SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Soundtrack,” streaming now on Netflix.
Veteran television writer and producer Joshua Safran says music is actually his “No. 1 passion.” Having grown up playing music well before he studied film and television, Safran has had a longtime love of musicals. He was able to combine the mediums in 2013 when he joined then-NBC musical drama “Smash” as showrunner, but now has taken it to another level by creating “Soundtrack” for Netflix.
“‘Smash’ taught me a lot. It taught me how to shoot a musical sequence. That show was the top of the line creative team. One thing I did not know when I started was how to ensure that you are always telling a story through song that was not already being told through the script,” Safran tells Variety.
Safran notes that when he came into “Smash,” the show already had cemented its rules regarding how cover songs could be treated versus the original numbers from the shows-within-the-show. On that show, cover songs couldn’t be done as fantasy sequences because fantasy was reserved for “expanding what we were seeing on the stage.” Coming out of that experience, Safran realized just how much he wanted “to do a musical where the numbers truly lived in fantasy — where they were more like music videos, where they were larger in scope.” He also wanted to “make sure that none of the episodes could exist without the songs, meaning if you removed the songs, you’d feel like you’d missed part of the story.”
Safran also knew that unlike in “Smash,” his new show should not feature covers, but instead characters who lip-synch along to the original tracks, as they hear the music that narrates their thoughts, feelings and experiences in their minds.
Hence, “Soundtrack” was born.
“Soundtrack,” formerly known as “Mixtape” and shot as a traditional broadcast pilot for Fox, was later picked up by Netflix for a 10-episode binge-style season. The ensemble series is set in two timelines, following Sam (Paul James) as he meets and falls in love with Nellie (Callie Hernandez) in the past, and as he makes a connection with the social worker assigned to his case (Jenna Dewan) as he raises his young son in the present.
“I thought about the show being the Side A of love and the Side B of love, and you can’t have one without the other, and that came up with this idea of two different timelines and that we were watching Sam’s two love stories at once — the start and end of one, and the start of another,” Safran says.
Safran admits that since the show started out for a broadcast network, he also “knew it needed something like that” Act 5 reveal that the story the audience was watching was only one piece of the bigger picture. Rather than deliver a twist every episode, though, he used that initial surprise of the two timelines to propel the audience into episodes designed like “small ’90s indie movies that have a beginning, middle and an end.
“I really took this as an opportunity to make a structure like a novel and to keep going deeper and deeper into their psychologies and what makes them connect or not connect,” he explains.
Each episode of “Soundtrack” is titled for a pair of characters, and that episode focuses on those characters’ points of view and personal experiences in different times in their lives. While the first episode pushes Nellie and Sam to the forefront, the subsequent episodes move around the ensemble to include social worker Joanna (Dewan); Dante (Jahmil French), Sam’s recently-released from prison cousin; Margot (Madeleine Stowe), Nellie’s actress mother; and so on.
“We structured the episodes by the pairings of characters first, and then wherever that story would place itself, we placed it,” Safran says.
Built into the “spine” of the show from the start, Safran says, was the piece of the story where Sam’s parental rights are in jeopardy. Trouble starts when he moves with Barry (Isaiah Givens) back to Watts, Calif., where his family lives but where his in-laws fear for their grandson. Things escalate when Dante is late to pick Barry up at school and when he arrives Sam accuses him of being high, but they really take a turn when Barry finds a gun Dante hid in the house.
“A friend of mine is a social worker and she deals with this stuff all of the time. I spent a lot of time developing this with her, and I have other friends who are foster parents and take in foster kids who are going through troubling times. I really wanted to look at how this system works,” Safran says. “The people there are in a really tough position: They don’t know what’s going to be on the other side of the door; they don’t know what they’re walking into; they have to try to come into a situation that’s happening in the present and actually see the past while trying to connect to the future.”
Such a serious story set the tone of the show as one where “life comes at you sideways,” Safran adds. And because things such things are never simple, he also wanted to make sure to leave the ending of the story open at the end of the season. “They’re going to work it out but the case isn’t closed, and that’s what happens; we tried to stay as real as possible.” Should the show get renewed, Safran admits he’s not sure it would pick up with Sam seeing out his musical dreams on tour, as where the first season ended. There are still eight years to explore in Sam and Nellie’s past, including the birth of their son and her health struggles. Those might parallel with a different part of Sam’s future.
