Yesterday at the SXSW Film Festival, we sat in on a panel consisting, mostly, of a laid back conversation between filmmaker Richard Linklater (whose new film “Bernie” played the fest) and legendary music supervisor Randall Poster (he has two movies in the theaters right now, “Friends With Kids” and “The Vow,” he produced the LCD Soundsystem documentary “Shut Up And Play The Hits” which played SXSW and just picked up an Emmy for his work on Martin Scorsese‘s “Boardwalk Empire“). The two had worked together before, most notably on “School of Rock,” and the hour-long chat was breezy and informative, giving off the feeling of two old friends catching up and sharing stories. There was also a fair bit of prickliness (one of the first things Linklater groaned was, “That was when they actually put out soundtracks”).
One of the more fun aspects of the panel was that Linklater seemed genuinely interested in Poster’s process, even though they’ve worked together before. Linklater asked, early on, “Do people turn down when you ask, ‘Can I have this for Martin Scorsese?’ ” The question, which was fairly innocuous and jokey, led to a very interesting story from Poster. “The Scorsese things that I do are the period-based films, so you’re normally dealing with estates so there’s a less personal dynamic. We’re able to get the songs,” Poster explained. “On ‘Hugo‘ though we hit a bit of a snag. In the ’20s there was a famous dance hall performance named Harry Fragson and Fragson at the height of his career, came home one night and was killed by his father. And the father then died some months later.” (Historical aside: Fragson’s father was convinced that Fragson was going to put him in a home and had a loaded gun ready so that he could commit suicide but when Fragson came home, he ended up killing the singer. He died a few months later in a French asylum.) Poster continued: “French copyright is very unique in its own way. We had a situation where we had a song that we needed to license but there was no estate – there were no children. There was no way around it. I was trying to figure out every which way to make that happen. We were able to spend some time in France and we did a pretty good recreation of it.” Of course, this being a Scorsese film, there’s an extra later of meta-movie nerdiness, as Poster said: “It’s a song that was in ‘Grand Illusion‘ [‘Si tu veux Marguerite‘]. We then just took the Fragson recorded version and put the ‘Grand Illusion’ chorus and put it on top of that version.” Because, really, why wouldn’t that be what you would do?
Next, Linklater asked Poster about one of his more beloved collaborators, filmmaker Todd Haynes. The two collaborated on the period miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” the Bob Dylan pseudo-biopic “I’m Not There” and glam-rock funhouse “Velvet Goldmine.” “Todd brings a real scholarly passion to the work,” Poster said. “He really is the grade-A student. He’s very specific.” How specific, you ask? Poster said: “Todd is one of the few directors who is so song-specific that in pre-production he times his shots to the music. It’s that precise.” Poster then described the process of throwing yourself into a very definite period of music: “I guess in all of these things you can continue to learn as you go along, by going into a period of music that you don’t know that much about it.”
On another of his famous collaborators, Poster was more muted. He said of Wes Anderson and the upcoming film “Moonrise Kingdom:” “This is the seventh movie we’ve done together and we’ll make a soundtrack album…it’s the tenth soundtrack we’ve done together.” When Linklater asked how that worked, Poster explained that there were two soundtracks put out for “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (one with the Portuguese David Bowie covers and then the soundtrack album with the pop songs and Mark Mothersbaugh‘s score) and two for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (one regular soundtrack and a disc of unused Alexandre Desplat material).
Linklater was kind of amazed that there were multiple releases from a single soundtrack, remembering the frustration that comes with having to pare down a soundtrack album. “It’s frustrating when you have what could easily be a double album, and they say, ‘Well here are the 11 or 13 of songs for the soundtrack,'” Linklater said of his experience on “Dazed and Confused.” A second volume was finally released, but even that wasn’t enough for the filmmaker. “I actually made a third volume of the soundtrack and handed it out to friends.”
Linklater went on to describe where that expansive soundtrack came from: “The music, that kind of wall-to-wall music thing, started in the ’60s – ‘Easy Rider‘ did that, ‘Scorpio Rising‘ was maybe the first one to put pop songs throughout the entire movie. But I think ‘Mean Streets‘ took it to another level. It’s coming from everywhere. There was no conceit of, ‘it’s coming out of the radio.’ That was always a big one.” To Linklater, the music was important as any of the actors. “I knew before I was writing it, music was going to be the number one character,” Linklater explained. “It was going to be the lead character – the music going on. I feel like as a teenager, that’s the most expressive element of your life.”
Even the process of putting together the “Dazed and Confused” soundtrack, at the time, was kind of revolutionary. “I was writing it in ’91, ’92, but I had done all the compilation work, because there wasn’t a ‘Best of the ’70s’ or anything,” Linklater said, referring to those greatest hits discs you can get which try and encapsulate an entire era. “I said, ‘This is a good ’70s compilation.’ And they were like, ‘Nah, you’ve got to get new bands in there. We’ve got to do some covers.’ They didn’t really believe in that album, they kind of gave it away…although it went double platinum.”
Poster feels that there is a connection between “Dazed and Confused” and another beloved teenage comedy. “I was on another panel one time and they had me pick five films I had worked on and five films that had inspired me,” Poster said. “And on the side of the films I worked on, I picked ‘School of Rock’ and films that inspired me ‘Dazed and Confused.’ And another one of the films that inspired me was ‘American Graffiti.’ And ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘Dazed and Confused’ are great bookmarks… ‘American Graffiti’ came out as this big double record.”
