On The Mandalorian, Ludwig Göransson joined the very small list of composers who have had the chance to put their stamp on the Star Wars universe, crafting a singular sound for the modern space Western by tapping into his inner child.
Created by Jon Favreau, the drama centers on Din Djarin, a lone Mandalorian bounty hunter, who methodically hunts down criminals in the outer reaches of the galaxy.
Earning his first Emmy nomination for The Mandalorian, after winning an Oscar last year for Black Panther, Göransson will always remember his first meeting with Favreau on the project, during pre-production. “I got a call that wanted to see me, and I went down to his office in Playa del Rey. As soon as I go in there, I see Jon in the middle of this big room, and he’s surrounded by all this incredible visual art for the show,” the composer recalls. “Jon comes up to me and starts telling me about the show, about his inspiration— about samurai movies and Westerns—and I was just kind of astounded, and really inspired. I think from the very start of our conversations, I got to understand that it was going to be a really fun experience.”
Pretty quickly, Göransson recognized what it was that Favreau was looking for in The Mandalorian score—simply put, something that was exciting and new. Heading into a universe most closely associated with the work of a legendary composer—five-time Oscar winner John Williams—Göransson also knew that he had his work cut out for him. “What John Williams created for Star Wars was probably the best film music out there—at least, the most known film music. I remember watching the movies as a kid and the impact the visuals and the music had with me,” he says. “I can still remember that feeling, and it was that feeling that I wanted to try to recreate.”
Operating on instinct, the composer’s first move as he went about his work was to purchase a set of woodwind recorders—instruments that were as far away from Star Wars’ existing musical vocabulary as possible, which would lead to a sound no one would expect. “I guess because I played that as a kid, when I was about seven or eight years old, I knew I could play it,” Göransson says. “I wanted to take a step away from the computer, and just lock myself in the studio for a month with a bunch of different instruments, and start recording songs.”
For Göransson, a different kind of sound, and an energizing process resulted from turning first to instruments that he could actually play himself. “I was almost connecting with the way I used to write music as a kid, just having the space, and one instrument led me to another,” he says. “It’s almost like a puzzle, and it made me feel very creative. It made me feel like a child again.”
Having seen visuals and read scripts for The Mandalorian, Göransson stayed in his studio over the course of a month, immersed in an improvisatory, meditative state, and subsequently, he emerged with five songs—each one a theme for a particular character, including Din Djarin himself. “I remember after I recorded those songs, I went to set to meet up with Jon, and he was shooting with Bryce Dallas Howard at the time. He pulled me aside, and I took my phone out and played him the first notes of the Mando theme,” the composer recalls. “And a couple of seconds in, Jon just stops and is like, ‘Hey, this is it. That’s the sound of the show.’”
Ultimately, the score for Favreau’s series would be a fusion of different elements, including organic, solo instruments like the recorder, a full symphony orchestra and modern production—a mix that would complement the world the creator envisioned. “The world he created is so big, and there’s so many characters, so many planets and locations, so we always wanted to also put in an element of this tech and modern production, and also the big, sweeping, romantic orchestra,” Göransson says. “When we have all those three elements—the organic, the tech and the orchestra—we can really do anything we want.”
Naturally, one challenge for Göransson on the project came with the recognition that his music would be compared to that of Williams, one of the all-time greats in the craft of composing, who has left an indelible mark on Star Wars. “Obviously, no one’s going to write music that is as great as what John Williams did,” the composer notes. The goal, then, for Göransson, was to hit the mark he sets for himself with his own work, and follow his own sense of what worked best for the show at hand. “I set a very high bar, [in] that every piece of music needs to hold a certain class, and needs to be, in itself, interesting. And also, even if it at times sounds easy, there’s always something that I would say is clever about it,” he says. “I put a lot of thought in every piece of music, [so] that it has some musical value to it.”
For Göransson, the highlight of Season 1 was simply being able to see his music come to life on the scoring stage. “I was so lucky on the show, where every episode, we recorded with a 70-piece orchestra, with the LA Studio Symphony at Fox. That’s one of my favorite parts of the process, when you’ve written all this music and you get to the stage, and you’d be able to hear 70 people putting their human touch, playing their instruments and really making it come alive,” he says. “Especially for something like Star Wars, that was incredibly needed, and you can really tell the dynamic that comes with that. It really makes a difference.”
Currently, the composer is in the middle of his work on the highly anticipated second season of the Disney+ hit. “We started a couple of months ago, and I’m extremely excited,” he shares. “Jon’s taking the story into places that I didn’t know existed, and I think it’s so fun.”
In recent months, Göransson has also been putting his finishing touches on the score for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet—the blockbuster that everyone has been waiting to see, which has had its theatrical release delayed several times over, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “I had started on it a year ago, so I was pretty deep into it, and fortunately for everyone, we were able to finish it,” he says. “Most of the music that we created for this movie was music that I could do at my studio and in my computer. I actually brought my studio with me back home, and worked from my bedroom for three months, and it did work out really well.”
Certainly, the composer has had a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Tenet, in more ways than one. Not many composers can say they’ve completed a score in the midst of a pandemic—but then again, who would want to? “It’s definitely been interesting to see how it all develops, and out of everything I’ve worked on, this is definitely an experience that you need to have in the theater. It seems like they’re opening up the theaters internationally first, and I think people need something like this right now. They need to watch something and experience something, to also be able to kind of get away for a little bit,” Göransson says, “and every time I’ve seen this movie, it just blows me away. There’s so many levels to it, and so much to take in. I can’t wait to see how people react to it.”
Starring Robert Pattinson and John David Washington, the film is now set to open overseas in August ahead of its U.S. debut. For Göransson, the takeaway from working with one of the great masters of cinema was to see for himself how much Nolan understands about music. “I know from watching his films how savvy he is with music, how much he understands it, but I didn’t fully know that he could speak about it almost like a trained musician. So, I was blown away by that. And also, just the way that he’s open with experimentation, and pushes me to really try out new things, and things that I maybe would think that people want to hold off on,” he says. “This was like, ‘Let’s try it and see how it works,’ and it was an eye-opening experience.”