‘The Mountain Between Us’: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Composer Ramin Djawadi Elevated the Perilous Survival Drama


With “The Mountain Between Us,” Hany Abu-Assad, the Oscar-nominated director of “Paradise Now” and “Omar,” found a reason to collaborate with a composer for the first time. He wanted to elevate the survival drama in which journalist Kate Winslet and doctor Idris Elba find themselves trapped 11,000 feet on a snow-covered mountain. And, with Ramin Djawadi (“Game of Thrones” and “Westworld”), Abu-Assad found the right composer to capture the beautiful but deadly musical tone he was after (see the featurette below).

“I always thought [music] was helping a movie and didn’t think it was necessary, so working with Ramin elevated it and gave it an extra dimension that I didn’t see before,” said Abu-Assad after a recent scoring session at Fox. “With this movie, I wanted to merge the theme of survival with the theme of love,” he added. “Usually, these themes are separated in a love story or a survival story. ‘The African Queen’ is the only other movie I can think of that combines these two, and Ramin, because he grew up in Europe but was educated in the U.S., combines a European musical aesthetic with American dynamics.”

Blending Environment and Music

Djawadi, who also scored “Iron Man” and “Pacific Rim,” and is currently working on “A Wrinkle in Time” for director Ava DuVernay, needed to incorporate the environment into the music while expressing the budding romance between Winslet and Elba. At the core was piano, then Djawadi laid on light strings. Fortunately, his “Game of Thrones” experience proved helpful as a hybrid of action and melodrama. But Djawadi has never composed anything this intimate before.

“What I like about the piano is that it’s a beautiful hybrid instrument in the sense that it can sound very warm but also very cold,” said Djawadi. The piano evokes the love theme and slowly evolves with the addition of strings. At first, the mountain serves as an obstacle, but Winslet and Elba warm up to its beauty as they bond together emotionally. Djawadi also played with echo in keeping with the harsh surroundings.

Composer Ramin Djawadi conducting the scoring session for “The Mountain Between Us.”

Photo Credit: Bret Hartman

During the scoring session at Fox, Djawadi conducted a full orchestra involving the two primary pieces: The “Mountain Between Us Suite” and “Separation.” “All of the other themes were feathered in from the love theme,” he said. “Plus there was a triplet figure that could be used together and by itself.”

The composer also emphasized solo violin, cello, concert flutes, guitar, and the vibraphone for its metallic coldness. “Woodwinds were also interesting,” Djawadi said. “I’m using them actually as tension instruments. The tonality of the flute almost has a mystic element to me.”

The Meaning of Life

As Abu-Assad describes it, “the movie is about the meaning of life. When you’re in a situation like this and you’re struggling with survival, it’s suddenly the small things that matter. They needed to fall in love in order to survive, but, if they survive, their love will die because they return to their normal lives.”

“The Mountain Between Us”

Photo Credit: Kimberley French

Abu-Assad not only liked the idea of interweaving sound effects and score, but also wanted to musically capture the sound of wind. “Hany asked about unique instruments that represent wind, and after doing some research, I came up with plastic whirly tubes where you spin them and get a wind sound and a tone. So I put it on top of the orchestra,” Djawadi said.

“What I learned from the movie is that the meaning of life is not survival, it’s the dignity of human beings, the communication, living beyond expectations, and sacrifice,” said Abu-Assad.

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