Warning: contains spoilers for Game Of Thrones season 6.
Summer is finally upon us and with it, well, erm winter, courtesy of the long-awaited return of Game Of Thrones.
A staple part of the show’s success since its first season, composer Ramin Djawadi’s stirring work on season six marked some significant tonal changes for the show, not least because of some shocking plot twists. With season seven set to venture even further in to uncharted territory, it’s a given that we’re in for some big surprises going forward.
Between seasons, Djawadi hasn’t exactly been resting on his laurels, working on the likes of Warcraft and Westworld in the interim. Meanwhile, the ambitious Game Of Thrones Live Concert Experience saw him touring the show’s music with a full orchestra and choir around the US.
As hype reaches fever pitch for Game Of Thrones’ return this weekend, we sat down with Djawadi, to reflect on some of season six’s big surprises and what we might be able to expect as we enter the show’s penultimate season.
You’ve been working with David Benioff and Dan Weiss for half a decade now. How does the collaborative process between you guys work? You’ve mentioned before that you’d have meetings about future seasons while you were working on the current season. Is that how it’s worked for the past few seasons?
Yeah, it’s pretty much stayed the same. Very rarely do I get a call during the shooting process when they actually ask me to write a piece that’s not actually attached to a picture. The only piece where that happened was The Rains Of Castamere – that I actually wrote in between seasons, because we had the lyrics for the books and they called me up and they said, “Hey, Ramin. Go ahead and feel free to write this theme, because we know that it’s going to come up and we’ll have a good use for it.” But otherwise I don’t really come back until they’re in post-production.
And I understand that you watch each scene “about a thousand times” while you’re preparing the score. Is that an exaggeration, or is that genuinely how many times you have to sit through each scene?
[Laughs] No, it’s pretty much right. And I think, mainly why it’s so many times is when I write I always have the picture running in the background so as I do my arrangements in a scene, I have to go back over and over again. And I play every single instrument during my demo, so that’s a very time-consuming process. And while I do that I see it over and over and over. I get new ideas as I’m doing it and you really get attached to a scene, so I always have the picture on when I write to a scene, so that’s why I see it so many times.
Is it quite difficult to put your finger on that moment when a piece is done and it’s ready to go out in to the world?
[Laughs]. Yeah, I’m one of those artists who, if you’d let me tweak, would probably keep going and going so it comes to the point where sometimes you just have to let go and make the decision, “Okay, that’s it.” That’s always hard, because you always have new ideas and sometimes they might even be changes that aren’t even audible to anybody else but it just might be an arrangement within the piece or an instrument that I’d like to take out, or change the octave or things like that. I like to tweak, so sometimes, yeah, it’s a good thing to have a deadline. You have to deliver and that’s it.
One of the things that was most interesting about season six was the Light Of The Seven piece in the finale. Piano is something we tend not to hear on Game Of Thrones. Am I right in thinking it’s never been used before?
Absolutely correct, yeah. This was the first time where we used it and I think what was great about it was Game Of Thrones is known for its surprises with characters getting killed off and the fact that we were able to do something surprising with the music and that it was so well received, I thought that was incredible… We went back and forth about it – “Are we pushing it too far, or not?” And we said, “No, you know what? Nothing sounds like the piano.”
So, talk me through the process of putting together a scene like that. When it comes to you, it’s presumably a locked picture. How long do you tend to have with that? How long would you have to work on a scene of that length?
Well, typically I have a few weeks to finish an episode, but the example of this particular scene I actually had more, again, because this was so different from anything else. We experimented a bit about how we wanted to shape it. And because it is such a long piece and it was so different, I had plenty of time. It was definitely several weeks.
How does the feedback process work between you and David and Dan? Do you send them back the footage with the composition attached? Do they come and sit with you in the studio?
It’s a great collaboration with them and I love their vision for what they want for their show. As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s interesting – sometimes we decide to put music and it might be that they say, “It’s coming in a little too early. How about we wait until Cersei says this…” for example. So then we’ll adjust it by ten seconds, or something. Or the other way around where we play a piece of music once I’ve written it and then we realise, “You know what? Perhaps we should have started the piece possibly thirty seconds earlier. Why don’t we do that?” So then I go back and I write the beginning again and then we play it again and go through that process. It’s a great process.
You worked on Warcraft last year, which, as an existing franchise, already had a score that its audience was familiar with. Is that quite a unique thing for you to do as a composer – to kind of re-appropriate existing material and someone else’s work?
Yes, it’s definitely a tricky thing. I did something similar on Medal Of Honor where Michael Giacchino and Christopher Lennertz had done some fantastic scores, and then when I did the new game they kind of wanted to re-set and have new themes and stylistically go in a different direction. So it’s a challenge, but it also enables you to put your own style in to it. So I did the same thing with Warcraft, I just kind of had to see and write my own Warcraft theme and kind of approach it in my own way.
Moving on to Westworld, did you take any cues from Fred Karlin’s original score to the Crichton film at all?
I definitely started completely from scratch. However, the original movie is very, very close to me, just because it was one of my favourite movies as a kid, Hopefully, I was trying to include certain sounds or things that were put in there that paid homage to the original. There are certain things that I’m trying to do, because, again, that movie was very close to me.
In terms of genre, do you have a preference?
Not really. If I do a big action movie then I yearn for an animation movie and then if I do an action movie then I yearn to do something that has electronics in it. Really, I get inspired by just switching projects and instrumentation and things like that – that creative part of just being different every time is really what inspires me.
