Ludwig Göransson on discovering Donald Glover was Childish Gambino, 'Black Panther' Oscar win and haunting 'Oppenheimer' score

Oscar, Emmy and Grammy-winning composer breaks down his greatest hits (so far).

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Everett Collective, Getty Images
(l to r) Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ludwig Göransson and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer. Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Everett Collective, Getty Images
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It might seem odd to do a career retrospective for a 39-year-old composer.

But Ludwig Göransson has already achieved a career’s worth of milestones in under four decades in existence — and less than 15 years in Hollywood.

He’s become a go-to composer for highest-echelon filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Christopher Nolan. He won an Oscar and a Grammy for his work on Black Panther. He entered the Star Wars universe with The Mandalorian and promptly won two Emmys.

He’s followed in the enormous footsteps of Bill Conti (evolving the composer’s famed Rocky score for Creed), Hans Zimmer (stepping in for Nolan’s longtime collaborator on Tenet when Zimmer was committed to Dune) and John Williams (performing some of the most innovative work this side of a galaxy far, far away since the 53-time Oscar nominee’s original themes).

Yet the Swedish composer, songwriter and record producer represents an entirely new school of composers. He can conduct the hell out of an orchestra, but he’s also a hip-hop and pop savant who helped introduce Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino to the world and has produced for the likes of Rihanna, Justin Timberlake and Kendrick Lamar. He can’t even tell you how many instruments he can play, but it’s probably pretty much all of them beyond the string section (though his wife, violinist Serena McKinney, has those covered).

And Göransson is very, very likely to bring home his second Academy Award in three tries for his brooding, overpowering (in a good way) work on Nolan’s nuclear weapon opus Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy as the eponymous, tortured creator of the atom bomb.

With Oppenheimer releasing this week on 4K Ultra HD, Göransson conducts us through some of the highlights of his still-young career, with many clearly still to come.

On landing his first big professional break when the Russo Brothers hired him on Community (2009-2014):

“I was an assistant for a film composer. His name is Theodore Shapiro, incredible composer. And he had done a movie together with the Russo Brothers, [You, Me and Dupree]. And they called him up and they were like, ‘Hey, do you want to score our new TV show?’ And Teddy was like, ‘I'd love to, but I don't have time right now. My assistant is super-talented. I can vouch for him.’ And they listened to my reel, and the brothers liked it… It was a big deal for me. I didn't have any IMDb credits… And to be able to get that chance was huge.

“[Creator] Dan Harmon was so involved and put a lot of weight on the music. I spent seven days a week, like 18 hours a day working on the music for this show. And every episode was different. We went from Star Wars sounding like to Lord of the Rings, and one episode was about a paintball episode, so it was action music, and I wrote musicals. I wrote songs for the cast to come in and sing. And that's how I met Donald Glover.”

On discovering Donald Glover’s alter ego as rapper Childish Gambino, whom he’d produce multiple albums for as well as the buzzy single “This Is America”:

“He was coming over to my studio and he was singing the An American Tale song ‘Somewhere Out There.’ I made this amazing arrangement going from Irish flamenco to pop. And Donald and Danny Pudi were singing this, and we had a great time in the studio. I mean, it's a great song. And so we bonded and cracked jokes, and then it wasn't more than that. And then a week later, I get an email from Donald saying, ‘Hey, man, I'm also an artist. I'm also a rapper, and I've been working on my new mixtape called Culdesac, and I don't know a lot of music people in L.A. and I wondered if you can maybe help me mix some songs.’ And first I was like, OK, a lot of actors think they can do music. But then as soon as I heard the song, I was like, 'Oh my God, he can really sing.’ So I called him and said, ‘Hey, I'd love to work on this with you.’ And I went to his downtown loft and we sat up there in the top floor and just cranked out music together. It was like recording drums, rearranging some stuff, and that became the start of our partnership.”

On meeting Ryan Coogler for the first time while both were students at USC, leading to collaborations on Coogler’s 2011 short film Fig, his breakout 2013 feature Fruitvale Station, and every movie he’s directed:

“I moved to L.A. in 2007, and I went to USC, and somehow I moved into a fraternity house. This frat house was closed down, so it was only for grad students. That's how I got in there. One of my dorm mates was in Ryan's program. We had a party one night, and we started playing pool, and me and Ryan started playing pool together, and we started talking about music, and he mentioned all these Swedish artists that he knew. I was like, ‘How do you know about Little Dragon and Lykke Li?’ And he was like, ‘I just love this music.’ And then I started talking about movies that I love, and we became friends first. And then it wasn't until maybe four months later that he was doing his student film, and he asked me if I could score it. And we're sitting there in my little dorm in fraternity row and just trying to work on music... People were just partying outside. And he was so enthusiastic about what he heard, and it was really a friendship first that became a professional relationship.”

On evolving the famous sounds of Rocky for Coogler’s 2015 spinoff Creed:

“It was very daunting. I would say the Rocky theme [Bill Conti’s 'Fanfare for Rocky'] is one of the most popular music themes of all time. And to enter that franchise with that music and try to make something new and something different was very challenging. But Ryan Coogler was always so supportive, and I knew that he got my back, and I just wanted his vision to come to life. I studied the original Rocky score, and we started off trying to make something completely new. And then I think somehow there was some kind of connection, because obviously [Sylvester] Stallone was in the movie too, so there was some of that drawback from those scores. But it was also something new, especially with Michael B. Jordan’s incredible performance in it. We kind of created a new sound for the franchise, but with help from the old one.

