The Inverse Interview

How Ramin Djawadi Built the Sonic World of Fallout

The composer behind Fallout, Westworld, and Game of Thrones creates an all-new take on the western.

A man in a suit stands confidently in a futuristic circular doorway inside a metallic corridor.
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The Inverse Interview

Fallout is more or less synonymous with its many classic, crooning needle drops, but the score that supplements it is equally crucial. It’s these moody, synth-driven sounds that first clue us into the vice within the Brotherhood of Steel, and the same could be said for the unsettling yodel that plays whenever the Ghoul (Walton Goggins) appears.

That’s all the work of Ramin Djawadi, the composer behind Fallout and many of the most iconic genre scores of the past decade. It was Djawadi who crafted the theme for HBO’s Game of Thrones; ditto for the cerebral sci-fi epic Westworld. The latter kickstarted a years-spanning partnership with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the co-creators of Westworld and executive producers of Fallout.

“Now that we’ve worked together for such a long time, there’s this friendship and trust that starts building,” Djawadi tells Inverse. “They’ll throw ideas at me and then they’ll just let me run wild with it.”

That trust has given birth to an unnerving, atmospheric score — a far cry from the old-timey piano covers in Westworld. But both soundtracks find their roots in Djawadi’s ultimate North Star: spaghetti westerns like The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

“I remember watching [those] film[s] and then, when I turned off the movie, those themes were stuck in my head,” Djawadi says. “So when I write my scores, I try to achieve the same thing.”

When transposed to the Wasteland of Fallout, traditional, orchestral sounds take on experimental properties. It’s just one of the things that makes Amazon’s latest series such a successful adaptation — and a surprising remix of the classic western. Djawadi sat down with Inverse to unpack his process, his love of video game soundtracks, and his most game-changing work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Djawadi at the House of the Dragon premiere.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

You’ve helped build so many iconic sci-fi/fantasy worlds. What defines a great fantasy score for you?

I always try to find things that connect the music to the show, movie, or project itself — meaning when if you walk away from it and you just listen to the music, is there something about it that reminds you of what you have just watched? When I was growing up, what really got me into it was the score for The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein. I remember watching that film and then, when I turned off the movie, those themes were stuck in my head. So when I write my scores, I try to achieve the same thing — and that could be thematically; that could be sonically. Sometimes it’s just sounds that attach you back to the project.

How do you begin a new project? Are you having a lot of conversations with creators and directors?

Yeah, that’s the first thing that always happens. I just like to sit down and talk. Many times when we meet, either the project hasn’t even been shot yet or it’s still in early stages, so it’s always great to just sit down and talk about their vision. Sometimes they even have specific ideas about instrumentation: they say, “Oh, I really would love for you to incorporate a piano in the score for this character; violin could be great or something.” All these creative ideas I’d like to take into consideration and see what I can come up with.

“They really understand story,” Djawadi says of Fallout’s producers.

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Your collaboration with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy has been especially fun to watch, from Westworld to Reminiscence and now Fallout. What are conversations like with them?

Now that we’ve worked together for such a long time, there’s this friendship and trust that starts building. So what’s great is now at this point, when we get into a room together, we talk about the project and then they’ll throw ideas at me and then they’ll just let me run wild with it. It’s great to feed off of each other like that. They’re so creative, they really understand story.

Are they the type to say, “I want to hear piano here”?

It’s a bit of both. Sometimes they’ll say, “See what you feel here.” Sometimes it’ll be specific. I remember on Reminiscence, for example, Lisa said, “For this moment, I would love it to be waltz.” It was very specific, what she described to me. And then my task was to come up with a waltz that would fit.

The needle drops in Fallout are almost like a score unto themselves. Did that affect the process at all for you? Did you get to choose the songs, or were they chosen beforehand?

I did not choose the songs. There was a music supervisor on board that came out with the songs — and the game always had a lot of songs like this, so they were staying true to the game. There was an unusual amount of songs: with the projects that I’m attached to, there’s usually more score. But that created a nice balance. That whole retro vibe immediately pulls you in, and we could then go somewhere else with the score.

For characters as fragmented as Walton Goggin’s Ghoul, Djawadi deconstructed a traditional western theme.

