When Hildur Guðnadóttir received word that she had an Emmy nomination to her name for drama miniseries Chernobyl, she was pulling together the last edits for the vinyl edition of the Joker soundtrack. “My phone just blew up with the Emmy notifications,” she starts laughing.
Hildur’s voice through Skype Audio brims with whimsy and cheer — a far cry from the deeply disconcerting projects she’s been working on simultaneously. Perhaps it’s that quintessential Scandinavian pull towards the more discomforting parts of the human condition, she jokes.
Based on the 1986 chaotically brutal nuclear disaster in Pripyat, the Johan Renck-directed show follows the individuals directly involved and affected. The show is an international hit and many point out the score is one of the critical components of this success formula.
Know the score
- While Hildur agrees it’s a win for the scoring world which is garnering more appreciation on a massive scale, there’s always the debate around inclusivity. “It’s wonderful to experience how the film music industry is changing. For a long time, it was a very specific genre, like the orchestral music has a certain purpose in terms of how a story is told or how a scene plays out. The genre is now opening up more; look at our composers now… for decades, they were the stereotypical white male. Just three or four years ago, only one per cent of film music was written by women. It’s so wild! Last year, I think, it was six per cent. Those numbers show the film music world is opening up to different genders among other things.”
So comes the question: how do you compose music for one of the world’s most terrifying yet captivating disasters? “I read the script, and it was clear from the get-go that this story comes from an honest point-of-view. It wasn’t a dramatisation; the events are dramatic enough. I wanted the music to reflect that, being real and tangible, based on real feelings and facts. When asked about the pressure of such projects, the 36-year-old exclaims, “Of course! When working on a historical event such as Chernobyl which has affected everyone born after the catastrophe, the subject is sensitive and you want to take it seriously rather than treat it as a fictional piece of entertainment.”
Space for narrative
Watch an episode of Chernobyl and the tension is palpable. So what’s the score’s job here? “If you have a well-made film or TV show, the music shouldn’t have to do much to carry the story. The more space you give story without imposing a narrative like music, the music actually has more space to emphasise to carry through. The stronger the space, the stronger the music. I feel strongly about not over-composing for film and television; there are some projects which are 85 minutes of score across 90 minutes of the film and you’ll end up missing chances to make big statements.”
The sounds of the score possess different forms of tonal mercilessness, and in the entire score, there’s not a single instrument. “There is the process of capturing the environmental sounds and turning them into instruments and then into musical material. I went to the plant with my partner Sam Slater (the score producer) and well-known sound recordist Chris Watson. There was this door that led to an engine room; the room which we wanted to record had no power so we waited for this Soviet engineer to provide some plugs. But that door ended up having a symphony of sounds with high-frequency tinkles. It’s such a fun process of listening for clues of what the environment is telling you. We carved these sounds into the melody.”
The mood through the show changes — fear not, no spoilers — and the score has to reflect this. Accordingly, Hildur had to make her creations scalable across the evolving narrative. “It was two sides of the same coin. The first comprises the place, nuclear energy, the physicality of the explosion were some of what I wanted to capture, these are the things I didn’t know very well before. And then there’s the human tragedy of it all, and the politics and shame, which I understand on a human level. Carrying that forward to the music world was still very personally expressive.”
Then there’s the fantastically maniacal world of Arthur Fleck aka Joker. The film follows Arthur’s maddening descent into spectacular villainousness.
Joker director Todd Phillips is better known for his comedy repertoire with The Hangover and Borat but audiences mustn’t be deterred. “I made a bit of music after having read the script initially, and Todd agreed… he had a lot of strong ideas (about pace and sound) going into the project about the music because he also wrote the script. It’s apparent in the trailer that this is still a human story, so there are waves of sympathy and excitement and fear.”
Going back and forth between Chernobyl and Joker was not easy, admits Hildur, “because the scores are so different and in such different sound worlds. Even though Joker is a fictional character, he holds a strong place in so many people’s hearts. We’ve seen strong performances of each version of the character and around his relationship with Batman. But there hasn’t ever been a true origin story film. Plus, there are already strong opinions floating around about this project”.
Understandably, continuously working on these two disquieting projects, Hildur cheekily adds that she stopped drinking to keep, well, composed. Well, who wouldn’t?