“I remember [Stallone] came by the scoring stage. I think when we were recording it with the orchestra, and we cranked it up pretty loud. And I remember seeing him shadowboxing in the corner.”

On entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and traveling to Africa to score Black Panther (2018):

“I think I know Ryan pretty well, and I know when he's about to do anything or any project, I know it's going to be special because the heart and emotion and so much of himself that he puts into it, it's always going to be fantastic. And obviously with Black Panther, I'd never done a big project like that before, and it was a lot of pressure that I put on myself. I read the script and I knew the only way to get it right was to go to Africa and to record it with some incredible musicians over there and learn more about music.

“I met the incredible artist Baaba Mal, who we ended up bringing in to sing and be the voice of Wakanda. When you fly into Wakanda for the first time, you hear his voice. And he brought me in on tour with him all over Senegal. Me and my wife, Serena, we were there together with him traveling around for two, three weeks, meeting his band, meeting his musicians. But what was most important was to [understand] in Africa, music isn't performance. Music is a culture. So you play specific music at specific rituals. So music means something. You play this rhythm. If someone's moving out from your town, from your household, you play this rhythm. If someone dies, you play this rhythm. So everything has a meaning to it. And that was important to how we got that into the music of the film as well.”

On entering the Star Wars universe with The Mandalorian (2019-2020), of which he scored the first two seasons:

“I was saying [earlier] how ‘Fanfare for Rocky’ is one of the most famous piece of music. I would say the Star Wars theme is maybe the most famous piece of film score. But [creator] Jon Favreau was really adamant from the get-go that he wanted to do something different, but also pay respect and use the soul of the original Star Wars music. And my first meeting with Jon, it was at his office, and he opened the door, and I went into his room and I saw just all the images on the walls full of these beautiful images… And he told me the story about The Mandalorian and showed me the worlds. And I knew immediately that I needed to do something very different. And he was just very supportive of that. So the first thing I did was to order a set of recorders, and I wanted to take a step back from the computer, so I went into the woods and just started trying to learn how to play bass recorder.

“I can't really count them all, but I play a lot of instruments. And that's also how the Mandalorian main theme came about. It was me putting all the instruments [out]. I had the recorders in the middle, drums, guitars, bass synthesizers, and I was just in a really good, fun state of play mode. It almost felt like I was a kid again, and was just walking around putting together puzzles of music instruments and walking around and playing and having a great time. And then that music came out of it.”

On getting that first phone call from Christopher Nolan to score Tenet (2020):

“It was a little surreal. It was definitely surreal because I've been a fan of him for so long. All of his films, the way he uses music, I love what he did with Hans Zimmer, and Hans Zimmer's scores for all of his films. And also David Julian. They're so prolific and push so many boundaries in music, and they’re so influential in the music world and film score world… And obviously it was kind of nerve-wracking to go in for that first meeting.

“I think everything is interesting timing-wise, how everything happened in my career. I started off with the Creed franchise and then going into the Star Wars franchise, and then starting working with Christopher Nolan right after that. And the movies he did with Zimmer had such a specific, beautiful, incredible sound. I think with Tenet, what he was doing with that movie and the world that we built was something completely different from anything I've done before.”

On the emotional experience of scoring Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) after the death of Chadwick Boseman:

“It was a lot of confusing thoughts at the time and confusing feelings. I think we were all a family. Ryan brings the same crew around, the same people who worked on the first one were working on the second one, and everyone is so close to each other because it's an intense project. The first one was intense. We spent a lot of time together. The second one was incredibly intense because there was even a script before Chad passed that we were about to get started on, and then this happened. And so it was a very confusing and sad time. And Ryan, I think he's such a good friend, and he kept the family together and he pushed through with this incredible story that inspired everyone. And I think what came out of it was just such a beautiful labor of love. And also my part of it, which was also writing the score, but also producing and be part of the whole soundtrack was a lot of work.”

On the daunting prospect of scoring Nolan’s visually and sonically ambitious Oppenheimer:

“We were just coming out of Wakanda Forever, which was a big, heavy project. And then stepping into [Oppenheimer], I didn't know what the movie was about before I read the script. Chris didn't give me any hints beforehand. So I go in and I sit down and I read the script, and that had a big impact on me. I never read a script where it comes from a first person point of view like that, when you just get sucked into his personality, seeing what he sees through his eyes and immediately understanding that I understood that the music needs to do the same thing. It needs to put the audience in his shoes.

“The first guidance that Chris gave me with the score was, he didn't say a lot, but he said that he wanted to use the violin as embodying Oppenheimer's personality. And he was interested in experimenting with that instrument because of the nature of that instrument, how it's a fretless instrument, and you can go from romantic to neurotic to horrifying within split seconds just based off the performance of the player. And my wife, Serena, is an incredible accomplished violinist. So I was fortunate enough to go in the studio and just work with her in the beginning and just experiment and try to create this sound world that we were trying to make for Oppenheimer.”

Oppenheimer is now on 4K Ultra HD.

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