What does it sound like when you lose your grip on reality? When you slowly, sadly find yourself drifting into madness? Is it melancholy—a lonely sonata played at a coolly drifting pace? Is it frightening—a cacophony of disquieting layers? Is it beautiful—a comforting, lilting weave of sounds and gentle melodies? Could it be all of these things and more?
It certainly is in the spectacular hands of Hildur Guðnadóttir, the visionary Icelandic composer and cellist who created the haunting—and Golden Globe-nominated—score for Todd Phillips’ Joker. If you’re one of Joker’s many fans, you know much of the movie isn’t so much seen as felt. It’s something that’s aided in no small part by Hildur’s score, which exquisitely walks the line between gorgeous and discomforting. While Joker’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack has been available for purchase or streaming since the film’s debut, Watertower Records recently released a series of limited vinyl editions, offering fans of Joker and of Hildur’s work a beautiful way of owning the acclaimed soundtrack.
With the score’s Golden Globe nomination and the release of the limited edition vinyl, to say nothing of Joker’s digital release earlier this week, it seemed like a perfect time to chat with Hildur about her work on the film, how it felt knowing that her score inspired some of the action on screen and what it’s like composing the first score for a super-villain.
Photo by Antje Jandrig
While there are a lot of scores out there for superhero films, this is the first comic book movie that focuses entirely on a villain. How does that change how you would approach writing the music?
Writing music for a character of any sort, I don’t really think of the character as being an evil or a good person. Especially, in this case, we start the story with a character not being a villain at all but just being a normal person trying to find his way in everyday life. When composing, I always have to focus on the story that is being told in each and every project, so therefore, my approach didn’t change.
Were you very familiar with the Joker before you started working on this film?
I was definitely very familiar with the Joker before I started working on the film. I was born in the ’80’s, and so he’s definitely one of the strongest characters in any superhero movie that I grew up with.
Arthur Fleck is a pretty disturbing person. Is it emotionally challenging writing music for a movie about a character like that?
I think for any character you write for, you just try to channel where they are and what they feel. But, at the end of the day, you always have to leave the music and the story in the studio before going home. And, yes, it can be challenging at times, but normally I try to separate work and life a little bit.
Joaquin Phoenix has said some of his movement in the movie came in response to hearing your score. Have you ever worked on a project where your music played that sort of role before? Does it change how you approach it?
This was definitely a very different process compared to previous projects I worked on as the music came in so early in the process. It definitely did change the way I work because the music was only informed by the bare bones of the script and not the cinematography, the performances, costumes, or any other influences. Fortunately, in this case, I got an amazing script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver to work from which inspired me to find the music. This process allowed for more freedom on my behalf in creating the music.
One of my favorite songs is “Bathroom Dance,” which accompanies such a pivotal scene. It manages to be beautiful, sad and chilling all at the same time. How were you able to layer on such different emotions?
It’s pretty difficult to explain how one expresses any sort of emotions with music. I’m afraid I can’t really put that in words in any way that makes sense. I just try to immerse myself in what I feel with the character and channel that feeling into music and hope that I channel the right set of emotions for each scene. It was mind-blowing to see Joaquin feel the scene the same way I felt when writing the music and to re-live the moment through his wonderful performance.
You also composed the music for Chernobyl. Did you find any similarities between the two projects? They’re both about what can happen when dangerous signals and warnings are ignored.
Yes, I guess there are some sort of similarities, but for me, the approaches that I took for each project were so different. I tried to keep them quite separate in my head in order not to let one project bleed into the other. Even though there are perhaps some connections or similarities to the two projects, I chose to ignore them for the benefit of each individual project.
Now that you’ve written a score for a super-villain, would you have any interest in scoring a movie for a superhero?
Yes! But I choose projects based on the story being told and not necessarily on the genre. If a story interests me and lights my curiosity and creative fires then I definitely would do a superhero film, just like any other project with a strong story.
Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is now available to rent or own digitally. Look for it on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on January 7, 2020.
Stream, download or buy the Joker Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by clicking here.