Hollywood on the Hudson with Music Supervisor, Susan Jacobs
One of the most prominent music supervisors in the business, Susan Jacobs has been curating music for film soundtracks since Spike Lee’s 1986 feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It. Her credits include Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Little Miss Sunshine, and many, many others – as well as HBO’s Big Little Lies, for which she won an Emmy. For over two decades Susan’s work has powerfully impacted the films we watch and transported the audience through her musical selections.
As we continue our series, Hollywood on the Hudson, we sat down with Susan Jacobs and Woodstock Film Festival Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Meira Blaustein, to talk about curating music for film, working with some of the hottest directors and composers, and how a Hudson Valley connection led to her work on the film Basquiat.
Read the Full Interview Below
HOLLYWOOD ON THE HUDSON
With Susan Jacobs, Music Supervisor
Hosted by Meira Blaustein, Co-Founder, Executive & Artistic Director Woodstock Film Festival
Meira Blaustein: So, you’re a music supervisor and as a successful one,
Susan Jacobs: I’ve had a great career.
Meira Blaustein: Yes, and you’ve been doing it for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about what brought you into music and filmmaking? I think you used to work with animals, and then somehow you moved into the film business and specifically music supervision.
Susan Jacobs: Yeah, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian technician, I had a really big change. It’s one of those serendipitous things where just make a move in life. I started working at Island Records in A&R when Chris Blackwell was just beginning to produce. A couple of years after I was there, it was a big year; She’s Gotta Have It, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Sophie’s Choice… all of these things were happening. It was huge. And I made my soundtrack; my first album credit is on She’s Gotta Have It as like the production coordinator in making the soundtrack album. We also did Good to Go which was the film Chris wanted to use to introduce go-go music. After that, I left Chris and I started working with Hal Willner, as a production manager, for literally, records that were like films. Hal makes records that are film, they are journeys. And then, Robert Altman called up, and we went to do Short Cuts together.
Meira Blaustein: Oh, wow.
Susan Jacobs: And I did, what I learn later is music supervision, in Short Cuts. Everybody was like, “Oh, you do this amazing job”. But I was just doing what I always did, which is putting artists and concepts together and realizing them. And then Bob Altman called us back to do Kansas City; so that’s how it started. I just started with one of the greatest directors, but I had no idea what I was doing. I think, somewhere between Short Cuts and Kansas City, my credit changed from music production to music supervisor. I didn’t know that was a name or word. And then I got a call from Julian Schnabel to do Basquiat, which was my first time as Music Supervisor. That actually came from a recommendation from Woodstock, Michael Lang, who was working with Julian at the time. Michael actually first met me at the animal hospital in Woodstock– it all comes full circle. I approached Basquiat very similar to how I worked with Hal, and I don’t think that many people had approached film the way that I did. Jeffrey Kimball over at Miramax is like, “I can’t believe that you were able to do everything that you did in that budget. But that film!”. He started to give me a lot of work and then the work just kind of began. So, I kind of fell into it literally.
Meira Blaustein: What exactly is a music supervisor? At what stage are you presented with a film? And how do you select the artist and the music? How do you see that influence the film, the end product?
Susan Jacobs: I come on at all stages. Every director is different, every project is different. Some producers reach out to me for help. Music is complicated, it’s difficult. Obviously, people I’ve worked with or producers that know me, send scripts before they shoot. For me, the important thing about music is waiting to see what the film needs and wants. And that’s a little bit of a different approach. I like to wait and collect ideas. There was a long period where I didn’t get any jobs. People would send me scripts to read and then ask me what I thought the music should be. I’m all visual. I’m all about the space. I think that music is a point of view. I often give the example that reading Little Miss Sunshine read very dark. And then seeing Little Miss Sunshine, it was all bright yellow. And that really affects the music a lot. So, I really need to have a visual. I’m happy to collect ideas, but I can’t really talk about composers until we see the footage. I’m really a curator, a presenter. People ask, “Why did you pick this song or that composer”? Like, all I do is present. I say this is what I think this song does, or what this composer is really good at. And you’re presenting. But it’s not like, this is my decision. I curate for people. I try to understand what they want to do and where they want to go. If they don’t know how to get there, then I could go, “Hey, you know, let’s go over in this aisle of the food market. You know, you’re in pop, and we need to go to jazz to have the effect”. So, it’s the point of view, and it’s an important thing. I think for directors, it’s scary because we see the film way before any producer, or anybody else. We’re the first people to see footage. And it’s very scary; we’re seeing things in the rawest state.
