Interview with Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips: Fargo, Moonlight and the industry

Over the past 10 years, Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips has worked on over 30 films,  including the Academy Award Winning Moonlight, and has created the sound of numerous TV shows, most notably FX’s Fargo and Legion, and the upcoming Starz series Counterpart. I talked to her about her career, the industry and her creative process, attempting to get a look into what life as a music supervisor is like.

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1. You probably get this a lot but, talk to me about your background and how you got into music supervision: 

It’s a long story that I’ll try to make short. I was born and raised in Austin, Texas and music has always been a huge part of my life – from an early age, just the way my parents raised me and  then later, going to see live shows in Austin in high school and college. I originally went to school for art. I’m a painter and I actually did that for the first ten years of my adult life. Being an artist was my career goal, and when I moved to New York to pursue that dream, I ended up becoming good friends with two guys that I knew from Austin, Mark and Jay Duplass. They’re filmmakers and had started making movies while we were living together in NY and I helped them out on a few of their films. It kind of grew from there. It was one of those things that you don’t really plan for. I helped them pick out songs for movies and when someone told me this was actually a job I was like – no way, this can’t be a real job. Once I realized what the actual job involved, I saw that I had a lot to learn, but I did and here I am.

2. Cyrus was the first film you worked on that had a big budget, what was that experience like? 

Yes, I helped Mark and Jay (Duplass) on a few of their smaller indies, and did a few other indies during that time period, but then Cyrus came along, which was Mark and Jay’s first studio film. It was an indie, but it was with FOX Searchlight, so it had a bigger budget. That was the first time I got to do something like that and really, it was the trial by fire. That’s how I learned what music supervision was all about because prior to that, it had just been small indies. Cyrus was way more involved and Mark and Jay were extremely loyal to me, putting me on it and convincing the studio to hire me. I did the movie and learned a lot. I made it work and it ended up being a successful film.

3. What would you say is the biggest difference between working with a studio compared to working on small, independent films?

It’s like everything – more money, more problems. Even if you have a bigger budget, you’re dealing with bigger songs, bigger desires, and bigger expectations. With studio films, it’s a little easier, but not that much, because you’re still trying to make ends meet with bigger goals in mind. I have yet to experience the budget not play a part – it’s always a deciding factor in every decision I make.

4. Tell me about Fargo, how did that happen and what has the show meant to you personally and professionally?

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Fargo changed my career, which changed my life. Prior to Fargo, I had only done indie films, for the most part. Even with Mark and Jay, working on films that had a little money behind them, I still had kind of been pigeonholed as “that indie girl.” You know, if you have a small budget, get Maggie – she can work miracles with it. And that was a hard place to break out of. In fact, when I met with Noah (Hawley) about Fargo, I had been looking into my third career. I thought, I can’t keep doing this, what am I going to do? Because with indie movies, indie budgets mean indie pay. I was wondering what my next move was going to be. At that point, I had worked for about eight years and I knew I could do it. I thought to myself, you know, this is something that I do well – but no one had taken a chance on me. And I think it’s like anything, especially in this industry – you just need someone to give you a chance to step out of what you’ve been trapped in. It’s hard, you know? I had been turned down from so many jobs, from studios who said I didn’t have enough credits and it was so hard to break into TV. No one was willing to take a risk, but Noah was different and was willing to take that risk. He and I, we hit it off immediately. I went into a meeting with him thinking it was a general. I only found out the night before that the position for music supervisor on Fargo was open. I didn’t sleep the night before; I was so nervous. I was such a fan and it felt like it was just too good to be true. I was so nervous walking into it. I didn’t do Season 1, so there I was, this indie music supervisor, who had had this dream for almost a decade, was about to quit her job and move on into a different field. I thought I was meeting with these guys just for a general meeting, which I had done before, and nothing ever really comes from those. But Noah and I really hit it off, and he took that chance on me that most people were afraid to take. I was able to do what I knew I could do, but had never been given the opportunity to do so. So once I had it, everything changed. Jeff Russo (the composer of Fargo) and I met early on for Season 2, and he told me at one point, “This is gonna change your life.” And I was just like yeah sure, okay, I was totally jaded. But it did –  it changed my life. It came out and the music in Season 2 was so well received, and I’ve gotten so many amazing jobs since then, because of it. The past two years have been insane and exciting.

5. With Fargo, what was the creative process like? There’s a lot of 70s music in the show, what was it like for you going into it at the beginning?

That decade for me is important – and I think this is why Noah and I hit it off immediately – because if I’m going to choose music to listen to or play, it’s going to be between 1966 and 1978. Those are my favorite years in music. It was already something I was pretty passionate about and had a good knowledge of. But with Noah, he had some very specific directions in mind, and we met very soon after that initial meeting where he hired me. Only the first episode for that season had been written, nothing else. Noah, Jeff and I had a meeting and Noah sort of laid out his inspirations for the season and gave us a concrete direction on where he wanted the music to go. I had the luxury of this being my only job at the time. I got to go home and immerse myself in the music of that decade for a couple of months, and I really explored it. I watched documentaries, I listened to way too much music and I think I delivered Noah way too much music. At the end of those months, I sent him so much I don’t even know if he had time to listen to it all. Once I gave him all of that, we started talking, narrowing it down and what came of all the multiple playlists was one master playlist for the entire season. Since then, it’s been different because in the beginning it had been us initially figuring out how we were going to work together, but since season 2, it’s been more about sharing music back and forth in a more loose way. I know what he wants, he knows what I have to add – it’s more of a casual sharing dynamic.

