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“If You Know the Song, and Your Mother Knows the Song, You Can’t Afford the Song”: Music Supervisor Susan Jacobs Demystifies the Profession

Sharp Objects (photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO)

Over her two-decade-long career, music supervisor and self-confessed music nerd Susan Jacobs has worked with directors such as Robert Altman, Jean-Marc Vallée and Spike Lee. She has worked on notable TV series and films such as I, Tonya, American Hustle, and Little Miss Sunshine. She won the first ever Emmy award for music supervision for her work on Vallée’s Big Little Lies, where she worked without a composer, handpicking specific sounds and musical artists for each character in an attempt to mirror the intricacies of their personal lives. On another Vallée project, Sharp Objects, Jacobs exhibited this aptitude again, building a relationship with Led Zeppelin in order to analogize their heavy ominous sound with the protagonist, Camille Preaker’s (Amy Adams) rock-and-roll attitude. Jacobs is a seasoned sound savant and has been a trailblazer throughout her impressive career. 

Filmmaker: You used to work at Island Records. How did you end up working in music supervision?

Susan Jacobs: I went from Island Records to working with a record producer named Hal Willner, and Hal was a very eclectic artist himself. He was very well known for putting together multi-artist tribute records, where he took one composer, like Nino Rota or Thelonious Monk, and he would have different artists interpret their songs. There could be people from the Rolling Stones or people from the jazz world. He also worked at Saturday Night Live so I started managing those productions too. After I left Island, I went to work for Hal. He would come up with ideas, and we just figured out how to do them together – it was very much like making a movie, just without the visual aspect. Robert Altman called us and asked us to do that on Short Cuts. We started to work on his next movie too, Prêt-à-Porter, but then, infamous Harvey Weinstein said, “No, I’m going to do the music,” and because he’s this great bear of a man, Robert Altman had to give up his own music team to Harvey.

I actually used to be a veterinarian technician, many, many years before I was in this space. I worked at an animal hospital in Woodstock and met [Woodstock founder] Michael Lang up there because he had some great danes. He knew Julian Schnabel, and he knew me as the vet girl. He called one of his friends when Julian was making Basquiat and goes, “Isn’t that vet girl doing music in film now?” And then I got put in touch with Julian Schnabel to do Basquiat, and after that I started on my own.

Filmmaker: So was film something you were always interested in? When you were younger were you a film nerd or maybe more of a music nerd?

Jacobs: I loved soundtracks. I was always just so interested in the way that music changes the emotion and the experience of a film. I’ll never get bored of that! I can put a scene up and try different music on it and totally change an actor’s performance. It never gets tiring. And you’re working with your director and trying to get the correct point of view so that people can feel this way or that. That’s the director’s job – to choose the feeling. It’s my job to say this music will help lead them the way that the director is aiming.

Filmmaker: And how has your job changed your own relationship with music?

Jacobs: Well, it’s not in a great way. I’m always listening to what music can do for my scenes. Like, “Oh, darn, how come it doesn’t build?” Or, “Why does it have that stupid lyric there?” So when I listen to music just to listen, I only listen on vinyl. We have a wonderful thing in my house called “the blind record pull.” I have a 10,000 vinyl records, and every guest that comes in the house has to blindly pull a record. And that helps me, because whatever they pull, we have to play out the song. It’s really fun and helps mix it up. It helps me experience music just for music and not like, “what can this do for me?” That’s the problem, you’re always looking at the music as if it must be a movie song, rather than just hearing it. So the downside is that you’re not just enjoying [music], you’re trying to use it.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about artists who inspired you when you were younger and that led you to having a career in music?

Jacobs: Well, this is going to be very eclectic, but the band that taught me everything about music – and how I met Hal – was NRBQ. They are a band’s band, and their shows would be made up of jazz, rockabilly and super eclectic rock songs. They were so diverse. I learned about all these artists that I would have never learned about if I didn’t live near them in the Catskills. The band members were all record-philes, so you could go see them, and they’d have 100 78 players and loads and loads of vinyl. Most of it was pretty obscure but fun. They were the band that taught me about Sun Ra and all of this music that none of my other friends, who were all going to see The Who, Yes and Deep Purple, listened to. I saw those bands too, but it was NRBQ that got me into jazz.

