Bwahhhhh. No sound defined cinema in the 2010s like the Hans Zimmer blare – a thunderous noise with the monolithic stature of an IMAX screen, often heralding the arrival of a new Christopher Nolan masterpiece. For over a decade, Nolan’s films were inextricably linked to Zimmer’s sweeping soundscapes – from the Dark Knight Trilogy (of which Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were co-composed with James Newton Howard), to Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk. And then, everything changed. With Tenet, Nolan looked instead to another composer – someone whose unique sensibilities could channel the forwards-backwards narrative and pulsing paranoia of his time-twisting thriller into an alien arrangement of agitated synths and anxious drums. The resulting score sounded exactly like a Christopher Nolan movie – but, somehow, unlike any other Christopher Nolan movie too.
That’s the superpower of Ludwig Göransson. In his rise to become one of the most daring and distinctive composers of 21st Century cinema, he’s taken on franchises and filmmakers boasting the most instantly-recognisable sounds in Hollywood and made them his own. You know exactly what Star Wars sounds like, and yet his Mandalorian score doesn’t sound like John Williams. You know what a Marvel film sounds like, and yet Black Panther stands entirely apart. You know the victorious horn-driven swells of a Rocky movie, but his Creed music takes that somewhere entirely new. Even Turning Red feels lightyears away from Randy Newman’s work on Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., while still sounding every bit a Pixar movie. If you want to reinvigorate the musical language of a beloved film series, Ludwig Göransson is the guy you call.
One day, I heard some strange sound coming down from the basement. I went down, and I see my dad headbanging to ‘Enter Sandman’
Music, it seems, was always on the cards for him. Born in Sweden in 1984, his parents were intent on naming him after music royalty. “My dad wanted to name me Albert, after Albert King, the blues guitar player,” he tells Empire. “My mom wanted to name me Ludwig, after Beethoven.” No prizes for guessing who won. From the age of six, he began learning guitar technique from his guitar-teacher father. Then, at age nine, he discovered Metallica. “One day, I heard some strange sound coming down from the basement where my dad's studio was. I went down, and I see my dad headbanging to ‘Enter Sandman’,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘What is this?!’ That was the first song that I started learning.” From there, an entire world of music opened up: prog-rock, jazz, classical, film scores, and hip-hop. In the early years of his composing career, he was a prolific pop and hip-hop producer too – creating beats for Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino rap career (the pair met while Göransson was scoring Community, and continue to collaborate closely), as well as producing for HAIM and Chance The Rapper.
It's that curious combination – the pop-minded, hip-hop-steeped, prog-loving, former metalhead – that all coalesces to make him such a compelling composer, one whose ability to imbue traditional orchestration with modern electronic production flourishes results in film scores that couldn’t have come from anyone else. As he proves it once again with his astonishing music for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Göransson sat down with Empire to talk about how he switched up the game on Hollywood’s most established sounds.
Christopher Nolan movies
Getting pulled into the orbit of a Christopher Nolan movie sounds a little like being in a scene from a Christopher Nolan movie. First comes the phone call. “He’s kind of secretive in terms of what he’s working on,” says Göransson. “He doesn’t tell you what it is.” Then, you’re summoned to a secure location. “You go into a room, you sit down, and you look at the first page, like, ‘Oh!’,” the composer recalls. “And then you’re in for a ride.” In this case, it was Oppenheimer – the pair had kept in close contact after Tenet, and Nolan was keen for Göransson to score his next film too. Holding the script in his hands was his first indication of what that would be. “It's a great way of working – you don't have anything in your head, what you think the sound is going to be. You start off with a blank slate, and I like that,” he says.
And Oppenheimer’s script wasn’t like any other – famously written in the first person. That in itself was instructive for where Göransson would go. “I'd never read anything where everything you're experiencing is from this person's – Oppenheimer's – point of view. So immediately I knew that whatever the music is, it just needs to channel all of his emotion – the whole spectrum, everything that he's going through,” he explains. “You want to put the audience in his mind, in this world, in his eyes.” The fuse was lit.
