The music of Star Wars is arguably the most iconic thing about it. John Williams’ scores for the eight (soon nine) film saga are instantly recognisable to people who don’t even know the movies. In fact, George Lucas often credits Williams’ music with making the films so successful. Dipping a toe in that type of legacy seems like an unenviable, damn near impossible task. Ludwig Göransson agrees.
Göransson is the Oscar-winning composer behind a new TV show you may have heard of called The Mandalorian. The composer has previously worked with director Ryan Coogler on all his films, including Black Panther, for which Göransson won an Oscar.
He’s also a frequent collaborator of Lando Calrissian himself, Donald Glover, in his music career as Childish Gambino. It was through those two connections that Göransson found himself working with executive producer Jon Favreau on a completely new type of Star Wars story, a live-action TV show.
Tackling Star Wars was a challenge, but three episodes into the eight-episode first season, Göransson’s more than lived up to the high expectations that came along with the gig. His Mandalorian music is wholly different from what Williams did for the franchise; it’s bombastic and weird enough to feel like Star Wars while also filling its own unique space in the galaxy.
Last week, Göransson took a few minutes out of his busy schedule (which includes working with Christopher Nolan on his new sci-fi film, Tenet) to talk about his inspirations for The Mandalorian, if he can use Williams’ themes, his Star Wars history, Baby Yoda, and so much more.
Gizmodo: To start, what is your relationship with Star Wars? How big of a fan were you growing up? Were you a fan growing up? Tell me a little bit about your background with the franchise even before you got into composing films.
Ludwig Göransson: I would say my big introduction to Star Wars was through the music. The Star Wars film score is was what got me into classical music. So I saw the movies when I was younger but…it was the music that stuck with me for the rest of my life. And I remember, through the Star Wars music, I was like, “OK, where can I hear music that sounds like this?” And thanks to that I heard The Planets [by Gustav Holst] and then I went onto classical music. So it was extremely important to me.
Gizmodo: So knowing what Star Wars music meant to you, what were your initial thoughts when you talked to Jon Favreau about The Mandalorian? Was it fear? Was it pressure?
Göransson: I think it was an extreme excitement. I mean, Star Wars is like the holy grail of film scores. And to be able to work with those in that universe, with those visuals and with that legacy, obviously, it’s extreme pressure. But it’s also extremely exciting. I think I took the pressure part and just kind of turned it into something more inspiring and exciting for me.
Gizmodo: So at the start of this, I heard that you sat down and read all eight scripts at once. As that’s happening, are you instantly thinking of music, or what is your mind doing as you’re first experiencing this story from beginning to end?
Göransson: I was just so drawn to the scripts. [But] I think in my mind I was making some notes. “OK, this is a recurring theme. These guys are coming back.” Because after I read it, I immediately called Jon and talked about his thoughts about who should the themes be for, what kind of music are you looking for, and how do you want it to sound?
Gizmodo: Did you approach the work as one multi-hour movie, or eight individual episodes?
Göransson: It feels like three different movies. [Laughs] It feels like I scored three films. I mean, it’s kind of hard to remember now because it was just so much work. It was a lot of music and it was a lot of episodes but I think I saw them as one thing. Musically, thematically, I definitely wanted it to feel like one movie. It was important to me that all the themes were in every episode. That they kept developing and they kept reoccurring. And you hear them in different shapes and different forms. But then also I wanted each episode to have a very distinct sound. So the theme can be played in another episode where they’re on a different planet [and] it’ll sound a totally different way.
Gizmodo: Obviously, the music in The Mandalorian is very different from what we’re used to in the Star Wars films. Was it a mandate from the beginning to have it be new and its own thing, or was there ever a time where this show was going to sound more like John Williams?
Göransson: My original thoughts and my original themes, I think, were a little bit more tied to the Star Wars sound as we know it. But Jon was like, “We have time.” So he wanted me to experiment and see how far we could take it. And if there were some sounds that he was reacting to, I was immediately like, “I’ll keep developing that sound.” So I think I started more in the vein of the Star Wars sound that we used to and then Jon kept wanting to take it to new places. And I think in the end, looking at it, he knew what he was doing.
