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Stems vs. Multitracks: Setting the Record Straight

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Ladies and gentlemen, Mary Ramos. Good morning, Mary. How are you?

I’m good, thanks. How are you?

Good! Good to talk to you again twice in a 10- or 12-hour period. I’m really excited to have you here and thank you for doing this. I know your schedule is insanely busy all the time, and I want to mention at the top of the interview that Mary has got to duck out at 10:15 because she’s got to go to a spotting session, and she’s already pushing it a little bit.

I want to give you a little background on Mary. She’s an award-winning music supervisor who has helped create the musical identity for over 100 films in nearly 30 years. She’s helped to shape the music for blockbuster features, award-winning independents, passionate documentaries, episodic TV, commercials, and video games as well. She’s worked on Grammy-nominated soundtracks and won two Guild of Music Supervisors’ awards for Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. And while she might be best known for her work with Quentin Tarantino, what makes Mary fascinating to us is the wide range of projects that she’s worked on, including one of my all-time favorites, Happy Gilmore, Bride of Chucky, South Park, Chef, Kill Bill: Volumes One and Two, Mrs. America, which had an Emmy-nominated score, Little Fires Everywhere, which also had an Emmy-nominated score, Wu-Tang: American Saga Season 2, Wasteland 3, which is a video game, and Stillwater, which was just out like a month or two ago.

So welcome, Mary. It’s really, really good having you here.

Thank you. Thanks for having me. I can’t believe you’ve been doing this for 25 years and I haven’t done one yet.

I couldn’t find any documentation, but I swear we had you and one other supervisor like 23 years ago. I think it was our second year that we did this. And I just remember the two of you really hit it off on the panel, and you guys were like a little silly, but really informative, and everybody in the room loved it. So I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to bring you back. But I went to look for the documentation of that year, and because it was 23 years ago, I couldn’t find anything. So maybe I’m hallucinating, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.

Anyway, you work on so many different things. Everybody says, “Oh, she’s Quentin Tarantino’s music supervisor,” but you are much more—you are a consummate music supervisor. And I have music supervisor friends that just do reality TV or just do episodic dramas. They tend to kind of do one thing a lot, and you’ve done pretty much everything.

I want our audience to think about sync from the perspective of the end users. I know it’s very easy for music creators to just think of “It’s my song, it’s my baby, I created it.” But they really need to see it from the other side of the fence as well, because I believe that that will help them create music that’s more “sync-able.”

So, let’s jump right in. What is music’s job when it’s married to picture?

Ah, that’s a really great question. And music in general adds a personality to an entire project. It can warm up the scene; it can deflate some clunky acting. I mean, it can do a lot in post-production, and it’s been a very interesting part of my job to kind of come in and see how we can smooth things out and add something here. I mean, the script is one thing, but once you see what has been shot, it could need a whole different style of music to really work with what they shot. It’s one thing on a page, and you can say, “Oh, this is all going to be hair-band rock.” But when you see what they shot, it’s like, “Oh, this is bossa nova.” It really takes being keen on what the actual work is, what the actual job is, what the actual needs are on a project. Does that answer your question? I kind of went all over the place.

Yeah, it does. Because you hit on maybe the most important point of this entire interview already, which is that you never really know until you know.

By virtue of the fact that you’ve worked on all these different types of projects—big-budget features, indie films, episodic TV, all the stuff—how different is the job description and work flow from, let’s say, a big-budget feature to episodic drama? How do they vary?

Well, first the basic nature of the job for me from my perspective is the same on all projects: It’s to serve the project, and to serve what’s going to tell this story the best. So that’s always the underlying job for me. But it’s the way the job pans out; the workload is entirely different. I haven’t done a lot of television until recently, and then I did two jobs right at the same time, which was Little Fires Everywhere and Mrs. America, which were both very music-driven.

They’re not doing these little movies every week. You know, you could be working on a movie for years. If I’m working on a Quentin movie, it could be two years. So, you’ve got a lot of time to really grow ideas and really work with the director.

“When we get something from TAXI, we know that it’s good, it’s clearable, and we can do it right away. I can’t say enough about how important that is.”

