The music of Wes Anderson's films is always a huge part of their absurdist charm. From Seu Jorge's Portuguese cover of David Bowie songs in The Life Aquatic, to the use of Ravel’s String Quartet in The Royal Tenenbaums, Benjamin Britten's transformative opera Noye’s Fludde in Moonrise Kingdom to the rousing score of 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson uses music as a character in itself to augment the plot and create something in and of itself. But he doesn't do it alone.
Randall Poster might well have the coolest job in Hollywood. He's the film world's leading music supervisor with particular relationships with Wes Anderson, Harmony Korine, Todd Phillips, Todd Haynes and Martin Scorsese. Recently he oversaw the soundtrack for The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as The Wolf Of Wall Street, Spring Breakers, Skyfall and the TV show Boardwalk Empire. Since 1995's Kids he's maintained a career creating iconic soundtracks in a fragile age for the genre. I spoke to Poster about his career, working with Anderson, how the art of the film soundtrack has changed and what attracted him to work with Skrillex on the Kanye-inspired compilation for the highly anticipated Divergent.
NME: How did you become a music supervisor
Randall Poster: I was always a big music lover, a record collector and an avid movie fan. I got through university studying English Literature, and I found myself without any professional direction. I wrote a screenplay with a friend of mine about a college radio station called ‘A Matter of Degrees’. We did a lot of new songs for it, and we did a record and I just felt that that was really what I wanted to focus on. I wanted to work with great directors so I figured if I made music my focus, that would enable me to do that.
NME: And did that role exist in the early 90s, late 80s when you started out?
RP: There was definitely a precedent. If you think about the John Hughes movies… and there’s been a history of song-driven films whether it was American Graffiti or Mean Streets..
NME: But I guess with lots of films around that period, particularly Quentin Tarantino movies, directors were primarily driving the soundtracks.
RP: I would say that with all of most successful movies I have worked on, it’s always because there’s a director who’s the driving force of the music.
NME: What skills does a music supervisor need?
RP: An insight into story-telling is really helpful. The music has to really support the story and I think that that’s a great skill to bring into the process. Sometimes you think you have a great song that will do anything and everything you want it to do but it doesn’t really work within the larger context of the movie so you have to have some insight into that. Having a good and robust insight into music, periods and genres, is very helpful.
NME: I’m guessing encyclopaedic musical knowledge is a good starting point..
RP: I think you have to have at least a good base to anchor in. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, I didn’t go into it with an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk music but that’s where some of the academic background came in. We had to do our research and read about it, which is also one of the most fun things of that process.
NME: Is it a career that has an art people can learn or is there an innate gift?
RP: I think it’s probably a combination of the two. You certainly can accumulate knowledge and assets that can help you do the job but you have to have some sort of insight of film-making and storytelling. You’ve got to be able to see how music can help the end product and also have the ability to imagine how something might work in a scene of a sequence or in the context of a story.
NME: There’s so much music out there, you must have to have strong conviction in saying “this is the song that works at this point”.
RP: Yeah. Again, it’s not a completely abstract process. You do get the movie to work with. You can sit in the editing room and you can work with putting different songs in and see where it leads you.
NME: Was ‘Kids’ the first major movie you worked on in 1995?
RP: Yeah, I’d say Kids and Crossing Guard were the two and they were happening around the same time. ‘Kids’ came out first.
NME: From Kids 20 years ago to this year's ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and other projects you’re working on, what lessons have you learnt?
RP: It’s important to be open-minded and not necessarily have too many preconceptions about how songs are going to work in the movie, and let the movie lead you. I’ve been lucky enough to have enduring relationships with certain filmmakers. I worked on ‘Kids’ and then ‘Spring Breakers’ with Harmony [Korine, who wrote the screenplay for Kids] so there’s a certain continuity and evolution that happens when you have these enduring relations with a filmmaker. You learn to navigate a project as it relates to filmmakers evolving from a retrospective point of view.
NME: With Wes in particular, how does the process work between you? Who does what?
