Some of music supervision’s leading lights visited Variety recently to talk shop. Participants included Guild of Music Supervisors president Maureen Crowe (“Chicago,” “The Bodyguard”); Anton Monsted, senior VP of Fox Music, who helped craft Baz Luhrmann’s more Byzantine soundtracks (“The Great Gatsby,” “Moulin Rouge”); TV top gun Thomas Golubic (“Breaking Bad,” “Walking Dead”), Tracy McKnight (“Draft Day,” “The Messenger”), who was Head of Film Music at Lionsgate for three years, when it was cornering the market on young adult fiction; and Frankie Pine, who alternates between features (“Magic Mike,” “Kinsey”) and television (“The Newsroom,” “Nashville”). This is an edited version of the conversation.
This is a very young guild, less than five years old. How much has music supervision evolved from the days of “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider”? Were there even music supervisors back then or do you consider yourselves the first generation of specialists in this realm?
Crowe: It’s been going on since the ’60s and in very different forms. You could say right now we are in the golden age of television, and the golden age of music supervision in television. Smart writers and producers understand that to really bring their characters forward is to have music that relates to their characters and their stories and have songs that resonate past the viewing. As music has driven technologies like iTunes, it’s also driving the story in many cases.
Anton, I think your work on “The Great Gatsby” is a good example of how far this craft has evolved. You used found music, reinterpreted existing music, original songs by guest artists, and composer Craig Armstrong used one of the themes as a refrain throughout. Are we going towards that kind of mashup more and more in movies or is that a particularly Baz Luhrmann kind of thing?
Monsted: I’m not sure if it’s only a Baz Luhrmann thing. In the case of “The Great Gatsby” we were trying to answer a question, which is how did the music feel to the people who were living that story? We know how the Charleston sounded historically. What we were trying to get to was how did it feel historically. We were given great resources and a great license to build up the music in layers, so that we had an authentic jazz layer, and then we had a hip-hop layer, and then we had a sort of dance-music layer, and then we had a score layer and that gave us an incredible opportunity once we got to the final dub. I think all of Baz’s films have pushed the envelope musically. It’s also a very expensive way to work. It doesn’t make sense on a budget level to set out and make the music that way.
You talked about hip-hop, which was an anachronistic use of music in “Gatsby.” I know as music supervisors a lot of you face this idea that you have to be sticklers for accuracy and reflect the period of the story, but with Luhrmann that didn’t seem to matter.
Golubic: Each project opens new doors. What’s nice with what Baz and Anton have done for all of us is kind of like saying, “The avenues you thought were closed to you are actually open.” There is a way to navigate through them in a way that’s successful, that speaks to the story, that engages the audience in a new way.
I think about Hal Ashby’s films and then choosing specifically to have Cat Stevens be the voice of “Harold and Maude,” or (Mike Nichols’) “The Graduate” where Simon and Garfunkel became the voice of that film. That was a new idea because in the past it was always score, it was much more traditional. We’re just waiting for a filmmaker to say, “All bets are off, let’s talk about crazy ideas.”
Crowe: You look at “Boardwalk Empire,” which opens up with a rock score, and when we were working on “Houdini” we found the same thing. We found actually telling the story by having a rock score engaged the audience more because it really encapsulated how people felt in that time period so people now can relate to it. So it doesn’t seem like an old post card. It’s like “OK, I kind of get it, he was really a rock star.”
So using music to attract younger viewers is not a compromise?
McKnight: I do think if you’re making a movie and maybe it’s a young viewer you have to keep your audience in mind and how you are going to navigate the journey of this picture. All of us want to find something that no one has ever done before, (something) fresh and original and exciting. When you do it it’s magic.
I was watching “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” the other night and I was really struck by the Coldplay song, “Atlas,” that began the end credits. I was thinking, “Man, this is the best Coldplay song I’ve heard since like the first two albums!” How did you get that level of work from Chris Martin and company? Is that a lucky strike or do you plan for that?
McKnight: When you’re working on a picture like “The Hunger Games” franchise, there’s a lot of people in the mix. The ultimate thing is to be true to the fans and to tell the story. And in that particular case, I’d reached out to Capitol and said we’re looking for potential artists and might Coldplay be interested. My contact at Capitol put me in touch with the manager and the manager then came back and said Chris is a fan of the books. How wonderful is that? I hope everyone at this table gets to feel those moments.
