Ludwig Göransson on what inspired his music for ‘Oppenheimer’ and more


A decade into Ludwig Göransson’s career as a composer, his music has been the sound of many a pop culture universe.

Göransson’s father, a Swedish guitar instructor, handed him a guitar of his own at age 6, and they often played together. At 9 years old, Göransson heard Metallica for the first time, and apparently so did the rest of Sweden, as his father was inundated with students begging him to teach them how to play their songs. Göransson’s father resisted at first, saying he’d never want to play the guitar in such a way. But one day the son entered his basement to find his father headbanging to “Enter Sandman.”

Göransson, now 38, could play practically every rock guitar solo that ever existed by the time he was in high school. Looking for a new musical challenge, he got into jazz, which led to a desire to learn how to play an array of musical instruments, a goal that guided him in 2007 when he came to the United States to study music during graduate school at the University of Southern California. There, he befriended someone with a cinematic destiny of his own, Ryan Coogler.

His first film score, for Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” in 2013, created a path to giving the Rocky movie franchise a new beat in the director’s next feature, “Creed.” After that came Coogler’s two Black Panther films for Marvel Studios. In between them, Göransson created the theme song to “The Mandalorian,” which, impossibly, became just as definitive as the Star Wars crawl music of composing icon John Williams. Göransson also crafted the 2000s boy band sounds of Disney/Pixar’s “Turning Red.”

And Christopher Nolan offered him the unenviable task of helping guide the music of his movies into the post-Hans-Zimmer future, starting with 2020s “Tenet” and then with the historical thriller “Oppenheimer,” in theaters Friday.

Göransson spoke to The Washington Post about a moment or two that inspired each of his biggest projects.

One of the first things Nolan showed Göransson during production of “Oppenheimer” was a screen test of some early visual experiments for the film’s explosive moments.

“There’s no CGI. It was all analog-made. I was sitting in a darkened theater, looking at these fluorescent neon lights swirling around on a huge screen, and that really had a big impact on me. When I saw that, how it all came together in those beautiful lights and how it affected me, I was like: That’s how I want the music to sound. I wanted the music to sound like that because it was a visual I had never experienced before.

“I needed to channel Oppenheimer. He’s a genius, a neurotic character and extremely complex. And to me you want to hear his heart through the music. I wasn’t worried about the [explosions in the film], that was already taken care of. If the music is all booming and heavy, then those booms [in the movie] aren’t going to have the same impact. One of the first and only directions [Nolan] gave me was to use the violin. The violin is a fretless instrument, so based on the performance you can go from one note and having it be a beautiful romantic tone, but within a split second you can change the vibrato of the pitch and it can turn into a horrific, neurotic, mean, manic sound.”

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“The Mandalorian” showrunner Jon Favreau explained to Göransson that the new Star Wars series would be inspired by Westerns and samurai films, and that he also wanted to do something not seen in the Star Wars universe before. Göransson went home, ordered a set of recorders of various sizes and a flute, and got to work.

“I didn’t want to write it with a computer,” Göransson said. “So what I did was take a step away from the computer and just kind of put myself in a meditative state and just sat with the flute for a whole day and just recorded myself playing the flute. And I came up with the first intervals … do do do dooo do do do dooo. And then with that effect on it and some modern reverb and delays on it, it sounded kind of like a spaceship.

“And then I had that part and I was like okay, this is cool, but I don’t know if I can use this … it’s so simple. Star Wars music is so complex. There’s so many things happening. And so I put that aside and I sat down with the drums, played a groove and then went to the piano and wrote the whole song. And then I was like, okay, what about the whole flute thing? Like what if I make that as the intro? So I went back and put [the flute] at the beginning.”

A couple of days later, Göransson went to the studio to visit Favreau and producer-writer-director Dave Filoni. While in the elevator on their way to the studio, Göransson played the theme on his phone. Favreau and Filoni looked at each other within seconds of hearing the first notes.

Filoni declared: “That’s it! That’s it!”

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Nolan and Zimmer had a symbiotic relationship during their time collaborating on the Dark Knight trilogy and “Inception.” Göransson was a fan of everything the two had done together, saying the music is so good it can be listened to on its own without the movie.

“I read the script for Tenet and my mind was blown,” Göransson said. “I’ve never read anything like that. I was like, how do we do this?”

Göransson’s first thought was to concentrate on one of “Tenet’s” time-bending themes: inversion.

“There’s so many ways you can invert music,” Göransson said. “Bach did it hundreds of years ago. You write music on the page and when you come to the bottom, you play it, you reverse it. So you just play from the bottom up. Those are the basic ideas of inversion. What I created is 10 steps further in that. You write a piece of music and then you revert it on your computer and then can you make it sound the same.”

‘Black Panther’ and ‘Wakanda Forever’

Göransson told Coogler that they had to record in Africa to get the true sound he felt the movie deserved. So he traveled to Senegal and South Africa to create a sound that is now synonymous with Marvel’s top Black superhero.

But the death of Chadwick Boseman forced Göransson to create a score for “Wakanda Forever” that dealt with pain, triumph over grieving, and the introduction of a new, female Black Panther and her fierce rival, Namor.

“It was tough,” Göransson said. “We established a world and we were going to continue that and take it to new places. [‘Wakanda Forever’] called for something completely different. We had to create something completely new for Namor and his people, inspired by Mayan culture. That was a challenge within itself because all the music from the Mayan times is gone. That was erased. No one knows what that sounds like.

“But there’s experts in Mexico, archaeologists and musicians, that have been digging out the graves and finding instruments from that era. So I spent a month in Mexico recording those musicians, trying to reimagine what the Mayan sounds could have been. For the Wakanda part of it I actually went to Lagos, half the days working with musicians and building the sounds and the other half with Nigerian artists writing on the songs.”

As much as Göransson prides himself on creating something new for old worlds, there are times when the original source material is useful.

“I tried for a new sound. And it was pretty successful,” Göransson said of his musical theme for Michael B. Jordan’s titular character. “All the sounds are new, but the feeling of [the movie] is infused with some of the tonality and the emotionality of the Rocky franchise.

“We saw it, and at the very last second Ryan was like … in the end, in that final fight, should we put that [Rocky theme] in there? Or should we just make it our own? It was a long conversation. We ended up putting the Rocky fanfare in the final fight. We both looked at each other and said this feels right. When I saw [‘Creed’] later on in the theater, seeing old men screaming and shouting … I was thinking, we really made the right decision there.”


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