Every once in a while, a composer will break out in a big way, only for the public to realize he or she has been doing incredible work for years. That’s certainly the case with Ludwig Göransson, who won the Best Original Score Oscar for his incredible work on Black Panther earlier this year, but whose credits also include films like Creed and Top Five, and who also co-wrote and co-produced the first three albums from Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover), won two Grammys for the instantly iconic “This Is America”, and worked with the band HAIM in their early days. On top of all that, he’s a veteran composer for television, having worked on shows like Community, New Girl, and Happy Endings.
But it was in the midst of Göransson’s “breakout” period surrounding the release of Black Panther and “This Is America” that he was hired to tackle a massive challenge: scoring the first-ever live-action Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian. Despite his busy schedule, Göransson committed to scoring each episode from scratch, which has resulted in some truly terrific episode-specific albums released each week after each new episode releases on Disney+. Göransson is one of very few composers not named John Williams to create music for the Star Wars universe, and with The Mandalorian he succeeded wildly in crafting wholly unique, exciting, and fresh music for one of the most iconic franchises of all time.
So when I got the chance to speak with Göransson about his work on The Mandalorian by phone, I leapt at the opportunity. Over the course of our interview, he explained how he first became involved in the show and the guidance that creator/showrunner Jon Favreau offered him, and discussed the collaborative nature of making The Mandalorian. Göransson also went in-depth on how he came up with the show’s phenomenal theme, the difficulty in serving as the emotional conduit for the audience given that the main character doesn’t reveal his face, and why creating music for Baby Yoda was actually one of the most challenging aspects of the entire project. I also attempted to ask Göransson about his work on Christopher Nolan’s upcoming movie Tenent, but he was unsurprisingly tight-lipped.
Check out the full interview below.
LUDWIG GÖRANSSON: The first thing I did was he invited me over to his office. I went over there and the whole office was covered in early storyboard and art, like original concepts. So, we started just walking up and he was explaining and showing me the pictures and the early artwork and he told me about the character, he told me about his inspiration coming from samurai movies and westerns. I kind of understood pretty early on that he wanted to do something very different and was open to experimentation. He wanted to try out different ways of experimenting with different sounds. So very early on Jon was extremely encouraging about experimentation. We never really talked about what the sounds should be. He was just telling me about his inspiration. It was extremely collaborative.
That’s one of the things that’s really interesting is you’re one of very few to create music for Star Wars who’s not named John Williams and obviously John Williams’ music is iconic, but what I really love about this score is that it is completely different. It’s a new take on the Star Wars universe. Did you feel kind of emboldened by that or did you kind of wrestle with whether the score needed to hew to the sonic tone of the franchise that had already been established?
GÖRANSSON: You know, I think Jon knew that he wanted The Mandalorian to have its own theme. Every time we looked at an episode, every we met we just talked for a couple of hours, just about what we’re trying to do and what the story is trying to tell. But also kind of reflecting on the feelings we had watching Star Wars for the first time. I remember the feelings I had when I heard the music for the first time, I felt like it took me to a different world. I think we wanted to create something new, but also capture the soul of what Star Wars is. And, so for me, I wanted to kind of go back to my childhood memory. I started to think about how did that make me feel and how can I recreate those feelings again, but in a new way?
The main theme for the show is incredible. I find myself humming it in the shower, when I’m doing chores. I just can’t get it out of my head, in the best way.
GÖRANSSON: (Laughs) Thank you.
How did you guys go about crafting that main theme? Because it’s hard to create an iconic theme regardless, but especially a new iconic theme in the Star Wars universe.
GÖRANSSON: Thank you. The first thing I started with was, after talking to Jon after he showed me the original concept art, he sent me all of the scripts. I read all the scripts, I went back to my studio and I knew, coming back to talking about when I was a child and a kid hearing Star Wars for the first time, something within me when I started writing music was like, okay, I want to get back to that feeling again. So, something that helped me a lot was to take a step away from the computer. Normally these days, you write the music sitting by the computer. You write it right into the computer and you see everything in a very linear format. And I want to take this away from that and just play instruments and play, just like I wrote music when I was a kid. Like playing instruments and just letting one instrument take me to another instrument. And so, one of the first things I did was I bought these recorder. Because I used to play that as a child…I used to play recorders.