Gizmodo: You said you had time and I was actually curious about that. What was the timeline and workflow on the project? Was it different than other projects you’d been on? Close to a movie? Tell me about your process.
Göransson: Yeah, I had time which was extremely important. Anything you work on it’s important you have time. Usually, on TV, it’s not the case that you have time. But in this case, I wrote five or six songs after reading the scripts. My process is I went back to the studio after I read the scripts and met up with Jon and I closed myself off for a month.
I wanted to take a step away from the computer because I remember Star Wars made such a big impression on me as a child. Hearing these sounds, to me, it felt like I was in a different world. It felt like I was on a different planet listening to this music. And I kind of wanted to get that playfulness with me again when I was creating this music.
So I closed myself off in my studio with just instruments that I played myself. I had guitars, drums, and I bought a set of recorders because I used to play recorders when I was six or seven years old. So I knew I could play them.
That’s kind of where I started off writing this music, and I wrote five or six songs and then I took them back to Jon and Dave [Filoni]. And I played them the first song, which was the Mandalorian theme, but in a totally different rendition than what you hear on the soundtrack. Like my rendition was this flute, a tom, a piano, and electric guitar. And after hearing the first notes of the flute, Jon and Dave looked at each other and they were like, “Oh, yeah, that’s this theme. That’s his sound.”
Gizmodo: That actually plays right into my next question. That Mandalorian theme that we hear throughout and plays over the credits, did you know that was going to be the theme when you came up with it? And how did you come up it?
Göransson: It was the first thing I started with. The first day I was in my studio just playing these recorders. It was a set. I got a set of about five different recorders. I started with the alto recorder and the biggest one was a bass recorder. I’d never seen that before. I never played that before. And immediately when I started playing it, it had such a unique special sound. It sounded warm and intimate. And I just played around with it for a full day, just like kind of sitting down, it was kind of meditative.
I was playing this kind of [singing] “Do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do.” And I recorded that and I told my engineer to put a reverb and a delay on it so you could make it feel futuristic. So you take this really old baroque instrument and put a futuristic soundscape on it and it sounds like you’re in space. So that’s what I started with.
And then when I heard it, I was “OK, let’s put it like a heartbeat on this.” I wanted to feel very intimate and small. So I went to the tom and I played this kind of heartbeat rhythm on the tom. [Singing] “Do, duda, do, duda do, duda do.” Immediately from that, I got inspired to go to the piano. I sat down and wrote the baseline, [singing] “Do do, duda do, da do.” And then I went to the electric guitar and I played the melody, with a distorted guitar.
In the soundtrack version, you can kind of hear the distorted guitar in the background, I think on the second verse. It was so fun. I was walking around from instrument to instrument. It’s like putting a puzzle together. And after three days, I had a four-minute song.
Gizmodo: That’s awesome. So you were inspired by the recorders, but does the score have any other musical influences besides Star Wars? I thought maybe some Middle Eastern with the flutes and stuff. Is there anything specific or is it just all baked in the back of your head and it pops out?
Göransson: Yeah. I mean, it’s really funny. Everyone has their own perception of what this sounds like. Some people are like, “Oh, I hear South American ethnic flutes.” And it’s like, I don’t want to disappoint people and say it’s a baroque recorder. But I think something that I was listening to a lot was, I was very intrigued by what was John Williams’ mindset at the time. What was he inspired by? What did he do at the time? He has written [hundreds], I don’t know how many, [hundreds] of scores for movies or something. And there’s so much music that you haven’t heard.
