This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Randall Poster, music supervisor, producer.
Independent film and TV music supervision has exploded over the past two decades.
While it is a highly competitive field, not everybody knows what they are doing.
New Yorker Randall Poster surely does.
He is very focused, knows exactly what he wants, and he’s very aggressive about getting it.
Poster has sourced music for film, TV, advertisements, and branded content for over 25 years. He is the creator of nearly 200 masterful and expertly crafted, soundtracks; many of which highlight the most memorable, and compelling musical moments of our time.
With few precedents in music supervision, and displaying an independence and fierce individuality, he has worked multiple times with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Antonio Campos, and Todd Haynes; as well as with Mark Romanek, Jason Reitman, Danny Boyle, Mike Newell, Frank Oz, Kevin Smith, Harmony Korine, Allison Maclean, Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater, Ben Stiller, Karyn Kusama, Sean Penn, and Larry Clark.
Among his film credits are: “The Irishman.” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Aviator,” “The Wolf of Wall Street “Rushmore,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Hugo,” “Up In The Air,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Skyfall,” “I’m Not There,” “Country Strong, “Meet the Parents,” “School Of Rock,” “The Hangover-1-3,” “Carrie,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Far From Heaven,” and “Boyhood.”
As well there is his TV work in the series: “Boardwalk Empire,” “Vinyl.” “Six Degrees,” “Lost,” “The Walking Dead,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” and “Mildred Pierce.”
Recent projects of Randall’s include “The Queen’s Gambit,” Tiger King,” “One Night in Miami,” “The Devil All the Time,” “Pretend It’s A City,” “Project Power,” “Tesla,” “The French Dispatch,” “The Velvet Underground,” and Questlove’s feature documentary debut, “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.”
Poster’s soundtrack work has earned him two Grammy Awards, for “Boardwalk Empire: Volume 1” in 2011, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in 2014.
He has also produced recordings not tied to films, including: “Divided & United, The Songs of The Civil War” (ATO Records); “Rave On Buddy Holly” (Fantasy Records); “Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute To Fleetwood Mac” (Fantasy Records); “Hanukah” (Verve/Forecast); “Love To Love You Donna” (Verve); “Warby Parker Presents Beck Song Reader” (Capitol Records); and “I’d Rather Lead a Band” by Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks (Thirty Tigers).
Upcoming is a remake of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads which will be released by Elektra Records in September, 2021.
In 2020, Poster joined forces with his boyhood friend Josh Deutsch, combining their two respective companies, Premier Music Group, and Search Party.
Premier Music Group, a leading sync agency, was launched in 2017 by Downtown Music co-founders Deutsch and Terence Lam. Poster founded Search Party in 2004.
In consolidating the two companies, Poster serves as Premier’s creative director, and brought with him to Premier an award-winning team.
For an extensive list of Randall Poster’s film and TV work go to: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0692922/
Where were you born and raised?
New York City. We lived in Riverdale mostly when I was a kid. Then I lived in town a lot. I have since moved back up to Riverdale. My wife and I bought a house in Fieldston in Riverdale, and that is where we have been hanging out. As well, I have an office from where I am speaking. Josh and I took an office (with louvered skylights, and a loft space) on the fourth floor of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South. We were hiding out here with our own people during the pandemic. And that has been a lot of fun.
During the pandemic, it would have been bearable to work in a darkened editing room.
During the pandemic, I wasn’t in a dark room. I wasn’t sitting with the music editor, and the editors. I was at home, and here at the office. I’m dying to get back to the dark room.
During the period, you obviously flourished, being the music supervisor on several blockbuster streaming series.
I was fortunate. I had a bunch of projects that were in post-production, and I continued to work. So there was some sense of normality. “We put out “Tiger King,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and “Pretend It’s a City,” each of which I think marked a different phase of the pandemic. Then, the winter came and it started to get dark at 4:30, and we all started to lose our minds here on the East Coast.
How cool is it to now work with Josh Deutsch who you’ve known since you were 12? And when Josh lived in New Jersey, and was attending Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, you lived in Riverdale and were a student at Horace Mann School–a private, independent college-preparatory school–also in the Bronx. You both were into music. You bought, and talked about records, and went together to concerts and clubs. And you both attended Brown University.
Why the merger at this time?
Fifteen years ago, I started Search Party to do non-film and television projects. I was really focused on building that business. It just felt that it would be fun. Josh and I have been talking about music since 1974. We went to school together. It (joining together) was just like a refresh. Josh is interested in aspects of the business that I have no interest in. We are a good combination. We are having a lot of fun.
Josh handles the backroom business?
Was that one of the reasons for the merger?
Yeah. Those are the kind of things that Josh enjoys. He really enjoys managing people, and getting into the nitty-gritty of running a business, and that is not my bag.
Plans for the merged company include expansion into new advertising segments, podcasts and social and digital platforms with a focus naturally on music-driven content.
Many of Premier’s clients are in the worlds of advertising, film, TV and more. So, the integration of the Search Party team, with its deep supervision and production resources, makes perfect sense for Premier.
You began sourcing music for TV, advertisements, and branded content. about fifteen years ago. Among your credits are campaigns for Prada, Jimmy Choo, and Calvin Klein.