GÖRANSSON: I mean everyone did. So I was like, okay, well I can add this to my studio. And I filled my whole room with instruments. Guitars, pianos, like 70s synthesizers and drums and I got a set up of five different recorders. The first thing I did was just started playing just recorders. And there was a bass recorder that had this really unique sound that I was really drawn to and I just started on improvising on that for like a day, and those notes that I started, that I was playing around with that, that was the very first notes you hear in The Mandalorian theme. So that was actually the very first thing I wrote for the show.
GÖRANSSON: And so I had these flute sounds, I added a little bit of a reverb and delay to it to make it sound more like space and more futuristic. You’ve never heard a bass recorder with these type of effects on them. So, a lot of people asked, “What’s that? Is that like an ethnic flute or something?” I’m like, no, it’s a recorder. They used bass recorders during the Baroque era. And then I don’t know, it was such an organic way for me to write music. I was literally closed off for a month in my studio just jumping around from instrument to instrument. Like these recorders, I started arriving at a recorder melody and then from that I got an idea to put like a heartbeat under it. I wanted it to be very direct and very intimate; I wanted it to feel small in the beginning. Like just using 3 to 4 instruments, very organic. So I went to the drum, I added this heartbeat kind of thing. And then I went from that to the piano and I wrote the baseline on a piano, and then I went from the piano to like my electric guitar and I wrote the first melody I would say on the electric guitar with distortion. And you can kind of hear it in the second verse on the soundtrack of The Mandalorian. And you can kind of hear the guitar in the background a little bit.
And then so it happened like, I wrote a five-minute song. That’s basically what I did. I wrote a five-minute song and then, I wrote five songs and then after a month I went back to Jon’s office and met up with Jon and [executive producer] Dave Filoni and I played them the first song, which was The Mandalorian theme. I played it for them on my iPhone because they were like in a rush going down to set. So I was in the elevator playing the theme on my phone and after like two seconds, Jon and Dave just both looked at each other like, that’s it, that’s the sound.
That’s awesome. So you were writing while they were filming. Did they use any music kind of on set while they were shooting or was this kind of towards the end of their production schedule?
GÖRANSSON: I think this was just when it started. So I played the music, they told me to come down and I played it for Bryce Dallas Howard when she was directing her episode. So she was listening to it and you know, they had this in their head early on while they were shooting the show.
That’s great. Obviously everyone is freaking out about Baby Yoda. What was your first reaction when you saw it and what was it like writing music for a creature like that?
GÖRANSSON: It was probably one of the most difficult parts of the musical language because Jon is extremely—I mean he is a genius. And you know the baby is so extremely cute, right? So the first thing you do when you see in it, you refer to it as Baby Yoda, and I would say he’s the character that’s the most close to Star Wars. So early on, my initial thought was to have the music a little bit more in the feel of Star Wars and a little bit more, you know, I can’t… there’s only one John Williams, obviously. But, I think early on I was like, okay, well are we tying into the Star Wars universe with Yoda? I think I like my first pass was like a little bit more kind of a Star Wars-y sounding theme for the the Baby Yoda character. And Jon kept telling me, “Hey, no, no, he is already visually so overly cute. So if we make the music cute as well, it’s going to be too much.” He was very adamant that the show, musically, is almost always being told from The Mandalorian’s perspective.
Oh, interesting. That makes sense.
GÖRANSSON: So, what The Mandalorian think the first time he sees this little creature? He’s not like, “Oh what, is this cute little thing?” He’s like, “Oh shit, this is not what I signed up for. I don’t even know what this is.” So all the music throughout the show is coming from The Mandalorian’s perspective and it’s what puts his facial expressions on screen because you don’t see his facial expression. He’s wearing a helmet the whole time. So musically I need to tell the audience what his facial expressions are saying.
