'Joker' Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir On The Magic Of The Unsaid And That Stunning Final Scene [Interview]

A great comic book villain isn't living up to his or her potential without a proper musical theme, and in the case of Joker, he gets one courtesy of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her score for Joker is chillingly good and up there with the best of the genre, with an intensity matching and complimenting Joaquin Pheonix's performance. Again, the Emmy-winning composer behind Chernobyl elicits intense feelings of horror and uneasiness, although she laughs when people – including myself – tell her that her music has a horror quality to it. "It's definitely very common that my music is perceived as darker than what I am feeling myself," she told us, laughing. In her view, her music is more reflective than horrific.

Prior to Joker, Guðnadóttir has produced several albums of her own (which you should listen to on Spotify), performed cello on The Revenant and several other films all movie nerds know, and collaborated frequently with the deeply missed Johan Johansson (Arrival). After playing cello on Sicario, years later she was composing the music for its sequel, Day of Soldado. Now, she's scored her first big comic book movie, and she told us all about her experience, her collaboration with director Todd Phillips', and the movie's stunning final piece, "Call Me Joker."

I read you were composing music before filming even began. Is that common for you?

It's definitely my preferred way of working, but no, you really don't always get to come in so early. No, it's definitely atypical for most projects [Laughs].

So how'd the script and your conversations with Todd Phillips influence your choices before filming?

Basically, Todd called me and told me he was started to work on the film and asked if I was interested in reading the script, and of course, I was. After reading it, he said, "Does it inspire you to make some music based on your feeling of the script?" I was really inspired by reading it and had a strong reaction to how he was telling the story, so I was definitely very excited to start working right away. He didn't really have much dialogue about the direction he had in mind or what sort of pacing or music he was looking for; he was curious to see how I experienced the story, musically. I sent him those early themes and demos, and he was just really happy I experienced the story exactly the way he wanted to tell it. We were in strong agreement from the very get-go, just based on reading the script.

What was it about the script that specifically inspired you? 

Joker is, of course, a character of my generation grew up with, and it's a character you know really well and have strong opinions about. He's been a larger-than-life character in fiction. He's one of these rare characters that have had such strong performances.

From some of the best actors ever.

Yes, exactly. It's quite an unusual character, really, as a villain with such a big place in people's hearts [Laughs]. He's really interesting. In DC or Marvel, everyone's story is well-documented, but with this movie, we had sort of carte blanche in terms of where he came from and how he turned out. There are definitely many ways of making that story, but I thought Todd's approach to it was so interesting. I'm someone who likes intimacy and when stories are being told with very strong feelings and lots of details. I think there's an emotional approach to his inner and outer landscape, you know? It was so human. I felt a strong human and emotional connection to the character, so that's what grabbed me. Also, it's very much a story of one person in a journey and the search for himself, and it's pretty dark, but a great tone.

How did you want the progression of the score to communicate his arc?

The story is almost like this crescendo. We start with him not really knowing where he came from or been through, so not really understanding who he was and why he was. So I think the story starts out pretty subtle and quite emotional, and that's what I wanted. For me, it was the cello, and Todd was clear from the beginning he wanted the cello to be a big part of the storytelling. For the cello, I wanted cello to be almost hidden in the beginning. So, in the first scene when the kids are attacking him, you hear a track you almost think is a solo cello. It's a very low-key, lonely track that's basically a solo cello, but in fact, there's a whole orchestra playing behind the cello. It's hidden, so you can't really hear it, but you feel there's more there, and that's kind of what I wanted to experience with Arthur.

You just see him as a poor young man, kicked and lying on the street and lonely, but there are these bigger forces behind it you can't see in the beginning, but you know they're there. You feel them coming. You feel the frustrations blowing up as the film progresses and the orchestra starts to become... the angrier and angrier he gets, the orchestra gets bigger. I felt it was very important for the music to be very simple, to the point, and never cool, like fancy beats. I wanted it to almost be naive, like how we perceive him. So yeah, that was the narrative.

