'Joker' Composer Finds The Humanity In The Infamous Villain Joker is a psychological character study of a disturbed man who turns violent. To give the comic book villain human depth, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir had to dig deep and empathize with the character.
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Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir Finds The Humanity In 'Joker'

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Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir Finds The Humanity In 'Joker'

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir Finds The Humanity In 'Joker'

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The new movie "Joker" is a psychological character study about a lonely, disturbed man who turns violent. To give the comic book character human depth, the director, Todd Phillips, brought in a composer who could transform darkness into sensitive musicality. Tim Greiving has the story.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Hildur Gudnadottir a few things in common with Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker. She smiles and laughs a lot.

HILDA GUDNADOTTIR: (Laughter).

GREIVING: There's also a darkness inside of her. Gudnadottir, a cellist and composer from Iceland, expresses it through music.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED HILDA GUDNADOTTIR SONG)

GUDNADOTTIR: In a lot of my music, it's kind of contemplative, and somehow that always kind of, you know, tends to, like, tilt on the darker side, you know? My inner conversation is apparently quite dark. (Laughter).

GREIVING: Gudnadottir has been schlepping her cello around since she was 5. Before she was born, she says her pregnant mother named her, literally, War, Daughter of God, and declared she would be a cellist.

GUDNADOTTIR: I'm Icelandic (laughter). We're all so dramatic.

GREIVING: She played in pop bands, got into electro-acoustic experimentation and made some angsty solo albums. She was also a frequent collaborator with fellow Icelandic composer the late Johan Johansson and played cello on most of his film scores. As a composer herself, she just won an Emmy for scoring the HBO miniseries "Chernobyl," recording in an actual nuclear power plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED HILDA GUDNADOTTIR SONG)

GREIVING: Dark, chaotic, unconventional - all descriptions that would make sense for a movie about one of the most infamous and unpredictable villains in comic book history. But this joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, inspired empathy.

GUDNADOTTIR: He's actually just trying to be nice, (laughter) and, you know, he's trying to actually bring joy to the world, you know, and just doesn't really succeed because of, you know, other circumstances that really affect his inner turbulence. And I was just really sympathetic towards that. It's very tragic. So I thought it was important that he was allowed to kind of have this softer side.

GREIVING: He wrote a tender, melancholy requiem for this troubled man - lonely, isolated, tormented by dark thoughts and feelings.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED HILDA GUDNADOTTIR SONG)

GREIVING: She channeled Arthur Fleck.

GUDNADOTTIR: You know, I sat down with a cello to kind of just find my way into his voice and into his head, really. And I'm just, like, kind of holding onto this feeling that I had after reading the script. As soon as I played those first notes, it really hit me in the chest, somehow, and it was a really strong physical reaction that I got. And I was like, yes, this is it.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED HILDA GUDNADOTTIR SONG)

GREIVING: She wrote that piece before "Joker" even began shooting, which is unconventional. Todd Phillips played it on set during a pivotal scene after Arthur crosses a line and becomes the Joker. It changed the whole movie.

LAWRENCE SHER: We were going to shoot the scene entirely different.

GREIVING: Lawrence Sher has been Phillips' cinematographer since "The Hangover."

SHER: And he just played that over each and every take as Joaquin's character, Arthur, is in this grimy bathroom and he starts this almost metamorphosis dance. The score was such an instrumental part, not just to Joaquin's performance but to the camera operating, to the sort of energy in the room, and to really make that scene come alive.

GREIVING: And give a soul to a timeless villain. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

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