That makes sense. Was that a major conversation early on? Did Jon tell you he’s not going to be removing his helmet and the music is going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of getting across the emotion of the character?
GÖRANSSON: It was, yeah. I think it’s something that’s so cool about the show. Is that you’re basically just following this lone gunslinger the whole time. There’s only one storyline, and you don’t see his face ever. You don’t see an emotional reaction to anything. So Jon was very, very, very, from my very first meeting, he was like, “You have a lot of work to do.”
There definitely is a really great Western tone to the episodes and in the music. I can hear a little bit of Ennio Morricone maybe. Did you have any specific Western influences when you started to kind of crafting the score?
GÖRANSSON: I think something that’s interesting that people don’t really talk about is like Ennio Morricone and John Williams, they are such great producers. If you think about what Ennio Morricone did with just one sound, you know, he has such a good ear for sound. If you think about his most iconic Western themes, it’s not about the melody, it’s about a sound. And how it immediately, just by playing one or two notes, catches your attention and it’s imprinted in your brain and in your memory for the rest of your life. And, so to be in the 70’s on the cutting edge of how to use sound and how to manipulate and use the sounds in scores is extremely fascinating. I think also, I was listening to some of the ways Ennio Morricone incorporated synth and modern technology in his scores, and also how John Williams did that also, in their very, very, very early days. How they used technology into their compositions. I thought that was interesting.
Was there one particular episode that was kind of the most fun for you to write the music for?
GÖRANSSON: I mean it’s so fun because they’re all different. They’re all so, very different. Every episode has its own themes. I could really take the music and shift it into new places in every episode. I think what’s so fun about it is that I think some people are going to love the music in Episode 4. Some people are going to love the music in Episode 6. There’s stuff for everyone. Some people are going to hate the music in Episode 6. And I think Episode 8 is probably—8 was really fun, but it’s also so much work. I mean, they’re all really fun. Everyone’s going to have their favorite. I’m excited bout that.
I find it interesting. I mean I adore your score. I’m also really loving Watchmen and what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are doing over there. It’s not just that these TV shows are using a couple of themes that you made. You guys are scoring full episodes. I was wondering if you found kind of working with contemporary artists like Childish Gambino, if that has influenced your scoring work or kind of how you’re approaching these episodically because it’s a really exciting time in music composition I think.
GÖRANSSON: Yeah. I mean, I think when I work with artists and I produce artists, I think something that I’m learning a lot is how to use these modern production tools and sound and to making something that sounds new and fresh. One of the things that I really wanted to do with this show was to combine these organic instruments that I had together with like a more gritty tech, modern tech production side. And then incorporate a third element, which is the orchestra. And every episode I recorded in LA with the whole studio symphony, like a 70-piece orchestra. For me it was just so fun to really have these three elements and make it feel like it’s one thing, you know? I want to make it feel like they all work together. Like, how do you write for orchestra, but also incorporate them into this tech world and make it sound new but also I wanted to honor the legacy of Star Wars and John William’s music, which is very orchestral. So that was important for me, for every episode to have like the orchestra in there and then also make it feel more organic and alive and human.
So I think for me, working with artists that I’m producing artists, I’ve learned a lot, especially what it is to collaborate. For this, this show, we did eight episodes and there’s going to be eight different albums coming out.
I know you can’t say much, but I’m incredibly excited for to hear what you’re working on for Tenant. I was wondering if you could kind of talk about what it’s been like working with Christopher Nolan on that one.
GÖRANSSON: I can’t really talk about it right now. I’m extremely excited and, you know, I’m very honored and grateful to be working with I’d say the most incredible director that is constantly pushing the boundaries in film. And I’m extremely excited.
New episodes of The Mandalorian debut every Friday on Disney+.