As important as the keeping things grounded was, so was finding the right music to always “push the story forward,” Safran says.
Initially, Safran shares he created a playlist “of songs that told stories and listened to it until two jumped out.” Those two songs informed the characters whose love story would jump start the show: Sam and Nellie. For Sam, the song was “Between Me and You” by Brandon Flowers, while for Nellie it was “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush. Then, as he was in production on the pilot episode for Fox, he made playlists of up to 200 songs for all of the other characters. Once the show was picked up, he spent the week before breaking each new episode listening to that episode’s titular characters’ playlists to find their songs, as well.
“It does that thing where you can’t take the song out because it’s so baked into the fabric,” he says of the process. For example, “Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Nobody’s Girl’ is the story of Margot. If you listen to the lyrics in a lot of these songs, it truly seems like they were written for the show. That was my intention. And Leo Sayer’s ‘I Will Not Stop Fighting’ — there are lines in [that], a song that nobody knows from the ’70s, that mirror Frank and Sam’s predicaments. There’s even a line about waiting for a change of heart, which is what Sam is doing, waiting for Frank to sign the paperwork saying that Margot [is a fit mother]. That only could have happened if the songs came first.”
Balancing the number of songs — as well as who got to perform them in each episode — became as important as balancing the different emotional stories, from Sam and Nellie’s early days in their relationship, to Sam’s guardianship of Barry being threatened by choices his cousin and aunt (Mary Jean-Baptiste) made, to Sam negotiating custody arrangements with Nellie’s parents.
“I wanted to have a musical sequence in each act. Fox’s market research had shown with other shows like ‘Glee’ when they were first developed [that] there was a sweet spot for how many musical numbers an audience could take in each episode. I really pushed to have one in each act because each act alternates perspective between two characters and then come together in the end, and I thought it would be odd if one character had more songs than the other,” Safran says.
However, as Safran pivoted from an “almost $10 million” budget for the Fox pilot to an “in the $4 [million range]” per episode at Netflix, financial concerns tweaked the number of songs he ended up with. “It was not the rights to the music; it was that shooting a song costs a lot of money, especially in this way where they’re like large action sequences or music videos.”
This caused Safran to get a bit more creative, such as crafting the story in the sixth episode (“Joanna & Eleanor”) to stand on its own with only one (animated) music sequence. It also had him relying more on his actors’ expressive performances to convey certain pieces of emotional story. “We had a song for Annette in Episode 5 [‘Dante & Annette’] where she came home from a date and looks in on her sleeping kids and it was a beautiful song, but we realized that Marianne was acting that moment, and we did not need that song, so we cut it.”
The casting was key for “Soundtrack” because of the wide range of abilities the performers needed to have. Although Safran is adamant that he always intended to have the characters lip-synch, shooting the pilot for Fox came with the caveat that if the lip-synching was not well-received they reserved the right to reshoot with covers. So he and his casting team needed to find actors who had some musical talent if need be. Making things more complicated was the fact that Safran didn’t ask his actors to lip-synch ahead of time because “if there was a tape of it being bad out there never would have had the chance to shoot it,” he says. “It was a lot of faith. I had to have faith that the actors I met with could do it, and I had no proof that they actually could.”
He continues: “The show is a big swing, a tough sell. No one’s ever done lip-synching before. No one’s ever done something grounded and real but with such a huge disparity when the fantasy happens. ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ already was a little heightened, as was ‘Glee.’ Going from one moment where you are watching somebody learn terrible news to a love song, like in Episode 3 when Dante learns De’Andra is married and then it cuts to a Miguel song, it’s unproven.”
What Safran thinks eased the process for all involved was that the choreography by James Alsop was based on “what was right for actors’ internal body work. You understand the personality of the character more because the way they move comes from them, but also it comes from within the skills they possess.”
The biggest production challenge of the first season, Safran shares, was matching Chicago for Los Angeles after the pilot was shot in many of the real locations depicted in the show but due to lack of tax credits, the series had to relocate and “had to come down in size but still seem as large as the pilot.”
But the overall biggest complication for him was adjusting to the streaming model.
“It took me many episodes to realize I didn’t really have to take [the notes]. It was a learning curve,” he says. “Also, it’s been a long process. We made the pilot almost two years ago. I’ve been living only with this show for all of that time.”