Randall Poster: The Rhapsody Interview
Randall Poster has the job that you want.
For just about 17 years, he has served as the musical supervisor for many, many talented directors on many, many movies: Larry Clark's Kids, Harmony Korine's Gummo, Cindy Sherman's Office Killer, Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, Kevin Smith's Dogma, Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, Ben Stiller's Zoolander, Richard Linklater's School of Rock, Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, Drew Barrymore's Whip It, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, Todd Phillips' The Hangover Part II, Martin Scorsese's Hugo and about twice as many again, including every Wes Anderson film since Rushmore.
We spoke shortly after the release of the soundtrack for their latest collaboration, 2012's critically beloved Moonrise Kingdom; per the above, he also supplied us a with a personal, exclusive Rhapsody playlist, if you'd like a soundtrack as he discusses his various soundtracks. Enjoy.
So if you're trying to explain what it is you do to a non-industry person -- let's say you're trapped in an elevator in an Omaha office building. How do you explain the job of a music supervisor?
I would say that I'm the person who the director has to talk about the music in the movie. And then really what I do is, I help the director conceive and execute a musical strategy for the film. And then, if it needs to get simpler than that, I say, "A song comes on the radio in the movie, a wedding band plays at a wedding in a movie," you know, that's sort of my realm in terms of what they play and what it sounds like. And then I have to make sure we get all the rights.
Is it possible for you to listen to music, or even watch movies for that matter, and not have the on-the-clock, work side of your brain creep in?
Yes. And I would say that that's a real blessing, that I'm able to still sort of appreciate movies and music as a civilian.
I was kind of surprised by how far back the musical supervisor title went. I'm not sure that I was aware of such a thing, but Duck Soup had a musical direction/supervision credit all the way back in 1933. When did you realize that musical supervisor was a job, that it was something you wanted to do, and that it was something that you could do?
Well, watching movies like American Graffiti and then Shampoo, and seeing how pop music was such an essential part of the storytelling, it really made me aware of the vital role that music played and songs can play in movies. And then in terms of having a kind of professional disposition or an awareness of the job, I guess I would think of the John Hughes movies and their use of music. Another movie that was pivotal was Honeymoon in Vegas. It used all of those Elvis Presley songs and then re-recorded all those Elvis Presley songs, and the possibility of doing something like that was really exciting to me. But I really had no professional predisposition towards it. I finished school and just really didn't know what to do, and it sort of came together because a group of friends and I decided to make a movie. Before that I always loved it but I never really thought about, "Oh, that's what I want to do with my career."
When you're watching American Graffiti, do you realize that there's someone behind the curtain making the decision as to what you're hearing while you're watching?
Yeah, well, that there's a group of people that are doing it, you know. It's a collaborative team. But that was such an attraction. You know, the soundtrack to that movie, after I saw it, just opened me up to this whole world of music that I really didn't know, the music of the '50s, so American Graffiti was really sort of a magical experience.
Some musicians have a hard time listening to themselves play. Some actors have a hard time watching themselves perform on the screen. Is it hard for you to watch a film that you've worked on once it's over and edits are no longer an option?
Not really. I mean, I try to leave it all on the field. And, also, that's sort of the joy of a collaborative art. It's not only you; it's a combination of sensibilities and forces that give birth to a movie, you know. There's a larger implication, so you don't have to be completely self-conscious. But sometimes, again, generally in those situations you think, "Oh God, I wish the music could somehow play louder when it's playing on television," or something like that.
But there's rarely the feeling of "I wish I had that one back."
If you can listen to music as a civilian, then you have favorite bands and favorite songs. Do you have to like every song, every piece of music that you use in a film? Or can you dislike a piece of music and it still be the right fit for a particular scene?
I think that you have to use music, sometimes, that you don't particularly like, if it's the right thing. And oftentimes when I work with young directors I try to make that point, that it isn't necessarily the band that you think is the coolest, or the song that you like the most. You have to be a bit of a mercenary and find the thing that really works. So I think you have to, somehow, be open to songs and musicians that you don't necessarily want to marry to your profile, but that you need to marry to your movie for the sake of your movie. Sometimes when you want to use something, particularly when you're using something for comedic emphasis, you're not necessarily pulling from your most sacred records.