Meira Blaustein: Is there a dream project for you in film and music supervision? If so, what that may be?
Susan Jacobs: One of my favorite things is working with composers. I’m known as the song girl. I’ve done that work with David Russell, Jean-Marc Vallée, Craig Gillespie–they’re all very, very heavy and I love that. But I love working with composers. Sitting in there and helping them, interpreting from a director to a composer is really the bridge that I think is often missing in music supervision. I think a lot of times it’s very easy to get lost. I’m always saying to directors that most art is done by attrition. Like, you can hire like a top composer, but their journey is the same, like their themes, the first few themes, are going to be wrong. I think when you don’t have a music supervisor there to say, this is gonna be okay, it’s okay that it’s totally wrong. Now we know what you don’t want and what you don’t need. You really hold their hand through what I call the rapids of the discovery of scoring.
So, if I was going to create a new job, it would be really going in there and to help. I see so many composers lose their work because nobody’s there to interpret. I see so many people frustrated. I want to be that bridge, I love that marriage. I love the guidance and the whole thing. That’s where I’m also the happiest, as well as picking songs and finding things. But I love that.
Meira Blaustein: Throughout your career, have there been any lessons that sort of helped you steer the way you work a little bit differently?
Susan Jacobs: Yeah, I think I think the biggest thing that you learn coming up in music supervision is to listen carefully to what somebody does even if you feel like this is going to make that scene play better, or I could get the top artists in the world to cover this song. Those were hard lessons to learn because I come from a record company background where music is also marketing. And trying to balance those two things is hard because I have a very strong marketing background and ideas. Like if we get this top artist that can really make the difference. And that’s not always what somebody wants for their film. Even if this top number one artist came in the door and wanted to sing the title song for this independent film, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what the director wants. So, you learn to listen, and you also learn to leave your taste at home. It’s not about you. That just takes a lot of time to learn.
Meira Blaustein: You have lived in the Hudson Valley for a long time? Do you feel that living here in the country affects the way you work?
Susan Jacobs: I don’t know that it affects the way that I work. Obviously, feeling healthy that I’m getting outside, in space. I think music is also about space. Oftentimes, people want to do too much music or too many things. You have to keep stepping away from the painting, as I always say, you have to look at it all again. The thing about music is it changes the edit. When you find something that you love in a scene, then you run the whole film and you realize like, Oh, we’ve totally ruined the rhythm. We’re going too fast. We’re going too slow. It’s, you know, it’s literally the Goldilocks moment where nothing’s right. And you realize that just as much as that particular song works great there, it’s not fitting in the rhythm of the film, or you’ve given too much away.
Living in the Hudson Valley, I’m a huge hiker. I’m an athlete, I swim, I bike, I hike, I’m outside all the time. I think that just gives you space. And I think the space is important. What I found when I worked in LA, and I was working in the edit room for 14-15 hours, there’s no space to go. Are we making this better? Is this going in the right direction? You have to kind of shut it down and go outside. Living here also gives me space for my vinyl collection, which is really important to me. I have this little thing that when guests come to my home, I do a blind record pull. They open the closet and pull out a record. So, you’re like, I haven’t listened to Carl Perkins in a long time, or I haven’t listened to so and so. You’ll always find records that you’ve forgotten about. You can’t really do that in the city – just for space.
