As one of Hollywood’s busiest and most sought after Music Supervisors Maggie Phillips is responsible for the sounds heard on a variety of films and TV shows.
Think Academy Award winner “Moonlight,” TBS’s “People of Earth,” Amazon’s “Patriot” and “Legion,” which airs at 10 p.m. EST Wednesday night on FX.
Phillips checked in with HiT to talk in depth about her role in creating “Legion’s” sonic landscape, her embrace of “guy rock,” keeping organized when everyone wants to work with you and why Pink Floyd factors so heavily in the new Marvel Comics series.
HiT: How did you get into music supervision? Were you a musician? Music exec/producer or just someone who loved music, movies and television?
Maggie Phillips: I am not a musician and never have been. I went to school for art. I am a painter. But also a lover of music, a huge fan – just better at painting and followed that first.
I was born and raised in Austin, Texas. I grew up a big live music fan and I met a lot of musicians that way, including Mark Duplass, right after college, who was in the band Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!, way back in the day.
We hit it off. I also hit it off with his brother, Jay, who was at the same show. And then we all moved to Brooklyn right around the same time – Mark and Jay plus their girlfriends, now wives, Katie and Jen. We became very close very fast. They are all my family.
When they stated making “The Puffy Chair,” I helped them out a little bit – hooking them up with a musician friend of mine and brokering that deal.
A year or two later, we all moved west to Los Angeles. I was still pursuing my art career, but on the side started helping out Mark and Jay on films, and a few other indies. It sort of grew from that. I am completely self taught and it was all trial by fire. I had no clue what I was doing. I knew my music, but nothing about music supervision.
HiT: You have a varied and eclectic body of work, and it’s obvious you’ve been very busy. How do you keep so many projects straight in your head? I don’t just mean creatively, but on a more practical level. Do you tend to work on one project at a time or are you able to compartmentalize?
Phillips: Ha. That’s my biggest challenge, trying to juggle it all, prioritize based on schedule, project, timeline. I have a great PIC who helps me keep things straight, Christine Roe.
Most weekdays, I’m at meetings, spotting sessions, mixes or I’m on the phone or emailing – you know, the business end of things. I only have time to listen early in the morning and at night. Oh, and on the weekends.
But, I like working on so many diverse projects. I love getting into the head of different people, trying to listen as they would listen, while keeping their story and their characters in mind. For me, it’s all about empathy, relating to others, understanding others and their emotions, story, internal dialogue or struggle. I have always been extremely empathic, and in my opinion, very much to a fault, but at least now it’s paying off.
HiT: The variety of projects you have been working on is amazing. Have you ever been initially stumped by the creative direction of a show and if so, how did you approach that challenge?
Phillips: Yes, of course. It takes some time to get inside someone’s head, to understand what they respond to, what’s important to them. It takes time, research and opening up my mind and ears.
HiT: I notice you’ve worked with Noah Hawley on “Fargo” … Can you talk a little about your relationship with him, how it developed and how working with him on ‘Legion’ has been similar or different than ‘Fargo’ with regards to both creative direction as well as nuts and bolts process?
Phillips: Noah and I work well together. First of all, he took a huge chance on me. I had almost exclusively indie feature experience when I met with him about “Fargo,” no TV experience. But, I put so much of myself into “Fargo” Season 2. I was so passionate about it and the music.
I had never had a chance to do anything like that. I didn’t think about anything else for about 8 months. I think during that time, I learned a lot about Noah and Noah grew to trust me. We have developed a great working relationship. He’s a friend, too. I respect him so much. But I also just like him, you know? We’ve developed a nice shorthand. Jeff, Noah and I, we make a great team and I think it shows.
HiT: In many of your shows (‘Fargo,’ ‘Legion,’ etc) it is very obvious that the songs you choose are almost another character in the film and help with both mood, exposition and often serve to explain subtext. Can you elaborate on how you see the role of non-score music in a show?
Phillips: It’s a way for us to comment from the outside looking in, or for us to comment from a character’s perspective, to play a counterpoint, to contextualize, to expand, explain, hint or just make the audience lay back and reflect.
HiT: When choosing the right song for a scene, do you look for lyrics first or song tone first?
Phillips: Both and it very much depends on scene.
HiT: Composer Jeff Russo, with whom you also worked on ‘Fargo,’ has done a stunning job in creating a sonic palette for the show. How do you interact with him? Do your creative decisions with Noah occur prior to the music composition, or are those decisions made simultaneously and with the score in mind? Have there been times when either you or Jeff has had to rethink choices based on what the other did?
