Ludwig Göransson on crafting Tenet’s omnipresent character

A black and white portrait of a man with long hair

The award-winning producer, composer and LA member shares the experimental process that went into creating the score for Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster

By Corinna Burford    Above image: Ludwig Göransson (Austin Hargrave)    Friday 11 September, 2020    Long read

If you’ve ever been glued to the screen watching Black Panther, Fruitvale Station or Creed, you in large part have Ludwig Göransson to thank. The now LA-based Swedish composer, conductor and record producer is behind some of cinema’s most gripping scores. His work has earnt him Grammy and Oscar nods, as well as the acclaimed albums from Donald Glover/ Childish Gambino, which have led to numerous Grammys. While his career has involved collaborations with the likes of Glover and Ryan Coogler, the past few years have also seen some notable firsts – the latest being his first time working with Christopher Nolan, a director famed for his attention and love for film scores.

Here, Göransson describes how he came to be involved in Nolan’s record-breaking movie and how Tenet’s time-bending plot is reflected in its soundscape. 

How did you get involved with Tenet and how much did you know about its plot before you signed up?

‘I knew that Nolan wanted to meet me, that was it. We scheduled a meeting, so I went to his office in his house and we ended up spending about six hours together. I didn’t know what it was about – we spent all these hours just digging through his record collection. He played me a bunch of music that was the soundtrack to his life, and I played him music that inspired me and my career. By the end of the meeting, he was like, “Hey, do you wanna come by next week and read the script for this idea I have?” So, the week after, I came back to his office and they put me in this dark room with just the script, and I was glued to it. It took me about five hours to finish. And then right after, we had another meeting with Chris. I had a lot of questions, obviously, and my head was spinning with ideas for this movie. I was thinking, how do I tether an emotional roadmap for the audience to cling to as they experience something so conceptually ambitious and technically unprecedented.’
A woman wearing an oxygen mask is pressed against a wall by a man in a suit
A man in a grey suit running through London

Were there any elements you knew you wanted to include before you started?

‘Inversion and the conflict of inversion is such a big part of the movie, so I knew that I wanted to think about how to invert instruments, how to invert an orchestra and how to manipulate sounds so they sound inverted. Chris had just finished writing the script and they were still in pre-production so, fortunately for me, he had a lot of time before he took off to start shooting. After I’d read the script, I immediately went back to the studio and started writing. I ended up coming back to his office once a week to play him new ideas. We spent three months dissecting every little idea, every little sound that he found interesting, and we created a completely unique sound world for this project.’

How would you describe the soundscape of the score?

‘It’s hard to put your finger on. I wanted it to support the story, obviously, but also the world of Tenet is so unique from anything we’ve ever experienced before. There are parts of the score that are inverted, that can be played forwards and backwards and sound the same. I experimented with having a live orchestra play my music and reversing the sheet music so they played it backwards. Then, I took the recording and reversed it again, so the result sounds like an orchestra playing backwards in real time.’

Christopher Nolan’s films are famed for their impressive scores, with him mostly collaborating with Hans Zimmer. How did you want your score to sit alongside his other work?

‘My first Nolan experience was when I was 20 years old, living in Stockholm, and I saw Batman Begins. Chris and Hans Zimmer revolutionised the world of film scoring, the sound they created. I was extremely inspired by and interested in just getting a glimpse into Chris’ mind and the way he thinks about music. In his films, music is almost like its own character, and as a composer I think the way that he uses it in his movies is very unique.’
A man driving a speedboat with a woman on it behind him

'I was thinking, how do I tether an emotional roadmap for the audience to cling to as they experience something so conceptually ambitious and technically unprecedented'

Did COVID-19 impact the production of the score at all, or was it already complete?

‘Well, we only finished it about two months ago. We just worked on it for a long time. While Chris was shooting, I kept getting emails from him in different parts of the world – he’s constantly thinking about the music as he’s shooting. During the editing process, I went to the edit bay and watched it once a week. And every time I saw it, I learnt new things about the characters. So, the score kept developing up to the very last second. 

‘When the pandemic hit, we were about 80% done with the score. The only thing that it affected was that we had an orchestra session booked in, I think in April. But we just had to take a different approach and we decided to record every musician by themselves at their house. The way that the sound came out from that was actually really interesting and fitted the soundscape of the movie perfectly – it just put a different dimension on all the music. 

‘Then, at the very end of the project, Chris asked me to write something for the end titles. Every time I saw them come on, I just felt like they needed a new voice, so I brought up the idea to Chris about maybe collaborating with an artist. Someone that I had in mind specifically was Travis Scott, because I think his voice is so interesting. We scheduled a screening for him and he immediately connected with the movie in a way that Chris really responded to. So, I sent him one of the cues from the score and we started with something very heavy, very bassy. He worked on the song for about a week, and as soon as we put it into the end credits it was perfect. His voice was so unique that we actually took a snippet of it and put it in different sections of the score throughout the movie. Nolan really mixes his music into the film to give the audiences the ultimate cinematic experience.’

Tenet is in cinemas now
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