We have done countless campaigns.
How does sourcing music for commercials compare to your film and TV work?
It works differently. Generally, the directors certainly don’t have final say in how the music works in a spot. You have to navigate the various layers when you are working for an agency, and they have a client. It can be complicated, and then sometimes it can be very simple. You land on a song or a sound, and you go with it.
Most everybody in the process believes that they know what music fits, but the choice of a song is ultimately the client’s.
The Emmys introduced an award for outstanding music supervision in 2017, and the Grammys honor compilation soundtracks, while the Hollywood Music in Media awards, and the Music+Sound awards launched in 2009 and 2012, respectively. Still, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t honor the role played by music supervisors in film. What’s your take on their reasoning.
I did an interview for The Telegraph where people were saying that it was an issue. You know, I think the challenge is that it is a misnomer that I pick the songs in movies, or a music supervisor picks the songs, I collaborate with the director. The director picks the songs. I’m their collaborator. I put some of the food in the blender. Ideally, you are working with the director, and with editorial. So I can see where it is a hard thing to say the music supervisor–he or she–stands alone to get this nomination.
For me, it’s not my interest to win awards. I do think that what they should do is—I am a member of the Academy, and have been for some time; I’m a member at large. That’s where they put music supervisors. You’d think that music supervisors would be in the Music branch of the Academy. I think the composers are very defensive about it, but that is something that should change. But otherwise, I’m not preoccupied with winning awards. My reward is getting to work with these great filmmakers, and making movies that live forever.
Still, as a music supervisor, you are not just choosing songs. In many cases, you are developing new performances or seeking out music that doesn’t exist in a digital form.
Like the score of Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) that used music from the earlier films of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. You traveled to Calcutta for those recordings and convinced the Satyajit Ray family and Foundation that it was worthwhile to digitize his master tapes. It wasn’t like you could then go to Tower Records in L.A., and purchase seminal Indian film music.
Also, In addition to Alexandre Desplat’s original score of Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” (2018), the soundtrack includes songs from the Akira Kurosawa films “Drunken Angel” (1948). and “Seven Samurai” (1954). Interestingly, there is also “I Won’t Hurt You,” a 1966 track by the Los Angeles psychedelic rock band, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
Yeah, yeah. And there are movies that are very involved, and where I’m working on the score. It’s a grey area. Different music supervisors do different things. There are music supervisors who are really just clearing songs, and there are others who are really deeply involved in creating the musical element in the movie.
How big is your music collection or have you thinned it out with everything now available online?
The foundation of being a music supervisor is liner notes, right? So I still have a lot of CDs. I have a lot of records, but I was never like a crazy record collector. I just had my collection of records that I played. I’m not really precious about it. And it’s never been easier to find music. It used to be when I started I would go to L.A. with a suitcase full of CDs. Then if you had an idea or a revelation in the editing room it was, “Okay, I’ll go over to Tower Records first thing (tomorrow), and hopefully, they will have it.” That was my modus operandi, but the digital revolution has really allowed me to work with much greater facility.
Two decades ago, I’d go to London, and return with a suitcase holding 20 music books from Foyles bookstore or Compendium Books (on Camden High Street), and at least 40 albums from the Virgin Megastore and HMV on Oxford Street.
Me too. I’d find a series of things like, “Here Is Spanish Dance Music,” 14 CDs. I haven’t had really an instance to open two of them.
Were you a bit like John Cusak’s character in the film “High Fidelity” (2000) or the lead character of 1995 British novel of the same name by Nick Hornby, set in London rather than Chicago? Or like vinyl lover Shrevie (Daniel Stern) who cares about his vinyl more than he cares about most anything else explaining to his wife Beth (played by Ellen Barkin in her first major role), “Don’t touch my records. Ever.”
I just loved listening to records, and going to movies as a kid. That is sort of how I came at it. You know “Laughing” (1969) by the Guess Who (from Winnipeg) was the first 45 that I ever bought. I used it in “Christine” (2016) that Antonio Campos directed. It’s interesting, and we used it really very well. It’s not just a drive-by.
You and Antonio have had fun working together.
I don’t know if you saw it, but I co-produced (with Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, and Max Born) a movie last year called “The Devil All the Time” for Netflix. It was based on a book (of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who also serves as the film’s narrator) that I read. I brought it to Antonio, and we developed it for a few years. And it has a great soundtrack. One that I really love with Ferlin Husky (“Wings of a Dove”), Wynn Stewart (“Wishful Thing.”) Just really some great tracks. I would check that one out.
(It is in one of the earliest moments in the psychological thriller “The Devil All the Time” that music makes a significant impact as preacher Roy Laferty (Harry Melling) plays a song called “Washed in the Blood” for his churchgoers with his wheelchair-bound friend/cousin, Theodore (Pokey LaFarge making his film debut). There are also tracks by the Stanley Brothers (“Little Bessie”), Sonny James (“Young Love”) the Delmore Brothers (“Hillbilly Boogie” and the Browns (“The Three Bells.”)
Tell me about the challenges of providing music for Martin Scorsese 2019 film “The Irishman” with its shifting timelines, and running time of 209 minutes.