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The score feels a lot more atmospheric, even with the character themes. Was it nice to pull back an establish eerier moods?

That was part of our conversation before I started. Obviously it’s a very moody game and it’s very visual, like with the Wasteland, it just looks so great. So we always thought, “OK, what does the score sound like? How can we capture that?” There’s definitely a lot of ambient moments — a lot of non-orchestral moments, actually — where it would either just be solo instruments or synths or percussion. There’s very little orchestra in the score. It gets a bit more orchestral towards the end when all the plots and characters come together, and then it gets very emotional. But beforehand, there’s not that much orchestra. So it was always looking for other soundscapes.

Could you talk through the process of approaching a character like the Ghoul, and choosing what you want to highlight in his theme?

What’s interesting about that character, because clearly we see him in the past and then we see him as a ghoul, the theme had to work in both situations. So the most melodic iteration, I would say, is actually the scene where he sees himself on TV, and there’s that western scene. His theme is actually in there, as more of a traditional western score. And that’s also how we came up with the yodel in his main theme, because we kind of wanted that Ennio Morricone style, that spaghetti western thing.

That’s where the idea [for “Feo, Fuerte, y Formal”] came from. Then taking that theme and putting it into the present where he’s a ghoul, we were deconstructing the sounds and stepping away from the orchestra. That’s really where we came up with all kinds of weird sounds and scratches — and there’s a fretless bass in there actually, an electric Fretless bass. It’s not stable. That’s how it kind of evolved.

You really hear the fragments of his character. In that same vein, how do you capture someone’s naïveté, like in characters like Lucy or Maximus?

What’s been so fun in the show is that all three characters have this amazing story arc. So with Lucy being naive when we first meet her… I mean, she’s so pure, and her melody is too. It’s very upbeat and hopeful, and everything’s just fine. But throughout the season, she becomes more and more badass. So that theme had to become much more powerful and muscular as she’s moving through the Wasteland. Maximus is a similar thing where it’s this hopeful theme. But it’s part of the Brotherhood theme, so there’s that militaristic feel, and that kind of evolves throughout and gets darker at times.

Did you listen to the music from the Fallout games, or play through any of them?

I have not played the game, actually — even though I like games. I’m planning on doing that, actually: I want to check it out more. But that was part of the discussion too, because of course we wanted to pay homage to the game. Everything is close to the game looks-wise, so we wanted to do something similar with the score. I did the research and saw that the score for the game is also very moody and ambient. So we wanted to, of course, be in that same direction. And we actually used the main theme. It gets used twice actually, in the series. It’s a little Easter egg.

Djawadi performs at Game of Thrones: In Concert.

J. Kempin/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

You’ve scored for film, you’ve done video game adaptations, and you’ve done video games proper. Is there any difference in the way that you approach film and TV versus a video game score?

Not really. My start is always the same, meaning “What’s the instrumentation? What are we trying to achieve?” I guess the one big differences with video games is that there’s a lot of music that needs to be written that’s actually not synced to picture. Usually everything that gets written obviously needs to stay in sync, whereas with games, you might just get asked to write two minutes of an action piece or tension piece, and then sometimes it loops or sometimes it doesn’t. It’s really just more about capturing a mood, which can be quite freeing because you’re not trying to hit certain sync points within the piece. That’s why I actually enjoy writing for games too.

A lot of composers have cues that show up in their work in different ways. You can hear inklings of Pacific Rim in your Game of Thrones work, and even hints of Westworld in hindsight. Are you consciously looking to remix motifs and build this “voice,” or does that just happen naturally?

It’s interesting: sometimes people ask me, “As a composer, how do you get to having a voice?” And my answer’s always like, “Well, you just keep writing.”

It’s not intentional, but maybe that’s just what happens. After writing so much music, I think it’s just a certain tone that just comes out with me. My background is part of that too. I’m half-German, half-Iranian, so I grew up with Iranian music. Some of the rhythms that I write have a Middle Eastern feel to it. That’s not something I ever thought about — but sometimes my orchestrator will point that out to me.

It was Jon Favreau’s idea to bring a “rock star” feel to the Iron Man theme: “He said, ‘Ramin, I’m hearing guitars.’”

