Photo: Amazon

Homecoming, Amazon’s new drama, is notable for being the first TV show to be adapted from a scripted podcast. But once you settle in to watch the show itself, you’re hit with the score: mostly creeping, paranoid songs lifted from the scores of ’70s thrillers like The Conversation and The Parallax View; orchestral arrangements recognizable from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon; and eerie John Carpenter synth that should feel out of place but doesn’t.

Behind the team that got all those songs in place is Maggie Phillips, a music supervisor who’s worked on The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo. Even before she was hired, showrunner Sam Esmail knew he wanted to borrow from Klute and All The President’s Men for his own mystery show, and the music team took those as a jumping-off point for sourcing other songs. Eventually the decision was made to use only pre-existing scores. Nearly all are from ’70s and early ’80s films, and Phillips told The A.V. Club that the show’s score was “a beast” to put together.

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“I don’t think anyone—including myself—fully understood the scope until we really got into it,” Phillips said. “In theory the idea sounds really cool, but then once you’re in practice trying to score specific things with pre-existing scores, it is a challenge. And it was very much a team effort with my team, NBC Universal’s clearance team, and the editors, and assistant editors—we were all digging through many, many scores to try to find stuff that worked.”

Some 45 film scores are used throughout Homecoming’s 10 episodes. Some episodes use a dozen different scores, but others are more musically thematic, reusing songs from John Carpenter’s The Fog throughout the episode, or compiling the same composer’s music across disparate films into one installment. One episode goes so far as to liberally use music from Capricorn One, the film’s faked Mars landing acting in eerie simpatico with Homecoming’s characters traveling through their own possibly faked set.

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For Phillips, it was a different approach to scoring a TV show. “I have been known to say, ‘The best score is a score you don’t notice,’ and I do think that’s the case a lot of the time, because you don’t want to know that you’re being helped along the journey,” Phillips said. “A score can help pace, and can help push the audience one way or the other. You don’t ever want it to lead, but to help, to augment. So sometimes with a good score you leave the movie and you don’t remember it. It did its job. And then there’s exceptions, like with this. But it’s also that the sound of the ’70s and ’80s were much bigger, with these big orchestral scores—that was the sound. You just don’t hear stuff like that on TV anymore, and probably the reason you noticed it is because it’s unlike what you hear. And some of that is just the budget. People can’t use 60-piece orchestras to score TV shows when they have a very limited budget.”

The budget, as well as figuring out who owns the rights to old movie scores, and how to pay musicians who ultimately acted as session players, working in orchestras for film scores, was extremely time-consuming. “It was really intense trying to figure out how to license these old scores, and to figure out the union fees, and to try to stay within budget,” Phillips said. “It was all the boring parts, the nuts and bolts, was all really time consuming.” Was it worth it? “I knew after watching the first two episodes that what we were doing was really special and that the score was going to be a big part of it.”

The full interview is below.

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The A.V. Club: By my count there are songs from 45 different film scores used throughout the 10 episodes of Homecoming. How did you go about putting all these songs and scores together? It seems like an enormous undertaking on your part.

Maggie Phillips: It was, and it wasn’t just on my part, it was for everyone involved. I don’t think anyone—including myself—fully understood the scope until we really got into it. In theory the idea sounds really cool, but then once you’re in practice trying to score specific things with pre-existing scores, it is a challenge. And it was very much a team effort with my team, NBC Universal’s clearance team, and the editors, and assistant editors—we were all digging through many, many scores to try to find stuff that worked. Some spots were easier than others—but I think you can see how it’s a pretty organic process. When some scores started working those were the scores we started digging through first. It was very much a project of trial and error, just what worked and what didn’t. And also budget came into play, too.

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AVC: Did you get a directive from Sam Esmail with specific ideas or concepts, down to “I want these particular ’70s-era paranoia scores”?

MP: Yes, he knew that’s what he wanted when I was interviewed for the project. So before he even started shooting that was his vision. It wasn’t clear at that point exactly what that would entail, but what he was leaning toward, was existing scores from ’70s and ’80s. I think they were just about to start shooting when I interviewed with him, so it was a couple months later that we started digging in once the first few episodes had been shot. He sort of gave us all the jumping-off point: “These are the scores to start with,” and the list grew from there. Which happens a lot with a project. Sometimes it will happen with a song, with a director giving me one song, and I find stuff that goes with that world. And in this case, it was a score. All The President’s Men was one of the first scores he mentioned. Klute was one he mentioned right away, so he started with a few and then the list grew as we all brainstormed on possibilities.

AVC: Some episodes have themes, where you hear a lot of different songs from the same score, or songs from different scores but by the same composer.