Alongside Robbie Robertson’s haunting “Theme for The Irishman” are such marvelous oldies as: “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins; “Tuxedo Junction” by Glenn Miller & His Orchestra; “I Hear You Knockin’” by Smiley Lewis; “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino; “Delicado” by Percy Faith & His Orchestra; “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)” by Marty Robbins with Ray Conniﬀ; “Honky Tonk; Pt. 1” by Bill Doggett; “Melancholy Serenade” by Jackie Gleason; “Qué Rico el Mambo” by Pérez Prado; and “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny.
With the demands of the timelines, and length was that experience challenging for you?
Exciting. Marty is very specific, Marty, when he locks into something, he doesn’t need to hear alternatives. We really had a fun time making the Jerry Vale music (“Al Di La” by Jerry Vale & the Latin Casino All Stars). That was really fun.
The late Jerry Vale has a big role in a crucial scene of “The Irishman.” The singer, as embodied by Steven Van Zandt, performs at a gala thrown in honor of Frank Sheeran, the mob hitman at the center of the movie. As Vale sings, gangsters discuss the fate of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters leader who in real life disappeared in 1975.
Jerry Vale is solidly part of Scorsese’s cinematic universe. His songs have appeared in numerous films, and he appeared on screen in both “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Casino” (1995).
Marty has a circle of people he works with.
With Marty and his team, his family of filmmakers, it is really fun to work on those movies. And he is just the master of using music, and songs in movies. It is always intriguing and always exciting and always played loud which is important to me. More recently, we worked together on the Netflix documentary series, “Pretend It’s a City” (2020) with Fran Lebowitz. He always has multiple things in process. So he’s an inspiration.
(“The Irishman” is the longest, most expensive film (with a reported $159–$250 million budget) of Scorsese’s career. After Paramount Pictures dropped domestic distribution rights following Fábrica de Cine backing out of financing the film due to its escalating budget, Netflix then bought the film rights for $105 million.)
Besides music being heavily used through most of his films, Marty has also directed the music documentaries “The Last Waltz” (1978); “No Direction Home-Bob Dylan” (2005); “Shine a Light” (2008); “Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story (2009); and “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” (2011).
Also, he produced the remarkable 7-episode documentary series, “The Blues” (2003), dedicated to the history of blues music that originally aired on PBS.
Marty gets so passionate about film-making. We talk about how films are more accessible by virtue that they live either on Amazon or Criterion or wherever it is. You sit with Marty and mention a movie, and the next day you find two Carmen Miranda movies (the Portuguese-born Brazilian samba singer, and film star who was active between the ’30 and ‘50s) from DHS (courier) that he sent. So he is a real inspiration. He’s the master, and he is just so detail-oriented. He elevates the whole process.
During post-production, that’s when you figure out where you put in the music and what songs should be playing on car radios or during montages and certain sequences. Are you able to sit one-on-one beforehand with Martin to figure out how to conceive, and execute the musical element of the movie, and brainstorm musical possibilities?
I try to do things as efficiently as possible. We have a really wonderful dialogue about filmmaking and music in film. There’s been a lot of variety in terms of music. Like “The Aviator” was in the ‘20s, ‘30s’ and ‘40s; “Hugo (2011) was a period piece where we recorded a lot of music. With “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), there was so much music there on camera and just simple source music that we really had a lot of fun building that component; and then the Japanese film “Silence” (2016) in terms of exploring Japanese folk music, and taiko drumming that was something that I put the effect in.
“Isle of Dogs” (2018), the stop-motion animated science-fiction comedy film written, produced, and directed by Wes Anderson, features the track “Taiko Drumming” by New York-based Kaoru Watanabe, North America’s leading practitioner of the shinobue (Japanese transverse flute). He began playing taiko at the age of 11 as a member of St. Louis Osuwa Taiko and went on to become the first non-Japanese national to become a performing member and artistic director of the iconic taiko group Kodo. He has worked with such international artists as Jason Moran, Yo-Yo Ma, and Silkroad.
(“Isle of Dogs,” set in the fictional city of Megasaki, follows a group of dogs, and one or two humans, after the mayor banishes all canines to nearby Trash Island. The dogs speak English; the humans, for the most part, speak Japanese, which is often but not always translated.)
Now we are working with Marty on the film “Killers of the Flower Moon” (based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann) which is set in 1919 to 1926. It is just really refreshing to find yourself in this different world of music.
(Principal photography of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” being directed and produced by Martin Scorsese, and Leonardo DiCaprio, featuring Jesse Plemons, Lily Gladstone, and Robert De Niro, began on April 19th, 2021, and is slated to last for seven months. Filming is taking place in Pawhuska, Fairfax, and Bartlesville in Osage County, Oklahoma.)
Martin certainly pushes the envelope as with his film “Hugo,” his first foray into 3D filmmaking that was an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 children’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” The film celebrates French culture in the 1930s and the groundbreaking early days of cinema.
We went and found the best musette players in Paris, and worked and recorded with them.
(Musette de cour, or baroque musette, is a musical instrument of the bagpipe family. Visually, the musette is characterized by a short, cylindrical shuttle-drone, and the two chalumeaux. Both the chanters and the drones have a cylindrical bore, and use a double reed, giving a quiet tone similar to the oboe.)