We make it sound like something that's both from this world, and maybe from the future
Where the Tenet score was steeped in futuristic flourishes, the Oppenheimer theme began as a swirl of spiralling strings, ideal for portraying the central figure’s dawning horror as the atom bomb comes together. “The violin, depending on how you perform it, you can go from being the most beautiful, romantic tone, and within a split second change to something neurotic and horrific,” says Göransson. Butting up against those more traditional orchestral elements are blasts of electronic noise, created and cultivated by the composer himself (“My own sound-world DNA,” he calls it). Those two components perfectly orchestrate Oppenheimer’s tale of a historical act that was dealing with cutting-edge, reality-breaking science. “When it goes into a bigger image or his dream state, it's played on this blasting synth that almost sounds like a horn, or a brass sound,” he says. “We combine it with real brass and make it sound like something that's both from this world, and maybe from the future.”
Perhaps Oppenheimer’s most dizzying technical feat, though, lies in the string arrangements. If Nolan is obsessed with time, so too is Göransson – and tracks like ‘Can You Hear The Music’ and ‘Destroyer Of Worlds’ feature up to “21 tempo changes in one piece of music”, all played live in a single take. “That was something that I didn't think was possible,” he says, “but we figured out a way through technology and through click-tracks.”
Back on Tenet, the composer took Nolan on deep-dives into production techniques (“We spent an hour talking about sidechaining,” says Goransson. “I was baffled about how excited and interested he was in music-nerdy things”), and how to create inverted, palindromic melodies. But the wildest idea was something you’d never expect from a Nolan movie: a tie-in hip-hop song.
“It was my idea,” says Göransson of ‘The Plan’, an improbable but impressive combination of director and psychedelic rap superstar Travis Scott. “I was talking to [Nolan] about how the movie is such a rollercoaster, and I felt like when the end credits hit, I didn't want it to be over,” the composer explains. “You're still in that crazy world, and you still want to be there, and see if you can push it further.” Nolan was on board – and once the song was finished, Scott’s work was sampled back into the rest of the movie. “Chris liked the song so much, we actually took a snippet of the vocals in the chorus and sprinkled it into the score five or six times,” Göransson reveals. “So now Travis Scott's voice is part of the theme.” How’s that for a temporal pincer movement?
(The Mandalorian, The Book Of Boba Fett)
From the opening crawl, to the Imperial March, to the ‘Binary Sunset’ Force theme, the musical identity of Star Wars couldn’t be more culturally ingrained – and yet, Göransson’s music for The Mandalorian opened up a whole new audio arena in the galaxy far, far away. Leaning into Wild West harmonies that promise danger and adventure alike, the Mando theme still feels like Star Wars, while stepping out entirely on its own. “From early on, that's what Jon [Favreau, co-creator] was saying. He was like, ‘I want this to sound like something new.’ He didn't say, ‘I want it to sound like something new, but still Star Wars.’ He said, ‘I want it to sound like something new.’” Since Göransson had grown up on the Skywalker Saga, he knew where he wanted to go emotionally. “I was trying to connect to the feelings that I had in seeing [the films], of living in that music for the first time,” he says, “and try to get those feelings out for a new generation.”
The key to cracking it was buying a set of recorders. “There was a bass recorder in that package, and I'd never seen that before, but it was just beautiful,” he says. After sitting on his studio floor for hours, he landed on the signature undulating woodwind melody that begins Mando’s theme. “I put a delay and a reverb on it, and I was like, ‘Well, that sounds pretty cool.’ And then I added some harmonies on it. I won't call it a melody, but almost like a call, or a question.” So far, so good. Or not, as Göransson originally felt. “I thought, ‘This is not like Star Wars. This is way too simple. It doesn't have any of the complex harmony or melodies that Star Wars is.’” Instead, he pursued a drumbeat that implied a lone wanderer (Dum-da-da-dum-da-da-dum-da-da-dum), layering it with pianos and synthesisers until it was a completed song. But something was still missing. “I went back to that first recorder idea and put that into the song as an intro,” he says. “I was like, ‘This really works’.” Bounty, acquired.
As for the Book Of Boba Fett theme, Göransson wanted “something completely different” – conjuring an imposing march for the galaxy’s fearsome bounty hunter. “Instead of working with the recorder, I just started working with my voice instead,” he says, channelling the choral chants of traditional Georgian music. “They have those type of very interesting, manly vocals,” he says. Translation: don’t mess with the fearsome crime boss of Mos Espa.
