“Women Talking” Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir on Scoring Sarah Polley’s Astonishing New Film
Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, writer/director Sarah Polley’s new narrative Women Talking considers how a group of women can move forward after the shocking betrayal and abuse by men in their isolated religious community. The backstory of the novel and subsequent film, which is set in 2010, mirrors horrific true events that took place at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. For over four years, nine men secretly sedated over a hundred girls and women, raping them while they were unconscious. The film is not a violent one, however. Polley wanted the violence to only be reflected in short glimpses of the aftermath, focusing instead on the community of women coming together to build a better world for their children, each other, and themselves. Toews’ book raised questions within her about faith, forgiveness, community, and self-determination, she said. “I wanted to feel in every frame the endless potential and possibility contained in a conversation about how to remake a broken world.” Bringing this conversation to life is an exceptional ensemble cast that includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivy, and Frances McDormand.
The mood and tone in Women Talking are enhanced with the contribution of an organic, hopeful score by Academy-award-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Guðnadóttir has had a very successful 2022, with her scores for Todd Field’s Tár and Sarah Polley’s film both currently in Oscar contention. The Credits spoke to the composer about her deeply personal score for Women Talking, a film that offered her the first opportunity to work with a female director.
In Women Talking, it seems the central questions are about if community and unity can help individuals heal from evil, all told from a feminine perspective. It’s impossible not to come from a really personal place for this as an artist.
Yeah, well, I think you’re absolutely right; I think it’s really impossible not to be personal about this subject because, as a woman, I have come across, not obviously and thankfully the same type of things that these women go through in the film, but I have experienced some things in that direction. So, just personally, you feel a sense of connection to what they go through, and you feel a large amount of empathy, I think, with what they go through. They actually had trauma specialists there for the actors because it’s a hugely sensitive and difficult and emotional subject to examine and dive into. For this narrative, the music needed to really be a vehicle of hope and forward movement, to give us the courage to keep on moving, and to bring everyone together into these discussions and this decision-making of what to do. The music needed to draw us to them and give us a connection and a sense of community.
How did you find that within yourself?
I really had to just do a lot of self-work, and I had to examine not only how I feel and how I want to react to this story in particular but also just everything that’s happening to women in reality all around us. We’re seeing such huge waves of movement for women’s rights, just for women in general. There’s this huge shift that’s been going on for the better and for the worse. With #MeToo, we saw great energy and lots of positivity from women coming together, not being silent, and pushing things forward. Then we see these huge backward movements like Roe v Wade being overturned. It’s just a huge backward step for women’s basic fundamental rights and the right to health care. It was intense to be in this story and experience all these things simultaneously in reality. I really had to ask myself, “Am I going to allow myself to be paralyzed by anger and therefore do nothing? Or will I need to cultivate the sense of hope and connection to community in order to move forward personally, and therefore also in the story of this film?” It was a really interesting process for me, personally and musically.
What was your approach?
Well, I think you can hear it instantly when you’re faking something in music. Specifically, when you’re dealing with true events, I think it’s important to try to be as honest as you possibly can, because there are people that have actually lived these events, and you don’t want to over-dramatize them, like waltz in with a string orchestra and taiko drums. I felt that the only way to bring this hope and love and community was to to actually do that in how the music was recorded and performed, so I leaned into my community and my friends who I’ve been playing with for over two decades. I have a deep love and friendship with the main performer, Skuli Sverrisson, who plays on the guitar. He’s one of my best friends, and because we’ve played so much music together over the last two decades, we’ve developed a sense of telepathy when we’re working together. We access really deep places within both of us when we work together because we don’t have to explain anything, we just know. Our recording sessions were equally recording music, and just laughing together and talking about our hopes or dreams or hard things we might be going through. So we just poured as much love into this music as as we could, which really spoke to the depth of our friendship.
You used the guitar as the main instrument, and there are a lot of cues with bells. Can you give us a sense of your overall thought about building the score?
I wanted the sounds to be very down-to-earth and simple, not highbrow. I didn’t want any fancy, upper-class instruments, like a harp, that will be completely out of reach for the environment that these women lived in. I imagined that the guitar would be in the nearest vicinity of their environment. Traditionally, it’s considered a very humble instrument. I wanted the score to feel almost tangible or visceral, so I used the guitar as a percussive instrument for the more tension-driven scenes. I wanted it to sound like something you could touch in its natural texture, like touching dirt. That was my overall imagination for the score. I worked intuitively. In the flashback scenes where we see what actually happened to these women, I experienced that as somehow both a doomsday and a call to prayer, so I just felt that bells were a really good connection to both of those feelings, because bells can sound an alarm or be heard at prayer time, so I thought it was fitting.
In the cues “Work of Ghosts,” “Doomsday,” and “Teeth,” the way you use the guitar and bells, it almost feels like being trapped inside a cavern or even trapped inside an abandoned church. It feels primordial.
My first instinct for these cues was the bells, and it’s exactly as you described it and a great observation because these women are trapped in this situation, in an almost unimaginable way, with their family in a horrifically violent environment. I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia, a lack of movement. They are stuck, trapped in this place without any power. I can’t imagine how terrifying and inhuman that must be.
You’ve spoken about how this score required you to go very deep into yourself about your own experience. What are you left with, having created the score, that you feel is permanent in you?
I feel very energized from having worked on this film. I feel a huge amount of connection to Sarah and the women that were on this film, and a huge amount of energy to move forward and to not be silent. I want to do my best in whatever way I can to inch us forward and closer to justice and equality, because I think we still have a long way to go, and it’s very easy to lose hope or give up. The process of working on this film gave me a lot of hope and energy to not shy away from it and to stay present. It’s the first project that I’ve done with a female director, for example, which was a wonderful one, to experience that difference in working in a feminine environment. It also gave me a huge amount of energy and positivity for what’s to come.
Women Talking is releasing in theaters nationwide on December 23rd.
Featured image: Hildur Guðnadóttir © Camille Blake