Phillips: He has, hasn’t he? He’s brilliant. He really is the best. I want him on everything I do. He’s become a very good friend. We work very closely. He sends me stuff to listen to early on. We talk daily. Pretty much everything is considered and talked about, but also he does his thing and I do mine. We just keep each other informed and ask for input.
HiT: The main character’s mental state in ‘Legion’ is, to say the least, tenuous. Much of the story deals with memory work. How would you say the music plays into that?
Phillips: Well, Pink Floyd and their album, “Dark Side of the Moon,” played a huge part, both in score, but also source. It is, like Noah says, a sort of a soundscape for mental illness…we tried to get inside David’s head but also describe his mental state through music.
HiT: One of the places where it seems the music in ‘Legion’ gets really eclectic and unexpected is during the end credits. How is the process for choosing a song for the end crawl different than choosing one for a narrative scene during the show?
Phillips: Ha, no process, just what comes to Noah’s mind, or mine. It’s a place to have some fun. And give you guys something unexpected but still informative or just a great experience. With no narrative or picture to inform, we can go crazy and we do.
HiT: One of my favorite uses of music from ‘Legion’ is the way you weaved Faure’s ‘Requiem’ into episode 6 and how it worked seamlessly with Russo’s ‘Choir and Crickets’ later on in that episode. Can you tell me a little more about how that came about?
Phillips: That was all Noah and Jeff. His “Choir and Crickets” was one of my favorite pieces from the season. So perfect. And he and our very talented music editor, Matt Decker, made the two of those work together.
HiT: I’ve also noticed that in the same episode (episode 6), and probably others, the music simulates certain mental states (such as give the recording warble). Are these decisions ones that you are involved in as well, or do you choose the music and then the post guys decide with the showrunner to do that?
Phillips: It depends on the show, but in this instance, no, I am not a part of that – that is Noah and Nick Forshager (and his team)
HiT: Having a character named Syd Barret in the show makes a very obvious musical reference to Pink Floyd and the connections to the band and its history has been discussed quite a bit online. I’d love to know your perspective on this very in the forefront connection. Also, the composer used of some very Floyd-ish textures throughout the season. This must have made any decision to use Floyd songs a very important and creatively self-conscious one. You guys chose the last episode to use those songs all in the same montage. Was that something that was mapped out early on?
Phillips: Yes, very much so. Noah took me and Jeff out to dinner to tell us about “Legion.” He mentioned “Dark Side of the Moon” practically in the same sentence. I went home and listened to the entire album, start to finish, all the way through and then again and fell asleep to it.I want soul/authenticity in my music, and I feel it lacking in most current music.Click To Tweet
I know that album because of my brother, Ethan. He introduced it to me when I was a freshman in high school. There are some bands that I’ve always considered “dude bands” – Jethro Tull, Rush, Pink Floyd, etc. I still haven’t fully come around to Rush, but Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, I fully get now.
But still, Noah and Jeff had some deep nostalgia going on with that album, I had some but it was more about my brother’s love for the album. It was the first inspiration we had; it started the whole discovery.
HiT: There are different types of directors and producers. Some love to have tremendous control while others are more broad stroke in their approach to music. How much of a back and forth do you have with Noah Hawley – is this more or less than you’re used to on other projects?
Phillips: Everyone is different. Noah has a very clear idea of what he wants, but he knows when to hand off, and that’s when I deliver. It depends on the project, the director/showrunner, the episode, the scene, the budget and our schedule. I think my job as a music supervisor is to inform, discover, inspire, help, clear, manage expectations, but ultimately, to help make the process easier. I’m collaborating but also, I’m helping to bring someone’s vision alive, not mine.
HiT: As far as staying current and listening to music, I’m sure you get inundated with new music all the time, how do you filter and how do you know what to listen to?
Phillips: Yes, I do. It’s overwhelming, and frankly, at this point, I’m so sick and tired of most new music. I have a few very trusted people who MAKE me listen to new music, otherwise I’d be stuck in the ’60s or ’70s. I want soul/authenticity in my music, and I feel it lacking in most current music.
HiT: What do you listen to for fun these days?
Phillips: Classical! And books on tape, mostly thrillers. I need a break from music after work. I need to let my ears rest.
Hit: How do you discover out of the box and out of the way music?
Phillips: I go down rabbit holes. And I just know what I like, what I respond to.