Adapting a story like “Sharp Objects” with such a fraught collection of mother-daughter relationships, it makes sense that there was one word that director Jean-Marc Vallée and music supervisor Susan Jacobs returned to when exploring music to use in the telling. Early on in the process, the search was on for some good “mama” songs.
“I was researching, going back and looking and trying to find songs that are ‘mama’ in a different way,” Jacobs told IndieWire. “Country songs have a lot of ‘mama’ and we didn’t want to go there. You can just load up people with lots of ‘mama’ songs from country bands. But to find things like [Sylvan Esso’s] version of ‘Come Down,’ it just felt perfect. Everything that Jean-Marc does, there’s kind of a surreal quality to it in the way he’s shooting, and it just worked out really beautifully. ”
“Sharp Objects” is told without a traditional score. Instead, the collection of songs from artists and groups forms the audio foundation for an eight-part series built strongly on a jarring, sensory experience.
“He’s really motivated by music,” series showrunner Marti Noxon said. “At first, I’ll be honest, I was like, ‘But score in mysteries is really good.’ We had a couple of very delicate conversations, because I love a well-placed piece of score, but I think I use score the way he uses needle drops. I’ve never worked with the music budget that he has. I might be able to use needle drops for everything if I could just use any of that.”
Whether they’re songs that fit a specific lyrical theme or fit into what she describes as the right musical “color box,” Jacobs has often compared her and Vallée’s working relationship to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with her working backwards from Vallée’s suggestions to make sure both stay in sync.
Part of that is conveying to artists and labels that when licensing these songs, there’s a good chance that it won’t be used in the traditional way that source music often pops up in film and TV. More collage than backdrop, Vallée uses music in a way that sometimes capitalizes on smaller portions of songs or blends different tunes together for a more experimental soundscape.
“I can hear music now and go, ‘Oh yeah, that feels like something Jean-Marc would like.’ I think if we went over to each other’s houses and looked through our record collections, they’d be so similar that way,” Jacobs said. “But for work, it’s really about facilitating him to have the freedom to use music in the way he wants to, which is super difficult and it’s super hard to convey to people and loosen up the idea that he’s really painting with three notes here and four notes there.”
Over the course of four projects, Jacobs and Vallée have developed a process that begins with having conversations early on in the filmmaking process. Keeping that avenue of ideas open helps keep these unconventional storytelling techniques from having to be reworked later on.
“These are conversations we’re having way before when he’s shooting. Then he’ll do all the weeding of that music as he cuts,” Jacobs said. “It feels so strong. It’s such an integrated part of the process. It’s not something that’s done in post. He is pulling these threads and weaving them through right there, which I think is really what people are [responding] to.”
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One prominent artist that got this special narrative remix treatment was Led Zeppelin. Early on in the adaptation process, Vallée saw Amy Adams’ Camille and the seminal quartet as inherently connected, with the band offering the character the best chance at a mental escape from the horrors she’s witnessed in Wind Gap and in her own hospital stay. While the band hasn’t been prohibitively restrictive with their songs over the years, there’s always a certain delicate nature in pursuing songs from such an iconic, totemic band. But for Jacobs, using Led Zeppelin came from much more of an emotional pitch than a financial negotiation.
“There’s always a Plan B, but I felt like once I really understood what it is that I wanted to convey to the band, then I felt very clear about the importance of what Led Zeppelin was doing,” Jacobs said. “I just thought that any band would find that the most beautiful thing because that was in the script and I found that stunning. Like, ‘Oh wow, you can just put music on and get out of here.’ I think these days, I feel like ‘Sharp Objects’ is like a cathartic piece of music. I think a lot of us would be walking around with words pumping out of our skin these days. The fact that you can put on a great record and a really sophisticated, amazing band classic band and a rock band and take off, I love that.”
Whether they’re rock royalty or a band just starting to peek through public consciousness, one of Jacobs’ biggest challenges is to convey how a song might be used. Even if it’s a tiny fraction of the song introduced in a psychological daze or in a whispered memory, it’s not meant to demean the importance of the work. For this music team, it’s all about tying songs to characters.
“You’re talking about prime real estate and you’re just giving somebody a shadow of a diamond, like a glimmer of a diamond. If I was only getting Led Zeppelin one use, one song, that would never work with how Jean-Marc tells a story. It wouldn’t be possible,” Jacobs said. “I think over the years I’ve learned to have that dialogue and people have learned to trust that they’re in good hands. It’s all to just tell story.”