As with “Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and “Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009),” Wes again brought in Alexandre Desplat to compose the Russian folk-influenced score of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)
(ABKCO Records released the 32-track score of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” on CD on March 4, 2014. It features sampled recordings and contributions from orchestras including the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra, and a 50-person ensemble of Russian balalaika players.
Desplat’s work on the soundtrack won him an Oscar for Best Original Score at the 87th Academy Awards in 2015, while you won The Grand Budapest Hotel” in 2014 for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.)
Wes recently tapped you and Alexandre for “The French Dispatch,” due to be released in October.
So how much fun was it working on “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in which Ralph Fiennes led an ensemble cast as Monsieur Gustave H., famed concierge of a 20th-century mountainside resort in the fictional country of Zubrowka in Central Europe?
It was a lot of fun. Wes is very specific about arrangements, and instrumentation. When we decided that the key instrument was going to be the balalaika (a Russian stringed musical instrument with a characteristic triangular wooden hollow body, fretted neck, and three strings), and we gathered all of these players from all over Europe and Russia and put them all together, it was very novel, very exciting, and a lot of fun.
With its sprawling cast of characters and distinctive melodic themes and motifs, was navigating such an eclectic musical milieu a bit out of your comfort zone?
No. I am excited by that. The most fun is to travel into these unique musical worlds. It is less fun really to be in a contemporary film where the music can be anything. It is harder for there to be specificity.
Around the time that Wes was finishing his “Bottle Rocket” short in 1992, a mutual friend suggested the two of you would get along. Soon afterward you two met, and Wes asked if you’d help him with his “Bottle Rocket” soundtrack, and the two of you have been working together since.
With Wes’s films, a lot of us have been working together for a long time. There’s a lot of continuity in the casts and crews. So it’s always a bit of a reunion in the shooting, and then the editorial is where you really see that what is preconceived is going to work. Then you come to sort of understand what the film is calling for musically.
You and Todd Haynes had a lot of fun doing “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) featuring music by Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Teenage Fan Club, Placebo); and working together on “I’m Not There” (2007) with Sonic Youth Cat Power, John Doe, Yo La Tango, and Roger McGuinn, and Calexico because you got to record a lot of new music for both.
You two also worked together on “Carol” (2015) with an original score by Carter Burwell, and largely ‘50s recordings by the Clovers, Billie Holiday, Georgia Gibbs, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Jo Stafford, Woody Herman, Eddie Fisher, the Four Aces, Pee Wee King, and Patti Page; as well as a new track recorded by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks Orchestra whom you often work with.
You and Todd both attended Brown University. as did Christine Vachon another influential indie director.
Todd and I have been working together for decades.
How is work coming along on Todd’s upcoming biopic of Peggy Lee?
I am hoping that we will make that movie this year. It’s a great script (written by Tony and Pulitzer winner Doug Wright), and Todd is a great storyteller. He uses music very precisely, and very imaginatively.
My friends at Omnivore Recordings recently sent me “Something Wonderful: Peggy Lee Sings The Great American Songbook,” a two-CD, 40 song set that features previously unissued performances from CBS’ “The Peggy Lee” radio programs 1951-1952.
Omnivore Recordings does a great job.
Seth Berg oversees the Peggy Lee music estate.
I’ve known Seth for a long time. So when we started getting into it, we had a Zoom with Seth and Peggy’s granddaughter
With “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) did Todd not want to build the film around David Bowie’s early catalog, but his representatives nixed that because David had other plans of his own for the music in a Ziggy Stardust vehicle?
Todd had written Bowie songs into the script, and that was going to be the music of Maxwell Demon (The Maxwell Demon is the name of one of Brian Eno’s avant garde college group whose music is heard at various points in the film). The news broke later than we had hoped that David Bowie had in his mind that he was going to make a Ziggy Stardust movie, and he needed to protect the copyrights. They (Rzo Music, operated by Bowie’s longtime business manager Bill Zysblat, the chief executor of his estate) were very polite about it. That was certainly an understandable issue that they had.
Given that you felt the film didn’t really need Bowie’s music anyway, was it liberating being able to bring in artists to write and record new songs.
Oh yes. I looked at it immediately as an opportunity to do something that I felt was going to be more special. I immediately got excited about the notion of creating new music so the film would be more original rather than a Bowie pastiche. So I was very excited about it. We very quickly found the two “Hero” songs that came with Nathan Larsen and Craig Wedren who were in Shutter to Think.
(While songs from the ‘70s are included in “Velvet Goldmine,” notably by Lou Reed, Brian Eno, T. Rex, and Steve Harley, the soundtrack features new songs by Pulp, Shudder to Think, and Grant Lee Buffalo. As well as many early glam rock compositions, both covers, and original versions. The Venus in Furs cover Roxy Music’s “2HB,” “Ladytron,” and “Bitter-Sweet,” and Steve Harley’s “Sebastian”; Placebo covers T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy”; and Wylde Ratttz and Ewan McGregor cover the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye” and “Gimme Danger”; and Teenage Fanclub and Donna Matthews cover the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.”)
You have had music by David Bowie in other films.
