Upon winning an Oscar for scoring Joker, Hildur Guðnadóttir issued a call to action. "To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within," she said from the stage at the Dolby Theatre. "Please speak up. We need to hear your voices."
The Iceland-born, Berlin-based composer and classically trained cellist became the first woman to win Best Original Score and only the third woman composer to win an Oscar for a film score. (Rachel Portman and Anne Dudley previously won when the category was split into categories for Best Original Dramatic Score and Musical or Comedy Score.) "It's a big blur, to tell you the truth," Guðnadóttir says now.
"I remember stepping up on the stage and, when everyone stood up for me, I was really surprised," she reflects. "Because I'm not really super used to being in the spotlight. I've never sought out the spotlight. So, it was a surprise that people knew who I was, I guess." She laughs to herself, "It felt like I was coming out of my cave a little bit!"
Suddenly, Guðnadóttir was not just a historymaker but one of the most sought-after musicians working in film scoring. "Normally people don't really know so much about who a composer is," she says. "But I definitely felt like people knew about me, more than before." Among the offers that came her way were two films that released this year: Todd Field's TÁR and Sarah Polley's Women Talking.
Both films are explorations of complicated women, albeit in radically different ways. In TÁR, Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár, a renowned composer and the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. As she prepares for perhaps the most challenging work of her career — conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 5 — her life begins to crumble around her. Outside of the orchestral performances of classical works, Guðnadóttir provided the film's subliminal ambient score, as well as writing the original composition that Lydia works on throughout the film.
Women Talking, adapted by Polley from a Miriam Toews novel, centers on a group of Mennonite women who secretly meet to reckon with the sexual violence inflicted upon them by the men in their community. Do they stay and fight, or do they leave to start a new life? Guðnadóttir's soundtrack is folksy and guitar-forward, the music bubbling within as these women and girls, these mothers and daughters, find their voices for the first time.
A.frame: You have these two scores this year, first TÁR and now Women Talking. Did they come to you in that order? And was your work on the soundtracks one and then the other? Or did they end up overlapping?
It actually did come in that order. I came in very early on TÁR. I think I was the second person — after Cate — to join the project. And they did overlap slightly, but I like to come into projects very early. So, I was on TÁR for one and a half years, and I was on Women Talking for about nine months. The good thing about this kind of extended working process is that you are not on the project one hundred percent, all the time. There are moments in the shooting or the editing that you don't have to be super hands-on, so the timelines with both of these projects worked out really well. I could spend a few weeks solid on one project and a few weeks solid on the other. So, I never felt like I was cheating on the other project. I was fully married to both. [Laughs] And they were also so different, and that was quite nice. It was refreshing to go from one to the other, because both are quite intense in very different ways. It gave me a breath of fresh air to go from one to the other.
Is your approach to where you begin and your process of how you approach a film, is that always the same? Or does it change based on the project?
No, it's drastically different between projects. I really try to approach each project completely from point zero. I don't have a template that I work in. I don't have any presets or anything predetermined for how I work. I try to start from what this particular story could possibly need from my behalf to amplify what's being told and how it's being told. And my working process varies hugely. For these two films, I think you can also hear how incredibly different the scores are, so the process is also very, very different for both.
What did starting out on a film like Women Talking look like? And how did that differ from what the process for you was on TÁR?
TÁR is like a character study. We're really going through the whole emotional spectrum of one person, and that spectrum happens to be quite large in her case. So, there's a lot to explore. And especially because it's a film about music, the music was very important. I wrote the music that she is writing in the film, so I was really a part of the process of the story itself. Which was different from traditionally how a music score works. I was much more active in the process of making the film than a composer often is. I wrote music for the actors that the audience actually never hears, so I was a part of setting the tempo for the performances of the film. The actors were listening to my music on set, so the music would dictate their movements and their mood.
For Women Talking, the music had a very different role. It was much more like a traditional score. Women Talking is told like a fable, even though it's based on real events. So, I turned to classical musical storytelling methods in the sense of how the score is structured. I'm using themes to lead the story itself. It's an ensemble piece, so the role of the music is to bring the collective together and give them the sense of forward movement and get them the hell out of where they are. [Laughs] But again, I came into that process very early and I wrote most of the music as they were shooting, so the tone of the music and a lot of the cues were there very early on in the edit, and the music largely led the way, and the tempo, and the structure of the edit.
