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?
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.