When we were doing “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) we had this notion of having one of the actors perform Bowie songs throughout the film. They (Rzo Music) were very friendly toward us, and very engaging, and very supportive, and very appreciative. David Bowie was very generous and effusive about the music that we made.
You weren’t dealing directly with David though.
For licensing, we were dealing with Rzo Music. And that organization is always very supportive.
While “Bottle Rocket” (1996), “Rushmore,” (1998), and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) by Wes all featured Rolling Stones songs, contractual issues prevented their songs from appearing on affiliated soundtrack albums you put together. “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) was the first Wes Anderson soundtrack album to feature a song by the Rolling Stones, “Play With Fire.” Of course, this was because the soundtrack was released by ABKCO Records which, via ABKCO Music & Records Incorporated, represents the Rolling Stones, pre-“Sticky Fingers.”
I take it you and Wes are Stones’ fan.
Yeah, we are both big Rolling Stones’ fans. We even put our records out on ABKCO. The Rolling Stones are sort of the house band.
When I worked at the New York music trade Record World in the ‘70s, I’d go up in the elevator with Allen Klein. ABKCO– an acronym for “The Allen and Betty Klein Company”– was on the floor above us at 1700 Broadway, at 53rd Street, just across the street from the Ed Sullivan Theater.
He was quite a guy. We dealt with him when we were doing “Rushmore,” and then we developed soundtracks with the people at ABKCO. I oversaw the music for “One Night In Miami” (2020) that (ABKCO Music & Records owner and CEO) Jody Klein produced (with Jess Wu Calder, and Keith Calder).
Packed with Sam Cooke songs which ABKCO controls.
So Jody and I are pretty close.
Being a long-time collaborator with Wes Anderson, you two often start looking at music before attaining the script. Like with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” you had about 90% of the pieces picked out before shooting started, and a lot of it was choreographed to the specific pieces
How do you research music other than what you have in your head already?
It depends really. I’ve done a lot of period pieces. So, basically, I research it like you would research a term paper. I find books to read. I find experts in the area and mine their knowledge. I always feel that there is somebody who knows more than I do so I seek out the experts in each particular area of music.
In researching, would you check the series of Joel Whitburn’s American chart books?
Yeah, sometimes if I’m looking at a year to get a sense of the chart. It is so easy now to access what is on the internet. That has been a very useful tool.
I may have eight Joel Whitburn chart books. Some are quite handy like “Pop Memories 1890-1954” or the R&B and country editions, and “Bubbling Under Singles & Albums.”
I have a bunch. I don’t know if I have eight. I have a bunch of them.
The charts are where you’d start your research on a series like “Vinyl” which was grounded in the music of the 1970s?
That is sort of where I would begin, and then researching if it is an artist or a band that I’ve never heard of. Just to get a sense of that. It really is in terms of getting insight or getting a sense of the contours of the period. I generally try to seek out somebody who has a grounded knowledge of either that particular genre of music or period of music or sometimes both.
You surround yourself with people who are experts. Among your collaborators have been former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and Don Fleming—your self-described “punk aficionados.” For “Boardwalk Empire, with the first season was set in 1920-21, you’d call on Vince Giordano? You two had worked together on “The Aviator.”
Yes, also (Nighthawks Orchestra leader) Vince Giordano in terms of working on period pieces in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Vince in a boundless repository, and he helps me organize recording sessions. We use the Nighthawks. So the transfer from acknowledgment to activation is pretty seamless there.
(With a passion for music from the 1920’s & the ‘30s, and the people that made it, Vince Giordano has amassed a collection of over 60,000 band arrangements, 1920’s and 30’s films, 78 recordings, and jazz-age memorabilia. He studied with Bill Challis, the staff arranger for Jean Goldkette, and Paul Whiteman who contributed arrangements to big bands led by Fletcher Henderson, the Dorsey Brothers, and Artie Shaw.)
While recording a version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for the “Joker” (2019) soundtrack, you and producer Stewart Lerman pitched Vince and Loudon Wainwright III on a project, based on the music of songs by the likes of Ruth Etting, Cliff Edwards, Annette Hanshaw, and Lee Morse,
for the 14-track “I’d Rather Lead a Band?”
Yes, we did that project. I first met Vince when I was working on “The Aviator” (the 2004 biographical drama directed by Martin Scorsese), and we did “After You’ve Gone” with Loudan. We continued to do stuff. We were working most recently on a project, and we were in the session, and I just said, “We should do a record, a big band record.”
Do you also do deep dives down the music streaming services and YouTube?
Of course. I remember when I was doing “Country Strong” (a 2010 film directed and written by Shana Feste) in Nashville, and I love country music. And all of the characters in the film were performers (Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, and Leighton Meester). And there is a producer I became close to, Frank Liddell, and I’d email Frank, and say, “Why am I watching Faron Young films at 3:45 in the morning?”
Certain films crystallized that songs — and not just scores — could be woven into the auditory fabric of a film; where the film, the experience, and the setting come together. The film absolutely matching the music with soundtrack songs in the background that helped define the emotions of the characters, and their social attitude was unquestionably George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973).
“American Graffiti” was revelatory to me. “
The music was integral to the story.
American Graffiti” was pretty overwhelming. It kind of blew my mind.
