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interview with Maggie Phillips, music supervisor (Moonlight, Fargo, Legion)

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“When I used to live in Williamsburg I would check BrooklynVegan all the time for upcoming shows,” Maggie Phillips recalls of her mid-’00s days in Brooklyn, when the subject of who this interview was for came up, adding that she spent a lot of time at at music venue Northsix (the address that’s now home to Music Hall of Williamsburg). She no longer lives in Brooklyn and doesn’t have as much time for live shows as she used to though, as Maggie is now a very in-demand music supervisor in Hollywood. Her credits include this year’s Best Picture Oscar Winner, Moonlight, not to mention acclaimed series Togetherness, Amazon’s Patriot, HBO’s twisted animated series Animals, FX’s ambitious X-Men-related Legion (which just wrapped up its fantastic first season), and FX’s Fargo, which premieres its highly anticipated third season this Wednesday (watch the trailer below).

In between Legion‘s season finale and Fargo‘s S3 premiere, Maggie took time out to talk about the accidental path she took to music supervision, working with Noah Hawley (who is behind both Fargo and Legion), keeping important songs in a small budget film like Moonlight where music is essential, and more.  Read below…

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BV: So how did you get into music supervision?

Maggie Phillips: I was born and raised in Austin, Texas. So, I grew up just a huge fan of live music. I started seeing shows at a very early age. At places like Emo’s and Liberty Lunch, you could go in underage and they would give you those big X’s on your hands. Back then it was so safe to still go out at night and do stuff like that as a 14 year-old. Not that my parents didn’t drop me off and pick me up and worry probably the whole time. I went to school at UT at Austin. I was an art student and just knew a lot of musicians because of the same crowd. I started seeing way more live music when I was in college, and I became friendly with a lot of musicians.

Then because I had friends in that circle, I met Mark Duplass, cause he was in a band. He also happened to be the guy who served me coffee in front of the art building at UT when I was still in school, and I made the connection after we met. It was just a small world back then. I met Mark, and I knew his brother, Jay, a little bit, too, because he was dating a friend of a friend. You know, I knew of them, that type of thing. But I met him because of the band, really, and because I went to go see one of their shows.

Then, when I moved to New York — I actually moved very shortly after Mark and Jay moved. Since we knew each other like acquaintances and we had some mutual friends, there was the whole, “Oh, when you get to New York you should meet up with Mark and Jay.” So, I did. Actually I went to New York and I was staying with my cousin,  I woke up the first day after I got there at like seven o’clock in the morning and I went to Williamsburg, because I was like, “This is where I’m gonna find my apartment.” I probably got there at like eight in the morning. I got off the train and, seriously, I had walked maybe three blocks and I saw Mark. I screamed “Mark Duplass!!!!” He was with his now wife Katie, his girlfriend then. They had only been together for a little while. But anyway, they were so nice and we ended up having dinner that night. We just became very fast friends. Then they made their first movie, The Puffy Chair. Katie and I were roommates and she was in that movie. They filmed some scenes in our apartment. While they were making it, they asked me to help a little bit with one or two songs where they knew I knew the artists. One was Spoon; I knew Spoon back from Austin. I helped broker that deal. Just by email and saying, “Hey will you do us…do me a favor?,” because they had no money. They gave us all … Everyone was paid a dollar on that movie.

So basically, accidentally.

Right. Because that movie took off, they moved to L.A. They got an agent, and they moved to LA to pursue their movies. I followed suit, because they were my friend group and I missed them, and I also was not enjoying New York. So, I followed them here. But I was painting that whole time. I had a totally other career pursuing art. So anyway. I didn’t know music supervision was a thing. I just knew I’d helped them out with The Puffy Chair. I had no film industry agenda. I was just gonna stop in LA, hang out with them for a little bit, hang out with some family in LA and then go back to Austin and think about my next career move, because I was not enjoying being an artist in New York.

Then I got to LA and they started making more movies and they kept asking me for help and ideas. Then I realized it was something that people do and get paid for, and I was like, “Well hell, I’m gonna do that.” But, I had no clue what it entailed — I knew the music part, but nothing about the business part; I had to teach myself, learn by trial and error. It was a challenge. But, it kind of started with them. And I also did so many years of doing movies for free and with no budget while doing a ton of other stuff to pay my bills, like random house sitting and nannying, all while still painting.

