Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir can communicate better through music than through words. So, naturally, it’s through instruments that she finds her way into a character’s head, most recently Joker’s Arthur Fleck.
Hildur wrote the initial score for the 11-time Oscar-nominated film after reading only the script. It’s rare, she said, noting that the composer usually comes on later in the filmmaking process. But it made all the difference.
“It’s a great place to connect to a story, to find free expression,” she said. “As you read, you’re making up the tempo and the movements and the pacing of the whole scenario.”
She first approached the score on the cello, an instrument she picked up when she was five years old.
“I had this very strong physical reaction to the story as I read. When I found the first notes of the Joker theme, something completely clicked. I was just like, ‘This is what he wants to say and this is how he wants to express himself.’”
Music became Hildur’s preferred form of expression from a young age. It was all around her. Her father is a clarinet player, composer and conductor. Her mother is an opera singer. Her aunt plays the oboe and her uncle composes.
Each of the musicians in her family deeply influenced the way she saw their instruments. “I always regarded instruments as personalities, and that's one of the biggest influences on me, musically,” she said. “The personal connection that I have with the musicians I play with is almost more important to me than what they play or how they play.”
It has also allowed her to experiment with sound. “Because there were so many instruments around, I was never shy about just making noise on whatever I was holding. That’s something that I still maintain today. I always find it fun to learn different instruments and get to know different types of acoustics.”
“I think the most beautiful thing about music is that you never finish learning.”
Hildur, who was born and raised in Iceland, grew up listening to opera with her mother, as well as atonal and new classical music. But their mutual interests didn’t end there: They would often watch When Harry Met Sally together. “We basically know every single word of that film,” Hildur said.
And when she began her career in music, it was alongside her mother as well. “My first job was as a singing child Viking in a Viking-themed restaurant in my old hometown,” Hildur said. “I must’ve been around nine or 10.”
They started doing duets together. “I would get dressed up in Viking clothes and I would go with a flock of Vikings to find tourists coming from the airport. We'd take buses of tourists to this natural resort, where I’d sing for them in a cave and feed them shark.”
From then on, her interests brought her to work on a variety of mediums. “I never made any conscious decisions about what kind of career I wanted within music,” she said. “It was so natural. I’ve always loved performing, and I’ve always loved building instruments and experimenting with electronics and writing compositions. I’ve always followed the train to wherever my curiosity leads me.”
Hildur began writing solo music at the age of 18. She then started working on theater productions in Iceland, followed by films.
“When I moved to Berlin, I started doing some German film productions and some European ones, and then, it led to the States,” she said. “It’s exciting because you never really know where you’re going to end up.”
“I ended up composing for film by following a ball that just kept on rolling. And now, it just so happens to be rolling into the Oscars, which is crazy. I’m probably the person that’s most surprised about it.”
Hildur’s process with her film work is similar to how she approaches theater. “You’re trying to understand how you can best tell the story in the way that it deserves,” she said. “That’s always the angle that I try to take.”
The main difference between film and other mediums, she said, is the scope. “You’re communicating with so many people, and that’s really exciting.”
“For me, music is about communication. When you’re playing for people, you’re communicating with them outside of words. It goes directly under your skin and straight to your heart no matter what.”
That was at the core of her work on Joker. More than anything, she wanted it to resonate with viewers. It just so happened to resonate with the cast and crew as well.
“As I wrote the first themes, they were able to use it as they were shooting, so the music ended up influencing the performances on set,” she said. The bathroom dance scene, for example, wasn’t in the original script. Director Todd Phillips brought the music to Joaquin Phoenix, hoping it might inspire him. “And Joaquin just started to move. This dance was pouring out of him in response to the music. That really helped him find the transition from Arthur into the Joker.”
Everyone on set, even cinematographer Lawrence Sher, was “led by the movements of music.” Said Hildur: “It was a beautiful process because all the elements stemmed from the same DNA and grew together organically.”
Throughout the duration of filmmaking, Hildur worked from Berlin, while the rest of the team was in the U.S. But it remained an extremely collaborative process. “Todd sent me the script, then I wrote some music, then they used the music on set, then they sent me dailies so I could see how they were responding to it, then start making more music based on that,” she said. “It was just this really lovely back and forth.”
As a child born in the ’80s, Hildur grew up with Batman. But she avoided referencing past works. “When you’re writing music, you’re really easily influenced, unconsciously, so if you listen to something, it can start to seep into what you’re doing without you even noticing it. I very deliberately tried to stay away from any outside influence.”
Instead, she turned to an unlikely musical source. “My son, who’s seven, loves listening to Justin Bieber more than anything, so that was fun to listen to because I knew that he wasn’t going to inspire the score. It was safe.”
While working on Joker, Hildur was also creating music for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. “It was interesting to figure out the differences between the projects,” she said. “For Chernobyl, since it’s a real story about real events, it was important to be very honest about what happened. I didn’t want to sensationalize anything. I didn’t want to use filler drums and drama strings. I wanted to make almost factual music rather than fictional music.”
To do this, Hildur recorded hours of sound inside the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania. “It was important for me to understand what the space felt like and what it sounded like and what radiation felt like and sounded like.”
She then “molded those sounds into musical clay and made music out of those sounds. So there’s not one instrument in the whole score. Basically, the instrument is the power plant, and the more classical instrument is my singing voice.”
Hildur first saw a completed version of Joker at its Venice Film Festival premiere in August 2019. “It was just absolutely incredible,” she recalled. “I think there was a 10-minute standing ovation.”
She hasn’t watched it since, but she’s waiting for the moment she’ll get to look over and see fellow passengers watching it on a plane. “When you see everyone watching your film, it’s quite funny,” she said. “It’s a good reminder of how many people films touch.”
A similar reminder came on January 13, when Hildur learned she’d been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score. When the news came out, “I was sleeping,” Hildur said. “I basically woke up and turned on my phone, and it just exploded.”
“I’ve just had the most surreal couple of months now,” she said. “I still haven’t really registered this. I’m dreaming what’s happening.”
The best part, she added, is getting to know the other composers and feeling “so incredibly warmly welcomed” by their community in Los Angeles. “The awards are just a bonus, but what’s been really truly special is to get to put faces to all of this incredible art that we’ve seen throughout the years. That’s been the biggest treat of all.”