EXCLUSIVE: ‘Joker’ composer – Hildur Guðnadóttir – In Conversation

Hello Film Doctor friends.

We’re now in the thick of awards season and the Film Doctor team had the wonderful pleasure of speaking with talented Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir who created the music for two of 2019’s biggest screen hits; HBO and Sky UK’s stunning historical drama Chernobyl, for which she received a Primetime Emmy award and a Grammy nomination, and critically-acclaimed comic book thriller Joker, for which she is Golden Globe award nominated.

Here we dig into Hildur’s beginnings as a musician and her process on Todd Phillips’ dark, beautiful origin story in another Film Doctor In Conversation.  

Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) performs his bathroom dance
Courtesy of Warner Bros. 2019
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Hildur, how did you begin writing film scores?
I’ve been playing music ever since I can remember because my family are all musicians. I grew up with that being the normal thing. The cello was the first instrument that I played and in my teens I started playing in pop and rock bands which gave me a bit more space for experimentation and fun outside of classical. I started composing music around that time.

When I was 13, my band released my first record and I continued on that path. In my late teens, as a result of playing with amplified instruments, I started to get interested in electronics and experimental music and explored that side of things. I also spent a year just programming music which wasn’t very fun. You spend a year working on a project and at the end just get a beep. I found that relatively unsatisfying but I learnt a lot through that process.

I wrote for theatre in my early 20s and that sparked my interest in film music and music as a form of storytelling. The first films I started writing for were around 2004. They were mostly Icelandic or European productions so maybe didn’t find their way wider until later.

Did you ever move to America or anything?
I spent a bit of time in New York but no, not really.

How did you end up working on Joker?
Todd just called me one day and told me he was working on a film script and wanted to see if I was interested in reading it. I really loved the script and he asked me if I was interested in writing music based on my response to the script. So I created what ended up being the main theme for the film based on my first response. That’s how the journey started.


Had you worked together before?
No. Never. We’d never met or worked together. I think the initial idea came from his music editor, who Todd has worked with for about 10 years. He knew my work and said to Todd “this is the person you’re going to want to do the score for your film.” At the time Sicario 2 – which I scored – was in cinemas and Todd went to see it and said “this is the person we need.”

So tell us about your process on this?
Normally, I like to be involved with projects from early on, no matter what the project is. It’s really nice to be working with all the elements and have them all grow together. The earlier the threads are woven together as a piece, the better the process. The film industry isn’t the best for it. Often the composer will come on very late as almost a post-production element. This was definitely unusually early for me to come onto a project but what was so beautiful about that was that we could establish the tonality and the tempo and the way of telling the story so early on.

We were in such strong agreement as to what the story was we were wanting to tell and so they could use the music on set. A lot of the scenes in the movie are a direct response to the music. The bathroom dance scene and scenes like that are a complete response to the music. That scene specifically wasn’t even in the script. It was scripted completely differently but Todd and Joaquin felt it wasn’t working so completely transformed the scene in response to the music.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes Joker
Photo by Niko Tavernise – courtesy of Warner Bros. 2019
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How did that work towards picture lock? Was it that a lot of your work was out the way beforehand?
There was a lot of work that came after – as they were shooting and as they were editing – and the picture lock was quite late because they kept tweaking the edit until the last moment.

So, as they were shooting with these early pieces of music, they started sending me dailies to show me how they were responding to the music and I started developing the themes and working on the next steps of the music. The second phase of my writing process was alongside their shooting and as a response to their dailies. After the editing process started, I was working to picture and I could nail the music completely to it.

There was a lot of stuff that changed in that process. We had the classic situation of having some scenes that needed to be reworked 40 different times. The transitional or functional scenes were the trickiest but once you’ve established the tone and tempo and story together, it comes a bit easier.



What were the tricky scenes?
Most of it came very organically but there were problem scenes where we had to do like 300 versions. When he shoots the guys in the subway, for example, we tried a lot of different varieties for that. The scene near the end where he ends up dancing on the car, in the beginning, in the first edit, it was twice as long, so it took some manoeuvring to get that scene into the right shape. Overall, it was a lovely process. 


Where were you for this? What was your set-up?
I was in Berlin. I have a studio here on a floor in an old factory building. We have around seven smaller production studios here on the same floor. It’s a little community and a very nice working environment. I have a little room here where I have all my instruments and microphones. I bounced stuff back and forth with my husband, who is the co-producer and on the other side of my wall. I’ll record and he’ll mix them. Very nice. Really lovely.


Did you do normal hours for this? You were working with the guys from a different time zone.
Yeah. I’m a parent so I’m forced to work within school hours [laughs]. My schedule when I’m working on a film that’s based in the states is I’ll come in and do composition work during the day, then I’ll go and pick up my son, cook dinner and take him to football. After he goes to sleep, LA is awake and then I’ll have all the meetings and reviews. The ball rolls like that. They are long days [laughs]. It works time and schedule-wise because you can work on ideas while LA is sleeping and get responses after.


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