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MP: That was a way to get a through-line, using the same composer during an episode. And the John Carpenter scores started sort of organically—Sam had never mentioned the John Carpenter scores in the beginning. I don’t remember who thought to try a John Carpenter score, but they tried it and it fit so well. You wouldn’t think it would, but it fit so well. And practically speaking, John Carpenter scores were similarly priced for the licenses but we also were considering union fees, and the John Carpenter scores tended to be more sparse—sometimes it was just him and a synthesizer as opposed to a 60-piece orchestra. So his scores were more reasonable to include. It’s boring stuff, but in practicality it made it easier to put it all together.

AVC: Often times these familiar songs acted on me in a way that nagged at my memory: Where is this song from? It’s from a movie, but which one? Which really plays well with the themes of the show, of memory and repression and trying to remember your own past.

MP: You’re the first person to ask me that, and I don’t know if it’s intentional or not. It certainly works, because it’s something that sounds and feels familiar but you can’t put your finger on it. Heidi [Julia Roberts’ character] in particular was going through that, and to some extent Walter [Stephan James], too. But that’s not something Sam and I discussed.

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I will say that we hit the ground running, and it was maybe seven months of intense, time-consuming work. There wasn’t a lot of time for me to sit back and wonder about the more heady part of it. It was just more of, “How do we make this work?” It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. It was a beast of a project.

AVC: Do you have a favorite musical moment or cue in the show?

MP: The one that comes to my mind is The Alan Parsons Project song in episode nine. This was interesting because I come from a very song-driven way of approaching work. I work with composers—I’ve never had to do something like this. And I’m a fan of scores, but that wasn’t my strength. So I learned a lot. Some scores I knew well but I got to learn new scores.

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But scorewise, some of my favorite moments are the John Carpenter moments. I love The Conversation playing at the top of the eighth episode. It was really fun at the end of episode one to use Bernard Herrmann from Vertigo, because that for me was super recognizable, using Hitchcock. That was really satisfying to use something I really know well. I got to put in Clint Mansell [who composed the High-Rise score] in [the sixth episode], who I’m a huge fan of. It was one of the only contemporary scores we used, but it’s sort of a throwback score, so it’s fun to put in someone who I’m a big fan of. And pretty satisfying when you’re still unsure what you’re watching, so to hear something familiar is satisfying for me.

AVC: Did it take longer than the average show?

MP: The time I spent on it was more than normal, yes. It was super time-consuming. Sam asked me in last mix, he said, “Is this the hardest project you’ve ever worked on?” And I said no, and I still agree with my answer, because it’s not the hardest creatively, but it was definitely the hardest just in terms of being time-consuming for me and my time. And for NBC Universal, who—they had a whole clearance team helping us. It was really intense trying to figure out how to license these old scores, and to figure out the union fees, and to try to stay within budget. It was all the boring parts, the nuts and bolts, was all really time consuming.

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AVC: What was the hardest project you’ve worked on?

MP: Well, the hardest part about being a music supervisor is that you’re not servicing your own vision. You’re servicing someone else’s vision. So, creatively you have to adjust the way you listen and think. So when I work with someone that I creatively align with, like Sam, he and I definitely share a similar creative vision. And Noah Hawley and I, we have similar vision and similar taste. [They worked together on Fargo. —ed.] Those shows, even though they might be a little more time-consuming, I feel like we are still on the same wavelength. Shows where opinions differ is more of a challenge because I have to think and listen differently.

AVC: There are parts of the show where these scores run under dialogue, upping the anxiety of Heidi, Julia Roberts’ character. I’m thinking particularly of one of the tense scenes that takes place when Heidi is talking on the phone to Colin, and he’s bullying her and she is being steamrolled, and the jarring music makes it so much more tense.

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MP: Yeah, Sam definitely did it consciously. The score throughout adds to the tension and adds to the drama, for sure. It’s a quiet slow burn of a thriller. You want to know what happens, but it’s not like you’re wondering who’s waiting around the corner at every turn. And the score plays so big and so dramatic that it adds to the tension, and that was a very conscious choice.

I have been known to say, “The best score is a score you don’t notice,” and I do think that’s the case a lot of the time, because you don’t want to know that you’re being helped along the journey. A score can help pace, and can help push the audience one way or the other. You don’t ever want it to lead, but to help, to augment. So sometimes with a good score you leave the movie and you don’t remember it. It did its job. And then there’s exceptions, like with this. But it’s also that the sound of the ’70s and ’80s were much bigger, with these big orchestral scores—that was the sound. You just don’t hear stuff like that on TV anymore, and probably the reason you noticed it is because it’s unlike what you hear. And some of that is just the budget. People can’t use 60-piece orchestras to score TV shows when they have a very limited budget.

AVC: Was the budget high?

MP: Yes, it was definitely on the high end, for sure. It was totally worth it. I knew after watching the first two episodes that what we were doing was really special and that the score was going to be a big part of it.

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