I did some research and listened to a bunch of weird, not weird, maybe “somewhat less common” soundtracks that John Williams did. And [Ennio] Morricone as well. I was always intrigued by how did they, in the 1970s, use modern technology into their music. And there was this soundtrack called Earthquake that John Williams did that I thought was super interesting. He had some synth in there and drums and also Morricone scored some Italian movie that that kind of looked like Star Wars. And he had some synthesizers in there. So I was listening to a lot of old vinyls.
Gizmodo: Very cool. That makes sense. Now we’re only in three episodes in so we have no idea what’s coming next. Bur right now, everyone is talking about Baby Yoda. What were your thoughts when you read about the character? How did you want to represent it musically?
Göransson: The first theme I wrote for him, or her, or for that character, was this very Star Wars-y sounding cute, like adventurous melody that really felt like it fit into the Star Wars universe or the Star Wars Yoda character sound. It was one of my favourite things that I’d written and I put it into the end of the first episode and first time Jon heard it, he told me “I want to feel the scene from the Mandalorian’s perspective.” The Mandalorian doesn’t think it’s super cute.
He’s like, “What the hell is this?” He’s not sure what he thinks. He’s probably pissed off. And so I kind of had to rethink what I was doing and kind of go with something that was playing the Mandalorian’s expressions and his feelings and emotions. Because you can’t see [them]. That’s the thing. He is using a helmet the whole time. So you don’t see his facial expressions so the music needs to tell that story.
Gizmodo: So is there’s a chance we’ll hear that theme later in the season?
Göransson: You hear the beginning of it in the end of episode one. And then you hear it also in episode two when the Mudhorn’s lifting. And, you know, I probably wouldn’t call it “The Baby Yoda Theme.” I would probably call it more “The Mandalorian’s Reaction to Dealing With This Creature.” And maybe, later on, [Baby Yoda] will have its own theme.
Gizmodo: OK, excellent. Stepping back for a second, I first became a fan of your work through Creed. I love that movie and I especially love that you only used the iconic Bill Conti Rocky score once, in the precise right moment giving it an even bigger emotional impact. For The Mandalorian, obviously you can’t spoil anything, but if you wanted to do that again with John Williams Star Wars’ music, could you do that? Or is there no chance we’ll hear those themes?
Göransson: I mean, I think we can. Right? It’s the same [universe]. Those creative conversations and discussions are something that we had a lot. And, it just needs to be right for the story. I think that’s what Jon and Dave Filoni have tackled so well so far in the show. Everything is just tailored so well to the story. And if there’s a moment that really…you just really need to earn it. That’s why in Creed, for example, we did we didn’t use the Rocky theme until the very last five minutes of the movie. And when it’s used like that, that’s when it works. That’s when it gives you that feeling, you know?
Gizmodo: I completely agree. What about Star Wars music makes it Star Wars music? In other words, what about your music links it to John Williams music, that links it to the other people who’ve scored movies? Is there something that makes Star Wars music, Star Wars music?
Göransson: I mean, what Star Wars music means to me is, it made me go to places. It made my imagination go to new places I haven’t been before. And I could just listen to it and close my eyes and, it put dreams inside of me. I think it’s because [Williams] is just such an incredible composer. He used the orchestra in a way where you haven’t really heard it in films before.
It took me to a different planet. It made me feel like I’m in space. And that’s a feeling that I was trying to recreate. I want people to listen to this and feel like they don’t know where they are. Are we on a different planet? [Laughs].
Gizmodo: Last thing, with the fourth episode coming, and then four more, are there any big themes or things that you’re excited about people hearing without spoiling? Is there anything you can tease?
Göransson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, something that was so exciting about this show is that every episode has its own identity. I’m still tying everything together with themes but for every episode, I was able to give it its own identity. And there are new themes coming in.
I think in every episode there are gonna be new themes and new characters and new places coming in to place. And what I’m really excited about is that I know there’s such a diverse crowd that watches this show and some people love some things and some people love other things. And so I think there’s going to be something for everyone in each episode. So some people are gonna love [episode] four and some people are gonna love the music in [episode] six. There are some good things coming.
The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+, with the next episode landing this Friday.