Hildur Guðnadóttir Used a Solo Clarinet to Help Create Jump Scares in ‘A Haunting in Venice’

Hildur Guðnadóttir grew up on Agatha Christie mysteries. “I totally lived for those novels,” the composer says. Ever since then, she has wanted to sink her teeth into story by the famous author. So when director Kenneth Branagh approached her, she said yes. “He wanted to do something darker and almost horror, and that dark stuff was tempting for me.”

Dark moods are a signature theme for Guðnadóttir. The Oscar-winning composer’s work includes “Joker,” “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” “Tár” and she will be back for “Joker: Folie à Deux.”

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The film is based on Christie’s 1969 novel “Halloween Party,” and stars Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Kelly Reilly and Jamie Dornan, with Branagh reprising his role as Hercule Poirot from “Death on the Nile” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” Set in an eerie Venetian villa with a ghostly past, it revolves around a séance Poirot reluctantly attends on All Hallows’ Eve. Oscar-winning actress Michelle Yeoh plays the medium who has connections to another world.

Overall, the composer says she wanted to look at the questions the now-retired detective was asking himself. “He’s asking himself who he was before the war and who he wants to be in this post-war world,” she says. She found the contrast was a great way to draw parallels with composers of the time. “I took a classical romanticism melodic approach because the way you express melody says so much about how you’re expressing yourself. Post-war composers were drawn to tonal expression or lots of experimentation where they used extended techniques and looked at different ways of playing classical instruments.”

Those extended techniques of the era, such as bowing under the bridge of a string or overblowing and screaming into a wind instrument were such methods she used for the supernatural aspect of the score. “Those sounds were happening at the time, and were forward thinking and it lent itself so gloriously to those jump scares,” she says.

The séance that comes early in the film gathers Poirot and the ensemble cast as Yeoh’s Mrs. Reynolds leads. Editor Lucy Donaldson says she spent a long time cutting the scene without music. “Ken was keen to do that for as long as possible because listening is a big theme of the film and so we wanted to play with silence and see how far we could push that.”

Before she received Guðnadóttir’s music, Donaldson says, “We temped a very few spots with her previous scores, but it was very late [when we added in the music] because it helped find the natural rhythm of that scene. And if it’s working without music, you know it’s only going to level up when you do add it.”

Donaldson says the scene was challenging to cut. “This was when things get real. We come with Poirot into this situation. He’s the representation of logic, facts and deduction. The séance questions, is there anything supernatural happening here? And you’re cutting back to his skepticism.”

Donaldson’s approach was to set up everyone’s nervous reaction. “We’ve met our cast of characters and everyone is jumpy so there were lots of cuts to objects and reactions and builds and builds and builds, and there’s the middle section, and the climax.” Donaldson continues, “We were trying to show that everybody is out of their comfort zone for one reason or another. And it makes them more vulnerable, including Poirot.”

Guðnadóttir says “Typically, for this genre, you’d have a big orchestral score, but Ken wanted to have it quite close and small from the get-go.” She continues, “I scored it with a solo clarinet and that automatically draws your attention because it’s closer and smaller. I don’t think the audience realizes this, but it changes your perception because you’re expecting something else. That smaller tone and the silences are super important for those jump moments.”

As for what’s to expect from “Joker 2,” Guðnadóttir signals that her lips are sealed. But she does offer a teaser. “It’s been amazing to watch Lady Gaga transform. I think we’re all in for a treat.”

Listen to the score below.

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