How 'Chernobyl' Composer Found Inspiration in a Real (and Radioactive) Power Plant
Hildur Gudnadóttir reveals the period of frustration when she and field recording engineer Chris Watson, ironically, "couldn't get power in the power plant," which led to their eureka moment in creating a haunting score.
It's been a whirlwind year for Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadóttir. On top of scoring Todd Phillips' Joker film (premiering at the Venice Film Festival), the 36-year-old composer and cellist earned her first Emmy nomination, for scoring HBO's Chernobyl.
The five-part HBO miniseries, nominated for 19 Emmy awards, follows the catastrophic 1986 nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near Pripyat in the USSR. The series captures the shock and terror of the initial disaster as well as the nuclear and political fallout during the subsequent weeks.
The lone female nominee in either of the two Emmy scoring categories (limited series Escape at Dannemora, Good Omens, True Detective and When They See Us are also nominated in her category), Gudnadóttir began working on Chernobyl well before the series started filming. "With Chernobyl and Joker, I came on very early in the development process," she says. "Having the music early helps form the feelings and emotions of the characters, and that benefits everyone involved."
Writing her scores early also prevents the directors and producers from being unduly influenced by a temp score (a placeholder score that's pieced together using music from famous films and shows). "To me, the idea of copying or trying to match someone's temp score isn't creatively rewarding," says Gudnadóttir. "It's much more fun and like a dialogue between all the creatives when you write the music before the shooting."
For Chernobyl, a principal filming location was a decommissioned Lithuanian power plant. The grueling shoot required special equipment and training because the power plant was very much radioactive, or "hot," as Gudnadóttir says.
Regarding the radioactive exposure, Gudnadóttir was very relaxed about the whole experience. "We got to keep most of the equipment, but we had to leave the cables behind," Gudnadóttir says. "The extended contact with the plant's floor caused them to get too hot."
Gudnadóttir enlisted the help of field recording engineer Chris Watson to capture the atmosphere inside the plant. Their eureka moment in the recording session came after a period of frustration. "We were about to record in a pump room, but we couldn't find any electricity outlets," she says. "It was ironic that we couldn't get power in the power plant, but it turned out to be fortuitous as I stumbled onto an amazing door."
Gudnadóttir put contact microphones on the door and recorded its incredibly high-pitched sounds. "We ended up pitching them down so they would be in an audible range, then orchestrating them into the score," she explains. "I used the sounds in the funeral music that highlights the hospital scenes with the radiation victims."
Each episode of the miniseries ends with a long musical sequence, the most dramatic of which involves divers going underneath the exposed reactor core to drain the water. "As the divers wade through the radioactive water, you hear the Geiger counters grow louder and louder," Gudnadóttir says. "When their flashlights fail, you only have the score and the sound design driving the last moments in total dark."
Gudnadóttir crafted two storylines within her score, focusing first on the nuclear and environmental catastrophe. The secondary storyline revolved around the emotional side of loss, sacrifice and human error. "The effects of this disaster are so far-reaching," she says, "even beyond the survivors."
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.