Interview with Ludwig Göransson

From “Ant-Man’s” groovy 60’s spy hijinks to the retro 70’s and 80’s eccentricity of “Deadpool” and “Thor Ragnarok,” Marvel Movies have certainly allowed some interesting takes on the superhero scoring standard – which today usually means a big, old-school orchestra joined at the caped hip with pop-friendly electronic rhythm. But if Marvel’s unrivaled success in their domain has come from playing a different tune, perhaps no soundtrack entry in this hit fiefdom has gone as powerfully off-field as the African sound that Swedish-born composer Ludwig Göransson has magnificently captured with “Black Panther.”

Where many attempts at musically conveying the Dark Continent have now become a clichéd singer on the ethnic drum savannah, Göransson’s soundtrack for Marvel’s most critically acclaimed film yet is the real street deal for the imagined kingdom of Wakanda and their black-suited ruler T’Challa. It’s a land, and character where ancient nobility meet high tech. Chanting voices, furious drumming and echoing wind instruments bring a raw, primal power to “Black Panther,” musical authenticity that creates a costumed, avenging animal totem on the prowl. Percussion and howling, grunting singers play action and nobility where a symphony otherwise might to thrillingly naturalistic effect. Given his Grammy-nominated production chops in the world of urban beats for the likes of Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino, Haim and Chance the Rapper, “Panther” is just at home in the world of black grooves.

But then, this is a comic book movie score after all. And Göransson knows what that audience digs by bringing on beyond-mighty orchestral excitement, creating a fusion of brass muscle, future rhythm and rich string emotion for a hybrid genre score unlike any other, melody and primal percussion joining with gee-whiz thrills that satisfy fanboys and socially conscious, authenticity demanding listeners with equal, thrilling measure. Sure “Black Panther” might not be the O.G. black superhero film or score, but it’s hard to imagine either before this landmark.

“Black Panther” hits a new high for the collaboration between Göransson and filmmaker Ryan Coogler. First meeting at UCLA, Göransson brought a muted, alternative approach to Coogler’s debut “Fruitvale Station,” an understated approach that made its depiction of police brutality all the more devastating. The simmering anger was made palpable with the triumphant punches of “Creed,” Coogler’s excellent entry in the “Rocky” franchise that brought out a new orchestral power from Göransson, allowing him to hit with Apollo’s son in a way that played a black vibe while being in the spirit of Bill Conti’s iconic score, brilliantly dancing in the ring with the new soundtrack’s take on “Gonna Fly Now.” Now Göransson fearlessly takes on another iconic pop culture figure, leaping with T’Challa and his kingdom with an assurance that makes this innovative composer to the Wakandan musical throne born.

As a kid in Sweden, what was your exposure to film scores like, and were there any scores that particularly inspired you? Could you see a future as a composer, even back then?

I probably didn’t understand at the time, because I was a small child, but Danny Elfman’s “Edward Scissorhands” really got to me emotionally. It was only when I was twelve that I truly understood that it was the music that really drew me into the movie. And that’s when I discovered film scores. I went from “Edward’ to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and then onto the John Williams scores. When I was in high school, I got the impression that if you actually worked as a film composer, then you could get to write in all different kinds of genres. But I didn’t know how to go about getting a job like that.

Ludwig Goransson & Ryan Coogler

How did you first meet Ryan Coogler?

Ryan’s from Oakland, and we both met at the University of Southern California. I was a music major, and he was a film major. I had just moved from Sweden, and our backgrounds were extremely different. But as soon as we met, Ryan just started telling me about his favorite Swedish bands! And I was like, “How do you know about all of these Swedish artists?” So the start of our collaboration was this friendship.

Your first major score was with Ryan for “Fruitvale Station.” It’s a subtle score for a brutal instance of police brutality. Why did you choose to downplay your approach, and how do you think the film helped you establish an enduring creative relationship with Ryan?

Ryan and I had done two student movies before “Fruitvale Stations,” and both were extremely realistic. They didn’t need a lot of music. The first cut of “Fruitvale Station” was exactly the same. I told him that I didn’t think it needed any music at all. We ended up just experimenting and putting score in different spots. From the very beginning, Ryan told me how he wanted the sound of the BART train to be a character in the movie. I said, “Well, if you want that sound, let’s try to sample it and bring it into the musical world.” It ended up coming in and out of the score to make the film even more uneasy and unsettling.