I figured the Duplass brothers were the connection, just ’cause I was looking at your IMDb page and I saw a bunch of miscellaneous other crew jobs for you in various capacities.

Yeah, that’s when they had a crew of like 10 people — they had their friends do other stuff. There was one movie I think I had five credits. I was like, “Take me off at least a few of those, because that looks just weird.” Because there was like… costume design and makeup design, but all I was doing was just making sure people had the clothes, the four actors, had the clothes they need. You know what I’m saying? It wasn’t like a real position. But yeah, that’s how they made their movies in the beginning. It was tons of fun.

Then they got a few studio pictures and, frankly, I had no clue what I was doing. But Mark and Jay were extremely loyal to me and made the studio hire me. I figured it out as I did the job. Like, I said, a real trial by fire.

Right. I know for me, as a person who is very into music, there was definitely a time where I became aware that music supervision was a job. Somewhere around The OC, probably. But then I heard about the whole contract side of things…

Yeah, I had no clue. I had no clue. I really… I look back at the first movie I did that had a budget, which was Cyrus with Mark and Jay. That studio must’ve been complaining about me the entire time. I did learn how to do it and did stay within budget and clear everything. I slowly figured it out. But after a handful of years of working on only indies, I got pigeonholed as the indie girl who can work with a nothing budget and it was really hard to break out of that. Actually, when I got hired for Fargo, I was thinking about a third career. I was trying to figure out if I was gonna go back to school or not.

Oh, well that definitely, I imagine, changed your life.

It changed my life. The show’s composer, Jeff Russo, he’s now become really one of my best friends; one of the first times we spoke he was like, “Fargo‘s gonna change your life. It changed my life.” I was like, “Okay, okay, sure it will”. But it did. It completely changed everything. I was extremely fortunate that Noah took a chance on me. I was able to do something that I knew I could do, because at that point I knew the whole drill, but I was still just doing indie movies. I was just working with indie artists and indie budgets. I was so bored with it. My love of music was much bigger than just current indie artists. I always tell people that my favorite music is from about 1964-1979. So, with Fargo, I got to dive head-first in to something that I had loved for so many years and not been able to use. It was thrilling. Then Noah and I really hit it off, so it’s been great. Since Fargo came out, it’s been obviously a lot easier for me to get jobs. Now I have too much work to do.

Like I said, I was looking at your IMDb page… there’s so much stuff currently. You just have to be swamped right now.

I’m swamped. I’m on a lot of TV. And I get to do a lot of movies, since I started in features…a lot people start in TV and then it’s hard to move over to movies, but I’m fortunate that I get to do both and get to do really good, really outstanding projects.

Like Moonlight. Congratulations on that. How did you get hooked up with Barry Jenkins?

I knew Barry as an acquaintance, because I am good friends with his producing partner, Adele Romanski. She produced this movie that Katie Asleton, who is Mark Duplass’ wife, directed and starred in called The Freebie. It’s the only movie I ever acted in, because she wanted me to play her best friend. I was like, okay fine I’ll do that. Cause that’s what I am, so it wasn’t a big stretch. [Laughs.] That’s when I met Adele. Then, she just asked me to come to this … It was after Fargo and I was doing some TV, and she just asked me to come to a screening. She was like, “We have no money for music supervisor. I know you don’t want to do it. I just want you to at least see it, and give me your opinion.”

I saw it and was, like everyone else, completely moved by it in a way I haven’t been in a very long time, by a film. I left and I said, “I don’t care what you pay me. I’ll do it” because I felt so strongly about the project. That was one of those, it just happened at the right time. I was just glad I went to the screening, cause I broke down in the screening. It was just, you know, a tremendous film. I knew how good it was, but I didn’t think … I guess I’m jaded and didn’t think that so many other people would respond to this as profoundly as they did, but it was pretty exciting, satisfying and reassuring to see that other people responded to it as strongly as I did. Then, the fact that it won the Oscar was so freaking crazy. I mean, just crazy. And then the way they won the Oscar.

So where were you watching the awards?