Sometimes in television you don’t get that luxury, so it really calls for you to be on your toes. It really calls for you to have an arsenal of music, you know, because oftentimes in television, budget comes into play. So, it calls for you to have… I call it an arsenal, and that’s a bad way of putting it. But having a bunch of music that you know is easily shareable, that’s really good, and that you can put in without any hassles at the last minute, and you know what it’s gonna cost, and you know you’re going to be able to get it signed off on right away. Those are absolutely essential, and that’s what has been really fun about working in television. Because in film you don’t get a lot of opportunities to use up-and-coming artists.

But in television, because it’s so voracious, and because there are oftentimes scenes that take place in a bar, and what bar do you know that doesn’t have music playing? Even sports bars, even if the TV is on, there’s music playing. So you really need to be able to have great music at the ready, and that’s what’s great about what you guys do. When we get something from TAXI, we know that it’s good, it’s clearable, and we can do it right away. I can’t say enough about how important that is. So anyway, the workflow is different in the different things. Also, video games are entirely different too.

Yeah, I don’t know enough about video games. But I’ve had Inon Zur on panels with me before, and it’s a whole different world. And the scoring and making all the different… You know like if the character goes left, it’s this; if the character opens the door, it’s that cue. It’s like who could keep track of all that stuff?

Well, one thing I’ll tell you is that one thing in video games that might be of use to artists that might be listening. I did a video game called Voicemail 3. They had a need of songs that fit the world of the game, but they also had a need of not using copyrights because of wanting their users to be able to put their videos of themselves playing the game up on Twitch and the various streaming services, and they didn’t want their videos to be taken down, because that’s a major way of getting word out about the game. So, one thing that I kind of suggested was—this world has sort of a mythology to it—so I suggested let’s do psychobilly covers of public-domain songs. So that was a really great opportunity to work with some up-and-coming artists who create these covers. It’s not a publishing thing, but it is an opportunity to do a cover of something and have it get used in a video game. It was an interesting clearance thing to work on. It’s a whole other world that I wasn’t used to.

“We’re like casting directors in a way, for songs as well as composers.”

A lot of people think that music supervisors are like A&R people. They sit around with their feet up on the desk, doing bong hits, listening to music and going, “Oh, man, I love this. I’ve got to put it in a movie; I’ve got to put it in a TV show.” But really, the music supervisor is suggesting options more than making the final decisions. Who do you present those options to in each scenario that makes the final decision on which music gets used?

We’re like casting directors in a way, for songs as well as composers. For instance, when I come on a project, I like to meet with the director or the showrunner. And I will have read the script and have an idea when I come in and will talk about their goals and dreams, their adjectives for the show or what they want it to be, and we’ll come up with a concept for [the music in] it. But I can really suggest something—and I have, I’m very opinionated—but at the end of the day, it’s really not my decision. It’s a collaborative medium, but in film the director has the final say, and in television it’s the showrunner.

“I’m not just choosing a song because I like it; I’m choosing it because it fits the character, it does what it needs to do to the scene, it fits the [time] period, it doesn’t throw the story out of whack because it’s from a different time period or it doesn’t fit the character.”

Is it torturous for you when you know something works better in a scene than what is going to go in there, and you fight the good fight, but at the end they choose the wrong thing?

Yeah. Yes, it drives me crazy. Because when you hire a music supervisor, you’re hiring a specialist, right? I’m a specialist. I’ve had 30 years of experience in what I do, and I’m not just choosing a song because I like it; I’m choosing it because it fits the character, it does what it needs to do to the scene, it fits the [time] period, it doesn’t throw the story out of whack because it’s from a different time period or it doesn’t fit the character. Those are all these things; you hire me because you don’t have to think about those things. It’s my job to think about those things and present you things that are working within the world you want to create.

Everybody has music that they love. Music belongs to everyone. Everyone has their favorites, and everyone has their playlists. What music supervisors do is always tied to what’s gonna make the story better? What’s gonna make this story work? What’s gonna make the film work the best? So yeah, when I suggest something, there’s a whole reason behind it. Because I’ve tried a hundred things to picture, and this one actually makes her look brighter, him look… And finally, when it’s not chosen for whatever reason, I’m sad.

When you work on a film not with Quentin, is a big part of your job translating the director’s description of what he or she needs into a brief that people will send the right music in for?