Meira Blaustein: I love that! If there’s anything that you would like to see different in the way the industry is working these days, what might that be?
Susan Jacobs: Patience. I think the film industry, to me, is very impatient. We’re starting to shoot– I do a lot of episodic, as all of us are doing now. You start shooting one or two scripts and you don’t know where the story’s going. That’s very hard for music. Because again, music is the point of view. Are these characters going to die? Sometimes you just don’t know. You want to take a beat and just mow the whole thing down and say, gosh, it would just be great to be able to shoot an episodic where you have all the of the script, or where you have a shooting script of a feature. A lot of times, I’ve worked on film where we’re starting to shoot with 180 pages.
Also, the “fix it in the post” is a real problem. And like everything digital, the fact that people can still cut and do cut on the soundstage in the dub room, that’s great for the picture department. But, for all of us that work in music and in sound, just because you can cut it and shift it and do it, doesn’t mean you should. It makes our job so much harder. I think all of us in the post, feel really compressed. And the picture departments like– I’ve literally been on stages where people are cutting as we’re in the mixing rooms.
Of course, you want the film to be the best, but people don’t realize that music, especially orchestral scores, are not so easy to fix. Like I’m going someplace and 12 frames can make a big difference. And if you’re going to elongate the cutting, you’ve got to elongate the post.
Also having some idea of the cost of music and composers is a big lesson that I feel I’m still teaching. Songs are expensive. Scoring is expensive. There are the costs of musicians, the time to write a score. I love the convenience of digital, but I really wish we could go back to pencil down. We need to have the pencil down because if we can’t stop here, I can’t make your mixtape. Just because you all can keep going, it’s compressing all of us in visual effects and all of us are affected by that. We really feel the squeeze.
Meira Blaustein: Sue, you attend a lot of festivals with the films that you have worked on. How beneficial is participating in a film festival for those films and the filmmakers who have worked on them?
Susan Jacobs: The film festivals are amazing because you get this opportunity to see the film with a live audience for the first time before any press or anybody has had their rotten tomatoes and already come with a point of view. You know, they really get a chance to see something where people are making their own– I think that’s the most valuable thing about film festivals. People are going, they may know the director, they may not know the director, they’re trusting the curator of the festival, they’re taking a chance and going in, and they’re making their own mind. And you don’t get that now. Because people will look at how many stars or how many Rotten Tomatoes are there? It got three Tomatoes I’m not bothering. And nobody’s making their own mind.
And a film festival is a virgin audience experience which is really cool. And for me, especially when you know you’ve got something special and you know that it’s there, it’s the validation that you made something. You worked on the thing, sometimes for several years (usually six, seven years in the writing) before they even get to the journey. It’s funny to find some films suddenly play super funny but you know you had a tough screening where nobody found it funny. But you get that audience, somebody starts to laugh and everybody thinks the whole thing is really funny and it plays so differently. That’s the live experience that I really miss with everybody being at home because it’s always about the energy of the audience. We have tested the same film many times when we do previews with the exact same cut in two audiences with very different outcomes. Because it’s the people. You need that one laugher to let everybody relax about something over the top.
I went to a film festival in Dubai with American Hustle. Because we had done an Arabic cover of White Rabbit our artist came and sang. In Dubai, going to a film festival was like a social event. People came more to see each other than the film. It was very, very, very different. Going to all the film festivals around the world with my films has been an amazing experience to see how well films play differently with different audiences. I always go into the bathroom after every film. In the stalls is where you get the most honest reviews. The girls are like, what did you think, and oh my god like… that’s when you really know if you have a hit. So that’s the first place I’ll hit. I want to hear what people are really saying. So I think festivals are vital for that experience of having a virgin watch, where you can actually go and make up your own mind. Because I think it’s very difficult now.
Meira Blaustein: Thank you so much.
The 22nd Annual Woodstock Film Festival will be back in action from September 29-October 3, 2021.
Enjoy in-person screenings, panels, and other special events! Don’t miss out, tickets are available now.