Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was the first movie in the director’s career that told the story of the main character in the first person. It’s an intimate portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist credited as the “father of the atomic bomb,” during World War II. And the intimacy is not only reflected in the camerawork, with shots very close to the actors’ faces — it is also expressed in Ludwig Göransson’s score.
“I never read anything like it, and I never worked on something where you’re completely experiencing everything from one character’s eyes and mind,” Göransson tells THR. “I thought that was going to be extremely interesting, but also important and difficult, to see how much the music needed to play the part of his emotions. It needed to make the audience feel what he’s feeling, put the audience in his shoes, and not have them judge.”
After Göransson’s collaboration with Nolan on Tenet (2020), the two stayed in touch, so the Swedish composer admits he wasn’t too surprised that Nolan asked him to compose the Oppenheimer score. He started working on the film’s music three months before Nolan began shooting the historical film in February 2022 in New Mexico, and the duo sat down once a week to talk about the score. “We’re really crafting the world before he shoots the movie,” explains Göransson. “When he shoots the film and starts editing, he doesn’t use a temp score. He always uses the music that we’ve already done. When he has to film, that’s when we really carve it out and color it. But the broad, big strokes, finding the world and the sound of the music, the DNA — that’s [already] done.”
Oppenheimer’s score took Göransson about nine months to complete, which is on par with how much time he has spent on previous work, including Black Panther (for which he won an Oscar in 2019), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Creed. Oppenheimer is the longest film he’s ever worked on, however, clocking in at 180 minutes. Göransson says there are about two hours and 40 minutes’ worth of music in the film. “That’s a lot of score,” he adds.
The most challenging scene for Göransson to score, he says, was the montage at the beginning of the film when Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer is asked by Kenneth Branagh’s Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr, “Can you hear the music?” The scene launches into an explosive burst of color and atoms inside Oppenheimer’s mind.
“It’s a beautiful montage, but Chris set the bar pretty high there with that opening line,” explains Göransson. “I knew it would take a lot of time. And to be able to achieve that feeling of the music constantly getting faster and faster, I wanted it to feel like you’re on the edge of pushing things forward, and I wanted the tempo changes of the music to not feel like it’s a tempo change, if that makes sense. I wanted it to feel just like a feeling.” Göransson admits that this created larger obstacles to recording the themes. “We spent three days with the orchestra recording it in three different times, because every time we tried it, we wanted to have that whole thing be one piece of one unbroken recording,” he adds. “There are 21 tempo changes in it. How do you make the musicians play 21 tempo changes in one continuous take? That was a big challenge.”
Göransson used string instruments like the violin consistently throughout the score. Strings, according to the composer, are instruments that can be used in a variety of settings: very intimate, romantic scenes in one moment, and then the most tension-filled, gut-wrenching sequences.
“Sometimes it’s the solo violinist portraying the most intimate thoughts of Oppenheimer,” says Göransson. “There’s a scene when he’s lecturing in his classroom, it starts out with a solo violin; as more people come in, there are more violins joining. And a lot of the time, we’re also adding synth elements to the violins. Playing with the juxtaposition about emotions was interesting, something we experimented with a lot. I wanted to make the music feel like energy on the brink of discovery.”
Even though Oppenheimer is a period piece, Göransson wanted the music to feel timeless. “We used instruments that were from the time, like violin strings, piano for the romantic themes, but [we] also wanted to infuse them with synthesizers and the electric world in a way where it feels like it’s also part of the future. And I think that really worked because you’re inside his mind — the audience is experiencing everything from inside his mind.”
This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.