The only track with a sound of triumph is "Call Me Joker." What can you tell me about creating the final track to fit what he's feeling at the end?

Exactly. It's a very linear and gradual crescendo, and for the final track, it's so insane and bombastic [Laughs]. I can tell you, it's a lot shorter now than it was in the beginning. At the beginning, it was this long, sweeping, and neverending bombastic music that just kept going. Now, it's a much shorter version in the final cut. It's such a circle for him in the whole film. You experience his feeling of him understanding who he is, like, "This is where I came from, this is what was done to me, and this is why I haven't fit into society. This is where I belong." Literally, it was from him what to write. We've gone on this journey, it's been ugly, so the music was almost like this fictional playground. I took all the things I've been working on and... throughout the film, there's very little harmony. The harmony is super, super sparse, so in each track, there's always just one thing telling the story, which is so much like him. At the end, it's like, harmony and more harmony! [Laughs] All of a sudden, it became a comic film.

[Laughs] What about "Bathroom Dance?" They played that on set while filming that scene, correct? 

So that scene in the film is basically a direct reaction to that music, and that scene wasn't in the script. It was never planned for all this dancing to happen, but as he was trying to find his way in the character and the transformation of becoming Joker, this is a point where he becomes Joker, internally. He told me a few weeks ago he was having a bit of a struggle getting into that transition, so basically, Todd started playing him this music over and over again on the set. He just responded to it. It was the very first piece of music I wrote, and that piece, it was the strongest, most physical reaction I had to the story. What Joaquin is doing in the scene, it was coming from exactly the same place. Without any communication or dialogue about it, we were very much on the same page, which is a beautiful, collaborative, and dialogue-free process.

What was it like to see an actor just moved by your music in that way? He looks so consumed.

Yeah, it was something. It was a totally magical process. Creatively, I think it's the most fulfilling dialogue I've ever had. I'm not really a "words" person. I like when you can just transmit feelings and just go from intuition and what you're physically moved by, so it was a beautiful process. When I saw the premiere I just had goosebumps [Laughs]. It's just such an unusual working process, and for all these things to happen naturally without having to discuss them with a back-and-forth, it's beautiful.

In your mind, what was the most complicated piece to put together?

It has to be the end piece, "Call Me Joker." It was definitely the most complicated piece, and like I said, the first original version I wrote was so long and complex [Laughs]. It was a whole piece in itself. The rest of the music in the film was elegant and simple, but that definitely took the longest. Also, it was working it to the scene, so it had to change. The scene was recut I don't know how many times, so it took a lot of recutting and reconfiguring. Anyone who's worked in scoring knows that can feel like a pretty tedious job when you're trying to make everything fit again and again [Laughs].

[Laughs] How long exactly was it?

I think 10 minutes [Laughs]. It was pretty long. When he smiles on top of the car, that's the big bombastic moment, so that was a moment we were leading up to and had to rearrange every moment to fit.

What other pieces took a lot of rearranging to fit a big image? 

All of them. Of course, the images were made to fit the music for "Bathroom Dance," so in that case, I was lucky. Another scene that took a lot of rearranging was when he was killing people on the subway. We did a lot of versions of that. Also, when he's coming out of the subway and leading young Bruce Wayne, there were different iterations. There's definitely a lot of nuances.

How did "Escape the Train" evolve? It's got a great intensity to it.

That was just chase scene music, so it was actually pretty straightforward [Laughs]. Chase scenes normally just have to be exciting and, you know, not a lot of emotion you need to go through. It's just about getting from A to B with as much excitement as you can.

Earlier you mentioned how one of the opening tracks, it sounds like a single cello but it's actually a whole orchestra. What else do you think an audience maybe wouldn't realize about the score but hopefully feel?

I guess more electronic tracks you would expect, but all these songs I'm playing live, you know, an actual instrument I'm playing live. When he was going in the fridge, it's a weird track, but it's all performed live. There's no computer generating these sounds, and that's something people probably wouldn't expect. It's mostly these simple pieces are deceiving because they sound pretty straightforward, but with all the people playing them, it's pretty complex.

