The Mandalorian sounds different from any other Star Wars movie or show we’ve seen before. Gone is the classic John Williams score and the more traditional scores from Michael Giacchino and John Powell. The Jon Favreau-created series embraces its western influences in the soundscape, with some industrial sounds mixed in for good measure.
Oscar-winner Ludwig Goransson scores The Mandalorian. In the last 10 years, Goransson has made quite a name for himself scoring major films like Creed, Creed II, Black Panther, Venom and the upcoming Christopher Nolan film Tenet. Goransson is also part of Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino.
Goransson spoke with /Film about his work on The Mandalorian after two of the show’s episodes aired on Disney+. New episodes of The Mandalorian premiere Fridays on Disney+.
Are you still scoring future episodes of The Mandalorian as we speak?
I’m done. I can relax and talk to you right now.
Is there a western influence to the Mandalorian score?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the early conversations I had with Jon was asking what his inspiration was. He mentioned samurai films and westerns. So my job is what you see visually or story trying to depict that in the music as well.
Does that mean classic western scores like Morricone and Elmer Bernstein?
I think something that’s really interesting, being inspired by some of the great film composers like John Williams and Morricone is that something Morricone was so great at is being a music producer. Some of the most iconic western scores, it was just taking one sound, playing one note, just making it so distinctive so the first time you hear it it’s burnt into your brain for the rest of your life. I think that’s something I was very inspired by through my whole career, how you can make a sound and make it super distinctive.
Does any John Williams influence creep in?
Yeah, absolutely. Something that was very important to me was one of the important things I did when I was writing the score, I was trying to go back to feelings and emotions when I heard Star Wars for the first time. I think what I remember the most was hearing the music and how it transferred me. It felt like I was in space. I felt like I was on a different planet hearing this music for the first time. To me, it’s like how can I take the soul of that and capture those emotions with my music? That’s what I did the whole time.
Yet it sounds different from any Star Wars music we’ve ever heard before.
Was that also the goal, to take those emotions you’re describing but not do John Williams?
You mean not using his themes?
Well, does his theme ever appear in The Mandalorian?
I can’t give you any spoilers but I did a lot of research. To me, I was always intrigued by what was John Williams thinking at the time, ’75, ’76? What was the music he was listening to? What were some of the other scores he did at the time? How did he use modern elements into his music, as a producer incorporate modern technology into his music? To me, that was something I was very fascinated by. I also think, maybe you can hear it hopefully in my music, both John Williams and I have a pretty extensive jazz background. I use those kinds of harmonies and chords in my music. And also it was very important to me to also use the orchestra in every episode. I recorded it with an orchestra in L.A. to really honor the legacy of Star Wars, this orchestral sound but I wanted to use it in a way you haven’t heard before.
How many instruments do you have in your orchestra?
I work with a 70 piece orchestra, a full symphony orchestra. It also consists of tech, modern production and the tech element, using modern synthesizers and modern production. And then there’s another element which consists of organic instruments like recorders, piano, guitars. So there’s a lot of instruments in the score.
So maybe over 100 instruments?
I can’t put a number to it but there’s a lot of instruments.
Did you write themes for each character that recur?
Yeah, so you probably heard the Mandalorian theme play a couple times. That’s just one theme. There are different parts of his theme. There are flutes. The thing you heard the very first time you see him, that comes back in the show a bunch of times. Then there’s another traveling theme and then there’s a theme for the Mandalorians. There’s the four note motif. There’s also a theme for the Razor Crest. Yeah, there’s a lot of themes going on.
Is there a theme for Baby Yoda?
Right now, there is a theme for Baby Yoda, but you haven’t heard it yet.
Are the end titles the same every week?
I can’t give away any spoilers but for the first three episodes they’re the same.
Was that a major piece to write for The Mandalorian?
