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“I Wish Film Schools Would Teach Directors and Producers More About Music Rights”: Music Supervisor Lucy Bright

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio star in Charlotte Wells's AftersunPaul Mescal and Frankie Corio star in Charlotte Wells's Aftersun

Early in music supervisor Lucy Bright’s career, she worked at Warner Classics and managed composer Michael Nyman. In 2020 she started Bright Notion Music, her own music publishing company, which has signed composers such as Hildur Guðnadóttir, Oliver Coates, and Anne Nikitin. She is known for critically acclaimed British films such as The Arbor and Slow West and more recently Tár, where her classical understanding and personal familiarity with the composers referenced in the script, helped create the movie that was named Best Picture by several major critics associations. Bright was also awarded the first ever prize for music supervision from the British Independent Film Awards for her work on Aftersun, where she successfully mixed David Bowie’s Under Pressure with Oliver Coate’s ambient original score to create one of the most memorable and affecting endings in recent film memory.  

Filmmaker: Previously you worked at Warner Classics and managed composer Michael Nyman. Can you tell me about how you eventually ended up music supervising?

Lucy Bright: Those two jobs were a really key part of my journey to music supervision. I always loved soundtracks and scores, but I had never really thought about the practicality of how they come about. They just seemed, I guess, a little bit like magic to me. When I was at Warner Classics, we had [signed] Philip Glass, Steve Reich and György Ligeti who, I think, were the big three that were part of this route. When I met Philip, I knew he was this genre-defining composer, but I don’t think I had realized his place in the film world. This is the guy who wrote the music for Candyman! I started to think about those kinds of connections: the director actually thinks about who they want to score the film, and they ask a composer, and then the composer writes music. I know it sounds really stupid when I say it out loud now, but it started with my realization of that process.

I was working as PR for Warner Classics, so I’d be doing the PR for Ligeti’s albums, and when I started doing the research and listening to his music, I [realized], I knew it because I had [heard] it in 2001 or The Shining. I didn’t realize that the [Ligeti] music [Atmosphères] in 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t written for the film, that Kubrick had just loved and wanted to use it and there was a whole story behind that – of Kubrick licensing it without György Ligeti’s consent, initially. I mean, it’s a bit more complex than that, but when I learned the story, it was amazing. Then I started to realize this kind of magic that was happening between composers and directors and how those decisions were made.

I met Michael Nyman while I was at Warner classics because we released a couple of albums of his. I knew his work already because I loved The Piano, of course, but it was really the scores to the Peter Greenaway films, in particular The Draughtman’s Contract, that I still think is some of the best film music ever. Actually, that’s an interesting one, because quite a lot of that music wasn’t actually written to picture, it was written before and cut to picture. So I started working quite closely with Michael – he’s kind of a wild character, and we really had some adventures together. He asked me to manage him, and I left Warner Classics to do it. He was asked to score Man On Wire by James Marsh, and he was too busy to write new music at that time. But he opened up his back catalogue to James to kind of create a new score from that, and that’s when I first saw in the edit suite how that worked. I was literally delivering CDs of music to the edit suite and they were trying things. That’s the first time I really understood the process. John Boughtwood was the music supervisor, and I was talking to him in terms of both creative and business – you know, how we put together a licensing deal to use existing music. I thought, this role [of music supervisor] is interesting–it’s bringing together these two things that I love so much. So that was really the first time that I knew it was a role, particularly over here [in England]. It was a bit more established in the US, but over here there were only a handful of people doing it, and John was one of them. When I left [working with] Michael, John was also head of film and TV at what was then Music Sales and is now Wise Music Group, and he asked me to come and work in that team with him. Phillip Glass was published by Wise, so I was back working with him and lots of other composers – some straight film composers and some composers who happen to work in film as well. John kind of mentored me into the music supervision role, and it was by sort of random chance that I got my first project. And then, once you’re in it, you make connections and you’re working with the same producer or director or editor. But, yeah, Warners and Michael were key parts getting to that point.

Filmmaker: And were you always kind of a film nerd? Did you always love film growing up?

Bright: I really did. I grew up in the ’80s, which I think was a great decade for film. John Hughes’s films — Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink — were really important to me, and a big part of that was their soundtracks. I discovered a lot of music through those films. It’s almost impossible to imagine it now, but then you could only see a film if you went to the cinema, or three years later when a film came on the television, so it was a very different relationship to consuming film — maybe it felt like more of an event. I think that’s why [those films] stick so much in my mind, I can almost remember every film I went to see for that decade. There’s something about not being able to look at your phone, not double screening while you’re watching, just being immersed in something. And if we’re going to talk about the music side of things, all that work we put in to make the music sound amazing, the nuances and care we take with the mixes, and then people are watching it on their laptop? I was blown away by Ludwig Goranson’s score for Oppenheimer. It was almost operatic, nonstop pretty much from beginning to end, and so carefully crafted.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about some other movies or TV series that you’ve seen recently, or from the past, that stick out or have inspired you or impressed you musically?

