Music supervisor Randall Poster on soundtracking Martin Scoresese and Wes Anderson

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

“Asteroid City” official trailer. Video courtesy of Focus Features.

Grammy-winning music supervisor Randall Poster has been the go-to sonic selector for Hollywood storytellers with daunting musical needs for nearly 30 years, having produced soundtracks for nearly 200 TV series and films.

When he’s not supervising a movie or tv soundtrack, he lends his expertise to other sonic endeavors. During the pandemic, he says, he “became more aware of birds and bird songs.” He’s since used his connections to create The Birdsong Project with Executive Producer and friend Rebecca Reagan. The project aims to celebrate bird songs and to help us understand our impact on birds and the environmental threat they face. 

Inspired by these avian calls, Poster produced an expansive collection of 242 original tracks, the final product comprising a mix of music, poems, and visual art. The work has been donated by writers including Jonathan Franzen, Maggie Smith, Ocean Vuong, and Mary Oliver, with poetry recited by the likes of Bette Midler, Florence Welch, Greta Gerwig, Jeff Goldblum, Matthew McConaughey, Natasha Lyonne, Olivia Wilde, Regina King, and many others. And be sure to seek out the accompanying gallery of visual arts.

For the Birds: The Birdsong Project. Credit: National Audubon Society on YouTube

* All proceeds from The Birdsong Project will be donated to the National Audubon Society, the world’s oldest environmental society dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats.

Over his prolific career, Poster has overseen a wide range of music in TV shows like “Vinyl,” “Tiger King,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and many others. His hundreds of contributions to the big screen include a Grammy nod for the 2022 film “One Night in Miami…” and win for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in 2015 for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” 

Among his latest projects are Wes Anderson's “Asteroid City,” Martin Scorsese's upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and Todd Phillips’ “Joker” sequel. 

NPR contributor and guest interviewer Jeff Lunden talks to Poster about his career in film and television, his work with Martin Scorsese over the years, his long relationship with Wes Anderson, and why finding the right music for a project is such a highly collaborative process.

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: Can you briefly describe what a music supervisor does?

Randall Poster: A music supervisor is the person that the filmmaker has to sort of imagine and then execute a musical identity for the movie. Say there's a scene at a wedding: What kind of music is the band playing? How many people can we fit on the stage? What song should they play? Do we need to hire local musicians to perform on camera? 

Sometimes we need to bring the players who actually played on camera, and we pre record [the song that you’re hearing in that scene]. That's the sort of primary preparation that a music supervisor undertakes. 

Throughout the process, you work with the director trying to figure out how to use music to push the story forward, or music that's playing on the radio, or working with a composer to figure out what's the sound of the movie other than songs, trying to find a logical through line. Sometimes it's about how to use music to accelerate slow moments in a movie, or how to use music to romanticize a scene that's not giving the audience enough of an indicator of what might be happening — all of those kind of creative undertakings.

You've worked with Martin Scorsese on several films, and in one interview, you refer to him as, “the sun in our creative constellation.” What is your collaborative process with him?

I would say it's a collective that tries to bring the best to bear. Marty has music that he knows, or a lot of times we reach out to Vince Giordano, a bandleader who's an expert about period arrangements. We inform ourselves and arm ourselves and see what catches our ears. 

When I say that Marty was “the sun,” it’s just because Marty is always so bold in the way he uses music. There's always a musical contrast that just works to perfection in almost every movie. The work that we've done together has largely been period pieces, movies that have big on camera music sequences, like in “The Aviator.” 

“The Aviator,” Happy Feet song by The Manhattan Rhythm Kings. Credit: Kevin Sandor, YouTube [start video at 1:01]

[Scorcese] leans into the musical world he's exploring himself and we go back and forth with songs. I take his lead or find some inspiration from what he's been talking about. He picks a couple things, and either we're recording them or we're finding the best recording of a song, or in a studio recording of a song off of the jukebox, so it has a more authentic source feel. So it's a pretty varied experience.

What is it like if you're tasked to find music from the ‘30s, the ‘40s, or the ‘20s, like in “Killers of the Flower Moon?” Are there any musical moments that stand out for you in that film?

We recorded a bunch of pieces for each of the eras. The movie starts at the end of the First World War, and then we take a little stop in the ‘20s, a little stop in the ‘30s, and a little stop into the ‘40s. 

