Warner Bros presented a very eclectic but solidly awards-friendly slate at The Contenders London today, headed up by Todd Phillips’ recent Venice Golden Lion winner Joker. “Most composers have a director they work with, but I — accidentally — had an actor,” laughed Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. In this case, the actor was Joaquin Phoenix, who’d played Jesus Christ in one of Guðnadóttir’s previous projects, Mary Magdalene. This time, though, the mercurial actor plays a very different kind of messiah. Taking the title role in Phillips’ controversial new release, Phoenix stars as an embattled clown who accidentally becomes the face of a violent anarchist movement in early-80s Gotham City.
Speaking to Deadline’s Andreas Wiseman, Guðnadóttir revealed that, initially, she’d been hired by Phillips simply to come back to him with some ideas rather than a full score. “Todd contacted me probably half a year before they started shooting,” she recalled. “He told me he was working on this film and asked if I was interested in reading the script, which I of course was — and I had quite a strong response to it. Todd asked if I was interested in writing some music just based on those feelings. He didn’t really give me any instruction, as such, he was just curious to hear what I felt.”
Guðnadóttir explained that such a response is easier to form at such an early stage. “It’s quite different when you’re reading a script, because you’re not influenced by the costumes, or the edits, or the choreography — it’s a really good time to be able to just connect to the story on a kind of visceral level. It’s very rare to have the opportunity to do that, because I’m normally hired quite late in the process and you’re kind of just thrown in after the final cut. And then as I kind of started to find (the music), it was almost like I was struck by lightning.”
Because she had been brought in so early, Guðnadóttir had the added bonus of seeing her work inform the film. “Joaquin was having a bit of a hard time finding his way into the character,” she recalled, “and finding his way into this transformation, so Todd said, ‘Hey, I think it might be helpful just to listen to the music.’ So he did, and he told me later that it really helped him to become the character. It was amazing to see him transform — such a beautiful interaction.”
Immediately after, the Contenders audience was treated to a sneak peak at Edward Norton’s passion project Motherless Brooklyn, in which he stars as a gumshoe on the trail of inner-city corruption in 1950s New York. Speaking to Deadline’s Tom Grater, double Oscar nominee Dick Pope — best known for his work with Mike Leigh — revealed that Norton had been invested in the film for a long time, ever since snapping up the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name.
“Edward carried this film with him for 20 years,” said Pope. “He had a complete vision for it, from beginning to end. And, actually, that vision never wavered. When he first asked me to read the script, he sent me a look-book of visual ideas for the film and it was absolutely beautiful. You could have published it. It was beautiful, noirish and incredibly exciting, and challenging visually. And I must say a lot of the images within that book are on the screen.”
The film captures that flavor of classic noir, but Pope said that he’d taken care to make sure that seemed organic rather than stylized and synthetic. “Edward wanted the patina of old cinema, that rich and lush look, but without it looking like (we’d used) a special treatment,” he said. “So I shot with old lenses, which is exactly what I’d shot Mr Turner with. Old 40s and 50 lenses. Lenses that have flaws, aberrations in them. They’re not quite right, and I found that worked really well, in terms of combating the modern with the old.”
BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated composer Daniel Pemberton (Yesterday, Molly’s Game, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse) joined the conversation to explain that he, too, had been experimental in terms of finding the right feel for the film. “The main protagonist is a guy called Lionel who’s got Tourette’s Syndrome,” he said. “The score is trying to capture the story from his perspective, and there’s two elements to him. There’s a very restless side to him — his mind is constantly ticking over — and then there are scenes where he’s more focused and there’s a serenity there. But one of the big things Edward and I also talked about trying to do was create a sense of the time period, and so the world of the film is steeped in jazz.”
Finally, in the absence of actor Michael B. Jordan, who was delayed by transport issues, Deadline’s Mike Fleming gave an impassioned introduction to footage from the star’s new film, Just Mercy, which Jordan also produced. Based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name, the film tells the true story of an activist lawyer who fights for justice on behalf of wrongfully convicted individuals.