Hangover 2 begins with Jenny Lewis' "Bad Man's World." There's a phone conversation and then we go straight into Danzig's "Black Hell" over the opening credits and establishing shots of Bangkok. And "Black Hell" is pretty close to the dictionary definition of ominous music. It sets a tone, and does so very successfully. When you're working with the director on a film with such high commercial expectations, are you ever nervous about doing your job too well? That you've inserted this really portentous presence just a few minutes into a movie that's expected to do a couple hundred million at the box office?
Well, I think that Todd Phillips is a really brilliant director, and he's one of the funniest people that you'll ever meet in your life. And actually we're going to start shooting Hangover 3 at the end of the summer, and this will be the seventh movie that I've done with Todd. But Danzig figured into the original movie as well, so I think that in terms of using that setup you're basically throwing a change-up at the audience. And so I think that, particularly with Hangover 2, we took advantage of people's relationship to the first movie. The Hangover movies, I think, succeed because they sort of court a certain danger that maybe other studio comedies don't. So I think that that's where the music and the variety of music and the transitional music really serves the movie and serves the audience well. And really, if we think it's funny during the preview process, if we're getting the response from the audience, you know, I think we go at it pretty fearlessly in terms of thinking, "Okay, what's the right thing for this moment, and how will it help set up for the rest of the story?"
Given the setting and disorientation of the main characters in Hangover 2, did you consider using Alex Chilton's "Bangkok" in there somewhere?
No, I don't think we did. That might have been fun to do. I don't know if you know this, but in my first movie, A Matter of Degrees, we have an Alex Chilton song. Alex was working in a kitchen in New Orleans when we reached out to him, and that was really a thrill that we got to do an original song with him. That's tangential, I'm sure, but no, it didn't come into play.
Ed Helms sings a bastardized version of "Allentown."
I have to say that Billy Joel was great, allowing us to use his music. You know, he really showed himself to have a great sense of humor, and that was really a challenge just to make sure that we would be able to use it.
So Danzig is used in both Hangover films, there are two Billy Joel songs in Hangover 2, and this doubling up has happened often in your work with Wes Anderson: Cat Stevens in Rushmore, David Bowie in The Life Aquatic, The Kinks in The Darjeeling Limited and Hank Williams, of course, in Moonrise Kingdom. In these situations, are you looking for individual songs, or are you looking more for a particular artist to set the tone?
Well, I really like to pursue connections, musical connections in the individual movies, and so by using multiple songs by an artist, you know, it's virtually doing something thematic. And I think helps make connections in the story and helps ground character. It helps render the depth of character. So I'm always inclined to try to do that as much as possible. It's very rare, working on sequels, but going forward I think that we do try to see where we can keep some of the musical language, transfer some of the musical language from one episode to the next, for the sake of reference or continuity or character. That's sort of a useful strategy, I think.
But you're also working with an almost circular structure, almost like its own narrative. For example, we hear The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow" very early in Darjeeling Limited, and then we come back to The Kinks two more times before the movie ends.
That's something, in terms of the Kinks, where we're hearing both Ray Davies and Dave Davies singing. For that we really like the idea of, "Okay, here are these songs that came from the same record, and they obviously have a certain shared DNA in a musical sense, and also in a true familial sense." And here it was that we had our brothers in the story and we have our Davies brothers. So for us it's like parallel storytelling in a certain way. Although, you know, it's certainly subliminal.
I have to ask about Seu Jorge's role in The Life Aquatic. Is he initially hired as an actor who's also a musician, or is he hired as a musician who can play the part?
That was a situation where we knew that Jorge played music, but we really had no idea of the scope of his talent. And when Wes was writing Life Aquatic, we used to meet on Sunday afternoons, and I would read the new pages, and one afternoon there was a line that said, "Pele goes on deck and sings a David Bowie song in Portuguese." And that was it. That was it. And then basically we found Jorge, and I went to Rome and worked with him on the songs. He wasn't even really familiar with David Bowie. And, you know, he transformed these songs into bossa nova with such incredible emotion and facility that, at that point, we realized, "Okay, this is something that's going be a much more important element of the movie." And the way it worked was that basically at every location we ended the day's shooting, and Wes would say, "Okay, where's Jorge? Let's have him do another song here." So that was how that all came about very organically. And so the answer is that we hired an actor who could sing, and then by virtue of his enormous, brilliant talent, that element of the film grew.
You've worked on every Wes Anderson film since Rushmore. Why does your relationship work?