Also, the beauty of coming in so early is you can really affect the strands of the film's DNA. Some of my discussions with the director actually ended up as dialogue in the actual film. Parts of what I was saying about the music, that I was explaining to the director, resonated so strongly with her that she actually put it in the dialogue.
Which parts was that?
I was discussing how I wanted those flashbacks themes to feel, and I said that I felt like it was both a doomsday and a call to prayer. She brought that into the actual dialogue. That it's both doomsday and a call to prayer. It's the darkest and the lightest coming together.
Maybe you have a future in screenwriting, too! A true multi-hyphenate.
I don't know about that! But as a composer, I do think it's so interesting, because I think so many of the things that happen in a film are so musical. Like, the movements of the camera, and the tempo of the editing, and the way the actors perform, there is so much music in it. That's why my preferred way of working is coming in so early, because the more that music can be a part of setting the tempos, and movements, and performances, the more the music can be a part of that from the very earliest strand of the DNA, the better. Then, all of the elements are growing together from the same place.
As you mentioned, TÁR is a movie about music and about the process of creating music, and we're told that Lydia Tár is a brilliant composer. Did that add pressure on your work?
Yeah, in some ways. Mostly, I didn't really think of it as pressure. I was just super excited about it, because it's about the process of making music. That, for me, is way more exciting than the actual concert or the record that you listen to. It's thinking about how the music is rehearsed, and how the music is communicated, and how the music is written. That, to me, is the essence of music, much more than seeing a great live performance. Because when you start the early rehearsals, you're just playing the notes. That's almost like the pre-stages of the music. And then, the more you rehearse together, that's when the music starts to form. That's the real juice of the music — how you get there together. And getting to do a film about that was so exciting for me, because this is obviously what I've dedicated my life to. So, it was amazing to get to bring that to the screen.
In doing my research, many of your collaborators have said that you loathe sentimentality. [Women Talking producer Dede Gardner said, 'She loathes sentimentality, and we all thought there's going to be a good tension — she's going to insist on avoiding melodrama, and we'll push for more emotionality, and somehow the alchemy is going to land perfectly."] Does that sense of sentimentality never make its way into your music, then? Or does it ever creep in and you have to excise it out?
Well, I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing about sentimentality! I feel very strongly about music. I feel like my music is very emotional, but I guess I maybe have a slightly different way of processing emotions. I don't like emotions to be sappy. I like them to be real, you know what I mean? And I don't know if that's lack of sentimentality, but I need to be able to express what I feel with real honesty and without too much flourish, without anything fancy happening. I like to express raw emotion. I think that might be what they see as a lack of sentimentality. But, you know, it's always so interesting, because I think lots of people experience my music as being very dark and cold, and that's maybe because I come from a very dark and cold place. But I don't necessarily experience that myself. I think of darkness in a slightly different way than someone that grew up in L.A. [Laughs]
If you look at these two scores side by side, or at a track like 'Mortar' from TÁR and 'Speak Up' from Women Talking, how do you feel like they express different sides of yourself as an artist?
'Speak Up,' I think, is a great example of what I definitely see as very beautiful and emotional, and it's soft, also. It's soft and without any sense of time and place. At least, that is how I feel about the melody. It's a classic melody in my ears. And 'Mortar,' that's a much more colder sound exploration. So, 'Mortar' is more about how the sounds are put together and the feeling that creates, and there's some sort of almost otherworldly feeling to the lack of emotion in that piece. I think that's definitely a track that lacks sentimentality. But 'Speak Up,' that is sentimental to me.
Do you have a sense of what makes a Hildur Guðnadóttir score?
I think that if you want to describe what I try to do in one word, 'resonance' would be a very good word. I'm always trying to match the music and the sound to what's happening in the story, but that can take on very, very different shapes. Sometimes the sound source is the guitar, and sometimes the sound source is a nuclear power plant [as for HBO's limited series, Chernobyl]. But, at least for me, personally, the common denominator between all of these different scores is the resonance that I feel in myself when I look at the story with the music. I try not to let go of anything until it really makes me sing when I match the story and the music. And I try to approach that with as much honesty as I can. I don't take on projects unless I feel a lot of resonance with the project and the people that are working on them, therefore, the music follows my personal resonance.
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