6. Do you have a favourite episode, or scene that you’ve done on Fargo?

For Season 3, I would say the first episode where Ray Stussy and his girlfriend Nikki walk into a professional bridge tournament in the midwest. As dorky as you could imagine, it’s the highlight of their relationship. They’re decked out and ready to brawl. We put in a song by an Italian artist that I can’t even pronounce. The actual name of the song is nonsensical – it’s not even a real Italian word. He wrote the song in 1975 as sort of a joke. The way that he explains it is, “this is the way that people on TV in America sound like to me.” So there’s no real words in this song, it was just how American people sounded to him. It’s super catchy, but when used in that scene, where there’s this couple who perhaps may not be the best communicators, or you know, they have a lot of self-bravado, a lot of false confidence, it’s nonsensical and a lot of fun – just like the song. And that scene sort of introduces them as that couple, which worked really well – I love that one. It also introduces the theme of miscommunication, prevalent throughout the whole season.

 

7. Let’s talk Moonlight,  how did you get involved in this incredible project?

One of the producers for Moonlight, Adele Romanski, is a friend of mine and I had worked on a movie with her prior. She asked me to go to a screening of Moonlight as a favour and she said: “I know we can’t afford you – we don’t have a budget for a music supervisor, but I just want to have your feedback.” I went to that screening with my coordinator Christine and really, I broke down in the theater and sobbed; it’s a tremendous film – we had no clue what we were in for. You know, I almost didn’t even make it to the screening because I was busy with something else, but thankfully I got there, watched it and was extremely moved. I went to the Q&A after and got to speak with the director Barry Jenkins. He and I hit it off and that night, I called them and said, I don’t care what you guys pay me, I want to help. And so it happened. They were pretty far along – normally, I come into a movie before they even start shooting. But this movie they had already shot, already gone through a few rounds of edit. I came in really late, but I just had to be a part of it. It was a special kind of chance and I recognized that. I thought to myself, how often am I going to have the chance to be part of something like that? You know, with my job, I watch a lot of movies and it’s very rare that I’ll leave a theater and say, please let me be a part of this. And of course, they were happy to have me and I was happy to be a part of it. It was a really challenging project because hip-hop is not an easy thing to do. But I was so pleased – I didn’t expect it to get the reception it did. I think maybe I’m a little jaded, so I was pleasantly surprised and excited that people responded the way they did.

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8. I have a bit of a funny question: if you had to supervise your life, what three songs would you pick?

That’s funny – I actually made a soundtrack for my life. I did this recently. Six months ago, I went to a cabin in the woods where I was supposed to be working for a movie, but I ended up listening to music and decided to create a soundtrack to my own life with 40 songs on it. Okay, I’ll choose three. I would say ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ by Willie Nelson, because my dad introduced me to Willie Nelson early on and my dad and I actually danced to that song at my wedding many years ago –  it’s a special song. Another one would be a song that makes me feel super nostalgic and very human. It’s called ‘It’s Alright to Cry’ by Rosey Grier. It’s from a movie called Free to Be You and Me. I used to play that song on my fisher price record player as a little girl – it will always stay with me. And then maybe, ‘One Too Many Mornings’ by Bob Dylan – my favourite Bob Dylan song. There’s so many – and that’s just the first sixteen years of my life. Let’s keep it at sixteen.

9. As women, what challenges do you think we have to face working in this industry? Do you have any words of encouragement for young girls trying to go into it?

 I have a lot of opinions when it comes to that, because I’m always the only woman in the room. It’s unusual that I get to work with more women. I have one show where it’s a female showrunner and I love that I get to work with her. It’s so different – it’s clear that she listens to me and that isn’t so apparent in my other projects. I think it took me longer than I would’ve liked to be able to be confident in what I do. And the more I gained that confidence, the more I spoke up and expressed my opinions and the more people respected me and that, for me, was a big life lesson. It took years – I’m 41 and I would say that only happened in the past few years. I think a lot of that comes from being the only woman in the room. It’s a challenging place to be. You want to stand up for yourself and you want to be tough and opinionated because this is your career, but sometimes the more you do that, the more people might call you “bossy” or “bitchy”. My advice would be, don’t be afraid to speak up and express your opinion.

10. Do you have any mentors or people in the industry who have and continue to inspire you?

I’ve always respected Liza Richardson and her career. I don’t know her personally, but I’ve always watched and followed her career and I would like to follow in her path. And, Jeff Russo, (the composer of Fargo) I go to him a lot for advice on how he runs his business and handles all the work he has. He gives me a lot of guidance. He’s probably the closest thing I have to a mentor.

11. Lastly, If you could give advice to someone who’s trying to become a music supervisor, what would you say?

I was asked this recently, and I was about to say don’t do it – but then the person asking said you can’t say don’t do it. Intern. Assist. Really get an idea of what you’re getting into, because it’s a very misunderstood career and it’s not nearly as glamorous or as easy as it sounds. It’s stressful, it’s hard, and I think if you are really interested and passionate about getting into it – experience it before you decide to do it.

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