Bright: Soundtrack-wise, I think The Bear is amazing. It’s without a doubt my favorite thing I’ve watched on the TV for the last couple of years. I looked at the credits see that Christopher [Storer], the show creator and showrunner, is the music supervisor on it, and it really makes sense because some of the choices seem quite random as a viewer, but clearly for him, he’s been creating this story for a while. You can see the thought he’s put into those song choices and how they must mean something to him personally.

Filmmaker: Do you think music supervising has changed your relationship with music?

Bright: Oh my gosh, I’ve probably become the most annoying person to watch anything with. I’ll say to my boyfriend all the time, “I wonder how much that cost?” Or, “How did they clear that?” It is a little bit hard to switch that off, and I’m sure that’s not unique to either me or music supervision. Recently, I saw something that had a song in it that I had tried to clear for something else, and it had been denied because of the nature of the project. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting that they were okay with that use but not at all with our kind of ‘sex and drugs’ use.”

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about a needle drop that you were proud to clear?

Bright: Well, there is one coming up that I can’t talk about, but I am really excited about it just because it is a fairly unknown song that I’ve loved for a while, and I was excited to find the perfect spot for it. But more than that, the director fell in love with it too, and now can’t imagine [the film] without it, which really is the most satisfying part of our job. Lots of people talk about it, and it has become a sort of iconic moment, but there’s the “Under Pressure” scene in Aftersun. That was completely Charlotte Wells’ choice. She spent a lot of time in the edit trying things over [that scene] because we didn’t shoot it to anything. I actually don’t know what they used for Paul to dance to — it might even have been just a beat. Sometimes on set, you just have a beat for everyone to move to but not necessarily a song. It all really happened in the edit– Charlotte found it, and it worked. But more than that, it was kind of my biggest clearance challenge ever, partly because it was so perfect. It becomes very hard to replace anything that works that well–not impossible, but really hard. Partly because it was a tiny budget, and it’s one of the biggest songs ever by two of the biggest artists ever. So, you know, it is slightly nerve-racking when you realize what you’re going to have to deal with to get that clearance, and also because we hadn’t used it in a straight way –we remixed it, I guess. We took the stems and Oliver Coates, the incredible composer, worked that in and out of the score. And so it was a lot to ask, and, particularly because Charlotte was a first-time feature writer-director. Paul Mescal had done Normal People, and he’d won a BAFTA, but he wasn’t a huge star, and there really wasn’t a lot of money.  It wasn’t like coming along and saying, “It’s Steven Spielberg’s new film.” We were asking a lot of those artists and estate to come on board, but they were amazing, and they did. We sent the scene for them to watch — I was really clear to production that we should do that, and that the worst thing is for an unexpected surprise when [the film] comes out. Obviously, you always give a scene description when you’re clearing a song, but with something like that, where it’s so nuanced, I felt like they really needed to see it and to hear what we had done with the song. They had a couple of questions, and then they approved it. That was probably the most nerve-racking because you just think, “What would we have done if they had said no?” But it’s also been quite satisfying, and I love that it’s moved so many people. I think a younger generation might have an enhanced relationship with that song now, at least that is what I hope.

Filmmaker: I’m also curious to know what elements of working with licensed music should young directors who are just starting out understand?

Bright: I wish film schools would teach directors, producers — really anyone who’s going into filmmaking — more about music rights and licensing because it can be really complicated.  But there are a few things — first, actually, setting aside a proper budget for music. Even with $10 million films, you come in, and they’ll be like, “Well, we haven’t got a music budget as such, we’ve only got some contingency that we’re going to use for music.” That would be fair enough if it was a period piece where it was going to be mainly score, and maybe license one song for the end credits or something like that. But these are films where there are songs written into the script, and where there are very obvious scenes, either in bars, nightclubs, or a radio playing in a car, where you have to have music. I’m like, “Why have you not set aside money for this?” It would literally be like saying you haven’t set aside money for your grade or for your sound mix. That is a huge frustration for me. And then just being a bit more open to your music supervisor giving you solutions to your music problems. Like you really want to use the Beatles… you’re not going to be able to use the Beatles, let’s actually think about something that would be more interesting. As much as I, of course, adore the Beatles, let’s think of something more left field or a song that hasn’t been used a million times. And sometimes I get frustrated with the feeling that directors are coming on with their playlists that they’ve been listening to for ten years until they’ve got to make their film, and they’re just not going to budge from that. And then I think they’re not using their music supervisor to their best advantage.

