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Tár, Women Talking Composer Hildur Gudnadóttir Could Set Oscars Record  

Hildur Gudnadóttir, who in 2020 won the Oscar for best original score for her work on Joker, is back with two film scores this year that are firmly in the awards-season conversation. With work on Todd Field’s Tár and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, she could make history as the first female composer to be nominated twice in the same season. The Icelandic musician talked to THR about her processes for both films and whether the industry is opening up more for female composers.

You scored two films this year. Which came first?

I started on Tár first, but I think I finished Women Talking before I finished Tár. So they were running a little bit at the same time, but in a nice way that didn’t totally overlap. I had chunks of time on each one.

Is that normal for you, to take on multiple projects at a time?

I really prefer being present for a project that I’m working on, so I don’t love working on multiple things at the same time. I was on Tár for one and a half years, but I’m not 100 percent full-time on that for one and a half years. I do have some flexibility within that time to take on other stuff, so if the process is that extended, then it can work out to maybe work on two things at the same time.

How did your conversations to compose for both films start?

Both directors called and asked me if I was up for working with them! Both projects were so wonderful and exciting to work on. With Tár, I got to work on the subject that I’ve dedicated my life to, in a film with phenomenal artists who I really admire. For Women Talking, it was obviously a very different subject matter, but it’s an incredibly strong and important story. I was really happy to get to work on that as well. And Sarah Polley is absolutely fantastic as an artist, activist and feminist. She’s so wonderfully inspiring, like how she approaches subjects that are not super easy, but I think she has such a wonderful human way of approaching whatever she’s doing.

Cate Blanchett and Sophie Kauer in Focus Features’ Tar.

Cate Blanchett (foreground) and Sophie Kauer in Focus Features’ Tár.

Courtesy of Focus Features

How did your process differ between the films?

The process was very different, I would say. Tár is more of a character study than it is necessarily a story as such. I was really diving deep into this character and her past, her future, her present, the way she relates to music. It was very different from any other film that I worked on, because I was writing music partly as her, so I was kind of putting myself in her shoes. It was a very complex process and very delicate to work on. Women Talking, on the other hand, is a much more traditional score; it’s a thematic score, it’s partly very melodic. Obviously, the film is based on a novel, so there is the traditional sense of storytelling in how the music follows that narrative as well as in a classical sense. It’s based on real events, but it’s also presented as a fable — it’s almost like a fairy tale, so the music falls under that umbrella, which helped us shape the story. You have to look at how the music can really amplify the story that’s being told in a way that’s most helpful, without your ego or your preconceived ideas about how music should be getting in the way.

For Women Talking, how much emphasis did you put on using instruments that the story’s religious colony might have had access to?

It was very important to me that the sound world was as close to the environment of this colony as could be, because obviously, these women would probably not have access to an instrument at all. Their musical landscape would not have been very rich. But I imagined that the nearest instrument to their vicinity would have been guitar. I wanted the instrumentation to be quite down to earth, accessible and folky or rural. I think it’s so important which instrument you choose to tell a story, especially when they’re based on real events. I felt the orchestration needed to be very humble in this case.

Sarah Polley was very clear that the music give us a sense of hope,” Gudnadottir says about United Artists Women Talking

“Sarah [Polley] was very clear that the music give us a sense of hope,” Gudnadóttir says about United Artists’ Women Talking.

Michael Gibson/022 Orion Releasing

For Tár, did it make it easier to compose for a film about a composer, given your background?

I guess yes and no. It was just such a great process to work on this film, because what I found so interesting about it is that it’s really a film about the process of making music and writing and communicating about music to your fellow musicians and students, so it’s not about the finished version. She’s one of the best at what she does in the film, but she also fails, you know. So it’s not somehow about succeeding, and I didn’t really feel any pressure to succeed. I just felt really interested in the process, because, for me, as someone who’s dedicated my life to the process of making music, it was just so much fun to do a deep dive into that with these wonderful artists.

Do you think the field is expanding for women to have more of these opportunities?

Yes, I really feel like there’s a lot of change that’s been happening in this industry. When I was starting [in my career], when my name came up for projects, the was very often [asked]: “Yeah, but can she deal with this, because she’s a woman?” It wasn’t actually that long ago that people were still saying this to me, even after finishing several projects. But I feel like that machine has gone from skepticism to excitement about women composers. It’s much more inviting right now for women to start out their careers in this industry, and I think that’s really fantastic.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of   magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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