'Game of Thrones' Composer Ramin Djawadi: 'I'm Just Trying to Create Something Magical' (Q&A)
The Emmy- and Grammy-nominated composer explains how he makes music for Daenerys the dragon lady, Melisandre the fire lady and the eerie White Walkers north of the Wall.
HBO's Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi was recruited for Hollywood by composer Hans Zimmer, with whom he shared an ASCAP Award for Batman Begins. Grammy-nominated for Iron Man and Emmy-nominated for Prison Break and FlashForward, he's set to score Guillermo del Toro's upcoming sci-fi epic Pacific Rim. Djawadi tells The Hollywood Reporter’s Victoria Ellison how he makes Thrones sound magical and why Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is his favorite character.
THR: Was there a movie that first made you want to become a film composer?
Ramin Djawadi: The one that really triggered it for me was The Magnificent Seven [scored by Elmer Bernstein]. I used to love American Westerns growing up in Germany. It was only the last 40 minutes in black and white -- the VHS screwed up. But I loved it so much I watched it every day. I must’ve been 11. I just loved music.
THR: Did you imagine your dream job would be film composer?
THR: What are your influences? In Game of Thrones, I hear a lamenting quality like Samuel Barber (heard in movies like Amelie and Platoon).
Djawadi: Yeah, it’s quite possible. Deep down, classical Romantic music is what I love: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, the Romantics. As a teen I got into rock and played guitar, my main instrument. At Berklee [College of Music], I played jazz. Because I don’t write lyrics, I got into film music. It’s nice to go through these evolutions because film composers get asked to do so many styles. Mr. Brooks is very electronic, Iron Man is guitar-heavy, The Clash of the Titans is very orchestral.
THR: Your music is good at building suspense. Is that why Thrones' creators hired you?
Djawadi: They definitely liked my thematic pieces -- the Medal of Honor and Clash of the Titans themes. They also liked that I had a lot of ethnic influence, Middle Eastern influences in Medal of Honor and some in Titans. They also liked my percussion-driven music. Thrones is very rhythmically driven. And with Daenerys, there’s the duduk, an ethnic [Armenian] sound.
THR: I also hear a Celtic sound.
Djawadi: Definitely, though we also made sure not to automatically fall into that Celtic feel. We can have it a little, but as soon as it goes into that -- I don’t want to say cliche -- but that folky sound, we always said, let’s not get too far down that road.
THR: It’s a fantasy world with sounds from lots of places.
Djawadi: Exactly. Flutes are common in Celtic music, so we stay away from flutes. Our most common instrument is the cello you hear in the main title, because it has a wide range. It can be very dark and moody, but also beautiful and emotional at the same time, and it's just perfect for the show. Because it’s such a dark show. Obviously, because all these families have their problems.
THR: Does each character have their own theme?
Djawadi: One of the first things we discussed was: How can we make this score cohesive without trying to capture every character too on the nose, because they overlap so much? We have a Stark theme, but we did not introduce the Lannister theme until the second season with “The Rains of Castamere” song, with lyrics based on the book. Theon [Alfie Allen] had no theme in the first season, but in the second we decided, OK now it’s time he gets his own theme. Now in the third season, we have so many themes established, we can do lighter or darker versions. We have an “Honor” theme and a “Conspiracy” theme when they’re trying to conspire against each other. For the fire lady Melisandre [Carice van Houten] it’s almost like a hybrid of a string instrument with some kind of -- not really a flute. You can’t put your finger on it and say what that sound is.
THR: How do you develop the themes?
Djawadi: I like to fall into the story and just dream about what it is, and it leads me to create music that puts me in the place. The synthesizers don't jump out at you, but they really work well. I literally play each instrument on the keyboard -- the timpani, then I go back to the beginning and play the string line, and then the piano. I layer all these tracks one after the other. There are various synthesizers, you tweak the knobs and modify the sound of it, let them become part of the sound palette I create. At the beginning of each project I like to create a palette of sound for that particular project. And the producers get used to it -- they’ll say, “This should be Theon’s scene, and north of the Wall we should have glassy sound and have the bells come back.” I get to be a big kid, I can make stuff up all day. It’s fun!
THR: Parts of the score seem very minimal. Are you influenced by new music?
Djawadi: Definitely. Daenerys’ theme is very minimal in the beginning, because she plays such an insignificant role. We planted the theme in the first two episodes and it doesn’t even strike you so much that, "Oh, that's her big tune." And then it just grows and grows.
THR: Like a dragon.
Djawadi: And that’s what is beautiful about the shows -- that there’s room to grow. Sometimes it’s just a mood, like when we’re north of the Wall, and we’re using these low bells, just these atmospheric sounds that put you in that place.
THR: You work musically with sound effects, like the sounds of them walking in the ice.
Djawadi: Yes, they will say,"This needs to be really a cold sound, what can we do?" So sometimes I use these glass bowls for when we’re north of the Wall, so it really gives you this weird mood. The White Walkers are the same thing, it’s eerie when they talk. We have this eerie glassy sound -- even though you don’t see them, you know, “OK, that’s the White Walkers again.“
THR: How do you make the sound of magic?
Djawadi: In the first season, before the dragons hatched, whenever we saw the dragon eggs, I had this very high sparkling sound, just trying to create something magical that now in the third season has gained quite a bit of power. And now we’ve played with strings and other instruments because obviously they’re growing and getting stronger and stronger as they get bigger.
THR: How do you work with the dramatic material without competing with it? It’s really strong music, but it also has the ability to be in the background, subliminal.
Djawadi: That’s one of the challenging things about working on the show, because it’s very dialogue- and character-driven, and it’s not overscored. Sometimes, even if we like the piece, we’ll go, “Hm, maybe we don’t need music. Maybe silence is the best choice here.” Usually toward the end of an episode as the story starts to peak, then the music picks up a lot more.
THR: Does the music come from the script or the visuals of the show?
Djawadi: I read the scripts, but the visuals trigger a whole new level of inspiration. Like the main title -- they showed me this beautiful rough cut of the main title sequence. That really triggered me to write this theme.
THR: Do you have a favorite character?
Djawadi: Daenerys. When you see how insignificant she is and then what she becomes. And she has the dragons! She’s powerful and cool.
THR: Were there composers you listened to while you composed Thrones?
Djawadi: Romantics, rock music, all over the place on the radio. But I don’t listen to film music at all. I don’t want to be influenced.
THR: Do you use live music?
Djawadi: Some of the music we record with real musicians. That’s a real choir we use, a real orchestra. The computer has its limitations. Sometimes at big epic moments we say, "We gotta go live with this." At the end of the day there’s nothing better than having real musicians play.
THR: Have you had your music performed orchestrally?
Djawadi: I’ve had one concert in Tenerife, Spain, in 2008. It’s very common in Europe to have film festivals where they invite composers. We did some Prison Break music, some Iron Man. Game of Thrones we’re thinking that could be something fun to do, to put on a concert. That would be great.
THR: How about Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones Concert at the Hollywood Bowl?
Djawadi: How cool would that be?