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Composer Ramin Djawadi on Uncharted and Jamming With The National in Westeros

The composer of epic soundtracks shares what it was like being a part of the Game of Thrones phenomenon

Ramin Djawadi Interview
Portrait by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
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    Ramin Djawadi, the Emmy-winning composer behind the scores for Iron Man, Pacific Rim, and Game of Thrones, isn’t sure that he has a signature sound to his works for film, TV, video games, and more. “I don’t know if I can analyze myself and say, oh, I sound like Ramin,” he tells Consequence. “I can definitely think of other composers when I hear their music, but I’m not sure if I can say it about myself. I don’t know. I think it’s up to others to decide if I have that or not.”

    While he might not be able to hear what makes it distinctive, Djawadi has nonetheless become quite in demand. His latest film, the Tom Holland-starring adaptation of Uncharted, is now available for rental, and on the horizon this year are two massive TV projects: Djawadi will be returning not just to compose the music for the upcoming fourth season of Westworld, but he’ll be making his return to Westeros for the Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon.

    Below, in an interview transcribed and edited for clarity, Djawadi tells Consequence all about his process as a composer and whether he brought much personal gaming experience to working on Uncharted. He also reflects on what it was like being a part of the global Thrones phenomenon, and what it was like working with The National to create a full version of “The Rains of Castamere” — a jam session that sounds like it was a lot of fun.


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    To start, was Uncharted a pandemic project for you?

    Definitely. But it was a pandemic work that was more towards the end, meaning vaccinations came into play as we were starting to have our meetings. So first we had no meetings, it was all remote. And then we would have some meetings in person, but with masks, and then when it spiked again, we did it remotely again. So it was a little bit off and on.

    Then, the recordings were done in London. So we did not fly over there — normally, obviously, when we record for a week or more then, you know, you fly over there. It’s so much better to be there in person. But at least we could record because obviously, in the height of the pandemic, you couldn’t record at all. So at least I’m happy we were able to record properly.

    Were you getting up at like 4:00 AM for recording sessions?

    It was actually not so bad — sometimes we have done triple sessions, meaning you start at nine, and you go until nine in the evening, so you do 12 hours. But with COVID, that wasn’t allowed anymore. You were only allowed to do two sessions. So with that, we start in the afternoon in Europe — for us it was pretty comfortable, 6:00 AM or 7:00 AM — it wasn’t a brutal 2:00 AM start, which, you know, at that point you go, “Should I go to bed at all or sleep one hour?” So, yeah, it wasn’t that bad.

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    Talk me through the process of coming on a project like Uncharted at this point in your career. Does someone give you a call and ask if you want to do it?

    Yeah, I got a call from the producer on the project and he told me about it. And then I talked to Ruben Fleischer, the director, who was also interesting in working with me. So we talked about it, and they sent me the script and we talked some more. And then, yeah, I just got very excited and was happy that they reached out.

    So when they come to you, do they talk about things that they’re looking for in the score?

    Oh, for sure. I mean, Ruben had a very specific vision, and as I always like to point out, all these projects are supposed to be collaborations. Right? You try your best to make everybody happy — I can’t, obviously, just write whatever I want. So Ruben always had this idea of making this a fun classic adventure movie, you know, and obviously based on the game, because that’s what the games are too. It’s, it’s this classic epic adventure.

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    In terms of that, were you looking to the game much for inspiration?

    I have to admit I have not played the games. I knew of the game, but I definitely looked stylistically at what had been done, and, you know, there were beautiful themes to which we also paid homage. They wanted to create new themes as well, but I definitely tried, and I’m hoping that I kind of fit into that franchise there somehow.

    Are you personally a big gamer at all?

    Yes and no. I mean, I used to play quite a bit, but obviously with work…

    …it takes a little time.

    Exactly. So with work, I can’t play as much now. We have kids, that takes a little time as well, but as they get older, the video game playing is picking up, which I’m kind of happy about because I get to play with them.

    I don’t know how old your children are, but have they gotten to the point where they’re beating you yet?

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    Definitely. They’re eight-year-old twins, so there’s definitely a lot of like Mario Kart and FIFA. We actually like games where we play together on a team, which is kind of fun.

    When you’re sitting down for a new project, how much does the medium factor into your work initially? Like, how prevalent in your mind is the idea of it being music for a TV show versus a video game versus a film?

    Not at all, actually. I mean, I’ve always treated every project the same in that I always like to just sit down for a clean start and then always the question, “Okay, what does this project need? Is it orchestral? Is it adventure? Is it horror? You know what, what’s the style?” I never have a different approach if it’s a video game or a movie or TV — to me it’s all the same. I always like to have something that feels unique for this specific project and that’s it. I don’t make a difference.

