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How Nostalgic Music Gained New Meaning in ‘Homecoming’ and ‘The Umbrella Academy’

Maggie Phillips redefined music supervision on the conspiracy thriller, while having a blast from the past with the superhero series.

"Homecoming"

“Homecoming”

Jessica Brooks

IndieWireFallTV

Music supervisor Maggie Phillips had her hands full on “Homecoming” and “The Umbrella Academy,” but for very different reasons. When director Sam Esmail insisting on using only pre-existing classic soundtracks to score his conspiracy thriller, Phillips found herself in uncharted territory, which turned into a licensing nightmare. And even though the series about an adopted sibling superhero rivalry offered a more conventional challenge, Phillips was still keen on pushing the nostalgic factor in fresh musical ways.

“All of my projects before [‘Homecoming’] I’ve chosen songs and editors are temping in score, and then the composer comes in and replaces,” Phillips said. “And sometimes I’ll help with the temp score, but that’s not very common. But Sam wanted all pre-existing soundtracks as cues [to evoke the paranoia vibe] of ‘All the President’s Men,’ ‘Klute,’ and ‘The Conversation,’ and then that list got expanded and changed out of necessity because of the licensing nightmare of tracking down rights and staying within a budget.”

In “Homecoming,” social worker Heidi (Julia Roberts) tries to help troubled soldiers transition back to civilian life in one timeline (shot in a wide aspect ratio), while attempting to solve the strange mystery of her memory loss as a result of a nefarious plot in a future timeline (shot in a shorter aspect ratio). Most of the series is devoted to quiet therapy sessions between Heidi and Walter (Stephan) and the personal connection that develops between them. At first, Phillips was hoping to hire a composer just  to underscore those scenes, but they wound up sticking with Esmail’s edict.

Homecoming Season 1 Bobby Cannavale

Bobby Cannavale in “Homecoming”

Hilary B. Gayle / Amazon

“It was hard, but it’s a testament to his clear vision,” said Phillips. “Sam goes off to the Kubrick place where there’s no reason to replace what was temped in. He didn’t want to hire a composer because you’re never gonna be happy, and it’s not fair to the composer and not fair to the original composer as well, just copying that temp.”

Phillips has been Emmy submitted for Episode 4 (“Redwood”), which includes cues from David Shire’s “All the President’s Men,” Lalo Schifrin’s “The Amityville Horror,” Bernard Herrmann’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Pino Donaggio’s “Carrie” (an added Easter Egg with Sissy Spacek playing Roberts’ mother), Gil Mellé’s “The Andromeda Strain,” Vangelis’ “L’Apocalypse des animaux,” and James Horner’s “The Hand.” However, the music supervisor was not involved in the selection of cues. That fell to the editors, including Episode 4 editor Rosanne Tan, pending Esmail’s approval and the ability to license the soundtrack.

Ideally, they searched out similar sounds and instrumentation to find a cohesive musical thread. With “Amityville,” which was actually one of Esmail’s recommendations, the episode started out with an eerie horror beat as we witness the harvesting, processing, packaging, and delivery of the mysterious medication delivered to the Homecoming office. The other hard part was trimming a track they liked when the fee escalated too high.

Homecoming Trailer Amazon

“Homecoming”

Amazon

“I was like the Bad News Bear the entire time,” Phillips said. “In the beginning, the editors would go rogue and find stuff online and then carefully craft it, and I would come in and tell them they could use this one but not that one before it got costly. So a lot of these discoveries came out of desperation, just trying to find the right sound at the right cost. And that’s where it was a constant conversation between my team and the editors. And then, towards the end, out of necessity, we started going through the Universal catalog because they gave us a very cheap rate, and that’s where ‘The Andromeda Strain’ came on because it was one of theirs.

“But, also, Sam liked what he liked, so there was no sacrificing the creative. And I went to every mix to make sure the right stuff got in because I was the only one with the master list of everything in my head of what we could clear and what the prices were.”

The Umbrella Academy Season 1 Netflix

“The Umbrella Academy”

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

With “The Umbrella Academy,” Phillips immediately got on the right track with showrunner Steve Blackman when he suggested using Tiffany’s 2005 cover version of the old ’60s classic, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” “He brought up that in one of the first conversations before he started writing, and I immediately [got excited] because it has a lot of nostalgia for me,” she said. “That song came out when I was 13 and I remember doing a whole dance routine to it with one of my cousins. And so I had such an immediate emotional  connection. He wrote it into the script [for a vinyl needle-drop moment] and that’s what started the way we approached music from the beginning.”

The idea was to have fun but nothing too cool or obscure, which was hard for Phillips, whose musical taste tends to run more offbeat. However, Episode 1 (“We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals”), which she’s been Emmy submitted for, kicks off with a “Phantom of the Opera” medley by violinist Lindsey Stirling to introduce the cast of characters. “An editor put that in for temp and Netflix fell in love with it, which was one of those happy accidents,” she said. “It works and it has great energy and it was a challenge to do it as a medley.”

The Umbrella Academy Season 1 Netflix Ellen Page

Ellen Page in “The Umbrella Academy”

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

The Kinks song, from their landmark “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society,” plays as seven nannies push baby carriages. Phillips adores its evocation of bittersweet nostalgia for Old England, “and also the foreshadowing of what was to come in the whole series,” she said. “And we wanted to do it across generations, so we had more current stuff, and more older stuff, like They Might Be Giants with ‘Istanbul’ [during a battle in a donut shop]. That was a song in the ’50s that got covered in the ’90s and played in 2015. It also speaks to the time travel because we’re not set in one time and these kids aren’t set in one time.

“I tried about a hundred songs for that scene before settling on They Might Be Giants. It was late at night, and it was a song that I actually hated in high school, but, listening to it now, I think it’s a fun, catchy song.”

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