After Hildur Guðnadóttir won 2020’s Oscar for best original score for her work on Joker, the composer was flooded with offers. “I’ve been writing and playing music for over two decades, and I’d normally just gone about it without seeking too much attention, not really caring much if people were noticing or not,” the Iceland native tells me over Zoom. “All of a sudden a lot of people noticed!” She had to say no to stuff—she doesn’t work with a big team—and needed to invest fully in the films she took on. So she picked two movies. They turned out to be pretty good choices.
First up is Tár (out in select theaters today), Todd Field’s masterful portrait of a brilliant and esteemed orchestra conductor (Cate Blanchett) whose world slowly crashes down. A classically trained cellist, Guðnadóttir signed on right after Blanchett—unusually early for a composer. If watch the film, you’ll find her work is difficult to detect; Guðnadóttir herself describes the score as “a ghost in the room.” The score is muted, and as she gets to discussing her work on the film, composing the actual music arrives last on her list of duties. Guðnadóttir was heavily involved in pre-production with Field—on character work and building the movie’s soundscape, almost like a co-director—and is still working on new material now, even with the film finished and out into the world.
It’s a fittingly singular showcase, perhaps, for an artist so groundbreaking in her field—her Joker tour de force made her the first woman to ever win the combined best original score category in its 22 years of existence. (A handful of women had previously won in the now defunct categories of best original musical or comedy score and original song score.) Guðnadóttir’s comprehensive feel for narrative and tone, for the “engine” of her projects, next led into Women Talking, hitting theaters in December and, like Tár, currently playing the New York Film Festival. In Sarah Polley’s fictionalized account of a Mennonite colony whose women come together to determine whether to fight or leave behind their male abusers, Guðnadóttir’s contribution is once again crucial, surprising, and unforgettable. And once again, it’s not at all what you expect.
Vanity Fair: So let’s start with you actually describing the scope of your involvement on Tár.
Hildur Guðnadóttir: While Todd was location scouting, we mapped out the whole script together and set the musical feel to the film. We set an actual BPM for the different characters, imagining the tempo and how the characters would work. Then we had to map out how Lydia Tár’s musical landscape looks because she’s, obviously, a composer and conductor. We were molding her character in a way that she’s, as you see in the film, very frustrated and angry about something.
We felt strongly that the situation with the character was that she was torn between the music that she wanted to write and the situation that she was in there, in the conducting world. The music that you see and hear her writing at the piano, that was music that I wrote; this melody that she’s working on, it came to me directly after reading the script. That was my instinctual feel from what she was going through and her mindset.
You haven’t actually mentioned composing the score yet.
[Laughs] So my third job for the film was to write the actual score. The film itself is really about the process of making music, the rehearsals—a very big part of the story is that process. You don’t hear the end version; you’re in the mindset of the creator, which I found really interesting. So as to the actual score—the score couldn’t really be a vast universe, because that’s the [movie’s] day-to-day normal life. It was clear that the score needed to live in the realm of the things that happen in the film. You can’t really see that. You don’t really perceive the otherworldly, strange aspect of the film. There’s a lot of music in the film, there’s a lot of score in the film, but the audience probably will not notice it at all.