While working on Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998) did the “American Graffiti” approach come to mind? There’s a 60s vibe running through the film. A connection between the main character, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the eccentric 15-year-old scholarship student at Rushmore Academy, and lesser-known British Invasion artists.
Wes had been impressed with 1960s’ angry young man imagery. Brattish-looking guys in sharp suits, and skinny ties. There’s corresponding sound, and images of the band in the film which closed with the great Faces’ track “Ooh La La,” sung by Ronnie Lane.
“American Graffiti” was impactful to both of us, but we were more caught up with the British Invasion in doing that. So it was rebels and suits and skinny ties that was sort of the mandate, really. That was a film where again we really had most of the music spotted out before we started shooting.
Do characters in films sometimes suggest a certain piece of music or song? Like “Rushmore” when the Kinks’ “Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ Bout that Girl” starts playing as Bill Murray jumps off a diving board with a cigarette in his lips.
Again, I think that it was really Jason’s character Max Fischer that the music embodied. But yeah. I think that it is a way that renders the inner life of a character with music. That is often what you try to do. Either consciously or subconsciously.
A generation of music-savvy American directors like Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, George Lucas, Barry Levinson, John Hughes, Quentin Tarantino, Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola, Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater, and David Chase were at the forefront of matching music with the characters and moments in films.
Whereas “The Sopranos, “The Wire,” and “Miami Vice,” changed everything we thought we knew about the potential of music in a TV show, and films like “The Graduate” (1967) and “Easy Rider” (1969) pioneered the use of existing popular music in place of a score, it was Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film “Mean Streets” that caused a tectonic shift in popular culture with pre-recorded music,
With “Mean Streets,” Martin was trying to capture growing up in a gangster environment in New York’s Little Italy, though most of the movie was shot in Los Angeles. The film’s story emerges from the daily lives of the characters, and he both photographed them with a fiercely driven visual and vibrant musical style.
Like with the Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro characters walking through the club with the Rolling Stones “Tell Me” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
Yeah. “Mean Streets” was another revelation really. Just in terms of not only simply the specific songs, but also the bold use of music. Often time, one of the issues that I have to navigate when we are putting it (a film) all together is people being afraid that the music fights the dialogue. I often hear, “Can you bring it down? We are fighting the dialogue.” I always want to make T-shirts that say, “FIGHT THE DIALOGUE.” I will point to Scorsese because you will be watching it (his film) and I will point out, “The music is really loud isn’t it? You can hear the dialogue. You can hear what they are saying can’t you?” He is so bold.
I also loved Philip Kaufman’s 1979 film “The Wanderers,” based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Richard Price. Set in The Bronx in 1963. Kaufman, and his co-writer wife Rose Kaufman created a fascinating anecdotal film with a great soundtrack of tracks by the Four Seasons, Dion, Ben E. King, the Contours, and the Shirelles.
That’s another film I absolutely love. “The Wanderers.” I actually go back and watch that great opening of “The Wanderers.” That movie. I love.
I was a fan of the Richard Price’s 1974 book. It was his first novel, and he was 24 when “The Wanderers” was published. The setting of the story is a housing project in the Bronx, New York, similar to that in which he grew up. The book contains 12 chapters loosely connected with each other, mainly by reappearing characters. It is more like a collection of short stories.
I read the book too.
When did you get into working in the film world?
After I graduated from Brown University where I was taking English.
You and a friend co-wrote the movie “A Matter of Degrees.”
Yes, a friend (Jack Mason) and I co-wrote this script about the college radio station at Brown, WBRU. When I started it was a free-form, student programmed station and, over the course of the four years that I was at the school, it became a commercial radio station. The station was a starting point for a lot of kids who wanted to be in the industry, but it also, I thought, made it a little bit less soulful. So we built the story around that. I guess it really was about the age of Reagan, and our notion that the ideals of the Sixties were being overwhelmed, So Jack and I co-wrote the script. Then some people wanted to buy the script. Then we decided that we wanted to try, and make the movie ourselves, and ultimately we did. We were accepted into the lab at Sundance (the Sundance Institute), and we raised some money and shot the film in Providence, Rhode Island. Over the course of the editorial, we started to get bands. That was sort of the moment radio became (centered on) alternative music. So we had all of these bands, and we had them write new songs.
(Among those featured in “A Matter of Degrees” are X co-founder John Doe, B-52’s Fred Schneider, and two notable Brown students, future actress Christina Haag, and John F. Kennedy Jr. in a cameo as a guitar player talking to his girlfriend in the background of a party scene.)
While the movie flopped, you happened to realize your calling in life while assembling the soundtrack.
The movie had very little commercial impact but the music was well-placed and well used in the movie. The soundtrack was put out by Atlantic Records and people kept remarking how much they liked the music in the movie. I realized what I really wanted to do was to work with great film directors. I felt if I made music my focus, that would be the means to engage them. Luckily, it worked out that way. That was about 200 movies ago.
Pretty cool to have the soundtrack of “A Matter of Degrees” with Yo La Tengo, Pixies, Miracle Legion, Giant Sand, Alex Chilton, Schoolly D, Throwing Muses, Uncle Tupelo, and Nova Mob released by Atlantic Records. Who picked that up for the label?