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    In that phase, are you just following your gut, or do you try a different couple of different approaches before you feel out which one works best?

    It’s a bit of both. I mean, first of all, I have discussions with the director or producers. They have usually already a good idea of what they like stylistically. Obviously, I want to bring in my ideas, but I always like to ask, “Hey, is there a certain instrument that you hear for the score, or things that you don’t like stylistically, so that I can kind of narrow down what we want to do?”

    Then it just comes down to trying to get the music going, you know, and the beginning is always the toughest part. I wish there was like a formula or something, like something that makes it easier to start, but I start differently. Sometimes I start writing on the piano. Sometimes I use a string pad. Sometimes I grab a guitar. It depends. I mix it up a bit.

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    I’m amused by the idea of a director coming to you and saying, “I hate this. Don’t do this it.” No names, of course, but when they say “Not like this?”, what are they hoping to avoid?

    It could be two reasons. It could be a completely personal preference that somebody just does not like the piano, because they feel it’s overused, or they feel it’s just not right for the project. Those are just things that I then obviously avoid. It’s kind of fun to put yourself into these situations where you just go, okay, we really want to try to avoid a piano. So you either don’t use it at all, or you come up with different ways of using it, if you wanna still try. I kind of like that about my job, the creativity of it. Sometimes having restrictions is actually a good thing.

    To shift to Game of Thrones for a bit, I’m curious — at what point did the scale of that project really sink in for you?

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    I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it too much. I mean, with the theme, what was really amazing, what blew me away, was when the show aired the next day, David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] started sending me cover versions from YouTube that people were doing. It was literally the next day. I’ll never forget. The first version that they sent me was a rock version that somebody had done and posted. And it was amazing. It was incredible. This person had played the drums and then it showed him playing the bass and the guitar and they sent it to me and I was blown away.

    And then an hour later, another one popped up and, and I thought, wow, people are really into this. And they’re, and people were super creative with this. I think there’s one with cats meowing…

    Oh, there’s definitely one with cats meowing.

    So I just thought, wow, this, this is pretty incredible.

    On that show, there were a few instances where you got to collaborate with artists like The National and Sigur Rós — what was the process of involving those bands like?

    It was a pretty organic process. I didn’t actually have so much to do with it. It was more David and Dan were looking to have a band work with me on this, or do a cover of this. And then Evyen Klean, the music supervisor on the show, he would bring ideas and sometimes David and Dan would be like, “Oh, we love Sigur Rós, do you think they would be interested?” It was an organic process that happened, but it was not initiated by me.

    What interactions did you have with the bands when they came in?

    It was different every time. Sometimes I would just hear the final products — I would send them my demo and they kind of fit their version to it. But with The National, we actually got in the studio together and jammed a bit and worked on the arrangement together. It was amazing. It’s so fun, obviously, to collaborate with other people on this. With the other bands, it’s just because of the location that we didn’t. But it was fun.

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    Was there anything in particular that came out of those jam sessions with The National?

    It was just great because it was super relaxed — they would suggest instruments and we would just try different things.

    What instruments did The National bring to those sessions that were interesting?

    There were these… They were like acoustic guitars, but they were slightly different. They were like a hybrid between a mandolin and an acoustic guitar, which I thought was really cool. And then one of them suggested trombones — I actually would’ve never thought of, like to put that in a song like that. They said, what about some trombones? I thought, okay, cool. So, so we put those in, and that was great.

    That’s very cool. In general, when you’re considering taking on a new project, how much of a factor is the opportunity to try something new, like bring in a different instrument or a different sound?

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    It differs every time. I don’t think I know how I can describe it. Sometimes it’s just whatever works for the project or, or there’s something that triggers something. Like, for example in Westworld, with those piano covers, I give Jonah Nolan full credit, but that happened because there was this player piano in the saloon visually, and, and he said, Ramin, I wanna do something with that. We can see the piano, we can have somebody pretend they’re playing these covers there. And then it can transition into the wider scenes, when it cuts outside.

    And so it just kind of came out of just that visual of the pianos being seen like this. Sometimes things happen like that.

    To wrap things up, when you were first starting out, when you were younger, was there a classic theme or soundtrack choice from a film that made you want to do this?

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    Oh, a hundred percent obviously Star Wars, but the other one that actually really triggered it for me was The Magnificent Seven, Leonard Bernstein. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of these Western movies. And I came across this movie and the music really stuck with me. It was just one of those things where, when I turned the movie off, those themes were still in my head. I just fell in love with that identity, the power of music having such an identity to a film — from then on, I was like, this is what I want to do. This is incredible.

    Uncharted is available for purchase now on VOD.

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