“The idea that this is an awesome job is completely accurate,” music supervisor Gabe Hilfer told us we caught up with him for an interview last week. And who can blame his enthusiasm?
Like any dyed in the wool music fan, Hilfer was willing to lose sleep to dig for new tunes. His youth was spent staying up Thursday nights armed with a 120 minute cassette tape (remember those?) in order record the famed hip hop centered program “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show.” He too eventually became a DJ and radio host, and after college, spent a few years working in the music industry. He eventually transitioned into helping source music for television and movie projects, and is now the head of the L.A. offices of Clear Songs. The music supervision company boasts an impressive track record, having worked on projects like “The Wackness,” “The Wrestler,” “Luck,” “How To Make It In America” and more.
The most recent project Hilfer worked on was “Project X,” Warner Bros. smash hit found footage style, party-gone-wrong film, and his work on the movie started much, much earlier than you might imagine. "I got involved at the script level, because a lot of it was trying to shape the tone and what kind of party it was going to be. We could have made it much more straight rock, we could have made it much more straight ahead hip hop, or straight electro," he explained about the movie which eventually wound up with more than 50 songs. “ 'Project X' was almost wall-to-wall music, from the beginning to the end. So we knew getting into it, there's no gaps in music from when the party starts almost to the end of the film. And that is about an hour. So every single moment of that film was going to be filled with music and we needed to figure out a creative way to get that done."
And while the movie boasts a nearly seamless mixtape soundtrack, Hilfer points out that in many ways, working on the movie presented it’s own set of challenges. And selecting the music went a bit beyond simply delivering a raucous vibe. "There's no score in the film, so source music and picking the songs was really to serve a couple of different purposes. One was to keep it authentic and make it feel like what these kids might really be listening to. And then two, was to escalate the party…and get into the heads of the kids and bridge the gaps between what they're listening to and the emotional feelings you're looking to have the audience feel as well,” he explained. “Like at the end, there's a couple real crucial moments that in a traditional movie would've been score I think, which is when we used the Four Tet song 'She Just Likes To Fight' when the sun comes up and they're all regrouping at the football field. And then we see Thomas come back for redemption to high school and we ended up using The xx. Although they weren't the party vibe of the movie, it kept with the whole philosophy that these were songs that these kids — or kids in general — might be actually listening to, but they scored the moment to give you the feeling that we were trying to achieve."
But “Project X” was an anomaly to Hilfer’s usual work, one that finds him collaborating on projects that will also have a score component and/or finding songs for specific moments within a film. One project he’s currently working on is Derek Cianfrance’s generation spanning drama “The Place Beyond The Pines." Earlier this year, it was announced that, surprisingly, Mike Patton would be scoring the film and while it’s still early days on the movie, Hilfer reveals what his parameters are on this gig.
"Mike Patton's sound is going to really anchor that film — that's the plan anyway, we're still working on the whole project. 'Beyond The Pines' has right now, a more traditional use of music, with a couple montages, a lot of source spots and Mike Patton is really going to weave it all together,” Hilfer said. “The director Derek, and the two editors Ron [Patane] and Jim [Helton], are huge fans of Mike Patton's work, and I know that they've been influenced in editing it, and temped in some of his existing stuff. He was selected because of his sound, and because he and Derek were seeing eye to eye on what the movie should sound like in general."
Working on movies does allow Hilfer and the filmmakers the luxury of a longer schedule, which allows them to be more selective and patient about the right music for their film. But when it comes to television, tighter time constraints means that decisions need to be made on a different basis. “TV is obviously faster moving, we have quicker deadlines, it’s kind of just getting used to a different pace and learning how to work quickly and efficiently to get things done. I think film is just longer lead so people are willing to hold out for perfection. You could be in post for six months to a year, and here, I’ve worked on a project where we’ve pitched 450 songs for one spot. And people are just willing to hold out for that one perfect song,” he said. “Eventually in TV you run up against a deadline, you have to deliver. So at a certain point you have to say, ‘This is the best song we have for this spot and times up.’ ”
As Hilfer says, his job is awesome, but it’s not all all iTunes shuffles and spinning CDs in office or in the car. Clearing music for use in a movie or show often involves a lot of phone calls and getting signatures; it’s the “ugly side” to the fun stuff he gets to do.“I think a misconception is that we sit around listening to music all day, and we send a couple of ideas, and they end up in a movie or a TV show. It’s a lot of working with filmmakers and producers and studios and finding the music that does the right thing, fits within the budget, creatively works in the scene, hasn’t been used before or not in a way that anyone is trying to avoid,” he explained. “And clearances. We predominantly do all our own clearances and sometimes that’s a beast…all that behind the scenes paperwork can be brutal.”
But that’s a small price to pay for a job that affords Hilfer the opportunity to work with great filmmakers, continue to discover music and contribute to exciting and creative projects day in and day out. Sounds pretty awesome to us too.
Want to know what Gabe Hilfer is listening to? Follow him on Twitter @waveuno.