Hildur Guðnadóttir on Embracing the Needle Drop for 'Joker'

We chat with the composer about the necessary collaboration between score and soundtrack.

Joker Hallway Screenshot
Warner Bros

Pain. Despair. Rage. Hatred. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a swamp of negative thoughts. One would think that an invitation to wade into such a repugnant quagmire would turn many away. But considering that Joker just became the first R-rated film to cross the $1 billion mark, it suggests a drive within audiences to explore the more wretched depths of our humanity. Batman got his time on the big screen; now it’s the Clown Prince’s turn.

Whether through empathy or curiosity, people paid to sit behind the point-of-view of a crumbling psychotic who pulled himself up by the bootstraps so he could make the world burn with his agony. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir gets it. She’s attracted to the muck as well. The Icelandic musician’s solo cello work was used in the compositions of Prisoners, Sicario, The Revenant, and Arrival. Cheery, you can not call them, but catastrophically impactful, they most certainly are.

Her sound connected deeply within Todd Phillips, and she became the only choice to score Arthur’s mad descent through the hell of Gotham City. The director sent the script to Guðnadóttir and asked that she respond to the work immediately. Don’t think, act. Before a frame of footage was shot, or even a glimpse of the design was peeped, Guðnadóttir went to work on her composition for Joker, and Phillips embraced her mournful perspective. This was the music of the jester.

“It was not hard,” says Guðnadóttir explaining the ease in which she slipped into Arthur’s mindset based exclusively on the screenplay. “It was nice working on the music that early on because you have more space to formulate what it is you want to say musically.” She would send the score to Phillips, he would make a few notes or suggestions, and their conversations would steer each other creatively. The director would go as far as to play her music on set, allowing the actors and the crew to understand the emotional context of the scene before they presented their work to the camera.

Guðnadóttir did not hear a cello alone inside Arthur’s head. She imagined a whole symphony at play, and like her more recent scores for Tom of Finland and Sicario: Day of the Soldado, a traditional orchestra was arranged for Joker. “I knew that Arthur would dance to my solo records, which are largely based around the cello,” she says. “Then, I kind of worked our way into the orchestra where other characters existed.” The film remains rooted in the strings.

For the most part, what she imagined after her original pass on the script stuck to the final product. “A few of the first themes were pretty much identical to what I first wrote,” says Guðnadóttir. “For example, the ‘Bathroom Dance,’ that’s pretty much exactly the music that I wrote, and the track ‘Defeated Clown,’ which is at the beginning of the movie when he’s beaten, is the same. Those were the two very first ideas I had, and they carried through the film. They developed and changed and grew, but those two main themes were exactly the same.”

The challenges grew from the cold calculations required to transition score to the soundtrack and vice versa. “A lot of the songs in the film were listed in the script,” she says. “Todd felt really strongly about most of the tracks that were in there.” In many sections, Guðnadóttir had to blend her work with a needle drop. “The Gary Glitter song [‘Rock n Roll Part 2’] is a track that had been living with Todd for a pretty long time. For that scene, we did a couple of versions. One only with the track, one only with the score. In the end, the way that it worked best was to go from the track to the score, and kind of have both worlds in the same scene.”

Guðnadóttir has no issues sharing her music with another creative source. “You always have to drop your ego,” she says. “You just think about what the story needs.” Sometimes needle drops are simply more functional than a score, relying on the audience’s past association with the song and taking advantage of their memory. “Needle drops have their own history, and they have their own kind of cultural reference that’s been alive, like in this case, for several decades. If you’re writing a score, it’s the first time it’s being heard, but of course, it can muster the emotions of the character, hopefully, better than a needle drop.”

Both are old tools that work exceptionally well when applied properly. “It can be tricky,” admits Guðnadóttir. “On this film, I don’t think we ever had any huge clashes between score and soundtrack.” The blend between the two was carefully considered and weighed against each other. “There is a moment when we see into the imagination of Arthur when he’s walking around with who he thinks is his girlfriend [Zazie Beetz]. There’s that track, ‘Smile.’ I tried to score that scene, and it worked pretty okay, but in the end, the needle drop was so much more effective.”

The song recalls his obsession with classic Hollywood and his idolatry of Charlie Chaplin. A score cannot exert such information. “‘Smile’ gives you the nuances of his kind of happiness. It worked so well with that track, and I love it in there.” She learned early on in the business to accept the help of other artists. “You just have to embrace it and say, ‘This is working better for the story.'” Through that lens, those decisions are simple to make.

Guðnadóttir enjoyed her time with Joker immensely, but she’s happy to let him go as well. “I’m in this break right now, so I’m pretty content,” she sighs. No doubt, she’ll be called upon to swim back into the muck on another grim project, and she would not be opposed to returning to the comic book arena either. “I think working with a character like Joker, who’s also had his own life for quite a few decades, and has such a strong place in people’s hearts, where people feel very strongly about him, is a rewarding challenge.”

Crawling inside Arthur, rummaging around, and pulling out his music is an exhilarating honor, but you could not last long inside. “It is like living on the dark side of the moon!” laughs Guðnadóttir. Fun to say you’ve been, but impossible to exist for very long.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.