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Composer Ludwig Göransson on ‘Black Panther’ Music, Childish Gambino and Danny Elfman

Ludwig Göransson is fairly new to the music-for-screens game, but it surprised no one when his score for the billion-dollar “Black Panther” — a deft swirl of blockbuster orchestra, hip-hop and authentic Africana — prompted his first Oscar nomination (and three Grammys on Feb. 10). The Swedish composer spoke to Variety in the midst of scoring the Disney PlusStar Wars” spinoff series “The Mandalorian.” 

Did you have any sense of the cultural impact “Black Panther” would have?
After seeing a four-hour cut without any score — the first edit that [director] Ryan [Coogler] had done — I remember calling my fiancée [violinist Serena McKinney, whom he married soon after] and saying, “I think this is the ‘Star Wars’ of our generation.” It’s something I’d never experienced before. My mind was blown.

What were the mind-blowing scores for you as a kid?
The music of  “Edward Scissorhands” [by Danny Elfman]. That’s when I made the connection: okay, why am I crying? Why am I feeling like this? It wasn’t only what was going on visually, but what I was hearing. I was probably 11, 12, so when I made that connection I started going through all of the themes and everything that I’d lived through my childhood, like the “MacGyver” theme song or the “Indiana Jones” theme song. I downloaded all that stuff, and just listened to that for days and days.

Why did this film feel like a special canvas for music?
My first impression of watching the movie was just like how incredible it was, even without music. And immediately I just like, okay, this is going to be a huge challenge, and I’m in it. I’ve been working with Ryan for ten years, and I want to make him happy — and I know he believes in me and he trusts me to make something really great. And after reading the script, I knew I couldn’t score the movie without going to Africa. And I wanted to make music as authentic and true to the rich musical ancestry of the African people. So that’s when me and wife, we went to Senegal for a month to just learn and study music. But I always knew that the musical canvas needed to be also included with having a cinematic orchestra element to it, and a hip-hop element, like with modern production to it. And it was really about combining those three worlds, but having the forefront of the music always be grounded in traditional African music.

What are the lessons that film composers can take from that approach, of infusing a score with the cultural traditions or the sounds of a non-western, orchestral place? Could that be applied to films that aren’t as blatantly rooted in a culture like “Black Panther?”
Absolutely. I think to try to make new music and new ideas, you have to push the boundaries of existing music. And I think it was really important for “Black Panther,” especially, because of the historical and the political climate we’re in right now, but that’s something that I’m trying to do with every project I’m working on — you know, I’m trying to combine different sounds and different styles of music that we haven’t heard combined together before. With “Black Panther,” it was the African music with the orchestra and with modern production, and with “Creed” it was definitely a blend between the big orchestral thematic music but also with a hip-hop, modern production. I think with everything I do, I’m trying to just come up with new ways of creating music and mixing styles together. That’s just what’s fun for me to do, to try to make myself inspired. And I think it’s especially something that I learned from producing. I’ve worked with Childish Gambino for so long, so I’ve learned that from those producing skills — how to really produce music, where of course it’s about writing, but it’s also about combining sounds and styles and genres.

Do you think hip-hop will be a bigger part of film scoring in the future?
For me, the sound and the production and the music of hip-hop is what’s most interesting going on in music right now. It’s the most interesting genre, that continues to push the boundaries, and it continues to develop. It feels like every two, three months there’s something completely new coming out, and the sound keeps evolving, constantly. So when I’m listening to music, I’m listening to a lot of hip-hop to be inspired and to hear new things.

What do you treasure most about your relationship with Ryan?
I really treasure our friendship. When you work on a movie, especially a big-budget movie or a movie where you have so many people involved, and when you have the director’s trust… I always know that Ryan’s got my back. I always know that I can call him whenever I have any questions. He’s not going to be bothered. He would come over to my studio at 1 in the morning, after he’s been working for 12 hours already, and he’ll come by my studio and sit with me till 4 and work on the score with me, and then he’ll go home and sleep for two hours, and then go back to work at Disney at 8am. That’s how much he cares.

Were you ever thinking about your eight-year-old self when you were working on this score, and what the young you would have thought about it?
I can still remember that kid in me, and when I saw something and heard something that I’d never heard before, and just remembering how my jaw dropped, and becoming obsessed by this feeling. And, hopefully, I think about being proud to show it my kids someday.

I just think it’s cool that there’s some kid out there who is as obsessed with the “Black Panther” score as you and I were with “Star Wars” at that age.
Yeah, and it’s all thanks to Ryan Coogler. He created this history. He created something that changed so many peoples’ lives.

But the score didn’t have to be as good as it is. So you can take a little bow.
Okay, I’ll take a small bow.

What You Didn’t Know About Ludwig Göransson

AGE: 34 BIRTHPLACE: Linköping, Östergötlands län, Sweden HOW HE MET RYAN COOGLER: In college, at USC, over a game of pool  FIRST MUSICAL LOVE: Metallica STYLE CRED: He has a degree in jazz guitar BIG BREAK: Scoring NBC’s “Community,” where he met Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino

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