Composer Ludwig Göransson received an Academy Award for his original score to 2018’s Black Panther. To prepare for that opportunity, he traveled to Africa to research instrumentation and sounds unique to the continent. That led to Göransson stretching the expectations of a Marvel Cinematic Universe score in unique and creative ways. Now, he’s in the running for another Oscar for his brilliant score to Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster historic epic Oppenheimer.
Based on the book American Prometheus, Oppenheimer explores J. Robert Oppenheimer’s journey from his early days at Cambridge to his leadership on the Manhattan Project during which he and an unparalleled team of scientists developed the first atomic bomb in a makeshift community in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It concludes with Oppenheimer defending his choices and his very reputation in front of a government panel.
That epic journey through many of the most historically significant moments of American history gave Göransson the enviable opportunity to create a similarly epic score. Yet, he defied expectations by focusing his sonic narrative on an intimate, personal journey through Oppenheimer’s mind. Göransson created what is widely referred to as a “first-person score” that followed the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer through these tumultuous moments in his life.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Göransson outlines exactly how he achieved this first-person score. He reveals how strings, so prevalent in classic horror film scores, becomes an intimate component of Oppenheimer’s character. He talks about his working relationship with director Christopher Nolan and how this experience differed from his last Nolan project, Tenet. He also shares his process in creating the score, beginning with nine months of exploratory sessions with his accomplished violinist wife Serena McKinney and resulting in a 5-day recording session to realize full score for the 3-hour film.
Finally, Göransson talks about the unique path to creating the score by using Nolan’s screenplay without seeing a single frame of footage. He allowed Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame to position the score in the finished product where they best saw fit.
Awards Daily: So you worked with Christopher Nolan previously on Tenet. Obviously, these are two very different films, but did your approach to Oppenheimer differ from your process with Tenet?
Ludwig Göransson: Yes. I feel like the approach changed in terms of already having a relationship allowed me to take some bigger risks. One of the great things with Chris is that I get involved early on at the script level. After reading the script, we have about two or three months before he starts shooting the film. During these two or three months, that’s when we start writing the score. That’s also when we start experimenting and trying to find some world for the score. The only direction Chris gave me on Oppenheimer was that he was interested in using the violin to channel Oppenheimer’s personality and his emotions.
Awards Daily: Talking about the violin, you commented in a Vanity Fair article earlier in the year about wanting to create this as a “first-person score.” What does it mean to you to have a “first-person score?” How does that concept then make its way into your choice of instrumentation — in this case, the violin?
Ludwig Göransson: Basically it means that I need to try to go to all the places that [Oppenheimer] goes to in the film. Some of it is emotions and feelings that I’ve been through and I can relate to, especially in the beginning where there are a lot of feelings of loneliness and trying to find yourself. That’s where the first drops of Oppenheimer’s theme comes in. You have this intimate violin playing and performing Oppenheimer’s theme. As the storyline develops, we go into some of the more complicated emotions. That took some time and was also sometimes uncomfortable to create that kind of music.
Awards Daily: So, the solitary violin helps underscore that emotional throughput of Oppenheimer.
Ludwig Göransson: Yeah. Sometimes, it’s the violin. Sometimes it’s the sound design or synth. The whole score is driven by the violin and the strings. That’s the engine. That’s the main DNA of the score. One of the things that that we wanted to do was to use the violin and the strings, but to use these conventional techniques but turn it around and portray them in a way that you haven’t heard them before. For example, I think strings a lot of times in horror films are used as scary clusters. That’s a very conventional way of using a string orchestra. We wanted to try out was how we can take the string clusters but play them in a soft note with a beautiful round vibrato. In one scene, for example, you see Oppenheimer in the courtroom telling his wife and telling the world about his affair with Jane Tatlock. You have these beautiful chords, and then all of a sudden they’re like gliding into something completely horrific. How you can go in between those feelings in an uncomfortable way was something that we played around with.
