Interview with Hildur Guðnadóttir

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Make no mistake that Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir doesn’t like a good, purely happy laugh. In fact, she charmingly lets out more than a few of them in an interview. But when it comes to channeling her inner musical spirit, the tone tends to be anything but a happy face. Instead it’s often the rising, nerve-jangling sound of sinister chaos, channeling hostages aboard a tanker in “A Hijacking,” the grim mission of drug kingpin assassin in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” and an inevitable awful death form the radiation of her Emmy winning score to “Chernobyl.” Using such instruments as cello, warped samples and nuclear reactor metal, Guðnadóttir’s entrancing, modernistic scores often seem like the relentless countdown to an explosion that wants to watch the world burn. Now, she finds an exception partner in feel-bad crime with “Joker,” Todd Phillip’s critically acclaimed and increasingly controversial take on the Clown Prince of Crime.

Set in a Batman-free zone of an uncaring Gotham, this ultra-real origin story finds its antihero in the downtrodden, already imbalanced mother’s boy Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). He just wants to be loved, but as yet another figure that life relentlessly steps upon, Fleck’s comic desires will of course turn to iconically outfitted vengeance. It’s a psychotic pilgrim’s progress that Guðnadóttir tracks with somber cello and ticking clock percussion, the chamber-like orchestra gradually twisting in the dark knife. Yet “Joker’s” score isn’t so much about evil being born as it is about nervous sympathy for the jester of the hopelessly downtrodden.

As much of a spare modernist as her late collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson, and as boundary-pushing as such female composing compatriots as Mica Levi (“Under the Skin”), perhaps the biggest surprise in these cards is that Guðnadóttir’s “Joker” isn’t quite as crazy as its character. Given a poignantly unhinged theme, the score’s inevitability has yearning, tragic melody that matches the 70’s cinematic grit that Phillips is saluting. If anything “Joker” comes across like a descendant of God’s Lonely Man that Bernard Herrmann scored in “Taxi Driver,” the orchestra of an urban avenger mostly stripped down for his hurt and angst. Guðnadóttir’s percussion is equally striking, coming across as the rumble of what turns into a terrifying subway ride. As an inevitable plunge into comic book movie’s heart of laughing darkness, “Joker” rips any notion of such source material to gleefully nihilistic shreds as Hildur Guðnadóttir paints an Impactfully disturbed portrait of a super villain as a gravely wounded human being, one destined to bring Gotham a world of pain in retribution.

When someone says “comic book movie” and “comic book score,” what immediately comes to your mind?

I think the comic book films of the last few years have been pretty action driven, so I think you’d traditionally think of some sort of action score. But we went as far in the other direction with this score as possible. So there’s not a lot of that kind of “action” in it.

“Joker” is definitely more of an interior, and unusual film in that genre. While you’ve certainly dealt with this kind of dark, psychological territory before, its “Hangover” director Todd Phillips hasn’t. What was your collaboration like in that respect?

filmmaker Todd Phillips (photo by Sam Jones)

Well, it was wonderful and really quite the effortless. He contacted me about a year and a half ago me and asked me if I was interested in the film, which I of course was. The Joker is quite a fascinating character to get to, to work with. Todd then sent me the script and asked me to write music based on the feeling I got from reading it. “Joker” struck me as being about this inner landscape of a person that’s going through quite a lot of discoveries and turbulence. There’s quite a lot of changes that his character has throughout the course of this film.

Was a lot of the score already done before the movie started shooting?

Yes. All of the main themes were pretty much written. As I composed from the script, Todd was quite happy with the direction I was taking. He thought it was exactly the story he wanted to tell, and was surprised by how accurately I had captured its tone. So they ended up using quite a lot of the music as they were shooting. Joaquin would have an earpiece that he could hear it with. So a lot of the pace and choreography of the scenes was informed by the music. It was a really wonderful way of working in a way that drew all of the movie’s elements together very organically.

What was the, the final film like for you to watch versus what you imagined it would be?

It was actually really close to how I saw it being filmed. Of course there are a lot of changes that happen in the process of re-writing, shooting and editing. But the feeling from the original script was really there.

The score in its way reminds me of Bernard Herrmann’s “Taxi Driver,” in that there’s this brooding quality that builds to the antihero’s explosive, violent epiphany of his true identity. Do you think you approached “Joker” in that way?

Yes, absolutely, because the film is very much linear as he discovers things from his past that explains the issues that he has. He becomes more angry and aggressive as that forms. So the score follows his inner turbulence as it develops.

There’s a very “thin” quality to your score that has a chamber music quality to it. Could you talk about your orchestration?

The score is kind of led by the cello, which I perform. Yet the music also feels surprisingly symphonic, as the cello is carried by a hundred-piece orchestra throughout the film. I wanted this feeling of energy to be coming from behind him, like a feeling of his past he doesn’t know about, yet is still influencing him. So the orchestra is kept in the background in the beginning of the score. And as Arthur realizes more and more about his past, the orchestra steps forward. It becomes more and more aggressive as the score gets bigger and bigger.

The strings strike me as sounding weirdly exotic.