RP: I work for Wes. I work to serve the stories he creates. I’ve been lucky enough that over the last 17 years we’ve had this ongoing dialogue about music and movies and I tend to be one of the first readers of his screenplays. With some of the films, we’ve had a idea about the type of music we wanted to use or even particular songs we wanted to use and then with other projects it’s broader. Say, in The Darjeeling Limited we knew that we wanted to repurpose some existing Indian song scores and try to use as much as we could in the film. It was my job to try and gather all the materials and we worked together to try and figure out how to put the puzzle it together. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, like I said, it’s set in this fantastic yet related to the real world of the early to mid part of the 20th century. And so we went out and really gathered all the various folk songs we could reach.
NME: Where did you go to?
RP: We searched through music in Germany and Switzerland and Hungary and Czech Republic. Thankfully, the digital age lets you travel both geographically and through time.
NME: Did you visit these places or was it researched?
RP: With the wonders of Amazon… well, we did talk to people. There was a guy who owned a wonderful classical music store in Munich that I bonded with, and we talked to people in Switzerland who were experts in yodelling. So it was definitely a journey. We found that the sound of the Russian Balalaika was going to be the primary musical voice and sound, and embellished it with other musical details that we felt would serve the movie that weren’t necessarily purely one kind of music. The instrumentation that we combined is kind of a mutated version of folk version.
NME: Can we talk about the instruments? They’re pretty interesting and unusual. What were the instruments you used?
RP: The Balalaika was really the primary voice that we recorded. We brought about 25 Russian Balalaika players to Paris and merged them with about 20 French Balalaika players and had this Balalaika super-group that we recorded. It was very interesting. We had about two translators on the platform with the conductor and merged these two cultures bonded by this stringed instrument. And then, in terms of the ‘gypsy spirit’ we featured an instrument called the cymbala which is like a hammered dulcimer and that’s a major voice of the film. We had alpine horns, we had a chorus and we had recorders – it really is a wonderful collection of earthy folk sounds combined but filtered through the music of Alexandre Desplat.
NME: What made you choose Desplat again?
RP: We worked together on Fantastic Mr Fox and then on Moonrise Kingdom. Alexandre is just a very original and grounded, brilliant song composer.
NME: I can imagine working with directors like Wes is interesting because the world he creates is so surreal you’re not pinned down to period-specific music.
RP: I find his movies to be very real though there’s certainly magic elements. I think that the music and the songs in some of these movies bring another level of reality to the films.
NME: Is there one song moment or soundtrack you’ve made with Wes that really stands out as something that you’re most proud of?
RP: At the moment The Grand Budapest Hotel because it’s the one we’re in the middle of right now and that dominates my point of view, but The Life Aquatic is very dear to me.
NME: What’s the most expensive track you’ve ever used? I read once that Mad Men paid a quarter of a million dollars to use a Beatles song.
RP: I don’t want to get too specific about it. At points we’ve spent more than that. It depends. But we manage to work it out. Like, in the course of a year, I’ve worked on Skyfall, Spring Breakers… This year I’ve done movies that we made with nine figure sums to movies that were made for six figures.
NME: Do you think appetites for film soundtracks have changed?
RP: There’s seems to be a revival in the interest of record labels to put out soundtracks because I think that soundtrack albums are seen as good vehicles to elevate certain artists in the culture’s consciousness. I think that there are diminishing returns by virtue of the fact that often with compilations, if the songs are available elsewhere, that sabotages the sales of the soundtrack because these people will just buy individual tracks wherever they can find them or rip them or play them on YouTube.
But hopefully when you do something that is original and only available on a soundtrack or there’s a movie that is just so memorable musically people want to have.
NME: In a way, the soundtrack exists in two places: in the film and as itself as a piece of work. Do you look at your soundtracks as being standalone works of art?
