Music supervision starts with passion for the form
EmptyThe final minutes of the final episode of HBO's "Six Feet Under" are generally recognized as a bit of television at its best -- a moving and memorable series-ending montage that deftly said goodbye to the show's characters and its fans. And while show creator Alan Ball and the series' cast deserve due credit for making that ending so emotionally satisfying, the music that accompanied that montage and elevated those emotions -- pop singer Sia's "Breathe Me" -- represents a triumph of music supervision.
"That was my grand slam" says Gary Calamar, music supervisor for "Six Feet Under," whose credits also include Showtime's "Dexter," Fox's "House" and Ball's forthcoming HBO series "True Blood." "There's a sense of accomplishment when you see any finished episode that you've contributed to, and usually you're happy to hit singles and doubles. But that's the moment I'm most proud of -- being able to bring a song like that to a great scene at the end of the final episode of a great series. I felt like the stars were aligned."
A music supervisor's work week might not always seem quite so cosmically inspired, but the art and craft of music supervision has become an increasingly important element in film and television, with top supervisors prized as a significant part of any creative team. As more and more film and television projects utilize a blend of traditional scoring and licensed material, the supervisor can be as crucial to the feel and flow of a narrative as a composer. While grand-slam moments of music and picture coming together may be easy to spot, the range and specifics of the contributions a music supervisors makes are not always well understood.
"I'm 65 films into my career, and my mother still asks me what I do for a living," says Randall Poster, a music supervisor whose recent credits include Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" (the Weinstein Co.) and Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Express" (Fox Searchlight). Poster has enjoyed longtime associations with those directors, as well as with Todd Phillips and Richard Linklater. "It can be a difficult job to explain to people outside or even inside the industry, because sometimes the best work you do as a music supervisor is the invisible work -- it just supports the movie in a way that's so integrated people don't take particular notice of it. But essentially what a producer does for the entire film, a supervisor does for the music. You oversee all the creative and business aspects of bringing music to the film, and you work to help a director establish and implement the musical sensibility of his or her film."
Poster concedes that because the supervisor's work isn't always appreciated, the job title is sometimes devalued. "A lot of people think they can do music supervision just because they love music, and the job can be something of a dilettante's lair," he says. "But it's not just a matter of having a cool record collection. To really do the job well you have to approach it with a cinematic sensitivity. I think one of the reasons I've had successful ongoing relationships with directors is that they understand I'm approaching the work not just as a music guy but as a filmmaker."
The basic requirements of the music supervisor's job are to sit in on spotting sessions with directors or producers to see where licensed tracks are needed either for soundtrack or music within a scene, to come up with suggestions for what specific recordings might work, and then, after a greenlight from directors or producers, to negotiate licensing fees for the desired music and to follow through on all required clearances for the music to be used. But the work is not always that straightforward. Music supervisors may be asked to build up a library of music for editors to work with as a television series moves from pilot into production; they may be asked to coordinate all the creative and business elements of an on-camera performance of music, and may even commission the writing and recording of original songs.
"There has never been a typical work week for me, which is why it's such a great job," says Alexandra Patsavas, who, as owner of the Chop Shop music supervision house, has clearly demonstrated the value of her craft by creating distinctive musical palettes for such television hits as "The O.C.," ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," AMC's "Mad Men" and the CW's "Gossip Girl." "We work closely with producers and directors to define the signature sound of a show, and that's always a very different experience. And once you have an overall approach, you stay conscious of that, but there are certain episodes where you step outside of your template a bit -- Christmas episodes and prom episodes and all those special occasions when the music is not like the other episodes." Patsavas cites as an example an episode of "The O.C." that was put together as a 'Beck-isode,' making use of a half-dozen tracks from a new album by recording artist Beck.
At present, the community of film and television music supervisors is a loose one, without the representation of a guild. Talks for such an organization are in early stages, and one worthy advocate for the cause is music supervisor Maureen Crowe, who, as a recent president of the Los Angeles chapter of NARAS, helped secure RIAA voting rights for music supervisors (a right they have yet to be granted within the film and television academies).
"I think it's important for us to lay out some parameters of the job and let the industry know what the expectations of service should be," says Crowe. "It's nice if somebody knows their way around iTunes, but that's not music supervision. When you bring in a true music supervisor, a project moves to another level, and a supervisor who can help a project out creatively, financially, legally and in terms of efficiency -- a music supervisor who can help you make your day because problems were taken care of before they became problems -- that kind of supervisor can be a producer's or director's best friend."
It would seem that one of the keys to a successful music supervisor's temperament is the ability to balance a personal passion for music with someone else's creative sensibility. Nic Harcourt spends his mornings as an esteemed music tastemaker as host of L.A.-based radio station KCRW-FM's "Mornings Become Eclectic," but when he takes on music supervision work, he's there to serve. "As cliched as it sounds, your job is to help directors fulfill their artistic vision," says Harcourt, whose recent credits include Ben Affleck's "Gone Baby Gone" and New Line's forthcoming "Pride and Glory." "At the end of the day, it's about giving a director options. If you're spending a lot of time getting upset about why someone isn't using the songs that you think are so great, you've taken on the wrong job."
Interestingly enough, Harcourt's station has become a kind of one-stop shop for those in need of an able music supervisor. KCRW-FM colleagues with extensive music supervision credits include Calamar, Liza Richardson, Chris Douridas, Anne Litt, Jason Bentley and Tom Schnabel. "It's a great match when somebody approaches you specifically for the sensibility you've developed on a radio show," says Litt, who notably brought the band Devotchka to the score and soundtrack of last year's "Little Miss Sunshine." "But you should be able to handle any assignment, because it's about serving a story, not just pushing your tastes forward."
Adds Schnabel: "My specialty at the station is world music, but I've found myself called in to help a car company find the perfect heartland anthem for an ad campaign. You deliver what's asked of you, but I will say it's very satisfying when I can place something obscure like Penguin Cafe Orchestra in an insurance commercial and everybody's happy with the results."
Jason Bentley, who experienced the full range of music supervisor roles working on the "Matrix" trilogy, says he taps a personal passion for music no matter what the requirements of a project. "One of the key things for me is to stay connected to the same kind of excitement I've had for music since I was a teenager -- to stay immersed in music and be excited about it every day. That's what I draw from, whether I'm putting together my radio show or working on a Chevy spot or bringing bands and composers together for a film."
That passion is evident when Maureen Crowe speaks about some of the misperceptions around the music supervisor's job. "You hear people say, 'It's just background music,' but to a music supervisor, there's no such thing as background. Art directors and costume directors put in a lot of time and care a great deal about their work and in the same way a good music supervisor puts care and attention into how the music works with the story. Somebody might dismiss a lot of it as musical wallpaper, but wallpaper gets seen. You notice if it's peeling off the wall, and you notice when the music isn't right. Whether the music is there for subliminal support or whether it's actually pushing the story forward, it's an important element, and it has to be handled with artistic sensitivity.
"Don't forget," she adds, "even silent movies weren't ever really silent. There was always somebody in the theater playing music."