I think that’s just my style, so it doesn’t sound exotic to me! (laughs). But I guess it’s “exotic” maybe in the way the strings sound very intimate and up close.

One especially interesting cue is “Bathroom Dance,” which is the only time in the score that you brig in voices.

It’s one of the first pieces of music that I wrote, and is the main theme for the Joker. It accompanies a scene where he’s dancing to this song, exactly as you hear it. Joaquin told me that listening to that music was a big turning point for finding his way into the character. The first time we hear the Joker’s theme is only with strings, but when we hear it with voices it really “steps up” the score. I think that was the point of using voices for the only time.

When people think of the Joker, they think of his laughter. How did you want to capture Joaquin’s distinctive take on that trademark?

I was pretty, careful not to be influenced by any of the Joker’s previous appearances or the music that accompanied him. I think you’re much more creative when you steer clear of outside influences like that when you’re working. I thought that Joaquin did a really good job with his laughter, so I didn’t think that I needed to “follow” that. That element was best left to him. Mine was hearing what was happening inside of the Joker’s head.

The percussion during the film’s big subway scene sounds like a train as well.

It was very important to me that the percussion in the score was never “cool.” I didn’t want it to be over-complicated, because Arthur’s character is so simple and straightforward. He’s almost naïve. So the percussion follows that with a two-note pattern you hear at the beginning of the film. They repeat throughout the film, and keep the same kind of structure, but get louder and louder.

Given a “comic book” movie where the character is anything but heroic, how important was it to invest the Joker with a feeling of sympathy?

That actually came really easy to me because I had a lot of sympathy for him from the beginning of reading the script. Arthur has the essence of being a very good person. But he’s unfortunately had a very troubled life. He’s an outcast from society who’s genuinely trying to make people happy. But he doesn’t understand why people can’t connect to him. That’s something that I have a lot of, lot of sympathy for, so it was natural for to me to connect to him.

Do you personally relate to Arthur?

photo by Antje Jandrig

What he goes through isn’t something that I’ve experienced myself. But you see it everywhere, in any city that you go to. You see the homeless and the troubled that have a hard time fitting into the boxes that society has decided. It’s something that’s quite present all around us, and I think it’s something that we should pay attention to, because it’s very real life situation for so many people.

Do you think one reaction to “The Joker” would be for the audience to be more sympathetic to those outsiders?

I don’t know if that’s the purpose of the movie, but I think it’s definitely something that stayed with me about it. It shows that we shouldn’t just turn a blind eye to it. “Joker” does quite a good job of raising that subject.

You’ve written some truly insane experiment scores. But what’s surprising about “Joker” is that the music is fairly melodic, especially in the finale. How “far out” did you want to go here?

I think “Joker” is actually the most “classical” score I’ve written. It is very melodic, and follows a film score structure with the development of themes we hear again and again. I think the movie is an homage to films from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s old school in that way. So we wanted to keep elements of old school scoring in the soundtrack as well, which is why we took that thematic approach. Yet there are also weird elements for sure! So there is an experimental quality as well.

Were you expecting your music for “Chernobyl” to have the Emmy-winning impact that it did?

No. I was absolutely not expecting it. When I was finishing the series, I was quite certain that no one would ever want to listen to the music because it was really quite bizarre. It wasn’t easy listening! So I was very surprised.

How do you think “Chernobyl” pushed the boundaries of what kind of surprisingly accessible music you could have on television?

“Chernobyl” is a very real story that affected thousands and thousands of people who are still alive today. They’ve lost family members, and are suffering through illnesses. It’s a very important story that’s relevant today. So it was important for the music to be based on fact. I went to the power plant in Lithuania where the series was shot and recorded hours and hours of sounds from it. They ended up becoming the building blocks of the score, which turns the power plant into a musical instrument. I think that might have been a direction that a few people might have been afraid to go in because there’s been an aversion to having the music being too close to the sound design. That’s something I heard after the score came out, where they called it musical sound design. But I think that’s an outdated way of thinking. As sound design becomes more and more present, I think it’s even more important for the music to work together with it. I think it’s important to marry them in whatever story you’re telling. “Chernobyl” is a series where the music is very specialized because it’s about radiation. And you can’t physically see that. So it was important for the music to be the radiation, which is a unique sound to me. But of course, “Joker” is a fictional story where you have more space to create a musical world without having to base it on fact.

You strike me as being a very nice, gentle woman and mother. So where does your talent for so often expressing toxic masculinity come from?

Hildur at the Emmys – photo by Thomas Mikusz

Well, nice moms definitely have their darker sides too! (laughs). I think I’m normally a joyful person who likes to laugh a lot. But I think my darker side gets to go loose at work. It’s better for my family that it comes out there!

After “Joker” and “Chernobyl,” would you want to score a truly happy movie?

I guess that would be a bit hard for me because my music tends to be a bit on the darker side. But yeah. Why not? It would be an interesting challenge.

“Joker” opens on October 4th, with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score available on WaterTower Music HERE

Listen to “Chernobyl” HERE, and Hildur’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Hildur Guðnadóttir’s web site HERE