This story about “Tár” and “Women Talking” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir first appeared in “The Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The score to the 2019 film “Joker” changed a lot of things for Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, winning her an Oscar and moving her closer to the mainstream after a career in adventurous classical and experimental music. It also made her think twice about what to do next. “I had been doing music for 20 years that people weren’t necessarily that interested in, and I never really sought out that much attention,” she said. “But after ‘Joker,’ lots of people were thinking that I would move to L.A. and start a big production empire — which I could have done, you know?”
She laughed. “But I needed to actually go the opposite direction — to take some internal stock and make sure that I didn’t get swallowed in the machinery.”
The pandemic, she added, helped with her plan to take things slowly. “All of a sudden I didn’t see anyone for about two years, and that was just lovely. I think it’s important, when you are a person that creates, that you stay aligned with what it is that you want to do and don’t take any external expectations or influences too much.”
She didn’t accept another scoring assignment until director Todd Field asked her to come on board the film “Tár,” about an imperious female conductor and composer. The second person hired after actress Cate Blanchett, she took the gig because she liked its focus on communication and rehearsal, not performance. “I just thought it was such a great invitation to explore the process of making music. The film is not about the finished product, it’s more about how you get there. As a musician, this is where the juice is.”
She began her work on “Tár” by writing music that would never be heard but would help describe the characters’ moods and tempos. She also worked on the music that Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tár, is writing but never finishes. (Guðnadóttir did finish those pieces, which can be heard on an adventurous soundtrack album.) “We felt that her outward persona as a strong and powerful conductor was quite disconnected from the music that she wanted to be writing,” she said. “Her composer self was much more exploratory and sensitive, and her conductor persona was untouchable.”
Finally, she wrote a film score that would play quietly in the spaces when Lydia is not conducting bravura pieces like Mahler’s Fifth Symphony or Elgar’s Cello Concerto. “It was very clear from the get-go that the score could not live in the same world as the day-to-day rehearsal space,” she said. “We needed to have more fragility and not as much bravado.”
That score, she knew, also had to take a secondary position to the music the audience sees being created on the screen. “It was really clear that the music that she was writing, the music that she’s rehearsing and the music that is the thread of the score, they were all going to be very different. The score could not live in the same world as the day-to-day rehearsal space, because you know, Mahler and, and Elgar, that’s the everyday life and part of her persona as the strong, brilliant person that we find out she may not actually be.
“And then the score lives in a completely different world, because the score brings us to this kind of almost otherworldly aspect. It’s the place where we aren’t sure if what we’re seeing is real. The parts of the film that start to go slightly off, slightly wrong, the score has to lead us through that but in an almost invisible way. You shouldn’t really notice it.”
Her other 2022 score was a simple, acoustic-based one for “Women Talking,” director Sarah Polley’s film adapted from a book about a real-life Mennonite community where men would routinely drug and rape women and girls at night. “That was a very different project, and in many ways it was a lot more emotionally difficult,” she said. “It’s unimaginably hard to come to terms with what these women went through in real life just a few years ago. At times I was completely paralyzed with anger and sadness.“
The film, though, refused to succumb to that darkness and hopelessness. “It raises so many questions about how we as people. not just women, go about dealing with issues,” she said. “It’s a valid and important question to be asking ourselves right now, because there have been so many extreme turnarounds for women in the last few years, both for the better and for the worse.”
A pause. “We saw these incredible movements like #MeToo — and then as a polar opposite, we have events like the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which is just an absolute unimaginable catastrophe. The fact that something like this can actually happen in our in our lives is completely unfathomable, and I think these are issues that this story just deals with in such an incredibly beautiful and interesting way.”
Still, it wasn’t easy for her to embrace that beauty. “The film takes on such an incredibly hopeful light, and Sarah really wanted the music to be the driving force for hope and forward movement,” she said. “And I had a huge problem with that. I would say, ‘How can you possibly expect me to be hopeful in a situation that’s so terrible?’ So it was a really beautiful journey for me to find hope in the darkness, and it resulted in one of the most optimistic scores I have ever written in my life.”