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Liza Richardson Creates TV’s Music Miracles
Damon Lindelof and Jason Katims herald the vital and underappreciated contribution of the ‘Watchmen’ and ‘Friday Night Lights' music supervisor.
A great needle drop might get a few people tapping their feet, but rarely does one turn so many heads. “Watchmen” Episode 2 did just that, when it ended with an unprecedented-yet-highly significant song choice: “Egg Man” by the Beastie Boys. Given the show’s cheeky sense of humor, the track’s eponymous implications made sense; eggs are a prominent theme of the HBO series, from its beginnings until the very last shot. But anyone familiar with the rebellious rap group knows its members are very, very selective about allowing their music to be used in popular entertainment, and the question that sent viewers’ heads spinning was: “How did ‘Watchmen’ land the holy grail of song licensing?”
The short answer is Liza Richardson. The long answer is — like the award-winning music supervisor’s entire job — much more complicated.
“Watchmen” showrunner Damon Lindelof admitted “Egg Man” was always his choice to close out the episode, just as he always knew acquiring such a song would be next to impossible. Still, he had to ask.
“I’ve been down this road long enough to know it’s possible to fall in love with something that feels like it’s the perfect song and then you just can’t get it — Liza is very good at messaging that early on,” Lindelof said. “But sometimes she pulls a miracle out… so that spoils me.”
Lindelof remembered Richardson telling him the track was “ungettable” — that she said, “This isn’t going to happen. Beastie Boys are sampled too much.” And yet: “She did it. She figured it out,” Lindelof said. “It’s the first time that I think anyone’s ever licensed that song for movies or television.”
It is, and while Richardson would tell you she only secured those rights because of Lindelof’s special relationship with “Watchmen” composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and their similarly unique connection to Beastie Boys members Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz, Richardson is still the one who made it happen. How? She did what she always does: She found a way.
Whether it’s fighting for the rights to an unattainable song, offering an array of alternate options better suited for the program, or creating entirely new music to fit the moment, Richardson does what’s best for the show, the story, and the people telling it. She gets them what they need, even if they don’t know what that is; despite misconceptions about what a music supervisor typically does, she’s not making playlists or picking whatever songs she likes — she’s curating music to serve the project.
“Anybody who doesn’t take the job of a music supervisor seriously, that’s like saying the curators of museums aren’t important,” Lindelof said. “Figuring out where to put the art and how to light the art and how the art works with the art hanging next to it and what the overall feeling vibe of an exhibit is, that’s music supervision. And when you do it right, it’s incredibly special.”
Richardson has proven herself just that over two decades on the job. She was named the Music Supervisor of the Year in 2012 by her guild and recognized in the TV Drama category four years later. In 2007, she became the first DJ to play the Academy Awards, and, five years earlier, Richardson earned a Grammy nomination for “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Throughout it all, she’s hosted and produced a Saturday evening radio show for Santa Monica’s NPR station, which is how Lindelof and many other producers first got to know her eclectic blend of styles and unparalleled taste.
“I think in a lot of ways, Liza is a librarian,” Lindelof said. “She always knows where to find the book that you’re looking for, but sometimes you don’t know what book you’re looking for — so that’s where her true artistry comes in.”
Lindelof, who started working with Richardson on HBO’s 2014 drama “The Leftovers,” provided an example of the kind of conversations they share when searching for the right song.
“I’ll think we need something kind of country, but it feels like it’s more old school country as opposed to new school country, and probably a female singer songwriter as opposed to a male — but I don’t know,” Lindelof said. “She’ll take that as a jumping off point to start digging, and then she’ll basically lay out 15 options: eight of which check all the boxes I laid out, and then seven of which are completely, totally overlapping in some way in the Venn diagram, but she’s taken some risks. Almost every time, it’s one of the seven that are outside the box that I choose because I didn’t even know they existed.”
After breaking into the business on Mark Pellington’s PBS series, “United States of Poetry,” (a director she still cherishes to this day), Richardson’s first scripted television gig left a massive imprint on the medium. “Friday Night Lights” came to her through creator Peter Berg (who later recommended her to Lindelof) and introduced her to Jason Katims, who she again collaborated with on NBC’s “Parenthood” and Hulu’s “The Path.” Widely regarded as one of the best television series ever made, the Texas-set drama “Friday Night Lights” offered an expansive musical palette to fill out.
“We had characters of different races, classes, and backgrounds — Smash Williams, Matt Saracen, and Tim Riggins were all likely listening to very different music,” Katims said via email. “But I think the thing that was most exciting to me were the songs that dug into the hearts and souls of the characters and the world. Two of my favorite defining song placements early in the series were ‘Devil Town’ and ‘Dead Man’s Will.’ Liza embraced all of these sounds — but I believe she also has a soft spot for those more emotional cues which helped deepen the emotional impact of the show.”
It’s a trait Katims sees in “Parenthood,” too. Without Richardson’s prescient infusion of songs from Ray LaMontagne, Josh Ritter, Lucy Schwartz, The Avett Brothers, Glen Hansard, Brett Dennen, and more, the series would’ve lacked its tender emotional tether.
“It really helped get us into a mood and into the heads of our characters and let down our guard and surrender to the many emotional moments between our characters,” Katims said.
