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Up close with Oscar-winning Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir for Tár and Women Talking



How do you feel having both these films out around the same time?

Yes, it is kind of unusual. It’s been fascinating for me, in particular, because both films have solid but very different takes on feminism and what that means, what that looks like, and what is acceptable. It’s been, it’s been fascinating to not only be a part of creating both of those films and narratives but also to be a part of the discussion that has, followed both films, and there’s an unusual amount of talk about both films. I think that’s, you know, whether people agree with these questions that are being raised, you know, that’s a different story. But I think the conversation has been generally excellent. It has raised actual real-life questions that are welcome.

Was it that feminist angle that drew you to both projects?

Well, yes, and no, I think it was something that I was interested in because I think, you know, it’s been essential in my life. Still, I’ve not necessarily been gravitating only towards, like, you know, feminist films or feminist work. I think both projects were just so special because they dealt with subjects very close to my heart. And also just made by unbelievably wonderful artists, and I had an unusually excellent and creative dialogue with both Sarah Polley and Todd Field, and Cate Blanchett, with whom I worked very, very closely and became excellent friends with, and somehow, I think both of these films just came with such deep friendships and such kind of deep analysis and deep conversation. So I feel like, you know, all the work we did together is incredibly close to my heart; I feel like a kind of personal connection towards this project is even more special.

Todd field has a musical background. How involved was he in the sound and score of Tár?

Oh, he was involved. We had a great dialogue because he is a fantastic listener. He has a beautiful sense of deep listening. He has a lot of knowledge and understanding of music, which is not always the case with directors because not all are semi-professional trombone players. So I felt we could have an almost musician-like dialogue about the music. I think that came across also in our collaboration about how we tableau map the film and the characters, so we set an actual BPM, and I wrote a lot of music for the setting of the characters, you know, not just the music that you hear on screen. Still, the music determines that. The tempo, the movement, and the type of general musical mood that the characters are in are essential for a film like this, where all the characters are writing or rehearsing music. When you are a musician in that process, you know that it will dominate most of your waking or even sleeping moments because you have the music constantly in your head.

So I think the tempo and feel of the music you’re working on or rehearsing will inevitably be with you. I wanted that too because it’s a film about musicians, you know, I wanted to have that feeling. Not just in the music you hear with your ears, but you know, something that you can experience through feeling.

Tár is an unconventional score because a lot of it is the music Lydia is conducting in the film, was that a challenge compared to how you’d usually compose a score?

Well, yes, and no; I guess the influence on the film is an unusual amount of layers. Usually, in a movie, you’ll mostly have, you know, sound and score, or perhaps a track here and there, which is incidental. So you have the music that she’s rehearsing, the music she’s writing, the sounds that she’s hearing, and the score. But not that’s such a big part of the storyline because the sounds she’s hearing are not music; they also need a lot of space, you know, because that’s a massive part of the narrative. How her character functions are how she’s affected by these sound, you know, so all these layers need space for them to work effectively. The narrative aspect of the story, you know, so I think that was essential in the way that the score was, was implemented in the film, you couldn’t have a big orchestral score moment smack in the middle of these big orchestral rehearsal moments, because it would just take so much away from the narrative of the rehearsals, which was so important.

I also wrote the music that she’s writing in the film. You know, which is also a big part of her character and her character flaw, let’s say, like, the problems he is experiencing are also really rooted in the disconnect between the music she’s writing. The music that she is rehearsing, because the music that she’s directing from the podium or conducting that, ‘s her outward bravado persona that she’s created, which is itself, it’s not a natural person; it’s like a character that he’s made this substantial grand overwhelming person, but in reality, and that’s much closer to the music that she’s writing, she is much more fragile and insecure and searching. That comes across in that side of her.

I wasn’t looking into music when I was writing the piece. I felt it had to be deliberately removed from the music she is conducting because that’s kind of the point of these two sides of her and disconnect. There’s no direct influence. There is an influence between what she’s hearing, the sounds that she’s hearing, and how influenced she is by the sounds and the music she’s writing. So many of the intervals in the sounds she hears are written into the music she’s writing.

Women Talking is a very dialogue-driven film. The women’s discussions must have been something exciting to work on as a composer.

Absolutely. It was such a beautiful project to get to work on. It was such an incredibly moving and relevant story because it has so many parallels to many things we’re experiencing today. So it was exciting to get to work on this project, you know, with everything that’s going on today, I had the chance to do a lot of self-analysis, just from afar, how I’m responding to these kinds of daily events and in response to what’s happening in the film, and I feel like I learned a lot as a person through this film and getting to work with Sarah because she has, Sarah has such an excellent way of seeing things.