Marvel Studios

I’m sure that helps with building an “otherworldly” soundscape. It reminds me of what Hans Zimmer’s done with Dune, or Ludwig Göransson’s Black Panther scores: using music and vocalizations that we as a Western audience are not familiar with.

And I love that about film music, actually, especially nowadays. I feel like there’s no rules to the music that we write. That also is something that happened with me kind of unintentionally, because I like to collect instruments whenever I travel. I try to play them and end up playing them not the way they’re probably supposed to be played — but I somehow get sounds out of them and I go, “Oh, this sounds kind of cool. I can use this in a score.”

Ludwig also did something similar with The Mandalorian, and he ended up completely challenging the sounds we expect to hear in Star Wars. Is there an established franchise that you look at now and think, “I could do the same”?

I’m not sure if I can think of anything now … [but] one thing that I thought was interesting when I did Iron Man, I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s a superhero. It should be this orchestral score.” And then Jon Favreau, when we started talking about it, he always said, “Tony Stark, he’s very rock & roll. He’s a rock star type, so we need to do AC/DC; we need electric guitar.” And I thought it was really cool to approach the character like that with electric guitar — which worked amazingly well — and to mix that with orchestra. That was something that he always envisioned from the start.

It is just a perfect example of how important the collaboration is — because when we talked about it, that’s the first thing he said. He said, “Ramin, I’m hearing guitars.” That was really such a big change from what superhero scores were, because it’s usually the big orchestra. We certainly had a lot of that too, but I just loved how he really wanted that instrument in there. It just made me go into this different direction. Looking back now, I can’t imagine anything else with that character.

You’re one of a handful of composers who have worked on multiple Marvel films. Would you come back for another, like the Blade reboot?

I have a great relationship with Marvel, and Kevin Feige has been so great to work with too, so I certainly love working with them … There’s always so many variables of how things bring you back together. I did the Blade: Trinity score so long ago, so I’m not sure. I certainly like the character, but it all depends on how the stars align.

Circling back to motifs, something that struck me was your work on Game of Thrones. I want to know what it was like coming back for House of the Dragon and playing with familiar motifs. Because I know the theme song is the same as the original Game of Thrones one.

Yeah, it was interesting when we started talking about the prequel, because we always said, “Let's keep the DNA of the score there.” But then looking at who the characters are and the plot, it was all new. So I ended up writing basically an entirely new score. And really what stayed the same was the mood or the sound palette was similar. There were some new additions, just like I did in Game of Thrones for every season, I would add some new instrumentation.

Djawadi teases an “exciting” second season of House of the Dragon.


Overall, it definitely was supposed to sound like Game of Thrones, but it's pretty much all new themes. And then we really just kind of go back to the old themes whenever there's a reason for it. When they talk about the “Prince That Was Promised,” there's even a new theme for that too. But sometimes we use the main theme for that, or the King's theme or the Dragon's theme. That's something we could reuse here and there, and so we only go back to the old themes when we feel like it really makes sense story-wise.

With House of the Dragon, you're playing in a similar world with different showrunners, so I'm sure it allows for new ideas to take hold. Could you talk about what the difference is between working with Benioff and Weiss versus the House of the Dragon showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik?

Both collaborations are really great. I think it's just simply a continuation at this point of where the soundscape has really been established, but then it's just like, “OK, what's new?” Pretty much most of it is all new. That's why I want to say I wrote 98% of the score is all new, and I have to write all new themes for the characters and everything. But the new showrunners are very good with making sure that we tie it all in, just like the story ties into the original Game of Thrones. So we never said that the score should completely depart from what's established, because that probably would've been too much of a departure.

I know Season 2 is about to come out. You probably can't say a whole lot about it because they're very serious about spoilers. But was there anything fun that you could share about the process?

What I can say is it's a great season. And what's nice is in Game of Thrones, every season I would sit down and go, “OK, how can I develop the established themes further?” And then is there room for maybe one or two new themes, story-wise, where we can expand the score. And it's definitely the case here for Season 2, but it's both. So we have definitely all the original themes from Season 1, and more. I'm deep in it right now actually. It's a great season. It's very exciting.

Fallout Season 1 is streaming now on Prime Video.

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