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Before filming for The Eternals began, composer Ramin Djawadi had lunch with director Chloé Zhao.
“I had read the script, and we just sat down,” Djawadi tells The Hollywood Reporter about his first meeting with the Oscar-winner. “We discussed the overarching themes, the organ idea, the whole issue of conflict and belief, memory — all these things.”
When they parted, Djawadi — who is known for crafting the score for fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Iron Man and grand sci-fi and fantasy epics like Westworld and Game of Thrones — went home to think about the MCU epic’s immortal heroes while Zhao went on to film them.
When she was done, the two reunited like Zhao’s characters for the next part of their mission. “She invited me to watch this early version, a long overlength cut of the film. That’s when I started writing music,” Djawadi says. “I started coming up with the ideas and I played those for her. Right at that time is when I got the movie and I started writing to picture.”
Spotting sessions are a common way of working on a score, Djawadi says, but it’s also his favorite stage. “You watch the movie together and decide where music starts and stops, and you discuss each scene. I always love that part because that’s when you really get more into the director or producer’s head. They can just describe this thing they want to achieve.”
The process revealed a uni-mind connection of sorts between the duo as they made music for one of the MCU’s more unique epics, which spans the world, space and time.
“I always struggle, when talking about music, with how to put it in words,” Djawadi says. “But I would talk with Chloé, and we would talk and talk and talk. Then I would say, let me go back to my studio and let me just write something and see what the emotional expression is.”
The result is a score that doesn’t merely compliment Zhao’s vision. It’s a musical journey that exquisitely parallels every seen and unseen layer of what’s on-screen. For The Eternals Disney+ release, Djawadi spoke to THR about how he brought the themes of Zhao’s tale about the MCU’s earliest heroes to life.
Many members of The Eternals cast have sung Zhao’s praises as a collaborator. Can you talk about what it was like working with her on the score?
I’m glad that you asked this question because I just want to point out how amazing she was throughout the whole process. She was incredible. We had our first lunch, and I almost missed my afternoon flight because we were just talking and talking. We had so many ideas. I realized, “Oh my god, I need to get to the airport!” (Laughs.) When we met, we clicked right away, so I couldn’t wait to get started. During the process, she was so creative. She’s so articulate. It was a joy to just work with her. The way she would describe her emotions, it was always very inspiring to turn her words into music.
Working with somebody on a film is a collaboration. I don’t just write whatever I want. I need to make music to their vision. But she was so collaborative throughout the process. I have to point out, too, we did this during the pandemic, which wasn’t easy. I’d have to send her stuff. Most of the time, I could not play to her on my big speakers. So I would send it to her, and she would have to listen on a laptop. (Laughs.) It was not the usual way of making a movie. But it was an absolutely incredible experience working with her.
Chloé has spoken about how her vision for Eternals involved reimagining the typical superhero. How did you approach that within your music?
When Chloé and I started talking about the music, the big thing was that besides the superhero and powers aspect of it, there needed to be intimacy. A human feel to it. An emotion to it. So the music and the themes we created needed to represent getting emotional and showing a form of vulnerability. That was very important to Chloé to be able to show both sides. That it’s not just this is one way to do it, and it’s the right way, and it’s powerful. But that there’s also the questioning of things and the humanity of it, which this movie deals with so beautifully.
While it’s a step away from typical MCU movies, Eternals serves as sort of an origins story for the entire cinematic superhero canon — these are the first heroes. Because of that, were you inspired by any other films?
What’s nice with these new, phase four MCU movies is that you start fresh. We have superheroes that we haven’t seen before. It was nice, especially after having done Iron Man, a well-known character. It was fun to do that, but these are more unknown characters. So I kind of stepped away from all the other MCU movies. Of course, it still needs unity, so we said we need to do an Eternals hero theme to tie it in with the rest of the films.
The Eternals theme is aurally interesting because it sounds — from that initial flutter to that mechanical power-up and eventually the orchestral swell, which feels similar to parts of The Avengers theme — as if you’re building an Eternal. What story were you trying to tell with the movie’s main music?
What you said is actually perfect. That is the idea — this assembly of creation. During the movie, we find out how the Eternals were created and who they really are. So there’s very much that mechanical aspect that starts this out, which then builds to — I don’t want to say a classic, but a powerful, heroic theme. They are superheroes, after all. It’s all this mix of a powerful hero theme, the idea of construction and then adding these layers and motifs. Throughout the movie, I would use them without the main melody. I would deconstruct the theme or just the motif itself, and that would be enough to tell the story.
The score takes characters around the globe and galaxy while revealing emotional journeys. That includes darker character turns like Ikaris’ in “This Is Our Fight Now,” which features a booming, brassy and somewhat scary moment. What instruments were you most turning to for your score?
We used so many instruments and jumped through time so much that it would change my instrumentation. But the piece you’ve described is in the third act, and it’s the big battle. What’s interesting is that here our superheroes are fighting each other. It was the big conflict coming to its climax, and Ikaris being the most powerful one. In those scenes, we definitely used a lot of brass, electric guitar. Then one instrument that I thought was right for this score was the organ. I love the sound of the organ. There’s something so grand and powerful to it. It has a bit of a space feel to it, too. I thought it was very fitting for a superhero and that instrument comes throughout the whole score.