It was Pete Cuppke.
Craig Kallman (chairman/CEO of Atlantic Records) attended Brown University a decade before you. He was a CBS Records college representative.
We’ve been friends for a long time. I am always happy when a soundtrack ends up at Atlantic.
Your first notable film credits were “Kids,” the coming-of-age drama film directed by Larry Clark which was shot in a quasi-documentary style; and “The Crossing Guard,” an independent film co-produced, written, and directed by Sean Penn. Both in 1995. How did you land those films?
When I graduated from Brown University somehow it didn’t dawn on me that I needed to sort of figure out what I was going to do when I finished college. I suspected that if I didn’t make a quick decision that I would end up doing something that I really didn’t want to do like going to graduate school.
By virtual of doing this first movie, “A Matter of Degrees,” not only did I learn about the practical aspects of putting music in movies in terms of all of the legalities and licensing issues, but I also had a sense of production and storytelling, and so that experience I always felt made me a filmmaker. Not just a music person who works on a movie. So that’s the roots of my career.
Still, moving from an independent film to bigger films like these was a sizeable jump. Music supervision was then fairly new. There were only a handful of independent music supervisors then working on films and TV shows.
As I said that first film established me as a person who knew how to use music and could be a good collaborator. The other thing was that I was in New York, right? I sort of became the East Coast person who was doing this. I read the script “Kids,” and the byline on the script was “’Kids’ by the world famous writer Harmony Korine.” And that completely cracked me up. I just thought, “I have to do this movie.” And Harmony and I have been friends since. I actually spoke to him yesterday.
(Harmony Korine next went on to write and direct Gummo (1997), “Julien Donkey-Boy” (1999), “Mister Lonely” (2007), “Trash Humpers” (2009), “Spring Breakers (2012), and “The Beach Bum” (2019). He had been skating with friends in Washington Square Park in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan when he met film director/photographer Larry Clark who asked him to compose a script about skaters. Within three weeks, Korine had written “Kids,” a film about 24 hours in the lives of several teenagers in New York City during the AIDS epidemic. Due to its NC-17 rating, few actually saw “Kids” on its release.)
How did you land Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” that featured a stellar cast of Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, Piper Laurie, and Robin Wright? It has a formidable soundtrack featuring Bruce Springsteen, Joe Henry, David Baerwald, Salt-N-Pepa, Nina Simone, Jewel, and others.
I was out in L.A. Because I also had a background in production, I had been enlisted by Miramax to be an executive producer of a film called “Mother’s Boys” (1993) which was the first Dimension Films’ movie (starring Jamie Lee Curtis as the “mother from hell”). So I was out on the West Coast and met Sean. Miramax at that time was a very small company, and I kind of inherited the music department there which was a job that I didn’t want but nobody else was there to deal with it. I met Sean, and we just got on, and we began working on the movie.
Were you at a crossroads in trying to figure out what you were going to do in film? You had choices.
Well, I knew that I wanted to do music. That was very clear to me. I just wanted to keep my head down and work on movies doing supervision, looking to build a body of work.
Were you aware of some of the other pioneering music supervisors like Kathy Nelson who served as president of film music for Universal Music Group (UMG) and Universal Pictures, a role that did not exist prior to Kathy’s tenure, and President of Film Music for The Walt Disney Motion Picture Group?
Or, maybe, Gary Calamar, who with veteran music supervisor G. Marq Roswell, supervised the music for “Varsity Blues” and “Slums Of Beverly Hills” in 1998. Gary went on to supervise the music for “Panic” in 1999, and later supervised the music of the “Six Feet Under,” “Dexter,” and “True Blood” series.
Kathy wasn’t an independent, and Gary came later.
Kathy continues to be viewed as someone who both pioneered, and defined the movie and television soundtrack business in the ‘80s.
Kathy continued to supervise the music. She would cherry-pick projects that she wanted to do. The people who preceded me, that were the generation before me, were Gary Goetzman, Becky Mancuso-Winding, Danny Bramson, G. Marq Roswell, and Peter Afterman. Those were, I think, the first wave of the new era of music supervision. That was a generation ahead of me. They were all independents.
Through the ‘80s and ‘90s labels like MCA, and Warner Bros. would collaborate with their film divisions to develop soundtracks that were really nothing more than about the placement of their signed artists seeking crossover airplay hits to drive the market presence of the affiliated film. Even now low-budgeted films are the entry point for labels’ unsigned artists to step up.
There was sort of an era where soundtracks were selling well. So they used to look to the record company to finance the music budgets of films, and allowed certain A&R people from labels to have a say in what was going into a movie. I never played that game. I was always aligned with the filmmaker. I get asked a lot, “What’s the difference between when you started and currently?” It doesn’t really happen anymore that way. But it didn’t really affect me because I never really embraced that sort of commercial maneuvering in filmmaking. I was just concerned with properly telling a story, and helping a director fulfill his vision for the movie.
In 2019, you worked on the movie “Waves,” which was written, co-produced, and directed by Trey Edward Shults. With Meghan Currier, you secured over 30 songs from such leading artists as Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Tame Impala, Radiohead, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Animal Collective, the Shoes, H.E.R., Tyler, the Creator, Amy Winehouse, THEY, Kid Cudi, Colin Stetson, SZA, Chance the Rapper, and Alabama Shakes.
