'Boardwalk Empire' Music Supervisor Randall Poster on Bringing 1920s 'Hits' into 2013 (Q&A)

Boardwalk Empire Soundtrack album art P

The just-released Volume 2 of the show's soundtrack features period-appropriate contributions by Elvis Costello, Liza Minnelli, Patti Smith, The National’s Matt Berninger and David Johansen, among others.

Bringing the music of the 1920s into 2013 can be a formidable challenge even for the most experienced soundtrack guider. For the recent remake of The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann took the somewhat unorthodox approach of incorporating sounds of modern day hip-hop along with jukes of the jazz age era.

Boardwalk Empire music supervisor Randall Poster also brought in contemporary singers to breathe new life into century-old songs. Elvis Costello, Liza Minnelli, Patti Smith, The National’s Matt Berninger, St. Vincent, Neko Case and David Johansen, among others, all appear on the soundtrack Boardwalk Empire Volume 2 (out now) as well as the show’s fourth season, premiering tonight on HBO.

Poster recently talked to THR about the tricky task of bridging the musical worlds with a mix of classic songs and eclectic singers.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you’re looking at revisiting these songs from a hundred years ago, were they the hits of the day or do you dive deeper into more obscure compositions -- deep album cuts, as it were?

Randall Poster: With some, we’ll say, “What were the popular show tunes? What was on the popular charts?” And we’ll look for certain performers' iconic pieces. After 1925, music becomes much more knowable. We started in 1920 and now we’re in 1924, it does require a bit of homework to get a sense of what was happening.

THR: Were there actual pop charts at the time and were they based on sheet music sales?

Poster: There were million-seller pieces of sheet music or songs that were published. If you look at the charts in 1924, as I'm apt to do, often times, there's a song that's done by three different artists in the same year, so there's that element of it. When we were dealing with the nickelodeon and silent movie house scenes of 1920, we got what are called “inspirationals” -- because they didn't send the same sheet music along with the films that they were showing. Certain musicians and movie houses were provided with inspirationals, so there would be a cue that's like, “danger,” or “chase.” When we went back to try to get some of this music, we unearthed pieces that we didn't know what they sounded like until we recorded them. And some were pieces that had never been recorded, because that wasn't the point. So that was really fun and interesting.

THR: What sources do you use in researching music from the era?

Poster: Everywhere from the Library of Congress to the Harry Ransom Collection at the University of Texas. Or Vince Giordano, our band leader, he collects these period pieces. We really do go back to the period source, and sometimes even have to do transcriptions because we can't find something.

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THR: Do you feel like you’ve had a college education music of this era?

Poster: Sort of. I'd like to think that I just finished middle school. Hopefully there's a lot more to learn.

THR: The soundtrack features such recognizable voices as David Johansen (doing "Strut Miss Lizzie") and Liza Minelli ("You've Got To See Mama Ev'ry Night (Or You Can't See Mama At All)" – how did you ensure that such recognizable voices don’t come off hokey?

Poster: All the singers that we invite to work with us have a vocal distinction as well as a certain sensitivity and an insight into the repertoire -- because they're tricky songs, these period pieces, especially with the arrangements. So I think that we cast the singers because they have a particular musical personality. David, for instance, has a very theatrical delivery, and that's sort of akin to what one might have discovered in 1923 or 1924. It's just really selling the song. … And our band has been completely thrilled and flabbergasted to find themselves backing such renowned performers.

THR: You won a Grammy for Boardwalk Empire Volume 1; Does that put extra pressure on part two?

Poster: I don't think so. We had so much fun making this music, and the whole process of learning about it and being steeped in it, it's a real treat. Being rewarded for it is great, but it's just a privilege to do it. It'll be interesting to see if people like this record as much, or if they appreciate it as much.

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THR: As an executive producer, how involved is Martin Scorsese in the music?

Poster: Terence Winter is really the commander of the fleet, but we mine Marty for his ideas, and we run songs by him. He watches all the episodes is closely involved in either indicating things musically that he's excited about that we present to him, or directing us to a trove of music that maybe is being overlooked. Also I think it's his musical point of view and cinematic approach to music that really informs all of us. Me, absolutely -- being really open to the music and the power of it, and using it creatively to help tell the story.

THR: Scorsese’s films are the gold standard of period-appropriate, plot-driving music. Were you influenced by his movies in your music supervisor career?  

Poster: Yeah. I would say Mean Streets really made me understand that there was even such a thing as music supervision -- that there was a way that they were painting with the music. I've done a few movies with him, and actually I've been working with Marty and Robbie Robertson on The Wolf of Wall Street. I definitely have been able to benefit from being in the vicinity of the master.

THR: You’ve also worked with Wes Anderson on all of his films, how is Grand Budapest Hotel coming along?

Poster: It’s great and really unlike anything that he's ever done. He's created a whole other world. We'll finish that hopefully by the middle of September. … Working with people like Wes and Scorsese, it elevates your game. It’s always a challenge, but you feel like you're involved in a noble undertaking for the sake of cinema. (Photo by Charlie Gross)

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin