"I help someone make their soundtrack." Interview with Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips
The soundtrack to a TV or show can be as powerful as any musical score. That song that resonates with the scene, that sticks in your head long after the credits have rolled, is an essential part of any viewing experience. Maggie Phillips is a music supervisor behind some of television's biggest and most exciting shows and it is her role to help select the soundtrack that appears in the finished episode or film.
Maggie is currently music supervisor of Amazon's psychological thriller series Homecoming, starring Julia Roberts and produced by Sam Esmail. This year, she has supervised music for season two of Golden Globe and Emmy-winning series, The Handmaid’s Tale and hit superhero TV series with a twist Legion. She'll also be providing the soundtrack to upcoming romantic comedy film Isn’t It Romantic, due for release next year and starring Adam Devine, Liam Hemsworth and Rebel Wilson.
Maggie's resume is huge, supervising music on the likes of Fargo, Dietland, Counterpart, Snowfall and Altered Carbon. She has also worked on numerous films, from Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film, Moonlight, to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Pirates of Somalia and was nominated for an award for her music on Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominee, Ingrid Goes West.
I had the pleasure to chat to Maggie for The Digital Fix, talking about her work as a music supervisor, the TV shows and films she has worked on and her own musical influences...
Hi Maggie, thank you for taking the time to talk to The Digital Fix. You've been a prolific music supervisor for many award winning TV shows and films, but I imagine it's not a role as widely recognised as a composer or director. Can you tell us a little bit about what a music supervisor does?
We are responsible for all song queues in a film or TV shows, all licenced queues to be specific. . Because as in Homecoming, we're licencing the pre-existing score. Typically it's mostly songs. When my parents ask what I do, I say I'm responsible for the soundtrack. So that means creatively, choosing, selecting and placing songs in a TV show or film and then the actual licencing of the rights for each song that you put in.
So when you're looking at the soundtrack for a TV show or film, are you given access to the finished scenes you overlay the music to, or do you work from the script?
It depends on the project but I prefer, and almost always try, to start with the scripts. I begin by generating ideas at script stage and then sometimes you have to clear a song pre-shooting if someone is singing along or dancing to it. That's the minority of the things I do; it only happens a few times each season.
So I start with the script, generating ideas, but I'm a very visual person so it's hard for me to start generating ideas until I've seen at least a clip of the TV show or film. I'm always asking them to send me clips so I can test up to picture.
And how closely do you work with the composer or director of a film or TV series?
Well the composer, it depends project to project. There are some where I work very closely with the composer and we are in constant dialogue about what's going where or what's taking over what. And then there are other projects like The Handmaid's Tale where I never spoke to the composer; it was a very separate process. So it really just depends on the project and the dialogue and communication established by the producers and the showrunner.
Do you find you have to balance the style and tone of the composer's score with the music you select for the series?
Yes, it's definitely considered at the beginning stages of a TV show or film. But sometimes it's completely counterpoint. Sometimes it's a conscious decision that hey, we're going to be electronic with the score because the source queues are going to be more organic or acoustic or we're only going to score internal character driven stuff and the songs are going to be the more fun, diegetic moments.
So yeah, it's always considering at the beginning stages and once established we then follow the path. It's based on project for sure.
Let's talk more about yourself. What are your musical influences?
Quite a broad question perhaps?
I laugh maybe out of necessity. At this point I feel like I love everything, almost, except perhaps contemporary country music. Just because I've had to study and research and learn about every musical genre out these, I'm sure I haven't, but it seems like I have at this point!
I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, so my early music I was introduced to was from my father, which was a lot of old classic, country music; Jonny Cash, Whelan James, The Highwayman. Willie Nelson of course. So that's what I was introduced to; and then I grew up in Austin in the 90s when there was a really lively indie rock scene and that's where my love of music grew in High School and college, going to see shows at an early age.
That's really why I'm a music supervisor now. I started as a fan. And I actually went to school for the visual arts; I was a painter for the first decade after college. But because I was such a huge fan of music at the same time. I had friends that were film makers and I started helping them with their films, suggesting songs and just helping them creatively; the job sort of just grew out of that.
Is there a particular genre of music you like working with or particular songs you like to use where possible?
My heart belongs in the mid to late 60s, 70s; from about 1964 to 1979 is where the music I love the most [came from] and that's where my strength lies. But you know, one of the best parts about my job is that I'm not limited and I get to do new things. I'm on a project now where they really want all young baby bands, specifically from the Pacific Northwest. So I'm discovering this whole new community of bands up in Portland and Seattle that I would have never, at my age, if this wasn't my career, done the research to discover these new acts. And I'm discovering some cool stuff. So it's a cool part about my job,
Quite often a song will become successful once it's appeared in a TV show or film. Do you seek out new artists as part of your role and how do you find music that audiences may not be familiar with?
Oh for many different ways. Yes, it's important on some projects than others; they might want to discover new artists or use something more established. Sometimes it depends on the budget, to be frank.
