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‘Loki’ Composer Natalie Holt Talks Tom Hiddleston’s Musical Advice and Why She Can’t Revisit Her ‘Batgirl’ Score

What separates Loki from the rest of Marvel’s Disney+ series is its bold and inspired choices across every department, and chief among them is Natalie Holt’s genre-bending score.

The British composer brought the otherworldly sound of the theremin back to the fore, calling to mind the sci-fi and genre films of the ‘50s. She also created instant emotion through the nyckelharpa, a Nordic instrument that has both fiddle and harp qualities. The result of Holt’s efforts has led to one of Marvel’s most memorable scores, if not the most, as well as two Emmy nominations and two high-profile jobs as the composer of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Batgirl.

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On Loki season two, Holt has doubled down on experimentation alongside her thereminist, Charlie Draper. She even cameoed as one of the band members who performed in the 1890s beer hall that director Kasra Farahani’s “1893” recreated. In between setups, Holt was approached by none other than the God of Mischief actor himself, Tom Hiddleston, much to the surprise of the neighboring extras. In a rare move for a lead actor, Hiddleston wanted to share his thoughts on Loki’s headspace throughout season two, in the event that it provided Holt with some added inspiration for her musical cues.

“He didn’t do it in a pushy way. He was like, ‘Only if it’s helpful,’” Holt tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So he was very polite about it, and I was really delighted to have his insight. And it was quite funny because I think people just thought I was an extra, but when Tom came on set and he walked over to me, all the extras [did a double take]. So I was hidden until that moment.”

In August of 2022, Holt, along with the rest of the industry, was blindsided when the new regime at Warners decided to scrap the $90 million Batgirl for a tax break in the neighborhood of $15 million. At the time of Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s film was already in post-production, and Holt had spent a year working on her score that included Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).

In semi-comparable situations, composers have repurposed their unused scores for other projects, but at this moment in time, Holt can’t even bring herself to listen to her Batgirl score, let alone consider applying it elsewhere.

“I just haven’t listened back to it. So many things happened last year, and I needed a bit of time. I had some time this summer to reflect on where I want to go and also process the experiences I’ve been through creatively,” Holt says. “I’ve just put it away and it feels sad. I was really fond of that project. So it’s just sad, and I also really wanted to do a film. I haven’t really had a big film to work on yet, so hopefully that day will come soon.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Holt also details her writing process, before explaining how valuable it was to receive support from the likes of John Williams.

So as amazing an experience as Obi-Wan Kenobi probably was, there must be an obscene amount of pressure when you’re playing in the sandbox that belongs to the greatest film composer of all time, John Williams. Thus, were you glad to get back to Loki since its musical parameters were defined by you?

Well, I had never done a season two of anything I’ve ever worked on, so returning to something that was just so creatively fulfilling and then being able to expand on it with a lot of the same team was just a unique experience. I was told by the producer, “You’ve been nominated for two Emmys with this score,” so a level of confidence in what you can bring is already there because of that. So, yeah, it felt very comfortable and exciting and just very fulfilling.

As far as I can tell, you and First Man composer Justin Hurwitz have brought the theremin back to the mainstream. Will you allow yourself to take credit for that? 

I would just give the full credit to Charlie Draper, who is my amazing friend and the theremin player on the show. He’s such a wonderful, expressive and brilliant player. I think the credit goes to him.

Did the two of you expand your use of it in season two?

Yeah, Charlie brought in a couple of new instruments in the lapsed period between seasons, and he also was using a gong speaker. It’s an old 1930s design, which he’d had custom built, and it resonates off the theremin and creates all these mad, metallic effects. You wouldn’t really attribute them to a theremin, so there are quite a lot of unusual sounds that came from Charlie just messing around. (Laughs.)

I spoke to Hildur Gudnadóttir recently, and I tried to get a feel for her process while scoring Haunting in Venice. So I asked her if she started by noodling on a cello, and she basically responded that she picked up a pencil instead and just started writing music. So in your case, where did you begin when you had to score something like the cliffhanger sequence in Loki 204? 

I have to say that I am with Hildur, because I’m a classically trained musician. I don’t come from a computer or a really technical background. I come from playing, and so I write things down and sketch things out on the piano. That’s the basis for everything from me. I’ll note down, “I want this on the horns and this on a choir,” but I’ll put it all in on the piano so I know the structure. I just feel like if I program or try to make it sound like an orchestra, I’ll get lost in the computer. I like to know what the actual music is, what the root is, so playing things on a piano and writing things down is my process as well.

You appeared in 203, as you were a part of the band that played in the 1893 beer hall. Did the corset make you question whether you would’ve lasted as a performing musician in the 1890s?

It was so uncomfortable, honestly. It was so tight, and yeah, I’m not sure I would’ve lasted. I think I enjoy my food too much. (Laughs.) When you have a lunch break and you’re wearing a corset, you can’t really eat anything. It’s probably good if you need to go on a diet, I suppose.

But being on set was so fantastic because there were pamphlets on the tables in the Bavarian beer hall, showing the structure and where things were. And I just thought, “No one’s going to see this,” but that’s the level of detail in the production design and the costumes. Everything I was wearing had been made or flown over from Germany, and it’s just an incredible level of detail.