To hear Vallée describe the crafting of one particular sound tapestry, it’s clear that a diligent sense of prepwork frees up an organic process of putting these songs into the final product.
“I started to do something I’ve never done before, with music. And I went, ‘Why didn’t I think of it before?'” Vallée said. “I started to use three to four tracks at the same time. And, so we hear a Led Zep song, as we hear a romantic old Hollywood old school score coming from an old film, as we hear a rap song. And it’s all blending. And we started to change the pitch of one, edit instrumental part of another. And then, mix them altogether for the final results. So, we blend two worlds or three worlds that are evolving, separately. I like what it does, sound-wise, emotion-wise and the place it gets you, as you watch. It’s disturbing and it’s fascinating at the same time. And it’s like noise. But noise we blended in a way that it becomes music.”
Anne Marie Fox/HBO
As far as “Sharp Objects” figures who share another kind of fascination, Camille’s stepfather Alan follows a tradition of characters in Vallée/Jacobs collaborations who are tethered to the music that they love. Chloe had her overzealous iPod in “Big Little Lies” and a wayward Cheryl Strayed remembers her mom humming a Simon and Garfunkel song in “Wild.” The poster for the 2015 film “Demolition” even featured Jake Gyllenhaal wearing a pair of headphones.
But “Sharp Objects” intertwines character and music even when it’s not tied to a specific person. Jacobs explained how the sonic atmosphere in different locations across town helped each place stay constant and made the subtle shifts in and out of Wind Gap mean more.
“Jean-Marc had a very specific sound that he wanted for the bar, and so the music that he’s cut in there is really about that feeling. We open with Steve Miller and we never really leave that particular type of sound for that bar. I think that the point is to delineate character all the time. And so the bar has a character. It was very white; they’re not playing hip hop in there, or funk and soul. This is a really ingrained, more a mainstream music in some ways,” Jacobs said.
Part of that sense of contrast even meant drawing on cues directly from Gillian Flynn’s novel.
“Really, everything has a purpose. We have a scene that’s in the book as well, when Camille goes to the bar on the other side of town,” Jacobs said. “In the book, it actually talked about her walking into what they would call the pig farmers bar, where all the working class people go and hang out, and they’ve got feminist music playing. And so we really made a point of bringing Joan Baez in there because we wanted to just to establish that this is a totally different sound going on over there.”
While this season doesn’t have any Michael Kiwanuka, an artist that “Big Little Lies” introduced to many different viewers, “Sharp Objects” has drawn on a mix of familiar artists. Even without a composer, the show’s still managed to find pieces of music that fit closer to traditional instrumental and still feel in line with Vallée’s style. “Sharp Objects” features some gorgeous piano melodies from Alexandra Streliski, an artist Vallée had previously included in “Dallas Buyers Club.”
“That’s a great thing about working with somebody that lives in Montreal, because he gets access to different versions of things than we get. It’s often a bit of a problem because he’s getting a lot of his stuff from France, totally different mixes of things than we have in America,” Jacobs said. “But Ludovico [Einaudi] was somebody I introduced Jean-Marc to. So we have this great back and forth like, ‘Oh, here’s somebody that you might like also. We both have mutual respect.”
Sometimes the fruit of that mutual sense of discovery extends beyond the confines of the project they’re working on, as it did with Agnes Obel, whose “September Song” featured in “Big Little Lies.” As Jacobs said, “I was watching the Olympics and I heard it playing over one of the big ads. I was like, ‘Holy moly!'” But ultimately, it comes back to having the tools to enable a different way to approach storytelling.
“I really feel amazed to facilitate this vision, because Jean-Marc’s very clear. There’s never something in there that’s just in there. It’s in there because that’s what he wants to convey about the people and the characters,” Jacobs said. “He mixes music like a DJ. I think that out of naivete, he never really thought that he couldn’t do that in film. Most people would go, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, you absolutely can’t layer this over that over that,’ I’m really fortunate to have found him early in his American career and really support that idea, and go, ‘Cool. Let’s figure out how we’re going to make that work.’ Because it does.”
Additional reporting by Liz Shannon Miller. The “Sharp Objects” finale airs Sunday at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.