That end-credits song for not only movies but for TV series, as everyone here knows, leaves the viewer with something to go home to or reflect on in the aftermath of that viewing experience.
Golubic: Striking the right chord is an important aspect of it. We also have to be careful because things have gotten so sophisticated that so many shows now will have that ending song and it can become very trite as well.
If you have a filmmaker, director or producer of a TV show who is intent on using a piece of music where you think it really doesn’t work or is just hammering the viewer over the head, how do you push back against that?
Pine: I actually had the opposite experience on “Magic Mike.” I (said to director Steven Soderbergh) “Are you absolutely positive you don’t want to hire a composer?,” because I felt like there was such an emotional connection between this guy’s struggle of what he was going to do with his life and I thought a score could have helped move that story along. And Steven had said we aren’t going to use a composer, we are going use 29 songs. And those 29 songs took us on this romp of a journey that had the emotional element there.
McKnight: Another way of pushing back but not really pushing back is to lead by example, which is show them something else. When you have something in your mind as a filmmaker and you’re on that path and you’re kind of locked in for whatever reason. And there’s all kinds of reasons why a piece of music doesn’t work: creatively, financially (or) the song’s been used too many times before. But when you come up with the other ideas, that’s where you get to be creative. Sometimes the thing that’s unexpected is the thing that works the best.
Golubic: The key part is that the conversation begins with very specific ideas, but that will shift over the course of time. Part of our job is to be able to look at an idea we don’t understand and try to further explore it until we understand where the instinct behind it comes from, and then try to throw other ideas out that might also address that idea.
Crowe: It’s like (the use of Badfinger’s) “Baby Blue” at the end of “Breaking Bad”; it just seemed to bring out everything, all together into one moment where you could flash back to the entire episode and it all made sense.
Pine: That’s why people buy soundtrack albums, to relive the experience.
Golubic: With songs, there’s a cognitive dissonance (between) the nature of a song, being an existing thing, (and the) story — this friction that happens naturally. Sometimes score will do that as well. If you can know how much friction is coming off of that relationship you can calibrate it properly.
Talking about that friction, is that why you’re tapping more and more artists to create original music versus using found music, which many people associate with music supervisors?
McKnight: I think creating new experiences and new music is really exciting and also gives the audience something to sink their teeth into, if it works. What’s interesting is when you do bring an artist in to write, they are engaged in the process. They are either watching the movie or they are watching their scene and they’re dialoguing with the director, which is out of their everyday world.
Crowe: The power of existing music can’t be minimalized either. Especially in comedy, you’re reinterpreting something.
I read recently that Season Kent, the music supervisor on “The Fault in Our Stars,” would try maybe 50 different songs for a particular scene. Is that pretty common?
Golubic: Every project is different. “Breaking Bad” was incredibly challenging because I think the general philosophy that (showrunner) Vince Gilligan had was that there is a right answer and we just have to find it. And even if it was a background music cue in a restaurant, we would go through wave after wave of ideas until we felt like it was just the right type of invisible.
Crowe: But it’s still relating a message. So it’s not invisible because it’s not necessary; it’s very necessary. It can be the heartbeat of something.
Golubic: Like an overworked liver, we are basically filtering so much stuff. When it comes to what we are actually going to present, there have to be so many hours of thoughtful review. I might think all five or 10 of those ideas were great ones, but the fact of the matter is one of them was the one that we tapped into together — some unconscious that was the truth of that scene and you don’t quite know what it is until the last minute.
Monsted: I think audiences are smart; I think (they) absolutely know when something has been applied like wallpaper in a way that’s not thoughtful and not helping the story. And that’s reflected in the inverse when the job’s done skillfully and with feeling. Audiences do respond and they go, “I don’t know why I loved that movie so much, but I love it, and I’ll have to buy the soundtrack.”
McKnight: I think we weigh on label partners as well. I think it’s important that there’s all these different people who come together when an audience goes to have the experience. And Frankie, when an artist writes for “Nashville,” you know that after that episode airs, someone’s going to be able to go to iTunes and buy it.
Pine: On “Nashville” there are no artists, per se, because our artists are our actors. So Big Machine, which is our label partner on that, basically just kind of sit and wait and go, “OK, what songs are you going to record?” We’re lucky in that regard in not having to worry too much about (country duo) Florida Georgia Line getting into the show.
Let’s talk about how certain songs are kind of forced into movies. I think something like “The Big Chill” doesn’t date well because those songs act too much as a device to advance the story. But I know that opinion is sacrilege amongst supervisors.
