Music has been a defining element of big-screen coming-of-age dramas since the 1980s, when John Hughes delivered his music-infused “high school trilogy.” That continues to hold true for MGM and Warner Bros.’ The Sun Is Also a Star, a film adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s best-selling book.
Based in part on Yoon’s own experience, the Ry Russo-Young-directed pic stars Grown-ish‘s Yara Shahidi as Natasha Kingsley and Riverdale‘s Charles Melton as Daniel Bae, two young teens whose sidewalk collision evolves into a whirlwind romance on the eve of Natasha’s deportation.
The interracial immigrant love story, which hit theaters Friday, was scored by relative newcomer Herdís Stefánsdóttir, an Icelandic electronic musician, songwriter and music composer who once interned for Arrival composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and in the years since has produced music for several short films.
A blend of her own pop background, self-created instruments and sound textures, Stefánsdóttir says the Sun Is Also A Star score offers a universal message about love that embodies the distinctive tones of both her own music and the film. It was also produced while she was seven months pregnant.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the film’s composer about that experience, what she learned from Jóhannsson and the jump from shorts to feature-length films.
You once interned for Arrival and The Theory of Everything composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. What was that like, and how did it prepare you for feature scoring?
The score of Arrival is definitely one of the scores that I really, really like out of the past few years, and I thought it was inspiring to see how Jóhann worked and how he chose his sounds — how he composed and processed.
But I mean, it also taught me a lot about working on a project of this scale and showed me how crazy it can be to be a film composer. It’s so much work sometimes to do a score for a film. There was also just seeing the process of how it’s done. I thought before that people just sit down and get a whole film and just start writing. I had no idea. So I learned a lot about the process of how you actually can successfully score a film without losing sight of what you’re doing. You really need to be organized and detailed.
The Sun Is Also a Star is only your second feature film. How did you get involved?
Basically, I sent a pitch — a portfolio with submissions — and that was last spring. My agent sent it to Warner Bros., and I had never scored a feature film before, so it was like a total long shot. I was really not expecting to hear back from them having no experience in the field, and about five months later my agent suddenly gets a phone call from Warner Bros. asking if I’m available. She was like, “Oh, wow.” We hadn’t heard back from them, and we hadn’t even thought about it, and she was like, “Yeah, she’s actually seven months pregnant, but I’ll check with her.”
Did being pregnant impact your scoring process?
I think it definitely did. I had a difficult pregnancy. I had a hard time walking and moving, and I was really uncomfortable. I was like, “Okay, I can’t really do anything, but there’s one thing I can do, and that is sit down in a chair and push some keys. That I can do.” Also because I was pregnant, and the number one thing — the most important thing — is to be healthy and be sure to take care of my growing baby, I didn’t have time to waste energy. Sometimes you waste too much time on things that don’t really matter, but I had to be focused, and keep all my energy in just writing the music without worrying about all the other things around. I managed to be really, really focused and don’t actually think I’ve ever written any music as fast as I did for this film. Normally I might have worked 12 hours a day, but because I knew that I would probably just have enough energy for six hours a day, I would just wake up, have a coffee and then have a laser focus. I hope I’m not gonna have to be pregnant now for every film score. (Laughs.)
You were scoring music for a film about two people’s developing love while you were experiencing something similar. Do you think any of your own emotions about your pregnancy translated into the music?
Yeah, they did. While I was writing, I was thinking about [my daughter], and that brought a lot of emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever been that vulnerable. I was writing the music by myself, but I really felt her with me the whole process. It was kind of like a purer and more beautiful process of writing music.
You’ve only composed for two feature films, but on both — this film and Hilary Brougher’s South Mountain — you worked with predominantly female creative teams. Has working on women-led projects been an intentional choice?
I’ve mostly worked with female directors, but I wouldn’t say I have a preference for it, because I think it’s mostly just about working with people that you have a good energy and connection with. But in all my experience, there’s just something kind of important and magical about what’s been happening now and for the past few years. I feel that there’s been a very big change since I started thinking of writing music for films. Before I was like, “Where are the female composers I can listen to? Where are they?” And in just a few years the landscape has changed, and I think that’s wonderful and inspiring. It’s an advancement that has personally motivated me and helped me look up to women that are doing something that I want to do.
Were you communicating with anyone from The Sun Is Also a Star‘s creative team while you were composing?
I was always in touch with Ry [Russo-Young]. As we began, I sent her some tunes, and she expressed at that point that she was already happy, so we started off really well. She gave me a lot of space and a lot of freedom, which was really — that was amazing and really important. We had a good musical connection, so the whole process of scoring was like a conversation between me and Ry.
You also provided music for last year’s The Hate U Give. You had a different role in the music-making process, though, and the tone is pretty different from this film, despite both being YA book adaptations. In what ways was making music for these two projects the same or different?
That was a different process because I just was providing some additional music. That was [Dustin O’Halloran’s] sound, his creation. It’s always different when you’re like an assistant composer because you’re writing within the creative frame of other composers. You’re not really being yourself as a composer.
You’ve worked on a lot of short films. How does crafting music for shorter narratives differ from scoring a feature?
I think it’s very different because in a short film, because it’s shorter, normally the music does not have the space to develop with a story and go as deep. You’re more like touching on the surface. When you go into a feature film, you have to go into the whole story. For this film, the score really had to develop with the characters — with their feelings and emotions, maturing in a way through the film. So how this score starts and ends, it has kind of a different vibe.
Music is often a definitive, sometimes even iconic, part of young adult films. Did you listen to any notable soundtracks or scores of other young adult films for inspiration?
I didn’t listen to any other soundtracks, and honestly, I don’t really listen to soundtracks for inspiration. I would say that most of my inspiration normally comes from a wide variety of other types of music. I kind of like being a bit ignorant about what’s happening in the soundtrack world because I feel it gives me the space just to do what I’m doing without knowing what’s trending or cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.