The three-hour-long biopic about the father of the atomic bomb is an epic like no other, and so it needed an impressive score to match its sheer ambition. For that, the director turned to composer Ludwig Göransson, who he has worked with before on Tenet, but this time things were different.
As is well known, Nolan wrote the Oppenheimer script in the first person, which is extremely unusual in filmmaking. As Göransson told GamesRadar+ and the Inside Total Film podcast in a conversation ahead of next week's BAFTA ceremony, where he is nominated for Best Original Score, it completely changed the way he approached composing the music.
He explained: "It truly did. I understood from very early on after reading the script that the music needs to put the audience in Oppenheimer's shoes, and make the audience feel what he's feeling, and see what he's seeing, instead of having the audience sitting there judging this character. And so, I would have to also go to all those places, emotionally that Cillian did, and that he was portraying with Oppenheimer. That was a very challenging journey at times."
Göransson says this was particularly true for the scene at Fuller Lodge, where Cillian Murphy's Oppenheimer makes a speech following the successful launch of the bomb. It's a terrifying moment which many have said is the closest Nolan has got to horror, as Oppenheimer has visions of people screaming and the destruction caused by his creation.
For Göransson then, he had to go to "some difficult places" in an attempt to capture what our protagonist is going through in that moment. The composer revealed: "I would say the scene at Fuller Lodge was the toughest. That was the one that took the longest time, I think we finished that piece of music the day before we wrapped the entire film. I tried so many different ideas and concepts, it took a long time to finally get that right and really understand what he's going through at that moment. It was very challenging. I had to go to some difficult places to try to capture that."
What makes the music even more anxiety inducing both here and throughout the film is the incorporation of sound design elements, specifically the stomping of feet. This was something that was written into the script from the start by Nolan, presenting Göransson with another unique challenge, how to use this in the score.
He explains that, at one point, the score almost completely turns into just sound design alone: "The feet stomps were in the script, as were the ten seconds of silence after the Trinity Test. Chris gave me that early on to work into the score and I loved working closely with sound design. There's one point in the film where the music almost completely turns into sound design, which is when they are getting ready for the test. The music takes a big shift, becoming tension fueled and dramatic, with a ticking sound and thumping bass. It's the first time in the film where you really see the physical bomb. Everything up until then has been theories and scribbles on paper, or conversations, but this is the first time you see an actual bomb and the music takes a complete turn there."
From our chat, it becomes clear that working with Nolan is a unique task, which Göransson confirms, saying that it is unlike collaborating with any other filmmaker. But what is also evident is that he loves the partnership, concluding by stating he will never say no to working with the director: "It’s a very collaborative process and he’s with me for the whole ride - his curiosity in music, his interest in it, how important it is to the story, it’s an integral part of the film. It’s just such a pleasure to work with him and I couldn’t be more happy. I’d always say yes to working with him - within a heartbeat for sure. He’s different to others. I don’t work with a lot of people and everyone has their own ways - and Chris definitely has his way of working, but I love the process."
Göransson is currently nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar for his work on Oppenheimer. To get the lowdown on the full list of 96th Academy Award nominees, check out our guide to the Oscar 2024 nominations.
For the full interview with the composer, listen to the latest episode of the Inside Total Film podcast.