I think it works because I'll do whatever he wants, really. I'll climb Kilimanjaro to get him what he wants. And I think that it works because we have a very strong commitment to the work together. And in terms of our process, it seems that a lot of the work that we do together gets done between the movies. So, you know, I'll say from the day we met, I don't think that we've really stopped working together. We're always talking about music or trying to figure out, you know, what might anchor a new movie. Or he'll plant a seed, and I'll go and just extrapolate it to the end, and then gather everything that's related to it.
It's just these connections, song to song, songwriter to songwriter, era to era, album to album, you know, that is essential code for us, and we pursue it relentlessly. We're always trying to make connections. Darjeeling Limited was a very interesting challenge in terms of gathering all of this Indian film music. You couldn't go to a record store, even if there were record stores, and buy these things. I actually had to go to Calcutta to get this music from the Satyajit Ray estate. And then in terms of doing the research, there's the flashback where the father's died and they go to pick up the car. And we knew we were trying to put some music in there, and I said to Wes, "Well, you know, Satyajit Ray's favorite piece of Western music was Beethoven's 7th Symphony." And so he was like, "Okay, well, that's what we're going to use." And it worked perfectly. And that's sort of our faith, that if you pursue those connections, you'll find the perfect thing.
Is it true that the genesis of Moonrise came from a particular piece of music?
Yeah. Wes had been in a performance of "Noye's Fludde [Noah's Flood]" when he was a kid in Houston, and so while we were finishing Fantastic Mr. Fox, he played me that piece and he said, "You know, I want to do something with this." So from my vantage point, you know, that was the seed from which the whole film was born. And it existed. His embrace of that piece of music, and the presentation of that piece of music, wasn't just the song but also the setting of the kids and the performance of the children in costume. I mean, that was the wellspring for the film from my point of view. You know, before there was even a script there was "Noah's Flood."
This is obviously an oversimplification, but in Darjeeling we've got Satyajit Ray on one hand and we've got the Kinks on the other hand. In Moonrise Kingdom we have Benjamin Britten on one hand and then Hank Williams shows up on the radio both when Captain Sharp is at home and when he's driving. But the first time we hear Hank Williams is when we're introduced to Sam Shakusky, and he's run away from the Khaki Scouts. We can't hear Hank Williams when we meet Sam if Sam and Captain Sharp aren't going to end up as a family at the end of the movie, can we?
Certainly not from this vantage point. But I think that as far as these things go, I mean, again, that's just part of the creative evolution of the story where, you know, we may not have known exactly how it was going to go, but that's the instinct, and that's sort of the pattern that was there for us to land on.
Is Hank Williams' music part of Captain Sharp's character first, or part of Sam's?
I think it's Captain Sharp. I think Captain Sharp is the instigator.
And that tells us so many things about this man who's working for these people who make so much more money. There's a class difference.
Well, I think that's right, but I think largely it's about the emotional content of the songs and that he's longing for connection. I mean, in a more meta analysis, it's just like, say, Leonard Bernstein sort of sets out "The Young Person's Guide," which in a certain sense lays out certain rules for growing up. I think that Hank Williams, the music of Hank Williams sort of lays out some of the adult sort of lessons and boundaries.
I wish I knew how to bring American Graffiti back in so I could come to a close with a more or less circular structure.
I think that maybe the thing about that is that the magical moments in your childhood replay in your adult creative life in a very rare and generous way. And generous because I think that ultimately, if you incorporate that passion into your work, it's transmitted to the audience. So I think that all of these things, the movies that we love and the songs that we love and respect, we're able now to configure into another work of art. It just enhances the power, I think. And it helps to create sort of enduring connections with people. And so I think that Moonrise Kingdom really is an incredible gift that Wes has given. It's really personal and it's supremely poetic. And you talk about watching the work that I've done. I mean, I can watch it over and over again. I really think it's a perfect movie. And it delivers on everything that, you know, I think a movie could. You talk about the circular element, and here it is that, by virtue of Wes' experience as a child, that he really grew into this incredible film.
That has to be enormously fulfilling for you.
Yeah. I mean, people always say that doing what I do is like a dream job, and I can't deny it. To be a part of a group of filmmakers and have had a hand in creating this specific body of work, you know, it certainly moves me towards fulfilling my life's ambition, because I think that these films will continue to reward audiences forever. And hopefully we still have a few more in us.