We weren’t allowed TV in my house growing up, and dinner was very late compared to all the neighborhood kids. But because we weren’t allowed any TV in the house, we just played music. I used to love finding the music for our dinner. My job would be to get my parents to notice the song. I’m the eighth of nine children, so you do whatever you can to get noticed when you’re with such a clan. I was always trying to get them to notice what I played, I realized that I was music supervising my dinners when I was 10.

Filmmaker: Can you also tell me about a needle drop that you’re proud of now? Or even one that was hard to clear?

Jacobs: Well, everything’s hard, everything was really hard to clear. I’m very proud of the work I did on Sharp Objects with Jean-Marc Vallée. That was a thriller, and we did it with all songs. We got this beautiful relationship with Led Zeppelin in there, which was very hard to pull off. It was such a fun thing to try to crack the code of how to get them to come on. I love that whole show because when [director] Sean Mark was starting to shoot, HBO was saying, “You have to have a composer.” He didn’t want a composer and was like, “Sue, come on, we can do it.” And we did. It was really fun to make a thriller and use only source music. It took seven months to get the licensing sorted out with Led Zeppelin. There are lots of licensing stories — every movie has a drama. The director always wants something we can’t get. Or [a song] is overused and like you’re like, really? It’s always tough.

Filmmaker: Do you like when a director has a clear vision of what they want or when they give you the reins?

Jacobs: I work with both. When a director knows what they want, I say it’s like Ginger Rogers, because I’m dancing backwards. I have to do everything backwards, which makes it very challenging. Anything I give a director I know we can afford or I can clear or it’s not been overused. It’s different when a director has really strong ideas, and then you’re trying to steer them away from the ideas that don’t work. You have to say, “We can’t use that song, it was just featured in Barbie.” Or, “You can’t ever afford that song, even if you sell your children.” So it’s harder in some ways. But it’s great when you can facilitate their vision.

Music is so personal. I’m [working] on a song cover, and [the director wants it to feel] “broken.” I said that to the artist, but broken means something different to everyone, right? Broken could be ugly or it could be really beautiful. I don’t know what my director means by the word “broken,” and she won’t know until she hears it. So you just have to begin and start shaping everything together. I always tell directors – even with score – it’s better to know what you don’t want. It’s easier to say, “I hate that.” You don’t like the color blue? Great, we’ll go over to yellow and oranges. You have to embrace that process, or you’re going to get depressed. Most of what you bring in your little bag — I used to carry physical CDs – they’re not going be into, and that’s okay, that’s part of it.

Filmmaker: What are elements of working with licensed music that young directors maybe don’t understand as they’re starting out?

Jacobs: It’s very expensive. It’s just very, very expensive. I think even older directors sometimes can’t understand that, and it doesn’t seem like producers understand that. By the time I come on, usually the money is gone because they had to shoot an extra day or the hair and makeup was more complicated than they assumed and they just always steal from the music budget. So by the time I get in, what started as the Colorado River is now a creek, and that’s what I have to do my job. Over and over, every supervisor will tell you: it’s the lack of money. That can be okay if you’re using contemporary music. It’s very difficult and challenging if you’re trying to set a period. If you want [the audience] to know it’s 1970, you need to use authentic ’70s music. You can’t fake it. Also, if you want to use hip hop, it’s very hard and very expensive. Especially old hip hop, which has tons of samples. I always say, “If you know the song, and your mother knows the song, you can’t afford the song.” Music budgets can cost more than the film budgets sometimes.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about any film or TV series that you’ve seen recently that have impressed you musically?

