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‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Music Supervisor on the Show’s ‘Jarring’ Soundtrack

Maggie Phillips expounds on the use of Bruce Springsteen's 'Hungry Heart' and director Bruce Miller's vision.

As provocative and controversial as Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is, so are the music cues that soundtrack the dystopian drama, music supervisor Maggie Phillips has learned. She came aboard in season two, but the songs from season one were still ringing in many fans’ ears — and not necessarily in a good way. Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” a mashup of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” with a work by Phillip Glass — whether obvious, startling or creepy, the songs elicit a visceral reaction that has followed the show through every morbid chapter.

Phillips, a native of Austin, Texas, has spent 12 years working in music supervision with credits that include “Fargo,” “Moonlight” and all of the Duplass brothers’ films (next up: Amazon’s “Homecoming” starring Julia Roberts). If there’s one thing she’s learned, it’s balance — whether that be capping the number of simultaneous projects, adjusting to budgets for work and for life, and executing the sonic vision of a show’s director while injecting her own accents into the soundtrack, as she explains to Variety.

Growing up in Austin in the 1990s, were you exposed to the works of local directors like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez?
When “Dazed and Confused” was shooting, I was in high school and a lot of my friends were extras, which was a big deal. Even today, we can watch it and point out old friends. Robert Rodriguez shot a horror film when I was in college and my friend was making signs for it. But I was geeking out about music, that was always my love.

With so many players in the small-screen space, including relative newcomers like Amazon and YouTube, all needing songs for their shows, have we entered the golden age of music supervision?
We’re living in the golden age of TV, and because of that, music supervisors have to step up. There are  more excellent programs and more seasons and more opportunities do something different and original. And that gets harder to do every year.

With streamers often dropping an entire season at once, does that change the speed at which you have to work?
I’ve primarily been working in specialty cable and only started with streaming services the past couple of years, but the post schedule is not absurd. They give people the time they need to get the work they need to get out of them. With “Handmaid’s,” we’re 60% done before we start airing.

Do you feel music supervisors are paid fairly for the amount of work they do?
It’s off by a lot and really not fair pay. If people broke it down to an hourly pay, it would be below minimum wage.  I quit right before I got season two [of “Handmaid’s] and moved back to Austin. I was, like, “F— this; I can’t do this living like a pauper thing anymore.” As music supervisors, we’re not exclusive [so] we have to work on a ton of stuff at the same time to make enough money to live on.

When do you start the synch process?
I start at the script. During pre-shooting, we’ll pre-clear a song or publishing for something that’s going to be performed on camera. Like Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be With You” in episode eight [of “Handmaid’s”], which Janine (Madeline Brewer) is singing to her baby. That was actually supposed to be “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, but I asked [director] Bruce Miller if we could open it up. Dusty was my favorite and I’m really happy Bruce chose that.

One major cue in season two is Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” which is heard on a Radio Free America-like station in its studio recording form, and then reprises at the end of the episode with a live version. What was the thinking behind that? And is Bruce a big Bruce fan?
I guess so because that was all Bruce! He wanted an American icon for the song in the car. Oprah Winfrey’s voice as the DJ sets it up and between the two, you couldn’t get more American or iconic. And he chose the live version at the end to kind of open it up to the people. He really wanted the audience to feel hopeful at the end of that episode. By having people singing along, he hoped that would bring in the crowd and make them feel involved in what June (Elisabeth Moss) was feeling in her past.

Springsteen is an expensive synch, did you at least get a break on the publishing?
The publishing is the same and we cleared it, but we had to pay for two uses and clear two different master recordings.

What do you make of the criticism of some of the show’s musical choices?
Those ironic choices that are jarring and pull you out of the moment, they are Bruce’s intention. He wants you to be jarred and have to be pulled back to reality. Remember, we are only a few years in the future on “Handmaid’s Tale.” The past is not a distant past. Gilead starts in 2012. It’s not that long ago. It’s scary.

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