Two of the best and most intriguing films of the year have something in common: music supervisor Lucy Bright. Both “Tár” and “Aftersun” contain some of the most riveting musically based sequences in 2022 cinema, and although Bright can’t take credit for either the use of Mahler’s fifth symphony in the former or Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in the latter — those having been baked into their auteurs’ scripts — the delicacy with which she made the combinations of original score and source music work in both pictures is evidence of a sensibility that more than lives up to her surname.
With “Tár” in particular, it’s hard to imagine many other working music supervisors could have been as prepared to implement Todd Field’s vision of the classical world as she was. The 44-year-old Brit had a career in the classical record business before going to work in the film business, having worked for Warner Classics and other companies based in the symphonic world since the late ’90s, after getting her professional start as an indie-rock lover at the Mute label. But she did get to put more of her experience growing up with pop into the brilliant “Aftersun,” a film that takes place mostly in flashbacks to the 1990s, which allowed her to resurrect not-so-Mahler-esque cues as “The Macarena,” on top of overseeing a score/song mashup of “Under Pressure” that powers what might just be the most emotional ending to any film in recent memory.
Although her background is mostly in British films that got limited exposure in America, U.S. filmmakers are likely going to be trying to beat their U.K. counterparts to her door after Bright’s exceptional work on “Tár,” “Aftersun” and upcoming projects like “Dead Ringers.” (It doesn’t hurt that Bright was just awarded the very first prize for music supervision ever given out at the British Independent Film Awards, for “Aftersun.”) Variety caught up with her at her London home via Zoom.
You’ve said “Tár” feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even though obviously you hope there will be more like that. Is it the obvious factors that made it feel like a dream project for you?
The obvious ones are that it’s obviously a film about music, or music is so key to it. But more specifically for me, when I first read Todd’s script, it was almost like he’d written it for me. It was really strange how many references there were to artists, conductors and composers who I’d either worked with or had some kind of relationship with. I did PR at Warner Classics for seven years. I looked after Daniel Barenboim and George Li, and they were both specifically written about in there. And then when I was at music sales at Wise Music, the publisher, I looked after Anna Thorvaldsdottir. I adore Anna, but that’s a pretty niche reference to be making, and for her to have such a bold sort of presence in the story, I couldn’t believe it. So when I talked to Todd, that first phone call we had just went on and on, right down to sort of the details of which recordings we preferred by different conductors of the Mahler five. AI think my slightly sort of unusual but organic career path through Mute and then Warner Classics, and the specific composers I work with at Music Sales (the company where she represents several composers as well as conducts her own film endeavors), somehow all came together in this incredible story.
And that’s why they came to you in the first place? They were likely looking at people’s backgrounds and going, “Oh, here’s somebody who actually knows people in this world and knows the milieu”?
I think it is. The very first call, obviously before I spoke to Todd, I was speaking with Natalie Hayden, (senior VP of film) at the Universal Pictures music department, and before I’d read the script, she was beginning to describe it. I think she could tell that my enthusiastic reaction to sort of the nerdiness — in the best possible way — of this classical world was exactly what they were looking for. You know, it’s not that common to have that kind of deep classical background. So I was really lucky at this sort of all the right things aligning in that moment.
Reading up on you, it sounds like in your school days you had some resistance to classical music. And then something kind of switched on for you later, that you ended up so immersed in it.
It’s so true. And I was really lucky: The school — a high school equivlent, I guess — had an amazing music department and an amazing musical history, and had everything that I could have asked for, except it just didn’t turn me on. That’s not their fault. In those teenage years, I was all about indie and pop. So when I came to work at Warners, I started at a temp, and it was not my desire to be in that world. I had this boss who saw it as his challenge to help me find my way in, and he was just brilliant in looking at all of those connections of the things that I did love, finding classical music that he thought might touch me in a way that the other references wouldn’t. So for example, because I liked electronic music, it would be Steve Reich and Philip Glass and the minimalists. Or if seemed dry to me, then “we are gonna find a way in with something super dramatic or melancholic.” He would find these pieces of music, and it suddenly made sense. It no longer was this nebulous melange of music that I had previously not found that attractive.