Even before “Black Panther” came along, you both worked on another iconic character with Rocky Balboa for “Creed.” What was it like for you to come up with a truthful urban vibe for Apollo’s son, but yet so wonderfully integrate the Bill Conti sound as well as the song “Gonna Fly Now?”

It was difficult. Here you have this iconic music for Rocky. And now here comes a 28-year-old filmmaker and a 29 year-old composer. We were just hungry to create something new, and this story was completely different from the other “Rocky” films. Right from the very beginning, Ryan was like, “Let’s just focus on creating something new.” It wasn’t in his mind that we needed to pay musical homage, or use any of the original themes. It was a really creative way of starting that score with a blank slate like that. Then as the movie and character grew on us, it was just natural to put in some of the old, original themes, especially for Rocky and also the special moment at the very end, where Creed stands up. You really needed to give the audience a musical payoff there that they’d been waiting for.

I think a lot of people hear the “Creed” score and think that it pays homage to Bill Conti. But I think the way of using a jazz tonality language worked in a way that made the score feel fresh. So, for me, the sound that we eventually ended up with on “Creed” was nostalgic, but also new in the same way. Ryan and I were both very happy with that.

Even though you’ve been doing “serious” scores, you’ve also in the meantime done a bunch of straight-ahead comedies and TV shows like “Central Intelligence,” “We’re the Millers” and “New Girl.” Is it fun to take that “lighter” break?

I think the nature of being a film composer, is being able to move like a chameleon amongst genres. That’s one thing that I’ve always been drawn to, like in the way that I can move from producing a hip-hop album, to scoring a 30-minute sitcom. That’s two extremely different experiences as a workflow. But I’m still writing music. It’s just for different genres, and that’s the joy of my work, and why I love being a film composer. It’s being able to move around and do different stuff.

Before you were even signed on to do “Black Panther,” what was your reaction as an audience member to seeing the character first appear onscreen in “Captain America: Civil War?”

I just thought he was a badass. As soon as he came in, I just felt like the shift of the movie had changed. It was in the way he moved, and the way the Russo brothers shot him and the kinetic energy that he brought into the movie, He just lifted the film. I had no idea at the time that I was going to write his main theme or score his personality. But The Black Panther was definitely one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe before I got to do this project.

Once you got the film, what kind of research did you do for it?

I’ve worked with Ryan for almost 10 years now, and he begins by sending me the first draft of his scripts. He not only directs, but he also writes all of his movies, So when I got his initial script for “Black Panther,” I was like, “Okay, if going to do this movie justice, then I have to go to Africa to start my research there, before I can even write a single note.”

“Black Panther” is certainly one of the most authentic “African” scores I’ve heard.

I think what’s significant about T’Challa’s country of Wakanda is that it was never colonized. So what would music sound like in an African country that didn’t have Christian music influences? Essentially, we all know that all music comes from Africa. So my goal was just trying to research and discover as much “pre-colonization” music that I could. And go to places where you still had the “Griots,” which is the African term for “musician.” They come from a bloodline of musical families that go thousands of years. And being able to talk to them, and to be around them was my goal in researching the score. But at the same time, Wakanda is also the most highly advanced technological country in Africa, and the whole world. So that opens up the doors to Western classical music, modern production and this whole melting pot of music. But it was always important that the skeleton of “Black Panther’s” musical foundation be come from pre-colonization African music.

How long were you in Senegal for? And were there any kind of “Eureka!” moments where you truly got the sound of the score?