Awards Daily: Jumping ahead a bit, how does the last section of the film dealing primarily with the hearings differ or build upon what you’d previously created for the earlier sections of the film?
Ludwig Göransson: For the third act in the courtroom, Chris had an idea. He wanted to score that like an action film. It’s a few people in a tiny small courtroom with wall-to-wall dialogue. I thought that was a very interesting idea. He asked me to write a 30 minute piece of music that had that tension and made you sit on the edge of the seat. I wrote it and sent it to him, and he and Jennifer Lame [editor] used that piece of music to make a cut. They cut that scene down to 20 minutes, and they sent to me and then I rescored that scene and sent it back. Then they took that cue and cut it down even more to a 12 minute version. So much of the collaboration was a lot of back and forth to fine tune and really craft that scene together.
Awards Daily: Conversely, how do you as a composer score such an awe-inspiring moment as the Trinity test?
Ludwig Göransson: It really actually starts right before the actual tests, which is when you actually see the bomb. Up until that point, everything is theories and scribbles and conversations, and the music is very organic and lush and beautiful. When you actually see the bomb, the music takes a big turn and goes into something very ominous. I’m not using any organic instruments there. I’m using just sound design. I have like a heart throbbing bass operating like a pulse like it’s your own heart pounding. Then, I built in a little tiny click and metallic click that sounds like a Geiger counter. Then, these radioactive sounds are like crackling in the speakers. That really makes you feel and highlight the gravitas of that moment.
Awards Daily: So the score at that moment is meant to elicit fear and terror from the audience?
Ludwig Göransson: Fear. Terror. This is actually real. This is not a theory anymore. This is a real thing that can potentially blow up the whole world. If we drop it now, we will be all gone.
Awards Daily: You recorded the score in five days, but how long did it take you to create it?
Ludwig Göransson: I created the music in about nine months. The first couple of months were a lot of experimentation with my wife Serena, an accomplished violinist. We spent a lot of hours experimenting with microtonal glissandos trying to create different air sirens and then also coming up with the main theme, which is like the fragile Oppenheimer theme. Then, I had a string quartet come by the studio, and I experimental more, made it bigger. Then, I had an octet come in. The dynamic kept getting bigger and bigger. The last five days is when I had the whole orchestra. That was the fight. We had five days during which it was a pretty heavy fire. We did a lot in those five days.
Awards Daily: That nine month period leading up to the recording sessions, are you sending cues into to Chris?
Ludwig Göransson: He’s extremely engaged so that, when he starts shooting his film, he has about three hours of music that we have created together. Chris and I created our sound world before he started shooting the film. When he started cutting it with Jennifer Lame and created the first director’s cut, they put the music that I’ve written in.
Awards Daily: Which is unusual, right? You’re basically composing from the script, rather than seeing finished footage.
Ludwig Göransson: Exactly. I love that way of working. I think that’s very unique, and I think that’s very important, too. Having that time to write music that’s not dependent on the length of the scene is extremely important.
Awards Daily: What was your reaction to their placement of those themes within their edits?
Ludwig Göransson: The way that Chris places the music in the scenes on that first cut was really helpful. He and Jennifer created a great roadmap because it’s so complex. It’s a lot to grasp. Already having them doing that all that groundwork in the beginning, putting my music into that first cut is, is really helpful.Sometimes Chris puts a cue in a scene where I wouldn’t have thought to put to put that music. Chris has such a unique ear and unique way of storytelling through music, too. I think it’s fascinating.
Awards Daily: It’s a beautiful score, and while this isn’t completely new, there was a lot of buzz earlier this year with people listening to your score as if it were the latest Taylor Swift album. How does that moment feel as a composer?
Ludwig Göransson: Oh, it’s so gratifying. It’s really special when you work on a project that reaches out to so many people, and as soon as they go home from the theater, they want to go back to that world. They can do that just by the music itself when they’re at home. That’s a kind of pinch your arm moment.