RP: Yeah, I try to. That’s my ambition for it. Somehow, if you play a soundtrack in its entirety and it’s sequenced properly, it transmits the vital element of the story you’re trying to tell. At least that’s what I try to do. I don’t know if I succeed in doing that all the time, sometime, any time, but that’s my ambition.
NME: How has the art of the soundtrack changed in the last 20 or so years?
RP: There was a moment where record companies were very keen on doing soundtracks so they were basically providing the budgets for the music in the films. That was maybe in the early 90s. What that meant was that the record companies had more of a say and leverage about how the music was going to be used in the movie. That was not how I… I was always really concerned and I’m still concerned about how the movie works and how the music works within the context of the movie primarily. Once the bottom fell out of the soundtrack market a bit, a lot of people who had been working on movies doing the music kind of fell away. Part of the reason why I think I maintained myself is that I have always felt like I am a film-maker so I give full allegiance to the film and was never distracted by anybody else’s agendas but the director’s. I think the people and culture have become more aware of how vital music is to the film. It seems like there’s never been more attention paid to the music in movies and certainly social media has helped that in terms of connecting people to movies, by virtue of the fact they feel close to the artists or music that is in the films.
NME: You’ve done a really broad spread of different films, from comedy films like The Hangover to more serious movies (like Revolutionary Road and Never Let Me Go).. How does the work differ?
RP: It’s funny, Todd Phillips is the director (of The Hangover) that I've known as long as Wes, well, almost as long as Wes. And Todd just makes a different type of movie. He is one of the smartest and funniest people that I know. In The Hangover, you have to use music to try and accent the comedy at points. Music serves to be the motor to give the film drive and momentum but there’s a different point of view when somehow the music needs to underscore the comedy. That’s something that I thankfully have been successful in doing that kind of movie as well. It’s like doing pilates instead of yoga.
NME: Which one do you prefer?
RP: On Monday’s I like to do pilates and on some days I like to do yoga.
NME: I had a look at the soundtrack for Divergent which you were also supervising, I think.
RP: Yeah, I finished it last Sunday.
NME: Chance the Rapper, Tame Impala, Skrillex, Banks and other new artists feature. How involved were you in choosing all of those?
RP: Very involved. The challenge of that film was that it’s set in the future – how do you get the songs into the movie? There has been a bunch of these films, which have had a big musical identity, but the music doesn’t really end up in the film. It was Neil Burger, the director, and I and we worked really hard with our music team to figure out a way to land this music in the film. Originally, one of the original musical elements that we were able to integrate was the voice of Ellie Goulding. And then otherwise we try and see that if we can render the future by bringing together this combination of musical cultures say, A$AP Rocky with Gesaffelstein (listen below) and Tame Impala and Kendrick Lamar and then we just found particular artists that felt right. This French artist Woodkid was a complete knockout. For big, major moments in the film, we wanted to get a song from Anthony Gonzalez from M83. He’s had a lot of experience working in movies and he really delivered this major song that just fits perfectly into the sequence that we had in the middle.
That record you should really check out, I’m really proud of it.
NME: What attracted you to Skrillex’s music?
RP: I think that it’s just fresh. There’s something about it that’s novel but I think Skrillex, too, is not too cool. Having seen him live, he’s not afraid to touch into things that are really emotional and pop-emotional so that won me over. I love the volume of it. Maybe as I’ve got older I’ve got harder of hearing and it helps me respond to it.
NME: Is the song on Divergent the Skrillex we’d expect?
RP: I’d say yes and no. There’s a super cool vocal on it and it’s different. There’s certainly some Skrillexisms in it but it’s pretty novel.
NME: What was it like working on Wolf of Wall Street?
RP: Martin Scorsese is one of our idols and I think his work has really informed a lot of work that Wes Anderson and I have done together. I’ve worked with him now on a couple of movies and on a show called Boardwalk Empire. He’s just a constant inspiration and an iconoclast. He’s not bound by any rules of convention in terms of how you use music in movies. I mean, we put songs on top of songs, we repeat songs and there’s no greater reward than getting a chance to work with Scorsese.