Ludwig Göransson interview | BAFTA-winning Oppenheimer composer on the film’s devastating score

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With BAFTA success in the rearview mirror, we chat Oppenheimer’s propulsive score with the man who knows it best – composer Ludwig Göransson.

A few years ago, it would have been tempting to describe Ludwig Göransson’s rise to soundtrack-superstardom as meteoric.

In the last five years, he’s got three quarters of the way to becoming an EGOT. An Oscar and a Grammy landed on his desk for his work on Black Panther in 2019, followed by a couple of Emmys for The Mandalorian – all he needs now is a quick Broadway hit and he’ll have a very impressive looking mantelpiece.

Truthfully, Göransson’s career has been going from strength to strength since 2008, and even now he’s earned a much-deserved reputation as one of the most reliably exciting voices currently composing for the big screen. But even with his packed CV, his second collaboration with Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer, might just be some of his best work yet.

We sat down in a posh London hotel to chat inspirations, hitting bombs with spoons, and scoring Oppenheimer’s devastating final line.

When did you start writing the score for Oppenheimer?

I think about four months before they started shooting? I read the script and I had a conversation with Chris straight after, and he didn’t really know what the music would be like. But the one idea he had was to use the violin to portray Oppenheimer’s personality. And he knows that my wife, Serena, is an incredible, accomplished violinist, so we would probably do a lot of work together. But I think why he was drawn to the violin was because it’s the most expressive instrument. Depending on the performance, you can have a really warm and beautiful vibrato, and within a second you can change to this piece of phonetic horror. We wanted to kind of experiment with those sounds.

What was it you were hearing in your head when you read that script for the first time?

I mean, reading the script was an extremely visceral experience. There are sound elements in there, like the foot stomps, or the ten seconds of silence after the Trinity test. And apart from reading the script, Chris also invited me onto all these meetings. We had a meeting with a scientist describing quantum physics, though I probably didn’t understand much of that, and he invited me to all the IMAX test screenings where we had the costume and the visual effects tests. You know, the molecules swirling around the fire, seeing that on a huge IMAX screen, just in silence. Getting all these images in my head had a big impact on how I started writing music before they shot the film – we probably had about two hours done before the cameras started rolling.

Speaking of those more scientific elements – how do you go about soundtracking the movement of atoms?

I knew from the beginning that the emotional aspect of the score was the most important. But I was also very interested in how you can combine that emotion with math and with theory. And especially when you see those molecules swirling around you start thinking about energy, and trying to write music that pushed boundaries and felt like something on the brink of discovery. And those swirling molecules just felt faster and faster and faster, especially in that first montage, like you’re just learning and discovering something for the first time.

It sounds like the whole process was pretty collaborative. How did your relationship work with Chris and Jennifer [Lame, editor] while they were putting the film together?

Oh, it’s integral to the way that I work. With Jen and Chris, when they’re editing, for example, the third act, the courtroom act, they came to me and asked me to write a 30-minute piece of music that had this almost like an action cue. I didn’t have any pictures, but they knew what tempo and what kind of emotion they wanted there. So I wrote a 30 minute piece of music and sent that to them. Then they started cutting the scene with that music, they cut it down to 20 minutes, send it back, then they cut it to 14 minutes, so we’re always working back and forth. And a lot of times when I sent the music to them, Jen is the first person to listen to it and put it into the cut and then shows it to Chris, so they’re very much integral to the whole process.

Read more: Jennifer Lame interview | How to edit Oppenheimer (without breaking your brain)

Touching on a couple of specifics – the cue that comes in right after Cillian delivers his final line is such an impactful moment. Where did that particular element come from?

So the cue in Destroyer Of Worlds comes from Can You Hear The Music, and the first time you hear it it’s the most inspirational part of the movie: when he has that vision, and he sees what he’s been studying for the first time through all these beautiful images. But in the end, when he delivers that gut-wrenching last line, it’s the same piece of music, but now has a completely dark twisted spin to it. The way Jen and Chris cut that scene is also similar to how that first montage is, but instead of with these beautiful inspirational images, now it’s rockets flying overhead to end the world.

And Can You Hear The Music is such a good example of combining classical violins with more modern synthesisers and an electronic element – was that always a key aspect of the score?

Yeah, I wanted to find the more organic elements first, so that’s why I started writing with the violin and the orchestra in mind. But then I always want to make things sound in a way that you couldn’t have made it sound 40, 50 years ago. I always felt like the electronics and synthesisers kind of foreshadow this great impending doom, so some themes are entirely written on synthesisers – where he’s talking about Los Alamos, or when you see the bomb for the first time. They’re foreshadowing this really graphic aftermath.

Something that I remember really clearly is in the middle of the film, when they’re getting ready for the Trinity test, and it’s the first time that things are going from scribbles or theories to an actual physical bomb. You see this bomb getting hoisted up in the air, and there’s so much tension, and so the music completely changes from this beautiful organic score to a weird, intimate, horrific tension – just a thumping bass and a little ticking, almost like you’re hitting the bomb with a spoon. I really wanted to add this almost radioactive element to it.

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Is it daunting to have to create music for these huge scenes? They’re talking about the end of the world, so the stakes couldn’t really be much higher…

I don’t really think of it as daunting. Chris, you know, he has such a great sense of time, so he knows exactly when he needs what he needs, and when he needs certain pieces of music. So for example, the Trinity tests, you know, he gives me heads up a couple of weeks before he starts to edit the scene, and he’s telling me what kind of energy he needs, how long he needs it to be. Sometimes I have pictures, sometimes he wants me to write without pictures, and that sometimes makes it easier, because you’re not limited to a start and a stop to try to hit things. And Chris is just so open to different stuff. This is my second film with him now, so I can just throw everything at the wall and he’s open to it all.

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