Filmmaker: Do you like it when directors have a super clear understanding of what they want, or do you prefer it when they give you the reins?

Bright : There are a couple of directors I work with regularly who absolutely know, which goes against my previous answer. Shane Meadows, for example, he just knows exactly what he wants. He’s a huge music fan. Maybe he’s like an equivalent to Quentin Tarantino in the way where you can imagine Quentin probably knows exactly what he wants to use, and really, he just needs someone to clear that. Shane and I have very much that relationship. So really, with that, the only creative side is that I sometimes have to work with artists to understand their vision for a song. But then, Shane and I have very close taste, and we’re similar age so our references are often quite similar — that’s why maybe I feel less affronted by the fact that he just knows what he wants. And then there are other directors I’ve worked with where I get excited about presenting a song that they didn’t know or wouldn’t have thought of and then watching them fall in love with it. I think some directors find music harder to talk about than others, and that’s no judgment on them — anyone might find music hard to talk about it as it’s sort of an intangible thing that’s a lot about emotion. Part of my job is to help a director find the thing that maybe they didn’t even realize they wanted until they heard it, and that can be really exciting.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me any directors that you want to work with?

Bright: Before I worked with him I put it out into to the universe that I wanted to work with Shane, and it is so nice now that we do work together. [The Iron Claw] is the fourth project I’ve worked on with Sean Durkin. I didn’t work on Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, but everything after that we’ve done together. It feels really nice when you meet someone quite young, or just early in their career, and you can kind of grow together and develop a sort of shorthand of how to work together. I hope I have that now with Charlotte Wells because Aftersun was incredible, and she’s going to go on and make many, many great films. So maybe I’m looking for someone else who’s making their first film. It’s so personal, isn’t it? I mean, I could say someone like Greta Gerwig, who is an incredible artist, but I’m sure she’s already got her relationships. It’s kind of funny to come in halfway through someone’s career. Maybe my answer hasn’t even made their first film.

Filmmaker: We’ve talked a lot about needle drops, but how do you identify the right composer for a project?

Bright: That’s a part that I love. It’s interesting, because music supervisors don’t always get involved in the score side of things. Sometimes that’s because the director has an existing relationship with a composer, and you don’t need to be involved, the deal doesn’t go through you, it’s between the producer and the agent, and then the composer and director talk directly, and that’s fine. But I really like getting involved in that side. But you want to be the matchmaker, you want to be the person who’s suggested someone that they then fall in love with and then create something together that feels like only those two people could have created that together. I definitely feel that with Aftersun. That was an interesting one because obviously, it was Charlotte’s first film as director – she’d made shorts before, but she hadn’t yet worked with a composer. We had ideas about what kind of score she wanted, and, obviously, I have to suggest more than one person, but I think we both felt that Oliver was right. That was partly based on personality, common references, because I think that’s as much a part of it as anything. After Charlotte and Oliver’s first conversation, he wrote something straight away, and it was so perfect that it is there in the film. It’s essentially “One Without,” the main theme, and so that obviously sealed the deal for him. And then in Life After Life, which is a TV series that hasn’t come out in the US yet, John Crowley, the director, had worked with different people before on different projects, and we talked a lot about what he wanted. I had a very strong feeling that Volker Bertelmann would be the perfect person. And, again, from the first conversation they got on so well. Volker created a beautiful score, and now this is the third thing they’re doing together. It’s just so nice to set up those relationships.

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

Bright: Every project is different, but I would say more and more I try to get on at the script stage. Sometimes you just come on in the edit, like if there wasn’t any on camera music they needed you to clear before the shoot. But for me, it’s much more fulfilling to come earlier, where you can start creating the musical palette from the get-go. For example, I’ll make playlists for actors that are based on their characters, knowing that those songs are not going to end up on screen in any way. But you might have a sense that somehow that musical reference is going to imbue that character and will be either helpful to them in their performance or to the director.

Filmmaker: I’ve noticed there are a lot of women music supervisors.

Bright: Well, we can talk about the terrible statistic of women composers, which remains unbelievably bad. But I have to say, out of all the below-the-line talent, music supervision is really quite balanced. And also at the top level, because often what you find is that it’s balanced at the assistant [level] but not at the top. I often wonder if it’s because it’s a newer job, and, therefore– unlike other roles in film– there isn’t 100 years of history of it being men in charge. Because it’s a newer role, right from the beginning, it could be more balanced, because it was developing in a time of second wave feminism where we’re finally being told that you can’t exclude a woman from a role just because she’s a woman. But it’s just good to have it that way.

This post is part of a series of interviews of women music supervisors. Click on the links to read interviews with Susan Jacobs and Jemma Burns.

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