When we were recording the orchestra, the energy of the room was really tense and really wired. A lot of people had to play so, so, so quietly and be so, so, so quiet themselves, so through a lot of the recording, you could hear these very delicate sounds almost inaudible. You'd have 100 people, like, holding their breaths while the played [Laughs]. It was incredible, incredible. The energy of a performance or music is so much more important than the music being perfectly played or refined. Even though you don't hear 100 people holding their breaths, there's so much invisible energy that goes into the recording that it is very present, but you're never going to be able to put your finger on it. It's kind of the magic of music: all these invisible things you can't pinpoint or know. You know what I mean?

Yeah, the feeling is more important than technical perfection.

Yes, yes. Absolutely. The magic of the unsaid and unpinpointable [Laughs].

[Laughs] Like you said, you had a very dialogue-free collaboration with Todd Phillips, but when you're working on what's still a fairly big studio movie, how much input from the studio or others do you deal with?

Yeah, these productions are gigantic. It definitely takes not a village but a town to make a movie of this size [Laughs]. We usually had little dialogue with the studio, per se, so Todd had quite a lot of freedom more than a lot of people. What can be quite complicated when you're making a film, obviously these projects are insanely expensive and there's a lot of stakes for so many people. A lot of people want a say about what happens. Sometimes it's good, though, to get a lot of opinions, but it can also get in the way of telling a clean story from one perspective.

I think Todd was in a position to tell the story he wanted to tell without much outside interference, which is really quite unusual in this day and age [Laughs]. I think that freedom is what makes the film strong. From the music side, I had a fantastic music editor, Jason, who was a really big part of the dialogue. Of course, I'm based in Berlin, but he's in LA and has worked with Todd for the last ten years. Their dialogue is strong, and there's a lot of trust there. The everyday dialogue I had with Jason, which was a bridge between Berlin and LA, it was fantastic. It made the project possible, from the music side. From my side, I have a studio where I work with people I've known for a long time. Well, it's pretty much just my family: my brother and my husband [Laughs].

[Laughs] Good family.

[Laughs] Yeah, very. Very close. You know, I don't like talking about music very much. I have quite the hard time explaining myself [Laughs].

[Laughs] Really? You do a good job at it.

[Laughs] Well, thank you very much. I'll tell you, I've done so many interviews, so I'm getting better at it. When I'm working just explaining things really gets in my way, especially to people who don't understand me. I don't really like to work with a large team and assistants, because then I lose so much time explaining things, which I don't like. My husband is the producer of the score, while my brother and childhood friend were a part of the music editorial team on my side, so they helped with uploads and downloads, arrangements, and things like that. There are some people on my side helping with the scope of things [Laughs].

Are there any comic book movie scores you're a big fan of? What are some of your favorite scores outside of comic book movies as well?

Good question, but to be completely honest with you, I never really planned on being a film composer, per se, so I never really followed film scores so much [Laughs]. If I'm completely honest with you, I sort of accidentally started working in this field. I'm not an expert on other scores. I think the people I have really enjoyed listening to the most are people who are unafraid of stepping out of the box film scores can sometimes fall into. It's kind of interesting how film scoring became a very specific genre, which I never really understood because film, of course, has told every story under the sun. There was a period of film scores I didn't really connect to, like, "Wait, why are all these stories sounding the same?" [Laughs]

There's a lot of film scores I don't connect to, but the film scores I do find inspiring are composers that dare to step outside of that box, like Johnny Greenwood, and contemporary masters of the form outside the form. For older scores, [Ennio] Morricone has written so many unbelievable melodies. It's just unbelievable. John Williams, of course, is an unbelievable master. There are so many people that are just fantastic.

Myself, I'm so driven by curiosity, so I'm always inspired by other people being curious, like, "Hey, how does this happen?" You can just feel the energy of someone's eyes popping wide open and being excited, and that's the music that inspires me the most when you hear it's not someone just doing a day job.