We had a woman named Rayna Gellert, who is [a] great fiddle player in America. We did a string band that was on camera. [We] recorded some really, really hot bluegrass songs, so that was a total highlight in the movie. Then we did some recording with Vince [Giordano] and Robbie Robertson [that] has made a really special score for the film. It's a pretty good musical feast.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” official trailer. Credit: Apple TV on Youtube

Vince Giordano was instrumental in “Boardwalk Empire,” which you won a Grammy Award for the first soundtrack compilation. As collaborators you called on a constellation of stars to come in and record some of those Great American Songbook tunes in a manner that sounded like old 78s reimagined in stereo. Can you tell us more about that process?

Those American Songbooks of the 1920s and 1930s are pretty sturdy. So when you give great singers great songs, they're excited to cut them — especially if they get to do it with Vince. 

We probably recorded 300 songs for “Boardwalk Empire” over the four or five seasons. He had Liza Minnelli. That was a trip. 

You've Got To See Mama Ev'ry Night (Or You Can't See Mama At All)
sung by Liza Minnelli for “Boardwalk Empire.” Credit: Liza Minnelli via YouTube

People in music, who are connected to it and had been searching it out, they know of the period singers, and they know what a big band can allow you to do. I think everybody's always had a great time working with Vince.

You talk about locking songs away in your safe. Are there just a bunch of songs that you're waiting to use? Any that you’ve finally been able to free from the safe?

Yeah, a lot of films that I've worked on are set in specific past periods. So sometimes there’s a great song, and you're just waiting for the right movie moment. Most notably, “Let Her Dance” by Bobby Fuller is the end sequence of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” That was one that Wes [Anderson] and I had for about 10 years.

From the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” soundtrack, Let Her Dance by The Bobby Fuller Four. Credit: StarlightPictures on YouTube

You've worked quite a bit with Wes Anderson. What's that relationship like? 

Wes and I have been working together for just about 25 years. And really, we started working together the day we met, going back and forth about songs and movies and songs. So I generally have been in very early on the process of being one of the first readers of pages, or sections, or scripts. There's been so much musical variety in his films, so the experiences with each of them is unique. 

For instance, with “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes or I wouldn't call [ourselves] classical music experts. So just trying to get a handle on all the varieties of music and all of the very middle European states’ popular music, classical music, military marches, folk songs — that leads you to consulting a guy who owns a classical music shop in Hamburg, Germany. These movies take you around the world, both physically and spiritually.

from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” soundtrack. Credit: Öse Schuppel on Youtube

Asteroid City arrived in theaters June 16, and later this year, Wes Anderson is also releasing “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” “Asteroid City” takes place in the 1950s, and the other is dark stories by Roald Dahl. Was there any overlap in working on two such disparate projects from the same filmmaker in such close succession?

“Asteroid City” is just great. I saw the finished print for the first time last night. The movie is filled with cowboy songs. There's some singing cowboys in the movie.

“Asteroid City,” soundtrack song Last Train to San Fernando, by Johnny Duncan & Bluegrass Boys. Credit: 4K Plus Trailers & Clips on YouTube [End video at :48]

“Henry sugar,” I can't even tell you how special and uniquely rendered these stories are by Wes. We were working on both of them at points at the same time, but there wasn't a music crossover.

Where do you find the distinction of when to use a very recognizable song for a film or TV show, vs. when to throw in a deep cut?

I really find as a rule, there is no rule. I just want to find the most right song for the moment, and then the most right song that plays within the context of the entire movie. 

Sometimes, the thing that has some associations for people is okay, and sometimes that's really the problem. Songs have driven advertising in the last couple of decades, [there’s] much more use of songs [now] than original compositions, or jingles. So there's always some population that a song has a particular charge with, it takes them to a certain place that takes them out of the movie. And sometimes you can sense that, and sometimes you don't know that. 

I think when it's right, it's a visceral feeling that you get. Directors often question, “Well, has this been in anything?” And you just think, “Well, first of all, I don't know about everything, but I would say you should think that it is in something.” [I] say, “Hey, if you use a song, great, you own it,” even “Stuck in the Middle with You.” If I feel my moment is that strong in the movie, then I don't care that Quentin Tarantino [has already] used it to incredible effect.




Kim Masters