And then getting to hang out with Tom [Hiddleston] on set was really fun as well. He was coming to the end of filming when that was happening. It was sort of at the end of the shoot, and we just chatted for a while about how he’d found season two. And he just said, “I’ve discovered all these things about what Loki is feeling and I’d love to share it with you to help you with the score.” And then he emailed me a couple of times as well, with things he thought I might find useful. He also gave me a book of poetry that he’d been reading to get into character, so it was really nice to cross paths with Tom in that creative way as well.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Marvel Studios' LOKI.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Marvel Studios’ Loki.

For a lead actor to take an interest in the score and supply some form of inspiration, that has to be a pretty rare occurrence. 

He didn’t do it in a pushy way. He was like, “Only if it’s helpful.” So he was very polite about it, and I was really delighted to have his insight. And it was quite funny because I think people just thought I was an extra, but when Tom came on set and he walked over to me, all the extras [did a double take]. (Laughs.) So I was hidden until that moment.

Towards the end of 201, Loki is walking down a TVA corridor as a phone is ringing, and your cue included this Jóhann Jóhannsson-esque glissando. Were you consciously taking a page out of his Sicario playbook?

Maybe. I don’t know. I’m a string player, and I always love those rumbling, internal, sound effects-y use of the strings that make you feel a bit seasick. So I was doing some string effects there, and yeah, maybe that was there, but not deliberately.

Besides the theremin, I think the key to your score is the nyckelharpa that’s usually tied to Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). It’s instant emotion. What’s your strategy for deploying that instrument in most cases?

Well, I went to a concert a year before I got the job, and a friend of mine was in the Lodestar Trio. Erik Rydvall and Olav Mjelva are nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle players. So I heard them play, and I knew they were both Swedish and Norwegian and that these were traditional Norwegian instruments. And so it was just in the back of my mind. I thought, “Oh, that sound would work really well when Loki is watching his mother being killed in that flashback sequence in [season one] episode one.” And then I was like, “Oh, this is his heritage and his familial roots,” and Sylvie is a variant of himself. She came from the same place and had a lot of anger and emotion, so the instrument really sat well with her, as well.

Sophia Di Martino as Sylvie in Marvel Studios LOKI.
Sophia Di Martino as Sylvie in Marvel Studios’ Loki.

I had a very brief stint in the music industry, and through a dozen recording sessions in proper studios, I would often struggle to see the forest for the trees after playing a part and hearing playback over and over again. 

What do you play?

Guitar. So do you ever get too close to your music that you can no longer evaluate it properly? If so, do you recruit a second set of ears, or do you come back to it a day later with fresh ears?

I’m doing a podcast at the moment, interviewing other composers, and it was really interesting talking to people that work collaboratively, like Son Lux. So I think I’m more that, because I have a team that I work with. I’ve got my music editor and my musicians that I’m regularly using, and my assistant Andreas [Gutuen Aaser]. I’d have two music editors on Loki, and they’d all be at the weekly meetings that we would have from the get-go. So they knew the score so well, and they knew the notes that we were getting. And if I was ever unsure about something, I felt like I had a few people who knew the score really intimately and I could talk to them about it.

I think being a Beethoven sort of maestro on your own would be a very lonely place, and I would get lost without that level of collaboration. As the composer, you are head of a department, so that level of interrogation of whether your cue works needs to be done before sending it out. Unless I’m 100 percent sure that a cue is right for the scene, I won’t send it. I need to believe in it. I’m not going to send something over to discover with the director. I won’t say, “I’m not sure about this, but I’m going to play it to you anyway.” I need to be sure. So my process is to only ever send something over to the rest of the team if I’m a hundred percent on it, and that seems to work for me.

You were a part of the very unfortunate Batgirl situation last year. In relatively similar situations, composers have repurposed their unused score for something else, so is that something you plan to do as well?

Do you know what? I just haven’t listened back to it. So many things happened last year, and I needed a bit of time. I had some time this summer to reflect on where I want to go and also process the experiences I’ve been through creatively, but I haven’t really listened back to it yet. So ask me next year, maybe. (Laughs.) I’ve just put it away and it feels sad. I was really fond of that project, and I’d been working on it for a year with [directors] Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. I also got to meet Danny Elfman, who gave me approval to work with his theme from Batman (1989). So it’s just sad, and I also really wanted to do a film. I haven’t really had a big film to work on yet, so hopefully that day will come soon.

Are you glad you had your experience with John Williams’ themes before tackling Elfman’s?

Yeah, definitely. You’re learning from these titans in the industry, and it feels like a mentor system. If you’re learning the craft of stonework, or if you’re an artist, you train with people at the top of the profession, and so I think it’s really important that composers pass information down. There’s this whole thing about supporting people in the industry and having assistants and giving them a platform to become composers themselves, and I think it’s a really important tradition. I worked for [composer] Martin Phipps for a couple of years as an assistant, and just seeing how he handled political situations and big teams of people was invaluable for me. So I love talking to other composers and seeing how other people work and picking up ideas for my own process.

***
Loki is currently streaming on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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