But as for finding new acts, I will go on blogs, I will ask my friends, the kids on my team who are still actively going to shows, every night like I used to when I was younger. It's the way you would typically discover new acts, with a little but of digging.
Let's talk about your work on new psychological drama Homecoming. I understand you took a slightly different approach as you had complete control over the music, including access to the pre-existing score to combine with your song choices. How did you approach working on that show?
Well the initial idea of using a pre-existing score was Sam [Esmail]'s vision and he talked to me about it in our interview. They hadn't even started shooting when we discussed it and all the possibilities. I didn't know the extent of it until I started seeing the cuts and we started scoring with this pre-existing score from the 1970s and 80s primarily.
I also didn't realise until about an episode or two in how huge an undertaking it was going to be and it became a total team effort, which is unusual. I mean it's always a team effort between the post team - the editors, the showrunner, the music supervisor and the composer - but in this instance it was my entire team, all the assistant editors, the clearance team at NBC Universal, the post team at Homecoming; it was like all hands on deck because it was such a challenging creative vision, once we got in and understood what it took to find pre-existing score pieces to fit under specific scenes.
You also supervise the music for The Haindmaiden's Tale, which has some quite harrowing content. Does the nature of the show mean you have to approach the music more sensitively then you would any other show?
Yes, I believe so. Sometimes I think I approached it more sensitively than the other producers wanted me too! [laughs] You know, everyone has a different idea of what is sensitive.
I came on for season two. I was a big fan of season one and I was a big fan of the book. Coming onto season two, I probably overthought it more than I should have. Because it was such an important subject matter to me, it took me a little bit of time to relax and realise that I could still have some fun; I didn't have to second guess everything that was selected to put in there.
Again, one thing I don't know if people are clear about music supervisors; we're there to facilitate someone else's vision. it's not my soundtrack, I help someone make their soundtrack. I heard one music supervisor had a good quote "we're option providers." I though that was a good way of describing what we do. We're almost the service industry. We provide and one of the services we give will be ten to five hundred songs for you to listen to, to put in this scene. Ultimately we don't select the song; it's the creator or director.
You've also worked on Legion, one of my favourite series. I recently chatted to Jeff Russo about his work composing for the show and what he loved about it was the opportunity to really experiment and less loose musically. Did you have the same freedom with selecting the songs for the series?
Yeah, definitely. [showrunner] Noah Hawley has no limit to where he will go or what he will listen to. With Legion there are no parameters because it's so surreal, so much is what's going on in David's head and there are no genres, periods, no parameters at all. We can go anywhere and so in that respect, yeah it was limitless.
Which is also super challenging because it is limitless! In some ways it's exciting but it's also daunting too. It's just fun to play and not have to worry. It's a lot of fun. I love working on Legion and we're about to start season three and I can't wait!
Fantastic! I also have to ask about the song Behind Blue Eyes used in the season two finale battle between David and Farouk. The words perfectly suited that battle on screen. How did you come up with that?
You know, that was Noah, that was written into to script.
You also received a Guild of Music Supervisor Awards nomination this year for Best Music Supervision for Films Budgeted Under 5 Million Dollars for Ingrid Goes West. Can you tell me about how you approach the music for the film?
I worked with first time director Matt Spicer, who has phenomenal taste. We had I had a lot fun collaborating, brainstorming, But ultimately the hardest part about that job was our budget. I think we had about 20 source cues in that movie, which is a pretty significant number when you're working with an indie budget. So that's the boring part, the most difficult part.
The greater part was so much fun. We had to have some balance on where to spend our money and where to pull back. There were some compromises, but not a lot. Matt had a really strong vision and didn't want to compromise, so I applaud him for that.
What's been your favourite TV series and film to work on?
Haha! I'm not supposed to pick favourites!
[Laughs] You could have multiple options?
Fargo, I absolutely love working on Fargo. Again, I came on that show for season two. I was a huge fan of season one, a huge fan of the Cohen brothers like most people are and getting to work with such a fun, character-driven script and TV show was great.
I loved working on Legion, I loved working on Homecoming, even though it was mostly score and there weren't a lot of songs. The songs are where I have fun.
I like working with people who challenge me creatively, like Noah and Sam do.
And what do you have coming up in the future, that you can talk about?
Room 104 season three is coming out on HBO with the Duplass Brothers; they're my friends from college, who I started supervising films with, so I love that I still get to work with them.
And I have my first big, romantic comedy big budget film that I've ever done, starring Rebel Wilson. Isn't It Romantic comes out on Valentine's Day next year. That was a totally different project for me and a lot of fun. I'm working on Ron Moore's new show for Apple called For All Mankind, which is a period piece, which I love doing.
Is it a challenge with period pieces to find the music that fits tonally with the era?
It's the opposite of Legion. Because there are parameters, you sort of know when you're done, when you've picked the best song. With Legion you can keep listening - and I do - until someone tells me to stop. I just also like old music better. I'm one of those people who feels like there's more soul there. And I'm always discovering new stuff in old music I never knew. So that's a lot of fun too.