Yes, absolutely. Yes. And a brief has to be… My briefs are pretty wordy. I like to be very specific about what I’m looking for, so I tend to give examples, but not too many examples, because I don’t want people to replicate. I want to give them descriptors. Oftentimes I’m working with directors or showrunners who aren’t musicians, who aren’t musical, so they don’t know how to articulate what they’re looking for. I work with music editors to create a temp score and temp tracks to help create something for a map to give directors the words and the tools to describe what they like. “I like that instrumentation. What’s that instrument? I like the way this makes me feel here. It’s the tempo, it’s the mood,” you know?

When I come on a project, I’ll spot the picture for song cues and for score cues. And those sessions can last hours upon hours, because that’s where it’s a really good chance for the director and the showrunner to articulate what they want here and what they want there. I always try and get them talking; every adjective that they give I think is helpful for an artist or a composer to help home in on what they’re looking for.

“I’m not going to suggest something that I haven’t already vetted for being in the budget parameters of what we can do.”

We all know the phrase “temp love.” How much is going on in your head when you’re spotting and putting in temp music, thinking, “Oh, this is so good, but I know if I temp it, they’re gonna fall in love with it and I’m never gonna get them off the dime to put something else in there.” Is that something that you deal with a lot, or not so much?

Not anymore! Used to be. I’ve learned my lesson! I learned pretty early on that you don’t temp with the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. But because of the kinds of things I work on, I haven’t worked on a lot of big-budget studio projects. My “wheelhouse” is more independent and artsy independent, so oftentimes I’m dealing with budget constraints... So, I like to be in control of what I give to a director, so there’s a lot of work that goes into the music that I suggest. I’m not going to suggest something that I haven’t already vetted for being in the budget parameters of what we can do. So, I’m going through hundreds and hundreds of songs finding things that fit, but not sending anything until I know it’s affordable, because it’s just too painful to try and replace something once that template is in.

I’m sorry, I don’t like to do ugly temps. I don’t like all the cues from the same films so it sounds like a perfect score in your temp, because that’s the breeding ground for temp love, basically. I like to make them patchwork-y, because, again, my temps are for getting the director to articulate what they want. “You like this banjo?”“No? How ’bout if we do it with a clarinet?”

“When you [musicians] want to put your music into a film, you have to consider that it needs to fit.”

You mentioned that you listen to hundreds of songs to find the right one. From the musician’s perspective, that music comes from their heart and their soul, and everything is riding on it, and they imagine that a music supervisor might sit there—even though they are gonna listen to hundreds—listen from the beginning to the end, and really sit there and thoughtfully ponder each and every one. When you listen to hundreds, do you listen for three or four or five or 10 seconds and think that, “Nope, this just doesn’t fit the vibe; on to the next”?

We are talking to artists, right? I want to say that we’re not talking about your art, we are not trying to tell you what to do with your art, because that would be stupid. What we are trying to do… What we are talking about is if you’re interested in getting your music into a commercial platform, that’s a whole different mindset. It’s marketing and it’s sales and it’s that kind of a thing, so when you want to put your music into a film, you have to consider that it needs to fit. It needs to fit into the film; it needs to fit into the commercial. If you’re selling a car, they’re going to be looking for the right happy song, and they’re not going to be looking for a song that’s very specific in lyrics. For instance, very specific lyrics about a storytelling-type of a song, or a song that is all about “Laura,” a specific name. There are a lot of beautiful songs that are very specific in lyric, but we can’t use them. A lot of times when you are working on something, you ask for the instrumental version so that you can lift the lyrics and the vocal out and lay it under dialogue.

When we’re putting stuff in pictures, there are a bunch of different uses to songs. There are only a few times when you get the chance to really play a song in its fullness, which is over one of those montages—you know, the love montage. You hear the lyrics; you get to hear the beginning, the middle and the end of the song. Those are so rare. A lot of times, sadly, what we are trying to do with songs is play it in the background. The dialogue is happening in the foreground; the dialogue is the top line of the song, the top-line melody, basically. The song needs to lay underneath that dialogue and bring something special to the scene. You may want to have a cool hook play in the pocket of the dialogue, but these are the kinds of things that we’re looking for when we’re looking for songs, a lot of the time. So that’s something to be thinking about too.

Don’t miss Part Two of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!