The role of music supervisor can vary so much. With “Tár,” music choices had been written into the script, but you were brought in to be on-site during production. What was set in place when you came on, and then where did your input come in?
Natalie and her music team had obviously been with Todd on that journey already, in terms of clearing the songs and pieces of music he’d written into the script. I came on a month or so before the shoot, and it was really about having someone on-set. The whole premise was having the orchestra those players as characters in the film. And the last thing we all wanted was to have that thing that can happen, for lots of understandable reasons, of the audience not feeling completely enveloped by the sound of the orchestra. We wanted to make sure that the audience had the same experience as a conductor has. And Cate’s talked about the first moment that she stood up and conducted the orchestra, and that sound that comes back. It was so important for us that it didn’t sound like it was mimed or somehow separate from the performance.
So there would be obviously the usual film sound team, but we brought in a sound team from the Netherlands whose usual jobs are recording albums for labels like Deutche Gramophone of Mahler cycles or Beethoven symphonies. They’d worked in that hall before, so we knew that they knew how to capture the sound of that hall in the best possible way, like nobody on earth could. But it was also the challenge of: how do you have this whole separate sound team, who had worked a little bit in capturing concert films, but obviously not in this way with a drama like this? My big job really was being on ground, making sure that part of it worked. It was pretty nerve-wracking, because as much as you can set up everything in advance, that moment where the first baton is struck and the orchestra plays, there’s not much you can kind of do after that. Either it’s gonna work or it’s not. I hope you agree, but that was one of the most exciting things for me was the first moment I saw the scene where that sound came out and I thought, “Yeah, we cracked it.”
If Cate wasn’t as good as she was after having studied conducting, would the orchestra still be able to pull it off anyway? Was there really an essential responsiveness there?
I mean, even aside from the film, that’s always people’s question about a conductor, isn’t it? Like, “Do they need to be there?” And my answer is absolutely yes. And absolutely, Cate’s conducting gave a very specific performance. And she had an extraordinary group of professionals there, but the interaction and the dedication they gave her was amazing, to the point where you can really see it on camera. You can see and hear the way they’re following her. They’re really allowing her to drive the timing and the sweeping sounds of the orchestra. It was extraordinary to see them really give her that due.
You say Todd had written all these pieces into the script. Were you approving of the kinds of choices he’d made?
I was so approving of it, and again, I felt like, “Oh my God, I’ve been in that concert” or “I’ve been in that meeting where they’re discussing the career paths of conductors.” And then what I love about Todd is how specific he was.
There’s a scene that I think a lot of people, it might pass by with little notice. There’s’s a scene where Lydia and Nina are at home, talking over a glass of wine, and Lydia puts on a record and there’s some jazz playing in the background. Todd had wanted a very specific recording of this song, “Here’s That Rainy Day.” It’s a standard, so the publishing was easy to clear, but the master was a 1967 recording that we could not track down the master owner of. It got to the point where I found the son of the last owner that we could track down, and he didn’t know who his dad had sold the company to. So technically we just couldn’t license that. And in the film, you know, it’s a 90-second background use, but Todd was like, “No! We’re gonna recreate this.” So I found a trombone group in the Netherlands who, by strange chance, had covered this whole record, albeit live, in a concert. I got in touch and I said, “We need to recreate this track.” So Todd, Mona, the editor, and I flew to the Netherlands with these 20 trombonists and recorded this track exactly to recreate the 1967 recording that we couldn’t license. And then there was a specific soloist that Todd wanted who’s Canadian, and happened to be on holiday in the Rockies, but we got him into a studio in Calgary to do the solo because this was the one person alive that (Field wanted). Todd had been — well, is — a trombonist; that was his instrumentAnd I just love that a million people will watch the film and probably not notice this 90 seconds of music in the background. But for Todd, it became this international thing, that we were gonna go on an adventure and make sure that it was exactly as he wanted it.