Monsted: Not at all. I sometimes wonder if we’re all living in the very long shadow of “The Big Chill” because in a way that film marks a turning point in the way music was used, and used very effectively. I haven’t seen the movie in years. But I do think the downside is that if you were to do what the “The Big Chill” did today, I think you would fall into some of the pitfalls of using music in a purely nostalgic way, and relying on that nostalgia to trigger a response in the audience that may not play in the same audience context that “The Big Chill” played in then.
Golubic: That time period, too, was very specific. I go back to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and how exciting the use of music was in that film. Most people who watch films had never seen music used quite that way. And it was of the genius of Kubrick saying, “I know the score is supposed to be here (but) I don’t want to use the score, I want to use these.” And that decision ultimately opens up a door in the same way “The Big Chill” was a big statement. It was kind of like saying, “We are going to tell a story that is going to speak to a generation and we’re going to use the music of that generation in a powerful way.” Every time you make a big statement it will, with time, seem a little outdated simply because it is such a strong part of the personality. If you look at Quentin Tarantino films, they’re so exciting because they’re such strong statements. They may not age as well as we think simply because they are such strong statements. Not because the work’s not great, but because it’s taking such risks.
Let me get political for a second here: Are there signs from either the TV or motion picture Academy that you’re getting closer to recognition for your efforts?
Crowe: I think the Television Academy is seriously looking at it. Change takes time, but at least we’re engaged in conversation. We haven’t formally approached the Motion Picture Academy (but) it’s obviously something we’re going to do. All our paychecks get paid by the motion picture and the television people, so we’d just like to be at the table, so to speak.
Have you ever had a situation where having a more limited budget than you’re used to actually works in your favor?
Golubic: It’s a mixed blessing because on one level I think there’s a breaking point, when there is such an inadequate budget that it begins to strain everyone.
On “Breaking Bad” we had, what I think is fair to say, a completely inadequate music budget for the show. And it was a strain from the first episode all the way through the fourth season. A lot of times we had to convince people to do things that were uncomfortable in a short amount of time. So to me it can be very unforgivable on the part of the studios.
But on the flip side, it does make you more resourceful. And sometimes where you might be peppering more music into a show than you need to, now you can be more spare and let the storytelling craft do its thing, simply out of necessity.
McKnight: I started in independent film in New York, and we’ve always had limited budgets and they’ve always been challenged. Your director wants to tell a story and they need this song. So my mantra was always “maybe it’s a no now, but maybe I can make it a yes.” I can name hundreds of directors who will sit there and write a letter (to the artist). I feel like when you connect with people for the right reasons, they will come. And when you don’t have money, you gotta go somewhere else, and that is our job.
Now, generally, what percentage of the production budget is devoted to music?
Pine: Well they typically say, like, 10% of the overall budget should be designated towards music.
Pine: Should be — but it’s definitely not.
Crowe: It’s whatever’s left over.
Because I’ve heard as low as 1% to 2%.
Crowe: Which is terrible. And when you have a successful film where you have big stars in it and you’re sitting there going, “Oh, I only have a hundred thousand dollars for a hundred million-dollar film,” (we’re) like, “Really? Come on!”
Pine: There’s a lot of ways to get the things you need. “Magic Mike” was a very low-budget indie film before it became the blockbuster that it was. And we had done step deals for every single song.
What is a step deal?
Pine: Where you basically say, “I’ll pay you this much now, then as the film does well, we will continue to pay you based on those gross receipts.” It was the first time as a music supervisor I was able to pay every single song after the first weekend.
I’m wondering about the classic movie theme song, and whether that’s sort of an extinct concept, a la “Born Free” or “Windmills of Your Mind” in “Thomas Crown Affair.”
Crowe: Adele in Bond!
Bond would be the exception, though, don’t you think?
Golubic: It’s a wave. I think to some degree right now score is very minimal. So a lot of the more contemporary scores are non-melodic, they’re much more textural, more invisible. There’s less use of score, which, of course, terrifies a lot of the composers.
Crowe: What happened to melody?
Golubic: Yeah, or like “The Social Network” that got two guys to do three tones. But the truth of it is there’s something very important about how that score came together, and how much that score spoke to this time period and this very contemporary story. And there’s a certain point when there will be a backlash and we’ll move into another area. So in a strange way I think we’re looking forward to the Bernard Herrmann aesthetic coming back.
Pine: We’re going to bring it back.