For Richardson, helping to set the tone of a series often starts before cameras are rolling and doesn’t end until the final soundscape is set. With “Watchmen,” the musical “Oklahoma!” is used to frame the beginning and end of the season, meaning Richardson had to “jump through all sorts of hoops before we even started shooting” to make sure those songs were licensed, Lindelof said. Then, once post production begins, she attends the sound mixes — an atypical trait for music supervisors — because “Liza wants to know how it sounds in relationship to everything else that’s happening in the show,” Lindelof said.
“I love that Liza doesn’t wait until she sees a cut to think about the music in the show,” Katims said. “She is reading scripts and thinking about music months in advance. She shares tons of music with myself and the editors — some stuff that hasn’t yet been released, or songs we just generally wouldn’t know about but work so well with the palette of the show. That really helps create a fluid and collaborative process. Editors have time to live with songs, get the songs in their heads, and incorporate many of the songs when they are first assembling the material.”
For a show like the period drama “Narcos,” Richardson not only makes sure the chosen music matches up with the narrative timeline (ranging from the 1970s through the early ‘90s), she also listens to the score and instrumental choices to ensure they’re era appropriate.
“She’s at every spotting session and every mix to try to ensure that we do not have a contemporary score,” “Narcos” and “Narcos: Mexico” executive producer Eric Newman said. “Sometimes Liza would say, ‘Hey, where are we exactly in the timeline?’ And I would say, ‘Well, it’s February 1986.’ And she’s like, ‘OK, that means we can’t do this or that,’ or ‘This one’s out, this one hasn’t come out yet’ — it was probably pretty annoying, but she embraced it.”
Authenticity is key to Richardson, and it extends to finding culturally-appropriate artists that best represent the story. The teams behind “Hawaii Five-O” and “Magnum P.I.” put a strong emphasis on casting and hiring local artists for their island-set series, and Richardson ran with that mission.
“Each show has its own sensibilities in terms of the type of music you’re looking for,” said Ted Babcock, head of post-production on “MacGyver” and “Magnum P.I.” “We like to feature island music and island artists as much as we can, but we also use current hits and also period [songs] that are from the ‘70s or even the ‘80s. So the kind of stuff we’re looking for is all across the board, and she’s great at finding it, [while] also digging up obscure artists.”
But before Richardson commits to a track, she has to consider the reality of actually acquiring it. Fighting through the tangled web of licensing deals and music budgets — with costs that include added fees for anything that plays over credit sequences and five-figure pricetags for ringtones — may not be a glamorous part of the job, but it’s an essential skillset for dedicated music supervisors.
“She knows not only different laws related to copyrights and [licensing] in different countries, but she’s familiar with all of the executives at the record companies and stuff like that,” Babcock said. “She has the relationships and makes the phone calls to try and press something through or get some hiccup fixed.”
“She’s dealt with probably the most complicated group of people on the planet — publishing rights holders,” Newman said. “Many of whom are the descendants of some brilliant but tortured composer, and who all hate each other and can’t agree on anything, and who want to know what the show is about before they license [their music]. And when they find out it’s about drugs, they’re like ‘No, we would never do that’ — and then she somehow has a way of clearing these things and talking to these people into licensing us their [music], sometimes for less than what they [originally] said.”
Even with all of these responsibilities, Richardson’s work goes further. When existing recordings don’t cut it, a good music supervisor will create music themselves, hiring artists to replicate voices or create a sound from scratch. Babcock mentioned that when a performer on “Magnum PI” suffered a stroke, Richardson had to find a singer who could match his voice in order to finish a key recording session.
It’s just one more reason many see Richardson as the ultimate fixer.
“We’re nothing without music,” Babcock said. “Everything you do in filmmaking is about how you’re making people feel. It’s all about emotion. If you take away the music, you lose 90 percent of the emotion. It’s just so important, and doing it smartly and using music creatively is a really phenomenal thing.”
“She’s almost a producer,” Newman said of how much impact Richardson’s work carries. “She’s been a big part of what I think makes our show cool. […] Music is so important to this show, and I think it is one of the things that [‘Narcos’] is acknowledged for — so, I wouldn’t do a show without her, that’s for sure. […] I hate the fact that she works for everybody else.”
“I think that’s what elevates her work: She doesn’t stop at good enough. She has to get to great,” Lindelof said. “That basically means experimenting, not being afraid to fail, and taking some big wild swings. But I think there’s a kind of bravura feel to a lot of the musical selections that she makes. In addition to having exquisite taste, which is no small thing, knowing when something is great and figuring out exactly where it fits, that’s her true artistry.”
“I’ve never taken her for granted, but over time, I’ve grown to appreciate what she does so much more.”
So has the rest of Hollywood. Up next, Richardson is working on HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” along with future seasons of “Narcos: Mexico,” “The Morning Show,” “MacGyver,” “Magnum P.I.,” and more. Her time and talents are in high-demand, but Richardson is well-prepared for whatever comes next. Onlookers may be in awe of the miracles she’s pulled off, but it’s just as easy to argue the most cherished piece of a program’s puzzle isn’t a hard-to-get song, an elusive sound, or the stimulating emotion it creates — it’s Richardson herself. –Ben Travers
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