So the end titles was kind of the first thing I wrote for the show before I even saw footage. Just by reading the script and by seeing the artwork a year ago when I first met with Jon, I started writing. I went back to my studio and closed myself off for a month and said I want to take a step away from the computer because I wanted to kind of connect with my inner child. I just wanted to play instruments myself. I bought these recorders and I started to improvise. Every instrument led me to another instrument so I start with recorders, I made up that melody that you hear in The Mandalorian. And then I went onto the drums, onto the piano, to the guitar so I created five songs. The first song I did is what basically ended up in the end titles. I just re-orchestrated it a little bit.
Is when not to score just as important as when to score?
Absolutely. I think that was one of the best things about Star Wars was spotting when do you determine when the music comes in and when it comes out? That’s a discussion that Dave Filoni, he knows Star Wars so well, and also Jon, that was always an important discussion we had about where the music should come in and where it shouldn’t come in and where to leave breaths and where to leave the pauses. Something that’s different about this show than any other Star Wars shows is that the main character has a helmet on. So you don’t see any facial expressions. So what the music needs to do is to reveal what the character is feeling in the show. The music is basically the character’s facial expression.
Can you play with that spotting differently on a streaming series than you might for a movie?
I kind of scored this more like I would score a film. There’s themes that develop and longer format themes, stuff like that.
Was action music a similar process to Black Panther or Creed?
No. For this show, I’m trying to tie all the action scenes for this take place in different environments and involve different characters all the time. Different characters have their own sounds and different environments have their own sounds. So I really had to tailor after what was going on in the storyline and in the picture visually. Also, I wanted it to feel like you’re in a different world, on a different planet. So I had to kind of think about it differently.
You mentioned reflecting on how it felt to hear John Williams’ score as a kid. Did you have the same task with Bill Conti’s iconic scores when you had the job on Creed?
The Rocky movies were maybe not as imprinted in me as the Star Wars music was. I think in general, if you’re working on something, both Star Wars and the Creeds, they both may be the most iconic theme music that people know. I think when you’re dealing with music that is so well known, you kind of have to go back and think about okay, what is it that makes people feel so much? What was it when you saw Star Wars for the first time and hearing the music? What was I reacting to? How can I recreate that feeling?
Have you begun your work on Tenet yet?
Yeah, I’ve started working on it. I’m extremely excited. Unfortunately I can’t reveal any more information but I’m super excited.
No, we don’t want any spoilers either but how does Christopher Nolan work with composers?
We’re working very closely together. He’s so collaborative. We’re also starting early and getting ideas back and forth. It’s just such a joy to work with someone that’s so invested in music.
He usually works with Hans Zimmer. How did you hook up with Nolan?
I got a call and he wanted to meet.
Besides John Williams, growing up who were the film composers that made you think you wanted to go into this business too?
It was John Williams. It was Danny Elfman, especially the score for Edward Scissorhands had a big impact on me. I remember one of the more modern scores I listened to in high school was the Michael Andrews score for Me and You and Everyone We Know. That was the first time I heard modern synthesizers and production in a score. I listened to it over and over again. But John Williams and Danny Elfman were my main inspirations.
Did you go to school for music?
Yeah, my whole life I went to school for music. In elementary school, I went to a music elementary school so we had choir every day. I had a band and we played every day. In high school I went to music high school in Sweden. It was actually Star Wars music that got me into classical music in high school. It opened up the doors to me to classical music and I was obsessed with The Planets. That led me to delving deeper into classical music and I also got into jazz. After high school I went to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm studying jazz improvisation for three years. I ended up moving to Los Angeles where I studied scoring for grad school for a year at USC.
What instruments do you play?
My main instrument I studied in college was the guitar. I also play piano.
Do you play music gigs outside of scoring?
Yeah, in college I played all over Sweden with my band. I had a dream. I was a musician and I was dreaming about playing big stages, touring but when I left for the States I kind of put that on the side and just focused on being a film composer. But then a couple years later I met Donald Glover and I started producing and writing music with him for Childish Gambino. I ended up putting a band together and we’ve now released three albums. We ended up touring the whole world together, headlined Coachella and several other festivals. So I was there playing guitar.
Are you still part of Childish Gambino?
Yeah, they’re not touring right now but I’m still working with Donald Glover on music.
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