I’m also interested in your ongoing relationship with HBO. I assume it’s kind of similar to the relationship you have with a showrunner. Is that important to you?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I always… I love repeat relationships. When you know you have great support from the studio, that’s a great feeling and when it’s the creative support, that’s great. I have a similar thing with Legendary where I’ve done several movies for them as well and it’s just great when you get in the room, not only with the director, but also with executives from the studio, because obviously they listen to the music as well, and if you get positive feedback, that’s a great thing.
Another thing, just to change tangent quickly, talk me through a little behind the genesis of the Game Of Thrones Live Concert Experience and how that came to be.
Sure, yeah. It all really happened in the studio. I was sitting with David and Dan and I forgot which piece we were playing and one of them said “No, I want to see this live. I want to see and hear this live, played by an orchestra and a choir”. And that’s kind of when that idea started. We just pursued it further and expanded on it and in the summer I decided to create this concert. We’re building our own stage, it’s going to be a very immersive experience. We thought, let’s have the musicians, let’s have the great set design – Game Of Thrones has all these great assets. It has all of these beautiful set pieces from scenes and different locations, so I thought, well, somehow we have to also bring this to the stage while the music is playing and really create and environment where you really feel like you’re in Westeros when you’re there. So I want the audience to kind of re-live their favourite scenes again as they’re listening and watching the music.
It’s funny actually, I went to see Hans Zimmer last year and I remember saying to my friend at the time, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if they did something like this with Game Of Thrones?”
I know you know Hans well. Do you see much of a crossover between composers and rock concerts? It sounds a bit trite, but watching Hans play live was like watching a rock star.
[Laughs] Well, Hans certainly is. He’s a big mentor of mine. I love his work and I admire him very much, so it’s incredible to see him go out and do his tour. I think what’s nice about the film composers who go out on the road and do this is I feel that they have seen a demand from fans to see their favourite show – music from a movie or a show – live and kind of connect with the musicians and the composer being out there and conducting and performing themselves. It’s a very exciting time right now, that people are really into this.
The internet seems to have played a huge part in that. If you rewind to several years ago, people knew the big names but otherwise composers were kind of faceless. Now, with your work being so readily available, I guess fans can engage with your work much more easily, which must be really gratifying for you as a composer.
Absolutely. No, I totally agree. I think, to use Game Of Thrones as an example, when the first episode came out and all these cover songs started popping up on the internet from the main title, I just thought it kind of gave it a life on the internet that, you’re right, fifteen years ago we would probably never have had, so there’s a quick way of creating awareness on the internet, like this, which is fantastic.
Do you see the tour going outside of the US at all? A lot of fans are keen to see it come over here at some point.
I would hope so. I would certainly love to take it everywhere and turn it in to an international show. I would absolutely love to bring it to every part of the world, if I can.
Initially when David and Dan briefed you on the show for season one, their request was “no flutes”. Has there ever been a point throughout production where you’ve thought “Could I get away with it?”
[Laughs] I’m trying to think. I mean, with the flutes we always laugh about that now because we talked about it so specifically when we started out. But every season we’re bringing in new instruments, so I’m sure that if I tried we could probably fit a flute in there here and there, but it would probably have to be different to the conventional way a flute is used. I think also, the sound is so specific now to Game Of Thrones, which I guess is a good thing, so to break out of that is hard. I mean, we did it with the piano, so I guess I’d never say never. If there’s an opportunity for a flute or an instrument that we maybe discussed not to use, I’m sure they’d be open to it, if we do it right and if the scene is appropriate. We’ll see what we can do.
Finally, a while back you cited Daenerys as one of your favourite characters to write for. In the intervening years we’ve had some fantastic characters who have come and gone. Have there been any since that you’ve really enjoyed writing for or you’ve enjoyed developing the themes for, in particular?
Season six was very exciting with Jon Snow, for example. He got his own theme and his character arc this season was very interesting. Obviously, coming back to life – that was a big deal – and then some of the decisions that he makes, not necessarily the right decisions, so the theme kind of reflected that too. It’s a very emotional theme and you can really hear it during The Battle Of Bastards where, several times, you think it’s over for Jon and this is it. And then it kind of recurs again and then you think, “Oh, no. It’s over,” and then Sansa comes in with the army. That was a character that I definitely enjoyed writing for this season.
How difficult is it to sit on all the secrets of the show? Is it frustrating to have all the answers – or at least some of the answers – to the questions that everyone wants to know?
[Laughs] You know, I’m actually really good at keeping secrets. I’m just used to it in my work. On every movie I sign an NDA and I’m not allowed to talk about it, so I’ve just become used to the fact that I have to keep all the excitement to myself. And I’m also actually the type of guy that, even if a project that I’m not attached to and I’m excited about, information gets released, I’m the type of guy who would prefer to not know the surprises of the secrets beforehand. I actually like to just see it finished and polished and then get surprised when you actually watch it.
And Game Of Thrones is the kind of show where any surprise, good or bad, is a gift.
Exactly. Think about the Red Wedding… When you watch it for the first time, and you just sit there and you go “Oh my God. No way. What?!” So I think, just at that moment, it’s much better to see that when it’s really finished and polished the way it’s meant to be, rather than knowing about it earlier, before you’ve even seen it. That’s just me.
Ramin Djawadi, thank you very much!
Game Of Thrones: Season 6 (Music from the HBO® Series) is available to purchase now.