At times it felt like characters were getting their own instruments. For example, Makkari and the electric guitar. Did you want to give each Eternal their own sound?
Yes and no. There were moments with characters like Phastos when we’re in the Domo that it kind of gets techie with what he’s doing. There we tended towards more electronic sounds. But then, when it was pure emotion, we would become very organic, and we would use string instruments or piano. The tricky part was because there were so many characters. To try to have specific instruments or themes for each of them would have become quite messy because they’re rarely by themselves. We realized right away that’s not going to work. The guitar ended up being quite successful for Makkari during the fighting scenes — we always kind of used it when she does her thing. But overall, we stayed away from that. We left that up to the sound department for when they use their powers. There are very specific sounds with them. We stuck more with overall themes that represent more the inner struggles between the characters rather than trying to be very specific. It was kind of scene-based. What is the emotion right now that we’re underlying?
The Deviants have a specific sound, which feels almost like an alarm — it’s unnerving. Why did you choose that for them?
With the Deviant, there are two things to it. With this screaming sound, the idea was for it to be like the sickness of sound. Then with all the sound effects, you need it to be something that really cuts through and is scary. It’s very much a “here we are” kind of thing. Arishem, whenever he appeared, had a signature sound as well. I love to do these signals with music. The little easter egg that I can reveal is that the Deviant sound is also embedded in the Eternals hero theme. It’s derived from that because later in the movie, we find out they’re from the same source. I just wanted to connect them without anybody really knowing. I tried to be extra clever. (Laughs.)
There’s one twist in Eternals with Druig that almost seems, with the help of the music, to set him up as the team’s opposition, but we later find out it’s someone else. How did you approach that red herring musically?
The music very much guides us and misleads us into who we think might turn on us or not. During the breakup, when Druig walks away, you can tell he’s very upset, and it very much feels like something’s changed. I don’t know if bad guy is the right term because, in a way, he’s just sticking to his beliefs, right? But you don’t think Ikaris is going to go down that way. He’s the most powerful of them all, and he’s our classic superhero, so you very much believe in him. Then you realize he’s not letting go of his original mission. That’s where the conflict becomes obvious and where another theme — “Mission” — comes in.
Besides the hero theme, when they are doing heroic things, they are on a mission, and the mission is where the conflict becomes so obvious. What’s interesting is that they have been a unit for such a long time, so how do you portray the shift towards conflict? That’s why we used the same themes, and I would just rearrange them differently with a darker tone. They’re still a family, so thematically it should be the same, but I needed to find ways to portray the conflict and emotion.
Eternals as a movie lives as much in space as it does on Earth. But in space, there’s no sound. How did you want to musically capture the expanse of space?
It was a tricky one to capture because everybody would imagine it differently. When we first see the Domo fly at the beginning of the movie, I just thought it was more like an aura. Then also the characters have superpowers — there’s something alien to it, but it’s not scary. It’s more mysterious. That’s what I felt like I needed to capture. It’s also there with Arishem. He’s kind of intimidating, but again, not scary. He’s a creator, and so there needed to be a beauty to it as well.
Most of the layers are choir, but it’s not a choir in a traditional sense. It’s more like a choir that hums — that aura. There are no words; there’s no melody; no singing. It’s just a bed of sound. It’s capturing just the vastness of it. The organ was for the more melodic content. Many times when you talk organ or when you say the word organ, people think of church music, which I did not want. But it has a supernatural sound, at least to me. So with the different pipes, I just tried to use different settings. That’s kind of what the underlying sound was. Then I would add things like on the “Celestials” piece, for example. I would try to bring beauty in and use string instruments like a solo violin or even a solo voice on top of it.
You’ve got many songs on this score. Outside The Eternals hero theme, was there another composition you felt embodied the larger story or a different layer of the story you and Chloé were trying to tell?
The love theme on the soundtrack is “Across the Oceans of Time.” It’s as fragile as it gets in the film, where ultimately, this relationship [with Sersi] is what ends up changing Ikaris’ mind. It’s where he realizes over all these thousands of years that they have been on Earth, and together, there is this emotion, an attachment — love. It starts with that solo vocal, and it just grows, and then the choir comes in and just becomes bigger and bigger. That was always written with the intention of being in the climax of the film, which is quite interesting when you think about it. Normally, the climax is all action music, but it all of a sudden breaks down. The world is ending, and here we are with these two characters on their own, looking each other in the eyes. It’s such a powerful moment.
You’ve worked on the scores and themes for other epic projects like Game of Thrones and Westworld. Did your work on those influence your Eternals score at all?
For sure. I learned so much from those two shows. For example, both have multiple characters. In Game of Thrones, we also noticed that it could become very complicated to have themes right away for everybody because, again, they’re in the room together, and it just gets more confusing than helpful. On Eternals, we made very similar specific decisions: Is it the love theme right now, humanity theme, the memory theme. What are they going through? I learned a lot from these other shows.
Also, from the storytelling because a score is such a subconscious feeling. Because there’s dialogue and all these other visual things as you watch, you don’t necessarily pay attention to it, but music can be such a powerful tool to tell the story in parallel. You enhance things, and you make the viewer feel something. That’s something I just love to do. You plant the theme, you rework it a little bit, and because you’ve heard the theme before, you pick it up as you go through the film. That’s something I just love to do. It’s something I did in Game of Thrones and Westword and definitely this one.
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