From Iceland — Musical Storytelling On The Big Screen

Musical Storytelling On The Big Screen

Published March 13, 2023

Musical Storytelling On The Big Screen
Photo by
Anna Maggý & Jeaneen Lund

It is 8:30 A.M. in Los Angeles when composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir logs in to meet with me virtually. With the latest winter storm bearing down on Reykjavík Herdís retreated to sunny California, admitting “it was an attempt to escape the winter in Iceland.”

Herdís has just celebrated the release of her third feature-length soundtrack, this time for director M. Night Shyamalan’s newest horror offering “Knock at the Cabin.” 

“It was absurd, but mostly exciting as I’m a long-time M. Night fan,” Herdís tells me. The opportunity to work with one of her favourite directors came as a surprise. “I just got a call from my manager. M. Night had heard my music and when we met on a Zoom call, he hired me on the spot. He was very nice and humble,” Herdís says. 

Biblical composition

 “Almost every project is different,” Herdís says of her creative process. “When beginning a new project, I‘m very dramatic and think that I can‘t write any more music. My work resonated with M. Night and the process started nicely. He gave me free rein.”

The production process introduced Herdís to some challenges presented by the continuous editing of the film, prompting her to return to the studio multiple times. “It was also a small team for a film of this calibre. Usually, it‘s a team of three to five individuals, but for this film, it was only me and my friend Úlfur Hansson.”

“I thought it’s possible. You know, why not?”

“It was an incredible experience. After it, I‘m like ‘OK, I‘m not afraid of anything.’” 

For this piece, Herdís drew inspiration from some childhood favourites, including Hitchcock and other 1960s horror classics. “My process is focused on diving deep into the story. Exploring the characters, the subplot and the backstory.”

“For Knock, I was reading the Book of Revelations, because the framework of the film is biblical. But you need to tell it without spoiling anything, or saying something completely obvious. Then I visualize all the details, and layer by layer I build something that‘s referencing older horror films while creating something completely new that‘s in line with the aesthetics, acting, backdrop, and everything.” 

“Can you start Monday?”

Herdís began her career studying composition at the Icelandic University of the Arts, where she ended up collaborating with a number of different artists. “I have always been fascinated by storytelling in music, so I chose a master’s program that emphasised film scoring.” 

From Reykjavík, Herdís moved on to New York University, where she met the late film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who received an Oscar nomination for the film Theory of Everything around that time. “They were hosting a screening of the film where Jóhann had a Q&A. My teacher approached me, encouraging me to introduce myself. You know, because we‘re both from Iceland.”  

After deciding against continuing her studies, Herdís began exploring other opportunities. 

“I remember contacting Jóhann when I was interested in moving to Berlin, seeing if he needed any help with his work.“ Jóhann refused the offer initially but left the communication open. “A few months later, I was on my way to Berlin when I decided to contact him again. ‘Hi, would you like to meet up for coffee?’ Jóhann replied. ‘No. Can you start Monday?’” At Jóhann’s Berlin studio, Herdís was introduced to film composers Hildur Guðnadóttir and Dustin O’Halloran. 

“What’s most liberating is that I genuinely don’t care what other people think.”

Witnessing the success of Icelandic film composers in Hollywood in recent years, I asked Herdís for her thoughts on the trend. “Everybody knows each other and is friendly. It‘s inspiring when someone you know is doing well. When I saw Jóhann‘s name in a credit roll for the first time I thought, ‘It‘s possible. You know, why not?’”

A long-needed break

 After working for four years as a film composer, Herdís is taking a much-needed break. 

 “I decided last year that I won‘t be committing to anything in 2023. I was just declining the biggest project I‘ve been offered. That was a ridicilous feeling. Now I‘m just reading books and going for walks. It‘s like being retired or something. I like not working.”

That break from film composition doesn’t extend to her solo project Kónguló. “I‘ve arrived at a place in my artistry where I‘m more confident in my work. What‘s most liberating is that I genuinely don‘t care what other people think. I‘m just exploring interesting dimensions that I find exciting both as a producer and songwriter. With my film career, I don’t have to depend on this being successful. I’m just doing exactly what I want.” 

Knock at the Cabin is now in cinemas. Find Herdís’ original soundtrack on your preferred streaming services. 

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