I definitely at some point have been thinking about that, and also how I can maybe combine it with my own music, but it just has to be the right time.
GS: I want to get into some of the themes here because I think the way you weave together all of these motifs is [John] Williams’ level stuff. There’s a lot of synergy between all of them. So I want to start with Groves because I think his theme is the polar opposite to everything that we hear in the film up until that point. Can you walk me through your process, from the instrumentation to creating the palette that you did for it? Because it’s not menacing, but there’s a melancholy to it all.
LW: I had done a lot of intimate, sad, melancholic, heavy music for a couple of weeks, and I just wanted to do something different. And also, I think Chris had mentioned that we needed something different for Groves, and I wanted to create something almost dreamlike, and I had this kind of pattern in the harp that went onto the piano, then went onto the synth, and it was like a calming kind of engine, something that really resonated with Oppenheimer and Groves’ relationship, because it felt like they’re friends from a past life. They have that friendship and that rhythm that kind of just goes through it. And Chris put that in the scene when they first meet, and it worked really well. I was kind of shocked when I saw it the first time, and how Chris had timed it out in that scene. I probably wouldn’t have thought to put that music in that scene because it’s kind of comedic. And I think that’s also one of the nice feelings about that cue in contrast with the rest of the movie and the score, is you have that warm feeling. You have that warm relationship, and you wanted some of that feeling.
GS: There’s something fascinating about it because it’s metallic, it’s kind of hollow. Like a ghost from a past life there, but yet it’s calming. Like you said, you understand the connection between those two guys almost immediately.
LW: And also almost a little bit like an Americana feeling to it.
GS: When it comes to Kitty, that’s probably my favorite theme in the entire film, but the way that you use it is fascinating to me because, for so many of the tracks like “Los Alamos” and “The Manhattan Project,” her theme is the driving force behind it. When I’m listening back to it, I’m like, “Oh, that’s Kitty’s theme.” That’s hitting me in the face, and I don’t even realize that. I’m just curious what the intent behind that was. I get he’s making a home for all these people, he’s trying to blend his interests together, but how do you see it?
LW: Kitty is such a contrast to Oppenheimer. She’s the yin to his yang, and that’s why we needed something like an instrument to be completely different. That’s why I chose the piano because she also has the gravitas, and just the heaviness of her character, and how she’s the one that can really pull him down. So I wanted to have these chords that felt like it was grounding him, these piano chords, but then with the pausing between, a long pause for breaths to keep the tension because I felt there was such incredible tension also in their relationship. And also I think the way that she’s influencing him and the way that she’s a lot of times the brains behind this, fueling his energy and taking the decision, pushing him, is also why I feel that music works really well in the Los Alamos cues and Manhattan Project, and you feel like they’re doing it together.
GS: She always has a presence, even when she’s not on screen.
LW: That’s also aided by the cello. Her theme is piano first and then the melody comes in on the cello. That’s the love theme. That’s the marriage theme. And then when she testifies, it starts with piano, the cello comes in, and then his theme comes in and the violin later on, and it’s almost like a dance, a waltz. You can feel them together, how important they are to each other.
GS: When it comes to Strauss, I think the evolution of that theme is really interesting because it’s pitiful at the beginning where he’s a lowly shoe salesman. And then when you get to the end, there’s something more manipulative. Can you talk about the challenge in crafting something where when you start out, you’re able to afford that character a lot of sympathy because you don’t know who he is yet, but then you can modulate that ever so slightly and it becomes sinister?
LW: Chris wanted Strauss’ theme to also have this sense of mystery to it, and that’s why you have this melody that’s played on the harp, and it carries the mystery of the story arc. The first time you hear it, you have these kinds of sweet, sweeping strings under it which makes it feel comforting. Strauss and Oppenheimer, they’re bonding together. He’s showing him Princeton, he’s giving him a job opportunity. So you don’t want to hint at all that there is this evilness to his character until, in the end, when it’s revealed that he’s the one that gave him the files, you just take the strings away and just have that dark menacing mystery harp. It’s like, “Okay, that’s who he really is.” You strip down all the fluff around it and keep to its essence.
GS: Just as a footnote, what are your next upcoming projects? What are you interested in?
LW: Nothing right now. I’m working on some records and stuff, but no, nothing in sight. I’m just taking some time.
GS: I’ve always admired that about you, that you’re not quick to jump from project to project.
LW: It needs to feel right.
Oppenheimer is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital.