When I catch up with Hildur Guðnadóttir, she is back in Europe after winning an Emmy Award for composing the score to HBO’s Chernobyl. As Guðnadóttir was collecting sounds from actual nuclear plants to create the melodramatic and haunting score of the series, she simultaneously was working with Todd Phillips on the Joker score.
Guðnadóttir juggled going back and forth between the two worlds, “It was not easy” she says. Phillips brought her in early, sending her the script and when she read it, she had a physical reaction to it. A good one. She composed music and sent it back to Phillips who liked what he heard and she was on board. Not only was she in sync with Phillips, but Guðnadóttir learned how she was in synch with actor Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix used her score to help find his way into the character. The bathroom sequence is a key moment in the film that the composer refers to.
Read our chat below about how the Emmy-winning composer dived into the Joker score:
How do you approach going from Chernobyl to scoring the Joker, two different worlds and two different sounds?
I worked on both scores at the same time, so it was sometimes a bit demanding if I had to do both projects and go from a nuclear catastrophe to a psychological drama. I really managed to dive into both. I think for Joker I was working on that for a year and a half, so it was a long journey. Chernobyl too took a long time, and I got to spend a long time with both.
What’s your process for approaching a score?
Each one is different because you don’t always come in at the same time for a project. My preferred way of working is to come in early. With Joker, Todd sent me the script and was curious to know what I felt it sounded like. I started working on the music right after reading the script. Todd was really happy with the direction I had taken because it was exactly the same direction he had envisioned. I didn’t really have a conversation about what kind of music he was looking for, but somehow I got the same feeling from the script that he was trying to portray. It was such a wonderful dialogue because the tone came effortlessly.
We ended up using a lot of the music while they were shooting. The bathroom dance, for example, is Joaquin’s response to the music. It’s a really lovely way to work when everything can grow together from start to finish.
Something else I loved was the changing of the score each time he’s in the hallway and how that grows as he becomes Joker. By the end when he’s soaking wet, the dramatic tone has changed from what it first started out.
It grows more aggressive and bigger as he gets more aggressive and as he understands more about his past. It grows as he realizes what has happened to him and how the reality around him is without his imagination. The music gets more aggressive with him and what you hear is the orchestration gets bigger. The percussion gets louder and harder. Everything just grows.
Was that drums with that percussion because you hear that beat?
We start out with simple toms. It’s almost always the same drum theme. To me, he’s such a simple character. He’s really just trying to fit in. I wanted the music to be simple and the orchestrations, in the beginning, to be very sparse and almost naive because that’s how I felt his character was. It continues with that simple pattern throughout and then it gets bigger, and for that, I used more orchestral drums which were a mix of toms and bass drums.
Going back to the bathroom scene and Joaquin, how much did his performance shape the score?
Joaquin and I didn’t have a dialogue about it as we were shooting, but we met at the Venice Film Festival and talked about how we affected each other during the process. It was really beautiful to see that. I’m not really a word person, so the less dialogue I have about how things are supposed to be and what things mean the better for me when I’m in that process of composing. Feelings are best portrayed with feeling and not have words to get in the way. It’s such a beautiful thing about this was just how our feelings were all beautifully in sync without us talking about it.
When I was first composing the themes for Joker, I had a very strong physical reaction when I found his notes and his theme. It was so remarkable to see – in the bathroom dance, we’re exactly in sync there. It’s almost a telepathic agreement about the birth of his character.
It’s so interesting because there have been so many strong performances of this character and that could have been a big influence on both of us. In the end, we both went a totally different direction but luckily the same different direction.
I know after speaking with him that the music had a really big effect on how he could gain access to the character and find his way into the character.
Did you compose the jingle for De Niro’s show?
That was just something we had all ready for that.
Then you have the end, and the sound is at its peak aggressive.
We wanted it to be big, grand and cinematic. The score until then has been sparse and not really based in orchestration. I felt he needed this grand exit out of the movie, so it’s variations on the themes that have been going on throughout the film. It’s a suite of what we were already hearing.
I loved the orchestration at that point.
It was a 100-piece orchestra. The thing most people don’t realize is the orchestra has been playing throughout the whole film, even in the beginning. You mostly hear one cello playing when he’s by the bins with the kids, but it’s actually a whole orchestra playing behind the cello. It’s mixed in a way that you hear the ghost presence of the orchestra. The cello was almost the voice in his head and the orchestra is like the presence of all these other feelings that he doesn’t know exist and that he has that presence in his whole psyche. That presence starts pushing forward in the film and by the end, it really blows up and the cello is following along.