Music and the Movies: an Interview with Randall Poster

May 2015

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

What was the last film soundtrack you listened to? We can all agree that it is hard to imagine watching a film without music. Music heightens our emotional experience of a film. It makes the mundane magical, adding a poignancy and richness to visual images, drawing us into a different reality. Music shapes the mood of a film, bringing an intensity of color and meaning to characters, dialogue and stories that could not otherwise be achieved.

Randall Poster has worked as a music
supervisor for more than 20 years, identifying,
selecting and combining music with the
visual aspects of around 120 films
including Skyfall. (Photo: Eon Productions)

The task of identifying, selecting and combining music with the visual aspects of a film falls to the music supervisor. With a broad knowledge of music and music licensing, a music supervisor effectively acts as a bridge between the creative and business aspects of the film-making process. It is a role that Randall Poster has filled for more than 20 years, to great acclaim. He has supervised the music for well over 100 films, including the recent hits The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood and Still Alice. He explains the different dimensions of his work.

What are the key elements of your role as a music supervisor?

I work with the director and the producer to develop and execute a musical strategy for the film. What I do in the process of making a movie depends on its inherent musical character. Some movies have a very strong and dynamic on-camera musical element with actors or musicians performing on camera; but for others, the challenge is to identify the right musical sound for the film. Beyond that, my responsibilities extend to obtaining the rights and licensing all of the music that we use in the film. The professional challenge with every film is to make sure that it satisfying both creatively and financially.

How did you go about becoming a music supervisor?

I have always been into pop music, record collecting and going to the movies. After I graduated from college, some friends and I decided to make a movie. It was called A Matter of Degrees. We developed it at the Sundance Institute and did a big soundtrack with Atlantic Records. The movie itself didn’t fare very well commercially, but in making it I realized that I really wanted to work with great film directors and that if music was my focus, it would be possible to do so. Thankfully, it worked out that way.

What was the first movie you worked on as a music supervisor?

The first two movies I worked on were Kids written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clark and The Crossing Guard written and directed by Sean Penn. They were both released in 1995. Since then I’ve worked on around 120 films. While there are certainly similarities, each film and each experience has a bit of its own DNA.

Of all the films you have worked on, which one stands out and why?

There are so many films to which I feel deeply connected, but the great break in my career was when I managed to start working with directors who kept making movies. I have worked on eight Wes Anderson movies (including The Grand Budapest Hotel), eight films with Todd Phillips (including The Hangover), six films with Todd Haynes (including I’m Not There). And for around 10 years now, I have also been working with Richard Linklater (including Boyhood), Sam Mendes (including Skyfall), and Martin Scorsese (including The Wolf of Wall Street). What sticks in my mind are the ongoing relationships I have with these filmmakers.

What do you most like about your job?

What I most enjoy are the moments of musical discovery, when a fortuitous marriage of music and image enhances the moment in an unimaginable way - when the musical element brings something to life and brings context to a cinematic moment that had been dormant.

How would you characterize the role of music in film?

It is hard to imagine a movie without music. I would only condemn my enemies to watching movies without music! Music plays a different role in different films. Sometimes it is used to set a story in a particular time frame or era. Sometimes music is the motor that drives the story forward. Sometimes it is a moment of emphasis or a moment of clarification.

How do you go about researching and discovering music?

Once I have a brief from the filmmaker, I research by any and all available means. The story is the guide but there is also a certain instinct in terms of whether something is going to work or not. I may go back to period journals, read critics, look at the old charts or interview people who are experts in a particular area. I work very hard to remain current in terms of what is happening musically.

It is actually quite hard work to identify the right piece of music. It is not really a science, more of an art and there is always the compulsion to defy your own instinct and to try something that does not seem or feel obvious. I always like to try using music in different ways to see what happens. There is a certain unpredictable alchemy that occurs. It’s quite fascinating.

I also access music through all media. The digital revolution has certainly made my life easier in terms of getting hold of the music I am looking for. When I think of a song for a scene, I can get it on iTunes, I can look at it on YouTube or I can order it on Amazon. Generally, I like to buy music, because I need to be able to work with it for the picture.

Do you use original music created for other films?

Sometimes we do. For example, when I worked with Wes Anderson on his film The Darjeeling Limited, his vision was to use music from the films of Satyajit Ray as the primary musical element and I think it worked out perfectly. On other occasions when you are working with brilliant directors, the film, the imagery, the dialogue and the music evolve concurrently.

What is the nature of your relationship with the director of a film or the composer of a film’s score?

I am the person the director employs to be their primary correspondent about the music in the film. Depending on the film, and on whether or not the director has a pre-existing relationship with the composer, the music supervisor often plays the role of interpreter, helping to establish a common vocabulary for the music in the film. But in other instances, the score and the song elements may evolve on separate paths.

Do musicians get in touch with you directly?

Sure, every day. But more often than not, I am not working on anything that needs the musical elements they offer. When I find things that I think are interesting or compelling, I certainly put them away for when the right moment arises. I am surrounded by a lot of music. My cataloguing system is not quite as good as it could be.

Can you say something about why copyright is important?

I think it is important to respect artists’ rights. I spend much of my day negotiating for these rights and I see the value in these compositions and recordings and I want to preserve those creative boundaries. In working with my filmmakers I put a lot of effort into creating a very strong musical impression, and I do not want to see those constructions subverted. I think it is important that the rights of artists and copyright are protected throughout the world. Our livelihood depends on an audience that is investing in and supporting the work that we do. Without copyright protection, we would not be able to make a living from what we do.

Would you like to see the rights clearance process simplified in any way?

In general, I think things are moving in the right direction. Record companies and publishers are well aware of the importance of licensing to their bottom line, so I think they want to make it work. Sometimes, though, I just wish they would be more sensitive to the budgetary constraints that I work under.

Do iconic tracks work in films?

It depends on the film, and how the music is used. In general, iconic songs carry a lot of emotional baggage and can become a barrier to creating a real connection with the storytelling process. Filmmakers are not always sensitive to that. While a piece of music might appear to help the scene or sequence, it may actually take the audience out of the moment through its associative qualities. Ideally, music has to be part of the fabric of a film; if it jumps out too much it can be a distraction. Sometimes people will tell me the music in a film I have worked on was what they most liked about it. While seemingly complimentary, sometimes it speaks to our failure to fully integrate all the elements of a film into a seamless whole.

What was the most challenging project you have worked on and why?

I think working as a music supervisor on a film is like when a woman forgets the pain of giving birth. When I look back now, I’ll tell you that it was all joy.

What advice would you give to someone seeking to become a music supervisor?

Make movies with your contemporaries. Just start!

What is your favorite piece of music?

That’s impossible to answer. It depends on the day, on the hour and on the minute.

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