Y: The Last Man Interview – Herdís Stefánsdóttir on Composing the Score

Y: The Last Man Credit: Rafy Winterfeld/FX (left) – Herdís Stefánsdóttir (right)

Y: The Last Man is a comic book series that follows Yorick and his pet Capuchin monkey Ampersand, the surviving males in a pandemic that kills off everyone with the Y chromosome. FX has adapted the comic book to television, and it’s now streaming on Hulu. Composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir (HBO’s We’re Here, The Sun Is Also a Star) was brought on board to score the live-action series, and Nerd Reactor had the chance to chat with her on her latest project.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since then she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films. She was nominated for The Icelandic Music Awards for her score in The Sun Is Also A Star. Herdís interned for the Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson in Berlin while he was working on the film Arrival (2016).

Nerd Reactor: With Y: The Last Man, would you say it is different from your previous projects?

Herdís Stefánsdóttir: Yeah, absolutely. I guess I’m kind of new in the whole film scoring thing. I think I did my first movie three years ago. And before getting on this job, I had nothing. No sci-fi, nothing in the apocalypse world. I have never done anything like this before.

What would you say is a challenge? And was it something that you always wanted to do?

No, it’s totally me. I am apocalyptic and dark. So I was just finally hired on something that I was always supposed to be doing.

Y: The Last Man – Pictured: Ben Schnetzer as Yorick Brown. CR: Brendon Meadows/FX

The theme for the opening has a very Western influence. So I’m not sure if you had any ideas on that with Western films, shows, etc?

One of the reasons why I initially got even interested in film scoring was when I was watching films with Morricone’s scores: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Cinema Paradiso. So that was my first introduction to that whole sound. Ennio Morricone just created what we know and recognize as this kind of cinematic Western music today.

Being an Icelandic woman, I’m not that much in touch with neither Western or American folk music. I would say that’s my only kind of knowledge of that. And, of course, some kind of Americana music and that kind of stuff. I guess probably in my subconscious, I was inspired somehow by references to that kind of music, but I just wanted to do my own kind of strange take on that, that would hopefully sound like something different.

With the show having a very strong focus on women surviving and those without the X chromosomes surviving, what was that like? Was that a part of the process that helps you in composing?

Yeah, it was like the first idea when I was just thinking, “What was the sound of the world and diving into a big project like that.” You have to start somewhere small. What does it sound like? What am I hearing? When the comics were written in the early 2000s, the women survive, and the men die. But as we know the world today, 20 years later, genders and how we talk about that have changed. So of course, it’s not only women that survived, but still being the majority of the survivors being females. And I kind of imagined the female voice as the centerpiece of the music.

Y: The Last Man – Pictured: Ashley Romans as Agent 355. CR: Brendon Meadows/FX

There are different arcs, different characters that the show follows. Was that a challenge on the different parts?

I started with Agent 355. When I read the script, I found her to be the most complex character to answer because it takes a while to get to know her. I felt like she was an onion that I needed to peel, like one layer at a time to understand who she was. So she was actually one of the first themes that I developed. Yorick came a bit later, and the same with Jennifer Brown. But I think both of those themes like Yorick’s theme kind of became the love theme of the show. So instead of writing a theme that is just Yorick, I wrote a theme about how I felt Yorick saw the world, and what was his main drive in the story, his desire for love and for Beth, who rejects him at the beginning of the story. So in some beautiful way, I felt his naive manner – that a simple love theme would be a nice melody to follow Yorick. And with Jennifer Brown, I like the theme that was inspired by her was in the first episode when she has the conversation with her husband. It was also kind of built on the rejection that she’s feeling and her husband, and that became her theme.

How do you start with the composing process? Do you start with a blank slate? Or do you need some kind of inspiration in the background to get the process started?

I guess I’m kind of like an instinctual, primal-thinking composer. I’m not very strategic. And I don’t really plan what I’m doing. So I don’t decide before, like, “Okay, I’m going to write this theme, or I’m going to write that theme.” I didn’t write to the picture. I start writing something that is inspired by the story. And sometimes later, I understand what it’s supposed to be. I actually wrote most of the music or almost all of the music not to picture and before seeing the last eight episodes. So I hadn’t seen it. I did it to the story and to the script, which was very unusual for me. Because before this, I had mostly written to picture.

Y: The Last Man – Pictured: Diane Lane as Jennifer Brown. CR: Brendon Meadows/FX

And what was that like? Does it feel more freeing? Because when you’re trying to write to the picture, you’re kind of constrained with how things are like, “Okay, this scene happens here.” So you got to squeeze certain sections and all that.

Exactly. It’s way freer. And I felt like I was writing music and also longer and bigger arcs with more musical development. So instead of being bound to a scene that has certain frames, moving at a certain pace, and may be limited to 45 seconds or a minute, I was maybe writing four or five minutes long pieces of music. So I felt like I could really develop and dive into each theme and even tell a whole story within one theme. For me, it was a really cool way to work, and I’m definitely going to have a hard time going back to the picture after this.

What was working with Showrunner Eliza Clark like?

Yeah, it was really cool working with Eli, because she did something that I think can be really good. And a collaboration between somebody directing and composing is that she didn’t ask me to do anything specific. She was completely open when I started. And then I just started sending over music, and we reviewed it, and she never told me what to do or how it should be. It was a very free way of working. That was a really, really amazing collaboration.

Would you say that is your preference?

Hard question because each project is so different and the kind of relationship you have with each director is different. I guess it depends on how much the director or the filmmaker knows what he or she wants with storytelling and music. But I think it is important to have trust and have some kind of freedom. It can get difficult when somebody is micromanaging the music. Let’s just say that when somebody has an opinion on every five seconds of how it moves, or what sounds or notes you’re making, it can definitely be challenging.

I don’t know if there are any genres you want to tackle?

I think for me what is most important is if I’m intrigued and interested in the story that I’m helping to tell with the music. And if it’s artistically both interesting and challenging at the same time, it’s something for me, but I don’t think I’m a composer that could do anything. Unfortunately.

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