Interview: Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir Talks Craft, Cellos, and Finding the Sound of ‘Joker’

It has been a big year for Hildur Guðnadóttir. The Icelandic composer just won an Emmy for her work on limited series, “Chernobyl,” for HBO. She has been working in the industry for years. An accomplished cellist, she has been lending her musical talents to film long before she was composing the scores for them. She appears on the soundtracks for films like “Prisoners,” “The Revenant,” and “Sicario.”

Now Guðnadóttir is here with one of her proudest projects: “Joker.” Todd Phillips gives the world a different view of the infamous killer clown. Joaquin Phillips takes on the role that has gone through many iterations over its nearly 80-year history.

Recently I spoke with Guðnadóttir about her work on “Joker” and collaborating with Todd Phillips. She is very excited about her work, and for good reason. The film itself may be receiving mixed reviews, the original score is almost universally admired, if not outright adored.

Please enjoy our conversation with Hildur Guðnadóttir.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Before we get into “Joker,” how did you get started in the business? What was it that made you decide you wanted to write music for films?

Hildur Guðnadóttir: I never really made that decision as such. I wasn’t ever really aiming for film composition specifically. Storytelling in music has always been something that I’ve been very interested in and I started working scenes, writing musical theater. Out of that, I started to work in film and slowly, over the last fifteen years, films have been taking up more and more space. It was kind of by accident that I started working in the film industry.

KP: A happy accident, it sounds like.

HG: Yeah. Absolutely. I really like it. It’s a really lovely format for storytelling.

KP: Congratulations on your Emmy for “Chernobyl.” That’s so exciting!

HG: Yeah, it is!

KP: What was going through your mind when you won?

HG: I was quite surprised! It was lovely. I live in Berlin so I don’t really go out to LA much, so I haven’t really been a part of the whole film composer scenario much. I haven’t really met any other film composers. But during that time and because there were other receptions where I met the other nominees and composers, I was so happy to feel a good energy. It wasn’t what I expected. People were different. Sometimes we’re fighting for the same jobs, so I didn’t really know how the atmosphere was going to be, but I made so many friends. It was lovely to meet those other composers and it’s such a beautiful life. I think it was the best experience. And the Emmy was definitely a plus.

KP: So let’s talk about “Joker.” When did you first meet with Todd Phillips to discuss the score?

HG: I first met with him, we were talking quite a lot over FaceTime and email one and a half years ago. And then the first time I met him was while they were shooting. I came out to the shooting, that must have been a year ago.

KP: What was it about this project that really excited you?

HG: He’s such a fascinating character, and he’s a character that’s had a really strong presence throughout the years. Since I was a teenager he was one of these characters that’s larger than life. He has this history through the Batman films and he’s the most interesting character to me in that whole series. When Todd approached me and asked if I was interested, I was very curious to see what take he was going to take on telling this origin story because it was something I had no idea. Where does he come from? There was no official origin story. It was just an open book of what made him into what he was.

And then [Todd] sent me the script and I was fascinated. It was just an interesting and deep character study and it’s a very fascinating character that we didn’t have any idea about.

KP: Your work in this is so interesting too. As I watched I was really paying attention in ways that I normally don’t listen to the score that closely. Sometimes there is no score at all, and then it will drop in with this big music moment and other times it’s a lot more subtle. How did you design the score for “Joker?”

HG: It was a really beautiful process that we had because after I read the script, Todd was curious to hear what I thought the story sounded like. So he asked me to write the music based on my feelings of the script. He was really happy to hear I was on the same page as he was and we were telling basically exactly the same story like he wanted to tell. It can sometimes take awhile to get on the same page when you’re working on a project, but this time we were just in such strong agreement from the very first. It was a really lovely, straightforward, non-violent dialogue. Which was really great.

So I wrote quite a bit of music that they used while they were shooting. Joaquin was either listening to the music in headphones or Todd played it. So the music informed quite a lot of the scenes. Like the bathroom dance, when he becomes the Joker, that is choreography of the music that we hear in the film. But it’s really just like Joaquin responds to this music. It’s a really wonderful and creatively satisfying way to work, when all the elements can really grow together from the very beginning, nothing is taking the lead specifically, but everything is organic.

KP: I was wondering about that scene in the bathroom, because it did seem so perfectly timed to the music, and I wondered how you matched that up, but it’s the other way around then.

HG: Yeah, exactly. It’s a pretty unusual way to work today. It was more common a few decades ago, but the last years it’s been more the process that the composer comes in very late, usually from the final cut on. But I think this is a much more organic way of working, when the movements and the performance can be together with the music. Because the music is such a big part of the storytelling, of course. So we were kind of feeding off each other. Joaquin was responding to my performance and then I, naturally, was responding to his performance, when I started to get the dailies and the first edit. It’s a really beautiful way of working.

KP: With this movie, so much of what you’re seeing is maybe in his head. So to know that he’s actually hearing the music we’re hearing—

HG: It literally is in his head!

KP: True! There are so many moments with cello and other strings, and sometimes the big crashing cymbals, etc. How did you go about finding the right sound for Joker and for Arthur Fleck?

HG: I performed most of the cello parts myself. All the solo cello, that’s me performing. But also the more electronic sounds I performed. So the electric cello, a lot of the sounds are coming from me directly. The ground sounds. And then I orchestrated them. I had a hundred piece orchestra performing the rest of the parts with me. So to have them grow out of my performance.

KP: What were some things that inspired you in writing this score?

HG: I try to be careful of not listening to other scores or films when I’m working because you can accidentally be over-influenced by other things. I normally try to stay clear of that because I think it’s important, especially for this story because we were telling this story from a completely different angle that has never been told. So we wanted to come at it from a completely different outlook from the previous films. I know that Todd was inspired by “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” and I consciously didn’t watch those films, not to be too inspired by them but to work with the story that I had in front of me.

KP: What is something you learned from working with Todd and working on “Joker?”

HG: Paying closer attention to people you tend to overlook. On the streets and around you. I think that’s definitely something that stayed with me. How easy it is to look past people that are maybe not having as easy a time. So I definitely try to be more conscious of that because of this film.

KP: What was a challenge working on this?

HG: I can’t really think of one. Honestly.

KP: It sounds like it was just a great project for you to work on.

HG: Yeah, it really was. It’s always just so wonderful when you feel like you’re really on the same page as the director and the main actor when you really feel like you’re telling the same story. That’s a pleasure to work on. There’s some odd things that you have to rework again and again and again. But that, in the big picture, doesn’t really stand out so much.

KP: Do you have a favorite scene?

HG: I think the bathroom dance is a really special scene to me because it was the first scene I got where he was really performing to the music and it was fascinating to see how Joaquin had physically embodied the same type of movements that I was feeling as I first came across the theme for the Joker. It was exactly those types of movements that I had felt really strongly, physically, myself when I was writing. So I think it was probably one of my favorite scenes for personal reasons. When I got it I was like, “Oh my god, how is it even possible they’re doing exactly what’s in my mind?”

KP: You are in an industry that is very dominated by men and you are one of the few women I’ve talked to that get to score high profile projects like this. What is some advice you would give to girls that are interested in getting into composition, and particularly film composition?

HG: Stick with it. Specifically in film composition, you have to be able to write as anyone. Which is a fascinating thing to do. I feel like in the last two years the industry is asking for more individualistic voices, which I think it’s great because that’s suits very well to me. I think just stay with it and see how much you really want to do. Not to please anyone, but to stick to your gut instincts and be stubborn enough to see it through.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Hildur Guðnadóttir for taking the time to speak with us.

“Joker” is distributed by Warner Bros. and is now playing nationwide.

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