Two decades ago, a music supervisor decided on music and bids were made, and it was usually within limits. Then, as recorded music became further embedded in films, fees escalated, but nevertheless, a fee framework remained in place. Now with recorded music sales gone and publishing revenues diminished for many by streaming, and with artists more reliant on touring—and even that disappeared this past year—fees for music use have been flexible.
With the decline in physical sales and the business moving more toward the streaming model, I think that legacy artists see movies and television shows as a way to bring a new audience to their music. So there’s more willingness to allow the music in movies. Often, it is dictated by the size of the movie. For example, with “Waves,” It was a much smaller movie. It was artistic. So you were able to license music in a way that was relevant to the scale of the movie. I think that there is more willingness. Obviously, there are artists that are more difficult than others but it’s more of an open season really than it had been when I first started. Basically, there was much more focus on putting out the physical product and touring.
To use a song on anything involving the moving image, you need a synchronization license. Also a music supervisor acts as liaison between the production company and the owners of both the recording and composition, and to ensure that the rights to use the song are granted and paid for.
The soundtrack for “Waves” came about not without a considerable struggle. After all, a number of these artists usually seek high fees for use of their music.
Well, Frank Ocean, especially when there are multiple songs. We were very passionate about it and very persistent, We felt that Trey had made a very special movie. With good luck, we were able to work it all out. It was kind of crazy. I didn’t imagine that it would be so. Not only to show to get approval but we were actually able to do it in a way that was affordable. We spent a lot more money than the studio wanted, but definitely, we got the ‘friends and family” rate.
Though Kendrick Lamar hasn’t released a studio album since “DAMN” in 2017, fans have been keeping his music alive by consistently revisiting his archive of classic projects. So much so that his second studio album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” (2012) has remained on the Billboard album charts for over 8 years now, a total of 450 weeks, making “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” the longest-charting hip-hop studio album in history.
So Kendrick Lamar is a hot commercial product.
I was on Kendrick early. (In 2014) I did this film series “Divergent” (based on the book series of the same name), and we did a remix of the Tame Impala song with Kendrick (“Backwards”), and then I had him, strangely enough, in 2015 with SZA (with “i”) in the opening of “The Intern” with Robert DeNiro. So I had success with Kendrick Lamar previously.
Other than negotiating with the owner of the master rights, which is usually a label or production company, there’s a separate negotiation with the music publisher representing the artist/songwriter, or just the songwriters.
For decades, ancillary film and TV revenue was a widget business. If music right holders got a bit of a taste and landed the occasional big score, they were happy. Today, film and TV revenues are the cornerstone of the businesses for both labels and music publishers.
Also now with the likes of Hipgnosis Songs Fund, Primary Wave Music, and Downtown Music Holdings Round Hill Music, Shamrock Capital, Vine Alternative Investments spending massive fees to pick up more and more catalogs, they will likely have to earn those investments back for their investors.
Yeah, I think it will be interesting to see if people buying these catalogs, and paying premiums if they are going to have to show their investors some semblance of return. But, on the other hand, they need to show that they are placing these pieces in a film whether or not if they have pushed it to the point where it becomes either unaffordable or that it is not as necessary as they might think at the moment. Obviously, there are some times that there are things that you feel that you can’t live without, but there are things that are in films that work fine, work nicely, that you can replace.
Have you seen increased fee demands as yet for use of since the spree of catalog purchases?
I haven’t seen it yet, really. Again I don’t know if they can really. Artists, who have had a history of placing their music in movies, they have certain precedents. I don’t think that they are going to transcend precedent because they spent, either a fair amount of money or too much money. That’s really their problem.
Licensing is a way to boost the awareness and the value of a track, but the ball really is in our court. If someone is being too demanding, you can go, “Right, next.” Spotify is now home to more than 70 million tracks with more than 60,000 tracks uploaded every day.
Yeah. It can be really critical to get a specific piece of music, and sometimes it’s less critical.
I love that you hoard music for future use.
For example, “Fantastic Mr Fox” (2009) ends with Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance” which you had played Wes a decade earlier You two said, “OK, we’ll put that one away.” You knew that you wanted to use it, but neither of you knew where.
I took it, and didn’t play it for anyone. I put it away in what I call ‘my safe.’ Then, when the opportunity presented itself, we were ready.
You and Wes were working on a cell phone commercial in 2008 for the Japanese telecommunications giant Softbank that called for various French pieces, and you came across Françoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de l’Amour” which turned up in “Moonrise Kingdom.” the 2012 American coming-of-age period piece that Wes directed and co-wrote with Roman Coppola.
We were working SoftBank Telecom for a spot that I think ran just in Japan. We were going through our exploration of French pop music, and Wes and I were going back and forth, and he just said, “Let’s put this one away.” And we did. We ultimately used it in a really memorable way.
(The Wes Anderson Japanese cell phone commercial pays homage to the slapstick humor films of the late French director Jacques Tati and features Brad Pitt in a series of vignettes outside of a small French town. The piece was executed in one continuous shot, with the camera whip-panning and dollying around to unveil each successive tableau.)
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.