Do Atlanteans listen to music? If they do, what would it sound like?
Until a future Aquaman sequel (or musical spinoff) provides us with a more direct answer to that question, one suspects the best person to ask may be Rupert Gregson-Williams. As the composer behind Aquaman’s much discussed score, it’s doubtful that anyone’s thought more about Atlantis and music than he has. Of course, Arthur’s underwater kingdom is just one aspect of the DC blockbuster that required music to accompany it. Gregson-Williams also had to write themes to accompany two different love stories, a globe-trotting search, massive underwater battles and one of the most infamous super-villains in the DC Universe.
It’s never easy to craft a memorable superhero score, let alone one for a movie as far-ranging as Aquaman. The fact that Gregson-Williams managed to create one that successfully stokes emotions while sounding both retro and otherworldly is a heroic undertaking in its own right. We recently had a chance to ask Gregson-Williams a few questions about how he pulled it all off. Turns out that even in Atlantis, a good score is all about how it makes you feel.
You’re returning to the world of superhero movies after having scored Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. How did it feel getting to work on Aquaman?
Each project presented wonderful opportunities for a composer. Working with Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman was a joy. It was also incredibly exciting to work with James Wan on Aquaman. He gave me a lot of room to have fun with this score, and we worked hard together to give it the colors, sounds and scope you hear.
How familiar were you with the character? So many people saw him as kind of a joke. Did it take any convincing to get you on board?
As a lot of people, I had thought Aquaman was rather conventional and a bit of a joke… Then you meet Jason Mamoa—he’s no joke, unless he’s telling you one! And if that’s not enough, you meet James Wan—one of the brightest and most enthusiastic of directors, who told me his vision.
I was in from the first minute, are you kidding?! The character that Jason and James came up with provided me with lots of energy for strength, muscularity and also emotion too.
Aquaman is a pretty unique superhero movie in that it pulls from a lot of genres—you have your traditional superhero battles, but also there are parts of the movie that are more fantasy and even horror. How does that affect your approach to scoring the movie?
I felt this movie was based on the love stories above anything else, so once I had drilled into the emotion of both of them, I felt like the action and danger came naturally. Those battles are epic to compose score to—it can take days to write such enormous scenes. If you have an investment in the emotion of the characters, and a strong melody to reflect that, it makes it so much easier to hit the action and horror hard.
A lot of this score sounds electronic, which I found interesting because I’m not sure Atlantis actually uses electricity. Why take that approach?
James and I thought it would sound cool! An epic synth landscape. It also gave us a different palette of sounds to use once we went under the water compared to the orchestral sound for the surface. There are ’80’s references in the design and this reflects in my choice of sound. The buildings are lit beautifully in Atlantis—I guess by electricity generated by organisms. I felt we could steal a jellyfish or two to power the synths and they wouldn’t notice!
The music you’ve composed to accompany Black Manta is some of my favorite in the score. It’s aggressive and ominous, but also sounds pretty nautical to me. Was that what you were aiming for? How did his themes come together?
Black Manta’s theme was one of those that came easiest to me. As soon as I saw the artwork of where James was taking the visual effects, and read in the script the deep hate Black Manta has for Aquaman, I composed some pure revenge-driven industrial music. It happened one night with an old synth, a distortion pedal, and James shouting, “More!”
“The Ring of Fire” is another standout to me. It accompanies the arena battle between Arthur and Orm, and the song has all of these classic-sounding elements. Can you discuss how that song came together?
This scene was one that had temporary visual effects for the longest time—it is so VFX heavy. So, I wrote a suite of score that I thought reflected the battle between brothers way before starting the scene—knowing the size and scope of the battle through conversations with James. Once writing, it took quite a few versions to get it right. Things needed tweaking as the new VFX came in. This song contains nearly every theme—Atlantis, Orm, Arthur, the suite that I wrote with the scene in mind, ‘Definite Danger.’ Big choir, orchestra, synths, some fun ’80’s beats—everything!
You’ve scored battles before in movies like Hacksaw Ridge and Wonder Woman, but none of those battles have been underwater! Is there a different approach when scoring a fantasy battle compared to a more realistic one?
Actually, there’s no real difference. All these battles contain danger, accents, speed and above all, emotion.
You’ve written music for two of DC’s biggest superheroes. Are there any others you’d love a chance to work on?
I’m loving my relationship with the DCEU. I’ll take my chance with any of them, if I were lucky enough to be offered another. The success of Aquaman—hopefully we’ll see him back. And there’s the little matter of our castaway friend too…
Aquaman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is now available for streaming, download or purchase. Click here to listen or buy now.