I was watching with Katie and Mark at their house. Music supervisors do not get invited to award shows. [Laughs.] I was watching it and I almost left, I was so mad. I threw down my ballot card. And then I actually came back to say goodbye to someone and I saw Jordan Horowitz on stage, who’s the producer for La La Land, he was the one who was like “Uh no, no, no. There’s something wrong.” And I was like, offhandedly, “Oh, I work with that guy.” Cause he’s a producer on one of my TV shows. “I didn’t know he was La La Land.” So I was watching that because of that… And then all of this stuff happened and it was just nuts. And exciting. We knew a lot of people that worked on that. It was exciting for our friend group to watch that movie win…and beat the monster of La La Land.

So what’s it like to come into a project that … I assume they had placed most of the music at that point, right?

They had. I had come in late, and had to replace about half of the film with cheaper alternative songs. Then, the bigger songs I had to try to somehow finagle a decent price for them, which was extremely challenging. Rap songs are the hardest … hip hop is  the hardest to clear, because there are so many parties involved. A lot of writers. There’s the samples. There’s the producer. It’s just a clearance nightmare. But [production companies] Plan B and A24, I think, slowly — the more screenings they did, the more they realized how important the music was. They generously opened up the budget for us significantly. But we still had to replace a lot. There were some spots, though, that we didn’t want to lose.

Like Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger.”

Like “Hello Stranger.” We did listen to some cheaper replacement ideas. There were a few. I don’t remember which ones, but same genre. There were a few that Barry entertained. It was Adele who was so in love with that song, and I agreed with her. It worked so beautifully, and we kept pushing for it. We finally made it happen. A lot of my job, though, is finding songs that are more affordable, that either beat the original or at least are comparable. That’s a huge part of being a music supervisor.

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When you say you had some alts, how many alts do you have to come armed with for every song that’s been temporarily put in the soundtrack?

It depends on the project. It depends on the director or showrunner. Some people, I’ll send them a playlist of 10 ideas and they’ll choose one. Some people, I’ll send them a playlist of ten ideas 10 to 15 times, because they just want to keep hearing options, keep hearing options, keep hearing options. That is one difference between TV and film. Film you have the luxury of time in post. TV you have a little more rushed post schedule, so it forces decisions. I prefer TV because of that. Sometimes, I think, being forced to make a decision leads you to respond with your gut and make an inspired, impulsive decision. It really depends. There’ll be the one spot in every project that I just can’t find something that works as well as the original, and it’s a frustrating place to be in. They call it “temp love”, also, because what happens is you’ve had one song in the cut that people have seen for maybe a year and it feels right, cause it’s been in there for a year. Nothing else will feel right, even if it’s probably better. It still doesn’t feel right, cause you’re bumped by it, it’s not what was in there — temp love. It’s a hard thing to fight against. I understand why. It’s hard for me, too. That’s a challenging part of the job. I do think when you’re forced into a difficult position, you have to think very creatively. Because of that, you come up with original ideas. I think that challenge is something that can make great art.

I was gonna say, is there an example of that, that you can say there was this one song that was in there you couldn’t get and then you ended up coming up with something that you now think is better?

There’s a song in Fargo Season 2 — Jethro Tull‘s “Locomotive Breath” — that is in a montage where a ton of people are killed. Just like one after the other. Originally, we wanted a David Bowie song, and they turned us down, and it was because of the violence in the scene. I respected that decision and understood, because it was a very violent scene. Stylized, but it was still violent. So we were forced to come up with alts.

I sent Noah like four or five, and “Locomotive Breath” was one of them, we had little time to consider. He came back and said “It’s gotta be ‘Locomotive Breath.’” And, I think that song worked better. I wanted Jethro Tull in there so badly, cause that was one of the first things Noah asked me to listen to for Fargo Season 2. I listened to their entire catalog. It was a band that… I didn’t know many of their songs, I knew like “Aqualung.” With the flute and the…it’s a dudes band, you know? Then I ended up listening to all their music and found songs that I loved, I mean absolutely loved. We had already considered them for a lot spots …it just never happened. There were so many songs we considered and but weren’t able to find a place. I was ecstatic that we were able to find a place to get them in. It’s satisfying and thrilling when I find something that really kills and people get excited about it.