As far as integrating Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s score into the film, are there challenges in having a film that’s so much about the performance of existing classical music, and integrating these two different things? The score is inevitably going to be more subtle so as not to try to blend in with, like, the Mahler.
Hildur is such a genius at the sort of the creating music that has a presence that moves you in a way without you even knowing that you’re being moved by it. I mean, it’s so sensitive. And I think that Hildur’s conversations with Todd all the way through were about that: What is the sound of Tar, and her life as well as her kind of creation? Because obviously she’s writing a piece through it. How is that in there without being overwhelming in some way?
One of the things there that I loved was this idea of the concept soundtrack album, and how she would take all of those elements and fully write that piece that Tar is writing, “For Petra,” even though we don’t hear it finished in the film. I was trying to think of another film that does that, and I couldn’t think of one, where they’re almost companion pieces — you’ll see the film and then you will finally hear the piece that you never hear in completion in the film on the soundtrack album. That was an adventure in it itself, because Hildur was traveling, but she also got COVID, so she couldn’t be in London for the recording. So we had all of these amazing Zooms of her, across Europe, with her being in Abbey Road. Conceptually, in a way, that added to the strangeness of the conceptual album.
Now that the film has been out, have you paid attention to the music community’s reaction to it?
Yeah. It’s interesting because I remember seeing a few comments before it had even premiered at Venice, where you could sort of see… I love the classical community, especially the core classical press that used to be my gang. I adore them and I love them for really caring about these things, about getting it right, as it were, in their eyes. And I saw comments that were, “Oh, here’s another movie where it’s gonna be embarrassing, where you can see an actor trying to mime some classical music on a cello or something.” And I was just thinking, oh my God, wait till you see it. There’s no miming here! And with friends that are in that community that have seen it, everyone I’ve spoken to has been overwhelmed and sort of grateful that this has been shown so beautifully and with consideration for the art of that world. Whether I’ve just missed it, I’ve only seen people being maybe surprisingly happy about it.
Even if you don’t know anything about that world or care about it, the average viewer wants to believe or sense that there are realistic underpinnings for this story, even if it’s not a documentary.
Exactly, and that’s what I hope, that anybody could watch this and enjoy the story of it, the narrative of it. But it would also be lovely to think that someone might go and listen to some Anna Thorvaldsdottir because they’ve seen this movie. I love the fact that when Cate was on Stephen Colbert, she talked about (the avant-garde composer) Xenakis. Like, when has anyone ever talked about Xenakis on Stephen Colbert? I feel it harks back to my moment where I felt that crack that opened into classical music,and I could find my way in. I would love to think that that other people would do the same through this movie.
To turn to “Aftersun,” that’s a movie that is not necessarily immersed in music through and through, and it feels very European in being comfortable with silences, but then it comes to be very music-dependent by the end. What was your brief with that?
I came onto “Aftersun” through Amy Jackson, the U.K. producer who I’ve worked with a a lot here, who’s wonderful. It was just before they were filming in Turkey, because there were some on-camera performances, so it was a very quick process of read the script and fall in love with it, and with Charlotte (Wells, the director) and her vision. It’s that late ‘90s period, which for me, because I’m 44 now, was that classic sort of mixtape-making moment for me and my friends. A lot of the music was not necessarily the music I was listening to then, because it was so specific to the place, a holiday resort in Turkey, with a lot of the kind of Europop that comes along with that. But there were other things to it that made me : Oh, we can have some fun at making this nostalgic, but also almost timeless.
And Ollie Coates’ score was so important to, as you said, working with the silences. Definitely the brief was never to push the emotion through music. And even that big final scene, which is emotional… I’ve sat in screenings of that with people weeping through that, that dance scene. It was always about, what really serves the picture, in that delicate way?
Can you talk about how much you did or didn’t want to remind the audience it was a ‘90s period piece, with the needle drops?