(Creed, Creed II)
The sound of Rocky has always been purely anthemic, from the uplifting horns and literal lyrics of ‘Gotta Fly Now’, to the fighting spirit of Rocky III’s ‘Eye Of The Tiger’. For his Creed theme, Göransson looked to all elements of the Rocky ouvre – the working-class street poetry, the underdog sports story, the triumphant trumpets – and spun it in a new direction, leaning into contemporary hip-hop production (booming 808 bass, and trap hi-hats particularly) to define a new young lead in Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed. “I wanted to make something that felt almost like a superhero thing. Because that's almost what he is, you know,” Göransson explains. With director Ryan Coogler telling him to “do something different, do something new”, he tipped his hat to the traditional Rocky sounds (“It’s a little jazzy at times,” he says), but looked to his beat-making expertise to establish his new hero. “With modern 808 production, you can make it feel timeless. I wanted it to feel like it's something new – something from this generation.”
The true test of whether a Rocky soundtrack works, though, is seeing if it pumps up the audience. “I didn't want to take anything for granted until I was sitting in a theatre and heard the movie with my music in there,” says Göransson. When he did, he got all the validation he was looking for. “We put the Rocky theme into the very end fight. I went to the movies, and I saw grown men just standing up cheering in their seats.” KO.
(Black Panther, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever)
Creed wasn’t the only Göransson soundtrack to elicit mass cheers from the audience. His astonishing Black Panther score – blending the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe orchestral score elements with bubbling African drums and propulsive 808s – was so instantly iconic in capturing the spirit of futuristic African kingdom Wakanda, that audiences rejoiced on hearing it. Take the moment in Avengers: Infinity War when the action moves to T’Challa’s home nation, and Göransson’s Black Panther drums kick in before you even see the sweeping green plains. “They had a test screening of Infinity War and that music came in, and people started cheering,” he says. It was such a hit, it resulted in additional edits on the film. “There was some dialogue that people couldn't hear, so they had to open up the cut and put the dialogue a little later so the cheering had stopped.”
Making something so identifiable in the first place was a case of thorough research and careful cultural curation. “After I read the script, I told Ryan [Coogler, director], ‘The only way to do this justice would be to go to Africa and work with musicians there’,” he recalls. “In Africa, music is part of culture, it's part of life. It's not performance-based. It's part of rituals: ‘You only play this type of drum beat at a wedding.’ ‘You only play this type of rhythm at a funeral.’ ‘You only play this rhythm when someone comes back from being gone for a while.’ So everything is part of culture. It was important that we embedded that in the score too.” That attention to detail – and the deployment of sounds that Western audiences don’t typically hear in film scores – resulted in a Marvel soundscape like no other.
While Göransson’s hip-hop work often leans into up-to-the-minute production, when creating the score for Domee Shi’s 2003-set Pixar period piece, he got to go retro. Specifically, he channelled the New Jack Swing sound of ‘80s and ‘90s pop-rap, full of funky synth blasts, joyous hype-up vocals, and wiki-wiki record scratches. It was a key sound from Shi’s own Toronto-based youth, much of which formed the basis for Turning Red’s coming-of-age tale. “It's very much about her life story,” says Göransson. “And I love that kind of pop music too. That ‘90s type of sound is so funny and unique – I've always wanted to use that in a film score.”
As with a lot of Göransson’s work, the score is indicative of characters caught between both the past and the future – with youngster Mei having to balance the expectations of her Chinese parents and the world she inhabits as a Toronto tween, all boybands, unruly friends, and first crushes. Instrumentally, it’s the flute that brings those two worlds together – a key feature of both the score’s Chinese elements, and the New Jack Swing sound. “That was the bridge between the traditional and the new, which is what the movie is about too,” says Göransson, “I really wanted something to channel the relationship that Mei had with their mom. That relationship is the most important.”
The most fun part, though? Teaming up with Billie Eilish and her producer brother Finneas, who were tasked with writing the songs for Mei’s beloved boyband 4*Town. “Finneas sent me all the stems for one of the songs, and I was able to work it into one of the scenes, and add some nice sounds and production to it,” says Göransson. “So there's one scene where we made it into a montage, bridging the gap between score and song.” It’s pure panda-monium.
Ludwig Göransson’s Oppenheimer score is out now via Universal Studios Music. Oppenheimer is in UK cinemas now.