You also got to do some other stuff in Fargo Season 2 with all those cover versions of songs that had been used in other Coen Brothers movies.

That was fun. That happened because Noah came up with the idea of doing a cover…frankly, we had a very low budget and if you do a cover… The way music licensing works is you have to pay half for publishing and half for the recording. With iconic songs that really gets costly. But if you do a cover, you only have to pay for publishing, and then you have to pay the contemporary artist something, but it’s typically lower than what it would’ve paid for the original… so it’s a cost saving mechanism, a way to get these songs in there we wouldn’t have been able to afford. That’s a prime example of being in a tight spot financially and coming up with ways to work around it. It was Noah’s idea to have Blitzen Trapper cover…
“Man of Constant Sorrow.” That’s my favorite. It’s got that 70s southern fried chunky vibe.
I know. I think I got a text from Noah at like 7 AM one morning. He texted me and Jeff [Russo, Fargo’s composer] and he’s like, “What do you guys think about Blitzen Trapper doing a cover of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ —  a ’70s version?” And Jeff and I both wrote back, “Genius.” I asked the band, and it wasn’t that long after that they sent their version. Basically, what they sent us is what you guys heard – we had no notes. I think they mixed it a little bit, but it was awesome. Since that was so successful, Noah and I were like, “Uh, we gottta do more.” Then it became a brainstorming session. What bands would we like to do covers? What songs do we like from Coen Brothers films to do covers of? Then it became who’s available, who will do it for the price, what songs will clear? You know, so then it’s more of the boring part of it.

It added another level of homage to that season of Fargo.

We got some amazing songs. I think, Lisa Hannigan doing “Danny Boy” was stunning. Britt Daniel from Spoon, my old friend back from Texas,  doing CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle,” I thought was one of my favorites for sure. Shakey Graves doing “O Death”…

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So with Season 3 will there be more of that?

We’re not doing covers from…we’re not doing that this year. We’ve done that. Everything’s new. Music’s gonna be just as crazy, but it’s different.

This season is set in the not too distant past, right?

It’s in 2010. You’ll see that a little bit in the music choices. But, Noah always strives to create something timeless.

OK, let’s talk a little bit about Legion which just wrapped up its first season. The use of Pink Floyd in the finale. I guess the biggest challenge for that would just have to be the price, right?

Yeah.

I was just like, “Whoa, they got Pink Floyd for this.” I was impressed.

And it was two songs, too. “Breathe” and “On the Run” from Dark Side of the Moon, they flow into each other on the record. There’s no pause in between those songs. So there was no way to go with just one song. The price was definitely the biggest challenge. It was an extremely difficult negotiation process, but we were working with some great people that recognized what we were doing was interesting. We ended up getting a price that we were able to persuade FX was worth it. But, it took months. It literally happened the day of the mix. That was probably the hardest licensing part of Legion.

And did you … Had you picked out an alt in case it didn’t come through?

Yeah, we had a score alt. We listened to a lot of Flaming Lips, but nothing ever … I listened to every Flaming Lips song. Noah wanted me to listen to Flaming Lips. I’m actually not a huge fan of Flaming Lips, but I listened to every single song they’ve ever done, and I found some that I thought might work, but they didn’t. So we ended up having Jeff create music just in case.

When Noah told me about Legion — I don’t even think we were done with Fargo Season Two at the time — we went out to dinner and he told me about Legion and I think in the same sentence mentioned Dark Side of the Moon. I went home and listened to it that night. I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. But, it was our first musical inspiration and it never quite fit in the other episodes, so it was just kind of like we have to have it. We have to have it. It was an influence to Jeff’s score the entire time, but still it was like we have to have IT. We were really lucky – FX is an amazing network, and they really do understand that music’s a critical part of the show.

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Back to Fargo‘s new season…not to ask any spoilery-type things, but how far along on Fargo Season Three are you … Is it done, is it completely done, or are you guys still working on it.

No, no, no, no, not even close to done. There was some overlap with Legion, but it’s the same team. At least it’s the same post team. I think it’s a lot of the same production people. There’s a little bit of overlap, and now we’re rushing. It’s an accelerated post production. We’re done with the first episode. I mean, we’re still finalizing two and three and starting on four. I mean, I am. The editors are working on future episodes, but Jeff and me, those are the episodes we’re concentrating on. I will say this, I really think it’ll be the best season yet.