She’s unusually unafraid to tackle complex subjects, like this film’s subject is unbelievably difficult. It’s the most horrible situation you can imagine, but she does it in such a compassionate, excellent and kind of uplifting way; instead of staying with horror, she always manages to find a direction out of that the mess of you know, and instead of which I think she does so beautifully in the film, she doesn’t stay with a horrific event, she, I mean, she tells us about that we feel them, we know they’re there, their presence is unmistakable. Still, it doesn’t spell them out for us; it doesn’t like hold them to our faces; for instance,  she manages to take us down to take us into a very kind of uplifting direction, and I think that’s something that I took away from this, this project because when I started it, I was feeling very depressed and angry and just upset on behalf of these women because these are events that happened in real life. On the other hand, the music had to be a way out for these women and be the vehicle of their kind of drive to go. So, the music had to give them hope. To write that music, I had to find that for myself to express it, so it was an exciting personal journey.

There’s lots of acoustic guitar in the score for Women Talking, which differs from the more string-heavy score for Joker. Was that something you were always keen on?

Well, yes, I knew I wanted; I wanted the sound world to be earthy, acoustic, and tangible. I wanted it to be of this world; I didn’t want any orchestration to be upper class. There are some strings in there to support the guitar; I liked the central orchestration to be kind of, you know, close to their environment, like something that could have been lying around in the next village over because these women would not have access to any instruments themselves.

Women Talking almost feels like two time periods, the community of the women and the world beyond their colony. Was it a challenge capturing two time periods as well?

Well, I think the beauty of music is that it can be timeless. I believe timeless music is very well represented through melody because melodies are like a kind of timeless, timeless vehicle, so I chose the theme to be very melodic because it could have happened at any time. Because this community is very isolated, they don’t have any technology. They don’t have phones, computers, internet, or any electricity even though we’re constrained. So, it is clear that because they live in a timeless bubble, you know, even though it’s a recent event, it felt like the music had to be in that bubble.

You mentioned working with Cate Blanchett closely for Tár. Were you involved in teaching her the musical language she developed in the film?

I was involved in explaining what happens or mostly what doesn’t happen when you compose. Because, you know, writing as if it’s pretty, it doesn’t look fascinating. There’s not much going on; you’re just sitting there with your thoughts. So, it’s just I tried to; I tried to translate that in a way that was somewhat interpreted on screen.

You’re mentioned in the film, was that always planned?

Yeah, I think it was in the script. I came on very early; I was the second person to join after Cate Blanchett.

You came on to this project earlier than you would normally. Does that make you feel closer to it?

Yes, I guess so. I was quite a big part of creating not just the music but also the kind of connection to them. Like a musical way of working and communicating and being, though, I have a completely different way than Lydia’s character; my way of sharing music is the polar opposite. That was very interesting to me to kind of examine that, because I am a completely different, absolutely different personality, you know, but I think that’s, that was also kind of the, the challenge and the exciting part to me to find a way into that, this kind of mindset, and, and explore that, because,  I think  the thing that was so interesting for me was, was really to get to explore the, process of making music, you know, to really get to dive deep into that like, and how to translate that into the film format, you know, because, because it’s really rare in a film that you are actually spending a lot of time in rehearsal of, of music, you know, because usually in a movie, you’ll have like, a finished piece or, a concert, or song, you know, that’s, that’s been fully orchestrated, and recorded, in this case, you know, no music was actually finished, you know, the work that you know, what she’s working on, or rehearsing it, we never actually hear the concert, we never hear the final piece.

So, I thought that that was so interesting for me as a musician and composer was the process of it, because, because for myself as a musician, I find that, you know, that’s where the juice of the music is, it’s in the rehearsals, and it’s in the way that you are with yourself when you’re composing, you know. How they, how you translate that into sound or music. You know, I think that is the juice of the music rather than that, you know, standing on stage and giving a final concert, you know, that’s just a tiny, tiny little bit of it. Because before that comes, like, you know, years and years and years of practice and preparation and thought and consideration, you know, so I think that’s really what I find so interesting about music.

Have you started planning for Joker 2?

There’s still shooting, so it’s early days, and there’s a lot to do.

Are you nervous about going back to it, with the first being such a success?

I’m excited to go back to it. It’s been great to reconnect with everyone. And, you know, everyone’s in such a great place. It’s also great to get to know new characters and new players. You know, I think it’s just it’s an exciting, exciting project.

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