Baaba Maal

I was in Senegal for three weeks in the end of 2016. A friend of mine introduced me to this well-known, esteemed African musician named His name is Baaba Maal, I got his number, and called him a few weeks before my trip, and told him, “Hey, you don’t know who I am, but I’m a film composer working on an African superhero film, and I’d love to meet you and do some research.” Baaba invited me to come on his tour he was going to do on in Senegal and some of its smaller villages. My fiancée Serena and I bought plane tickets to Dakar, where Baaba’s assistant picked us up at the airport. After traveling for 20 hours in the car, we finally arrived at three in the morning in a little stone house, where he was sitting and waiting for the concert to start Baaba started playing at four in the morning. People had been waiting months and months for this concert. And as tired as we were, the energy he brought to that room turned it into an out-of-body experience for us. We were just mesmerized. And ever since that first moment, when I heard him for the first time, I was like, “That’s the feeling that I’m going capture in this score.”

From there we followed Baaba around for five more days, and we started to get to know his band and his musicians. He then he invited us to his house and to some amazing musicians. He let me use his home studio. And one of the instruments that really stood out to m there was the talking drum, which is the first type of communication device. You can basically say it’s the first type of telephone. It’s a drum that you put it on your shoulder and hit. You can, can basically pitch it with your arm by pressing on it in different ways. And you can “talk” with the drum. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago in every village, you always had a talking drum player. So, when the tribal leader had a message that he wanted to deliver to his tribe, he always called the talking drum player to his house, and told him, “Can you let everyone know tomorrow at 8:00 PM we’re gonna have a council meeting in the village.” Then the talking drum player goes into the middle of the village and starts playing that message, and everyone at the same time hears it, and understands exactly what’s going on, and what the message is.

The Talking Drum

So, I was talking to Baaba Maal’s talking drum player, whose name is Massamba Diop, and we decided to put together a six-person talking drum ensemble, which I recorded for a day. Something else that kept running through my head was how do you say “’T’Challa’ on the talking drum?” I asked them to play that for me on the talking drum. It’s basically three hits with different pitches. That was my “Eureka!” moment, because I knew this would be a really interesting color for T’Challa’s main theme, to be heard every time his name came up.

Another sound that comes back and forth is an instrument called the Fula flute, which comes from a tribal name. It was like its player was talking, and sometimes screaming into his flute. I got goose bumps on my arms because it sounded so mysterious, impulsive, and dark. I knew that sound would be perfect for the movie’s villain Killmonger. So I pulled the player aside and told him about Killmonger’s character, how comes from Africa and how he wants to take over Wakanda. Then the player improvised. He started screaming “Killmonger!” into the flute, and just kind of turned into this other person. I was so mesmerized. And that became Killmonger’s theme.

Unlike film scores, which have to be written, true African music is improvised, just like it’s later form of jazz. How did you want to adapt such an untamable voice into the strict nature of a movie soundtrack?

One of the biggest differences in Western classical music and African music is that “our” music isn’t considered music until it’s written down on paper. African music is someone creates a rhythm for a specific moment, say a ceremony for a king, and then the rhythm is there for everyone to play. There’s no sheet paper for it. It’s a knowledge that passes on through families, and through tradition, and through ceremonies. So essentially, all traditional African music has rhythms with a specific meaning to them. There are thousands of different rhythms that are written for a coming of age ceremony. There are thousands of rhythms that are written for confirmation ceremonies. I wanted to know how you could use that rhythm for a challenge in this film? I asked a master drummer, “Can you play me some different challenge rhythms?” He was able to match real traditional rhythms that are used for real ceremonies into the specific scenes of this movie. That authenticity was very important.

But yet, on the other end, this is a superhero movie. And superhero movies have a western orchestral tradition. How did you want to bring those worlds together here?

That was the biggest challenge of the movie. Because as soon as you start including an orchestra over African sounds and rhythms, it stops to sound African. So, how can you infuse an orchestra into the African sounds and rhythms, in way that doesn’t hurt the African mood? That was really difficult. I just kind of reconfigured my brain in the way of writing western music, where we have counterpoints, melody and harmony as a music theory. In African music, you do have counterpoints and melody, but that’s all in the percussion and rhythm. African music has 10 other polyrhythms and counter-rhythms that goes under that. So, how can you use the orchestra in that way? That’s what I was trying to do, but still keep it in a way that was big and cinematic, because that’s obviously very important to this kind of movie.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

In “Civil War,” T’Challa is pretty much invincible. How did you want to make him both physically and emotionally vulnerable here?