Are there some things where you … It’s not exactly like what you did with season two, but maybe the way you used Lisa Hannigan again to cover David Bowie in Legion. Anything on that sort of level?

There is gonna be some … I just was in Austin working on a very special cover that will be an end title. So there will be at least one thing like that. It also takes place at Christmastime. So expect some carols.

Interesting.

I will say I don’t think anyone’s gonna be disappointed… If people liked the music in season two … I mean, Season 1 there wasn’t a ton of music. It was so good what they did, but it wasn’t a big a part of it. With Season 2 it’s a huge addition. I think if people are wondering if it’s gonna go back to being a little more subtle, because it’s not really a period piece, it’s not. But, it also is very different. It’s a very different sound.

Just speaking of soundtracks and stuff, do you have any favorite soundtracks?

I think the first soundtrack that I remember being super into was Pump Up the Volume, that movie with Christian Slater. I was like 14-15 when that movie came out. It has Leonard Cohen on it and the Pixies and Liquid Jesus. Soundtracks, back then, were a way of discovering new music.

Totally.

I think they still are, in a way, because I know that when people watch the shows I work on they get curious about what is playing and ask, but back then, it was the soundtrack LPs, CDs, that played a huge part in discovering new music. Like Pulp Fiction. I was a freshman in college when Pulp Fiction came out and that soundtrack was so cool. There were artists I had never heard of. Then, Trainspotting. I remember being excited about that soundtrack. My favorite soundtrack of all time, though, is Fat City. It’s a movie by John Houston starring Jeff Bridges. It’s like Jeff Bridges’ first movie.

He’s a boxer, right?

He’s a boxer, yep. They use one song, one Kris Kristofferson song called “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. They use it in like five different ways. It’s coming on the jukebox. It’s instrumental. All these versions, but it’s pretty brilliant.

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What about current stuff?

Honestly, if it’s my free time and I’m not working, it’s all classical. Cause if I listen to music now with anything that’s from ’30s on up, I end up stopping and thinking, “Who is this artist?” I can’t stop myself from wanting to Shazam it or see who it’s with. So if I listen to classical, it’s safe. It just flows in and out of me without making me stop and think about work. The stuff I’ve been listening to for work a lot is just trying to find hidden gems from forgotten music from previous decades. That’s for me…that’s one of the favorite parts of my job, finding something new, maybe not new to everyone, but new to most.

Do you have a recent discovery of something old that you’re like, “How has no one ever heard of this before?”

I can’t say as those are the little things that I keep in my back pocket that you’ll see at some point. There’s one in the first episode Fargo Season 3. It’s an Italian song that I played for Noah, I think for Legion. Now it’s showing up in Fargo. It’s one of those songs I’ve had for a while. And it’s awesome.

Whose choice was “Hyperactive” by Thomas Dolby that’s used in the end credits of the second episode of Legion?

That was all Noah. After I saw it, he was like, “I’m bringing Thomas Dolby back!” I was like “okay!” [Laughs] He didn’t tell me until I saw the cut, so it was for me a surprise, which was awesome to experience.

I loved that album, The Flat Earth, in junior high. And when that synth orchestra horn hit that opens the song came in with the closing credits, I genuinely laughed out loud, just cause it was like…

I did too. I had the exact same reaction. I laughed. It made me so happy. And then I was like, “This song is fucking cool. This is a great song.” And I don’t think I had heard it for 20 years. Noah blows my mind. I don’t know how … I know I have some out-there music, but I also I have to do research and really think about it. For him, though, I think it just comes to his mind. He must have a crazy memory. I know he has an insane mind – he connects things in a way that no one else would.

I thought that was a great little surprise.

That’s the fun part about music supervision, putting something like that in there and getting people excited about a song or a band that they’d never heard of, or a band that they haven’t thought about in forever. I’ve had so many people who have been like, “Thomas Dolby, like what the fuck?” It’s just fun. Not all of it is fun, that’s for sure, but something like that, that’s why I do what I do.

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