Composer Ramin Djawadi has been described by Game of Thrones’ creators as one of the show’s unsung heroes, but that’s far from the only thing he’s known for. Having worked with the likes of Hans Zimmer, RZA and, most recently, Tom Morello, Djawadi has spent the past decade carving a reputation as one of the most dependable composing talents in the business. With a wildly diverse discography to his name, including work on Prison Break, Pacific Rim and the Grammy-nominated score for Iron Man, I recently had the chance to chat to him about a body of work that continues to push boundaries.
The Game Of Thrones theme achieved an iconic status all of its own now, hasn’t it? You only need to kind of put your name into YouTube and you’ll find hundreds of videos with hundreds of thousands of views. What’s it like to see your work embraced like that?
Yeah, it’s absolutely flattering to see that and I love how creative people are. It’s now available in every kind of version, from techno to solo harmonica instruments and things like that. I love how creative out there are, doing their own versions of it. It’s absolutely flattering, yeah. What’s interesting is people have not so much tried to imitate what I do, but do their own thing with it.
I’ve seen one version where someone took a bunch of digital hard drives and created the theme on digital hard drives and played the theme using the clicks. It’s amazingly creative and completely different. That’s what I love about it; nobody has really tried to imitate it. People have tried to do another variation or stylistic approach.
How does the creative process work on the show? I understand that the score for the first season was completed just under 10 weeks prior to broadcast.
I think it was something like that. It might have been less, actually. There wasn’t a lot of time, but that was the first episode, or the first two or three episodes. Then, once the show started, I caught up. So not all ten episodes had to be done in ten weeks, like at the beginning of the show. But, yeah, it was pretty quick. But the people were amazing and the show was so great. It was all such great inspiration. I had lots to work on.
How does working on Game Of Thrones compare to other shows, like Prison Break for example? Have you had a quite close relationship with the show runners on other projects?
It’s always actually been kind of the same on other shows too, but what’s interesting about TV versus feature films is the way that during a film you are mostly in touch with the director and maybe one or two producers. In TV it’s quite different because they’re rotating directors on different episodes. You never really sit with the directors. You’re always with the show runners. So on Person Of Interest, for example, it’s Jonathan Nolan that I deal with all the time on the creative basis, so it’s actually quite common to do it like that.
So, for example, you were in regular contact with Guillermo Del Toro on Pacific Rim, presumably?
Exactly. I’d sit down with Guillermo and we would talk about the movie, talk creatively and plan the music.
Tonally, Game of Thrones is very different to a lot of your previous work, which is a lot more rock-oriented. Is it fair to say that the end result feels a lot more organic and folk-inspired?
Definitely, yeah. Stylistically we were searching for something that just felt right for this fantasy world, so what we ended up with was, as you said, very organic, it still has a modern touch to it, so we didn’t try to be necessarily ‘medieval’ or whatever you want to call it, because it is a fantasy world. There are certain liberties you can take so there are some synth elements, but it’s mostly all done in an organic way that’s right for the show. And, yeah, like you mentioned with Iron Man and also Pacific Rim, it’s interesting that every time I do something with robots, it kind of ends up using a rock style, but it felt like it was the appropriate thing to do. It makes it fun. It makes it modern. The guitars seemed appropriate.
When you come to a project like Pacific Rim or Iron Man, it must be difficult to come in without preconceptions about the genre. Do you start coming up with ideas before you’ve seen any of the film?
Sometimes, yeah. In the case of Iron Man, the film was already shot by the time I was brought on. And the guitars on that one, actually I have to give Jon Favreau credit, because when we met his first thing was, “Okay, there’s Spider-man, Batman and all these superhero movies. This superhero movie’s different. I want to do something completely different, instead of going down the orchestral route. I want to do more rock and roll.” He thought of Tony Stark as being this rock star type, so I thought that was a great approach.
With Pacific Rim, I actually started very early. Guillermo and I met on the set and we had lots of conversations about the approach. He also actually said from the beginning that he was interested in guitars and he wanted to utilise that twang. Then, actually, during the process we discovered that the guitars were working really well so we added more of them. It just became a cool hybrid with orchestra and guitars.
When did the prospect of working with Tom Morello on Pacific Rim come about?
That came about halfway through as we were adding more guitars and as the characters of the robots were shaping up and the special effects were coming in. We knew we wanted it to have a very special guitar sound and the first person I thought of was Tom, just because his sound is unique and his approach to what he does – it’s powerful and so unique. I thought he would be the perfect fit for the film.
There are lots of preconceptions about what fantasy should sound like. You mentioned previously that flutes were something you tried to steer clear of.
That was definitely something we mentioned. In the very first meeting I had with David [Benioff] & Dan [Weiss]. “We love Gladiator. We love Lord of The Rings. We love all that stuff, but let’s try to do something different here.” And one of the first instruments they said they didn’t want was flutes. They said they loved the sound of them but for their show they wanted to find something different. I always like it when you have a creative meeting like that – when the director or producer already has a certain idea, just like Jon had on Iron Man, or Guillermo on Pacific Rim, when they said they liked guitar. When they have a certain thing in mind – an instrument to use or not to use – I always love that sort of restriction because it makes you think how to include it or I cannot touch this instrument, so what else can I do? Automatically it gets your ideas going to work with something.
I understand that Daenerys is one of your favourite characters to compose score for, is that right?
I think so, yeah. Her character development has such a big arc, with her gaining so much power. And, of course, now she has the dragons. There’s something intriguing about her story that I really like. I really connected with the very end of the last episode, when all the people come out and pledge themselves to Daenerys. We had a full choir, including a kids’ choir. That was a very powerful scene to end with; with a little bit of hope. The show is so dark; it’s rare to end on a positive note.
There’s probably very little you can tell us about season four, but what can we expect with from a musical point of view? Obviously there are new characters coming in with their own themes and themes are going to get retired with most of the Starks disappearing.
I probably can’t say too much other than what you just said. Yeah, there will definitely be, or most likely be new characters so I’ll be looking to themes for that and also just expanding on existing themes. As the plot expands, so has the music and it’ll be interesting to see where, yet again, the story will take me to develop the music further. And that’s something that has been an incredible throughout all three seasons – just let the story guide me with what I need to do.
In addition to your film and television work you’ve also produced video game soundtracks, working on the likes of Medal Of Honor and System Shock 2. Gaming seems to be a good fit for your rockier style. Is that something you’re keen to explore further?
Definitely, yeah. I don’t have anything lined up at the moment but it’s definitely something I’m open to and I enjoy doing because it’s creatively challenging and fun. The approach is a little bit different, you don’t have a locked picture, you work more to a guideline of “here’s two minutes of action, two minutes of tension.” You create these moods. It’s quite fun to work like that. It’s a different approach. There’s also the fact that I do also, if I have time, enjoy playing videogames. It’s kind of a selfish thing. I’d definitely like to do more videogame stuff.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who would love to see this, so I’ve got to ask. Is it possible that we’ll ever get to see a live orchestra performance of the score at somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall in London, for example?
There have definitely been talks about it and it’s definitely a big plan I have. It’s something that I would love to do, but I want to do it right. Let me say if I do it, I want to do it right. I’d need time, but I hope it will happen.
Game Of Thrones (Music from the HBO Series) Season 3 is available to purchase on CD and digital download.
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