This movie is basically about finding your identity and knowing what your purpose is. That’s a theme in the music, which I create by writing a string melody for him. I’d say that T’Challa has two themes. One is this big, brass fanfare with the talking drums that announces that this is T’Challa. It’s my “royal” theme. T’Challa also has a more emotional theme that’s a lot longer as It plays with him trying to find his way in life. There’s also an ancestral string theme that comes anytime he has any disbelief or struggles to find out who he is. A fragment of that theme is also Killmonger’s theme, which is played by the flute in a “broken” way. They’re musically connected characters with the flute and talking drum. When you put a big orchestra on top of that, it makes the whole score come together for their climactic battle.

As T’Challa is the king of Wakanda, there’s a regal, and mystical majesty to the score.

Definitely. His theme is extremely rhythmical. It’s more a rhythm than a melody, sometimes.

With your background as a producer on urban albums, how those production techniques play into this score?

It’s a big part of the score, as Killmonger is an American. He’s a very complex, strong-minded and impulsive character. So for his sound, I was really playing around with in a modern African-American production way, which is more of a hip hop, rap type of production, which I do have a lot of experience with, because I produced a bunch of rap and hip hop artists. It’s a sound that I’m very familiar with which I’ve incorporated into other film scores. It also couldn’t be better to do with an African-themed movie, because if you can break the sore down, with a lot of these rap beats, if you just change the sound, it’s African drums. So, when you come into the battles towards the end of the score, you have these crazy rhythms and patterns, just in African percussion, but then suddenly it comes in with modern hip hop production, and it doesn’t take you away from the purpose of the music. It still feels like it’s one piece, It’s really fun for me to combine an orchestra with hip hop sounds in a way that hasn’t been done before.

After “Black Panther,” you’ll be scoring another iconic avenger with Paul Kersey in Eli Roth’s remake of “Death Wish.”

Bruce Willis in Death Wish

I wasn’t familiar with “Death Wish” at first until Eli Roth called me up and asked me to score it. I was totally fascinated by the script, and watched the original movie, which has an amazing score by Herbie Hancock. So now I really wanted to do the movie! It’s such an interesting score. Herbie used these string quartet pieces in there, and there’s some crazy percussion. My score ended up feeling extremely dark. It’s an organism of itself because I was trying to create something that sounded like the really twisted part of someone’s mind. Just listening to my score alone would probably feel extremely claustrophobic, because it’s hearing a man who thinks he’s healthy, but is definitely not. He’s just going crazy. And hopefully I was able to create the sense of that with my “Death Wish” score.

What do you think your “Black Panther” score shows people about how unique a composer can be when coming from a production background like yours?

I started out very early as a musician and songwriter when I was just writing music for myself on the guitar. And then in high school, I got the opportunity to start writing for orchestras and have classical training. I wrote a piece for a symphony orchestra in Sweden in last year of high school, which kind of opened up my mind to that world. Then I started to do a lot of training in theory, and classical music. In college, I put all my time and effort into studying improvisation in jazz, and theory at one of the best colleges in Europe. Straight out of college, I had my own jazz quintet, where I wrote these crazy jazz songs. I toured all over Europe with that group. So jazz was in my background, as it is with many composers, like John Williams. So, I guess in that way, maybe I come from a different background, but I never really saw myself as an outsider.

Marvel is often very hands-on with their music. Given how unusual your approach for “Black Panther” was, were they extra watchful?

No, I couldn’t have had a better experience. Ryan and I work right from the beginning. I scored the first version of his director’s cut, which was four hours long. We didn’t use any temp music during the process. And through it all, Marvel was extremely supportive and so excited to hear something that was different like this, especially when they heard the mash-up of all these styles. From day one they were supportive of Ryan’s vision. He’s one of the most incredible geniuses I’ve had the pleasure to work with because he has such a clear vision of what he’s doing. This was the music that he envisioned.

Venture to Wakanda with Ludwig Göransson’s “Black Panther” score album on Hollywood Records, available for digital download on February 16th HERE. Take a tragic trip to “Fruitvale Station” HERE before triumphantly standing in with ring with “Creed” HERE