Jacobs: I thought the first season of White Lotus was so fun. I really loved the score. There are shows with lots of songs like Euphoria, and those are great. What Nicholas Britell did with Succession, it’s basically a hyperbolic opera — so over the top, like a big aria followed by beats. It’s so huge, and that made it funny. The problem with Hollywood is then they want everybody to keep making that, and [Succession’s score] was interesting because it was out of the box. Somebody allowed them to be themselves. And that’s what you’re always fighting for. I want people to hear a snippet of a song and go, “Oh, that’s Little Miss Sunshine.” Like you hear a song only for a moment and suddenly you’re there. With Avatar, you can’t do that. There’s no melody there, which I think is a shame. Whenever anybody is stepping out of their comfort zone and doing something different, I get so excited. I thought the Bad Sisters score [by PJ Harvey and Tim Phillips] was really good.

Filmmaker: How do you identify the right composer for a project?

Susan Jacobs: I think composing is my favorite part. I always tell everybody to wait until they’ve shot to hire a composer. A lot of people hire their composers really early. I like to wait and feel the footage and then go, “What is it? What is the score going to be?” When Craig [Gillespie] and I were shooting Cruella, we talked a lot about composers , and then none of those composers were even in the running by the time we shot. We went in a completely different direction. So, for me, it’s about patience and waiting and not just playing the name game. If someone has a hit, everybody wants that person, but oftentimes their early scores were some of their best scores. So I always want to get new people. You know, Danny Elfman’s Beetlejuice was amazing, Edward Scissorhands was amazing, but you can’t even tell me the last three he did. You remember those iconic pieces when people are taking chances? I just really like when there’s an edge. And so when I look at footage, I’m first deciding, “Is it electronic? Is it acoustic? Is it orchestral? Can we even afford an orchestra? Probably not.” Or thoughts like, “What’s the sound palette of it? Is it a band score or a more traditional composer? You know, is it like a Trent [Reznor] and Atticus [Ross] kind of score? Or is it more Thom Yorke or any of those great scores that these band members can do? I think that the first thing is asking if it’s classical. I like to wait till the footage tells me what to do and unless a director has a long relationship with one composer, which can be great. Steven Spielberg always uses John Williams, and that’s great. But Steven Spielberg makes Steven Spielberg movies. But when you have different people making different kinds of films, it should change.

Filmmaker: And at what point do you usually get on a project?

Jacobs: If I’ve worked with a director a lot, they’ll get me on a script stage. If I’ve worked with a lot of producers that they know, and I may not have met the director, I usually will come on later when they’ve shot and then, I always get the phone call, saying, “We’ve got all this music, we can’t afford any of it. It’s a mess.” We all get those calls. Or people who didn’t know they needed songs cleared for a film festival and such. It gets really hard.

Filmmaker: When I was researching this piece, I realized that a lot of music supervisors are women. Have you noticed that? And if you have, can you tell me why you think it’s that way?

Jacobs: When I first started it was more men than women. It was Randall Poster and Budd Carr and lots of big men. There was one woman, Bonnie Greenberg, and then it became a thing. I don’t know how that evolved other than that I think women might be super nurturing and guiding. It’s like someone’s handing you their baby that they just spent 10 years funding and writing. So when you’re the first person being handed the footage, you have to try and find the things that work the best and say, “This is beautiful, these are all your strengths,” and then help them realize that they’re going to need a certain kind of score to help. A lot of times, it’s so hard to tell. The first time I saw Little Miss Sunshine, it didn’t make any sense at all. I was like, “Why are we making this movie?” Which is really common honestly. So when young people that I mentor come and work for me, they will look at footage– and it’s very early on– and they’ll be like “I don’t get it.” It’s a block of stone, and we’re gonna start carving. Over the years, I’ve learned to know what to look for. So maybe because [a filmmaker] is literally handing their baby over to somebody, [that person] must be caring. And you have to be half business and half creative, which I think freaks people out. It’s a weird job. You have to really like numbers and budgets and research and clearing, and of course listening to music that you hate and that you would never listen to in your home. When I was doing a disco movie, a man that I was living with at the time said, “You’re not bringing that disco music in the house.” I have no idea how [gender parity] happened, but I’m glad that we’re getting more female directors and writers. I do think we’re making strides. The other day, I was on a dub stage mixing, and there was a young woman training to be a mixer. That’s great because there’s very few of them.

This post is part of a series of interviews with women music supervisors. Click here for interviews with Lucy Bright and Jemma Burns.

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