There are some of those very small uses, really just a few seconds here and there, which put you in that time and place without having to hang onto it. I mean, “The Macarena,” for example, it’s a potent kind of time machine. … The Aqua “My Oh My” thing — things I would never think I was gonna be putting into a film! … and (the band) Steps: I think it’s probably quite British in terms of those references. They’re specific to that moment, and that holiday culture that those resorts have. But then there’s sort of the other end of it. At the opposite of Steps and “The Macrarena” was probably Blur’s “Tender,” maybe particularly in the way it was used, with that beautiful sound design making it that kind of floating, timeless feel.
I’m not sure how much to put in there about the climactic song, because it’s so powerful we don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen “Aftersun.”
I know. It is a bit of a spoiler, isn’t it?
So here is the spoiler warning as we proceed to talk about it. Let’s discuss the climactic use of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” both in practical terms of how you got it but also how it’s used.
Charlotte had put that in the edit, and at any time you put a song as iconic as that in, it’s very hard to replace the temp love, as we all know. So really it was a case of, OK, how can we make this happen? We were very limited in budget. And, you know, it’s not even one artist. It’s two of the biggest artists ever, and their estates, to bring on board. And they were all fantastic to work with. We were very clear about the story and the way we were using the song, because it’s mixed in with score. We did quite a lot to it in the edit, but all for very purposeful reasons. And it’s beautiful. I mean, there are so many responses I’ve seen where people say, “I’ll never listen to ‘Under Pressure’ the same again.” I’m so happy it all came together. Like I said, it was very much down to a careful negotiation with all of those parties, and they were great. And I think that says so much about those artists and their sense of creativity. Now it’s a critically acclaimed film, but then it was just really a small independent film that they were being asked to be part of. And I think that everyone saw literally the art of that and kind of fell in love with it. It was a very happy day when all of those approvals came in.
That didn’t completely overwhelm the entire budget to bring that in?
I mean, I’d say it was definitely a balance, the whole thing, but we got there. And it was so worth it.
Can you speak to why that song works there and is able to sort of be integrated with score? It’s such an unusual song to begin with, almost like a Rorschach test. Like, is this a happy song? Is it a sad song? Before you get into the strangeness and ambiguity of the scene itself, which is not immediately comprehensible as a dream, or nightmare.
Especially because at the beginning of the scene, it’s a happy song, isn’t it? It’s the song that gets him to dance. It’s the song that gets her to sort of laugh, embarrassed about her dancing dad. And then as soon as you start taking away elements of that song, and particularly I think when you got down to those very raw vocals, there’s so much in those voices. Again, that is about how great Freddie Mercury and David Bowie are literally as singers. Not to take aside the beautiful musicality of it all, but just as pure technical singers, hearing those voices so exposed, I think, did bring a rawness that allows it to sort of change as the picture’s changing and then as the score comes in and takes it to another level. Not all songs can do that, for sure. I mean, it’s not even really a classic verse/chorus/verse song. So it’s already got that ability to do something that’s maybe more operatic, in the sort of broadest sense of telling a story through the vocals. So I think it’s all down to getting down to the basic beauty of the vocals on those takes.
As a viewer, you’re trying to make sense of what’s happening while giving in to the emotions. And it was very chilling as you’re kind of going through, is this happening in a real world, or is this a fantasy sequence?
And there’s a moment where it just is completely silent — like it slightly stops and then starts again. And you feel that sort of almost suspense of reality, as you’re moving from the flashbacks back to reality. But Ollie’s dexterity with that, with allowing space and delicacy, was totally key to making that work.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just started on Sean Durkin’s new film, “The Iron Claw,” which is the wrestling movie with Zac Efron, based on the true story of the Von Erich family in Texas. This is the fourth time I’ve worked with Sean, so it’s really lovely. And “Dead Ringers,” the Amazon remake of the Cronenberg film, for TV, with Rachel Weiss as the twins. That’s gonna be wild when this comes out.