Filmed in exotic locations ranging from India and Norway to Italy’s sun-kissed Mediterranean coast, Christopher Nolan’s reality-warping film “Tenet” looks like it was a lot of fun to be an actor in.
However, creating the music to accompany it was clearly no yacht cruise. What kind of music evokes a world where (spoiler alert) the characters can experience reality both backward and forward, receive messages from the future, and encounter themselves and others in the present and the past?
Nolan decided very early in the film’s production that the person he wanted to handle the score was Swedish-born Ludwig Goransson, who not only won an Oscar for his work on the 2018 Chadwick Boseman-starring “Black Panther” but also won Grammys for his work on that film as well as his production on Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” one of many songs the two have collaborated on. He’s also scored Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” and two “Creed” films in the “Rocky” franchise, and has collaborated with Justin Timberlake, Chance the Rapper and Alicia Keys.
And after working together for more than a year, Nolan and Goransson reached out to the artist they felt was a perfect, if unexpected, choice for who should write and perform the theme song from “Tenet”: multiplatinum rapper Travis Scott, who, as evidenced by his “Astroworld” album, is no stranger to creating alternate universes.
“Travis’ voice sounds like it’s from the future,” Goransson tells Variety via phone from Korea, where he, his wife and young son are visiting family. “His sound world and the way he treats the sound of his voice were very fitting for the sound world that Chris and I had worked on for ‘Tenet.’ Of course, he’s an incredible songwriter, producer, rapper and artist, but there are so many more elements to his music and his videos — he’s creating these unique worlds, and I was just dying to see how his mind would combine with Chris’ and what they would do together.”
The end result is “The Plan,” with a pulsating rhythm and an otherworldly vocal that is both distinctively Scott, but also unlike nearly everything else in his discography — and is a top candidate for even more trophies as film-awards season heats up.
Scott says, “I was like, ‘If this world or this scene was a country, could this be the national anthem, or the soundtrack for a city, or a sports team’s theme song,’ you know? It definitely wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ve got an extra song on my hard drive here, y’all can have it.’ I was trying to embody all the movements and camera shots and vocal presence, and the actors’ voices and different scenes and scenarios.”
The song was born after Scott saw the film with Nolan — in a socially distanced manner, of course — on a big screen at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles. Goransson says Scott was one of the first people on earth, apart from himself, Nolan, coproducer Emma Thomas, editor Jennifer Lame and a handful of others — to see the film.
“It was my first time watching a film of such caliber before it came out,” Scott says. “Seeing it with Chris, having conversations with him about what I thought and what I took away from it, and what he thought and what his goal was, and just the whole experience in itself gave me the battery for what I wanted to do.”
Scott was joining a process that Goransson and a small group of others had been undertaking every week for several months: Watching the latest edit of the film in full. That was just one of many new experiences for the composer in working with Nolan, a process that began very early in the film’s production. “He doesn’t have any temp music [placeholder] music in his films, he likes create the sound world completely from scratch,” Goransson says. “He called me early in the script stage and I started recording music based on the script and conversations, so when he started shooting, he had maybe three hours of music. And when they started to edit the movie, every Friday we would watch it from beginning to end. To be able to see and hear it from beginning to end and reshape it, was such a great experience. We did that for six months.”
Bringing in Scott toward the end of that process brought another dimension to their work on the film. “His reaction to the film was amazing to see,” Goransson says. “And then he went off to write the song — I sent him a couple of pieces from the score and some beats, and he took that to the studio and wrote the song [with cowriter WondaGurl, who has also worked with Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Kanye West]. We went back and forth a couple of times, and then Chris put the in the end titles, and it was perfect. Travis said later that the intro the to the song was him emulating the feeling of being in one of those masks [the characters in the film wear when traveling backward through time].”
Scott says, “The vocals and the chorus, to me it sounds like it’s reversed and slowed down and low on oxygen, which is the whole point. You know when you go to the dentist and you take that [anesthesia] and your voice drops down? This is what I felt it sounds like vocally, and the lyrics were just trying to embody every scene and color and angle. I was trying to embody all of that into the ‘DUN-dun-dun-dun, DUN-dun-dun-dun’ [rhythm]. I just tried to put all of those elements on the track.”
Nolan was so enthusiastic about “The Plan” that he placed Scott’s voice from the song into several parts of the film. “Chris said, ‘It sounds like an instrument, you can’t even tell it’s a voice,’” Goransson recalls. “So we took a snippet of that sound and placed it throughout different parts of the movie. That’s actually the first thing you hear in the movie: Travis Scott’s voice.”
Asked whether he’d like to continue such collaborative work in films, Scott — who singles out Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as two other directors he’d like to collaborate with — roars, “Oh fuck yeah, man! This shit is fire! This is super-future, bridging that bar between music and film. I wanted to put the whole essence of what this movie is into the song. It’s crazy, bro, super crazy — I’m still over here trippin’ about it.”