At one point Poster turned to Linklater and said, “In terms of your cinematic musical legacy is you go from doing song-driven movies to doing films that are very score-driven and have really original music.” Linklater replied with a very concise but powerful encapsulation of his feelings on movie music, “Or no music! I did a music called ‘Tape‘ that had no music. It just depends on what the movie needs. There’s some purist in me, and it’s the European art film guy in me, that says you don’t need music in movies unless it’s alive. Some feel that the worst thing about movies is the overproduction of score. But on ‘Scanner Darkly‘ I always knew it was going to be score. I’m not a musician but I love music so much.”
During the audience Q&A someone asked them about their “song that got away,” a track they had badly wanted for a project but had ended up being unobtainable. “On ‘Dazed’ I had a couple,” Linklater said, which is sort of surprising given how much stuff he did get for the movie. “At the end I had [Aerosmith‘s] ‘Dream On‘ which I thought would be kind of easy because I had already gotten ‘Sweet Emotion‘ for the opening credits. But I ended up okay using [the Lynyrd Skynyrd song] ‘Tuesday’s Gone.’ “The suggestion for the replacement track came from an unlikely source. “It was really late when we got the word that we couldn’t use it. But I remember the mixer said, ”Tuesday’s Gone’ has the same vibe,’ ” Linklater remembered. “And I said, ‘Oh yeah!’ ” But that wasn’t the only song on “Dazed and Confused” that proved slippery. Famously, he had tried to use a track from another giant rock band, to no avail. “On the closing credits I had ‘Rock N Roll‘ by Led Zeppelin but I took a good run. Almost got it. But I was really happy with [Foghat‘s] ‘Slow Ride.’ I was young and feeling very entitled.”
When Poster asked, “How’d you handle the news of not getting Led Zeppelin?” Linklater shot back: “Not well.”
This led to Poster telling a story about the two of them trying to secure a Led Zeppelin track for the film they worked on together, “School of Rock.” “We had Led Zeppelin in ‘School of Rock,’ ” Poster said, proudly. “We positioned ourselves. I tried to satisfy the political elements and we had Jack Black do a plea to the guys. That ended up on the DVD. And we paid a lot of money, too.” Linklater’s earlier experience with the band came back to haunt their negotiations, although not enough to derail things. “Rick had not really taken his rejection by Led Zeppelin well and he had made some comments about the people in the management company in Led Zeppelin. So when I was completing negotiations somebody from their team said, ‘Tell Rick the asshole from the management company let him have the song.’ “
The experience on “School of Rock” was an original one for Linklater, though. “On ‘School of Rock’ it was like making a musical,” he said. “We were creating new music, we were clearing a bunch of songs, and there was an original score too. We formed a band. That was an interesting clash of music industry on top of film industry. The music industry was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, we’ll get there…’ and we were like ‘No! We’re making a movie!’ I had never done that, to that degree, of originating pop-type songs. Linklater then let slip just how much some things cost, “AC/DC made a half a million dollars from this little thing that Jack Black says” (and probably from the closing credits cover of “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock And Roll)“) Poster then chimed in: “Certain things, but to tell you the truth, when the studios pay I’m happy to spend the money.”
When someone asked what happened to soundtracks, Linklater was quick to answer. “I think I realized what helped it diminish,” Linklater said, sounding like the concept had struck him like a bolt of lightning. “When you would see, ‘Songs Inspired by ‘Speed,’ and I think people got disappointed by it. You like the movie and you bought the soundtrack and there’s all of these songs that weren’t in the movie. You see that and you just go, ‘Stay away.’ ” Poster was then quick to point out that, “We sold over 400,000 copies of ‘School of Rock.’ ” And what’s more, it was technically a “Songs From and Inspired By” soundtrack!
What about the relationship between the composer and the music supervisor? This was another question from the audience, and one that Poster was happy to answer. “It varies from situation to situation,” Poster said. “Like Sam Mendes, he works with Thomas Newman, and their work together predates my involvement with Sam. So they do their thing and I do my thing and there isn’t much interaction.” This isn’t always the case, however. “With ‘Hugo,’ Howard Shore really likes listening to all the source music and have it influence his score.” As for Poster, he actually prefers to work with greener talent, for the very reason that they get to create a dialogue together. “I like to work with younger filmmakers. Sometimes with their inexperience, you have to establish a common vocabulary and help to develop communication. That helps.”
After Linklater answered the cursory “Will ‘Suburbia‘ ever come out on DVD?” question (his casual non-answer: “I hope so. Criterion wanted to do it. So maybe it’ll come out soon.”), the two were asked what was their biggest a-ha! moment, when they knew a song was perfect for a scene. Poster answered first: “On ‘School of Rock’ I was always mesmerized by the Black Keys [‘Set You Free‘] and I wanted it on the scene before Jack Black does Stevie Nicks. And that was one where I wanted that song on that movie and I wanted that section of that song in the movie and I wanted to play it as loud as I wanted it to be played.” His hard work paid off. “It worked,” Poster concluded. With Linklater it was a totally different experience (for “Dazed and Confused”), and one that tied in with the altered state of many of the film’s characters. “I had a root canal and I was on nitrous and I heard ‘Sweet Emotion’ and I thought ‘Oooooh,’ ” Linklater said. He paused to laugh and then said, “But that is one that I’ll always be happy with.”