Gabe Hilfer is an award winning music supervisor, husband and dad. He has worked on such diverse projects as Suicide Squad (the movie and soundtrack), Black-ish, Luke Cage, Sausage Party, Snatched, The Walking Dead and more. I caught up with Gabe as he was navigating through the streets of Los Angeles.
Congratulations on the success of Black-ish. I especially responded to the powerful scene that features Strange Fruit by Nina Simone. How did that placement come about?
The show runner (Kenya Barris) and I talk about music a lot and we shoot ideas back and forth. He comes from a musical background, so it’s a real great collaborative place to be. We had an idea to use that song, and then we were going to blend it into “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye who, you know, famously used a big sample from that Nina Simone song. But when we were trying it, that song (“Strange Fruit”) was so powerful and such a relevant, thematic song for that moment, and it just worked perfectly.
What is your working dynamic like with Transcenders, the dedicated composers on Black-ish?
Well, we’ve all been working on that show since the pilot, and they create such incredible, original music and really have come up with the sound of the show in terms of the score and the original composition. The songs are typically stuff that I come up along with Kenya. Or, they’re written in the scripts. We meet basically once a week with the Transcenders to go over every episode and we discuss all the music, the songs, the score, everything. We describe the song, and the Transcenders are able to translate that into the musical vision.
Can you tell us about the projects you're currently working on?
I’m working on a bunch of different stuff. We just finished this great show on TNT called Good Behavior. Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey is the star of it. The music in that is a complete 180 degrees from Blackish but, there are some great, great tunes in there. And then, Luke Cage on Netflix is coming back soon. And then there are a couple things that are in development with this Netflix and Amazon ‘s new model, where you produce the whole season and then you eventually air them when you’re all done.
Do you have one or two syncs that you’ve recently overseen that are special to you?
Wow! That’s a good question. My business partner, Season Kent and I work on a bunch of stuff together. We worked with 21 Pilots to create the song, Heathens for the movie Suicide Squad, and that’s turned into a real, massive hit song. We couldn’t be prouder of that. Another sync is some of our great on-cameras on Luke Cage. Jidenna performed Long Live the Chief. One of the most incredible ones is when Sharon Jones appeared on set. It was probably one of her last live performances. She’s passed away since then which is a tragedy…very sad.
I think Blackish is great because it’s not afraid to tackle issues that a lot of people might shy away from. Like the election episode, or last year there was the episode about police brutality. These are not really things that sit-coms typically want to touch with a 10 foot pole, because they’re hot button issues and they’re very divisive. But that’s the beauty of the show – it’s smart, it’s not pandering and it’s funny. When people I talk to ask what I’m working on, and I tell them Blackish, so many people tell me it’s their favorite show. It’s really incredible to be part of such a great project.
Yes, especially airing on network TV, as opposed to Netflix or Amazon.
I agree. But, you know what? It’s exciting times! They do it at such an intellectual level where it’s not vulgar, and it never crosses the line of network TV, I think that’s what good television does. You know? A lot of their experiences on the show are universal. I have kids, and there’s plenty of times I relate to the things that are on there, and I think most people do too because there are just universal situations that everybody has to deal with – with family and being human and that’s what makes it great.
Could you share a little bit about your experience working on The Walking Dead?
It’s great! It’s an incredible group of people. A producer who joined the show worked on Luke Cage and brought us in. This is our first time working on it this season. It’s a different skill set coming in to a late season of a show, because the template of what the sound is already exists. So we’re trying to fit in and do a good job and, as you know, it’s the biggest show on television! We’re just trying to keep coming up with cool ideas that fit within the framework of what they’ve incredibly been able to do up to this point.
Awesome! You're also working on Supergirl right now, aren't you?
That's true! So, Season Kent does a lot of the DC shows and she and I collaborate and do Supergirl together. It’s a diverse resume, you know? TV is emotionality and drama, comedy, fantasy. It’s all part of the game.
How is it to work on a whole range of subject matters and genres?
Music supervision is a fantastic job, because every single project requires different music and different skill sets, and a different level of expertise for a wide variety of genres. There are a lot of producers who are the same on all of these projects, so you develop that relationship and that rapport with the people making the TV or the film. Ultimately, our job as I see it, and I know Season would agree with me too, is to help the producers and the directors of the shows and the movies fulfill their creative vision and get it on the screen as best we can.
What are one or two of your favorite movies that you’ve seen recently?
I’ll give you two. I really, really liked Arrival. I thought it was so well done and beautifully shot and well acted. It stuck with me for weeks or months, just the whole story. On a completely different level, I just watched the documentary the other day, Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, which I could not have loved any more. I grew up in New York City in the 80’s and 90’s and I used to stay up late every single Thursday night from 1am -5am and record that show. It was a real underground cult of people who were into it, and the fact that they have footage from back then and the interviews with all the people who were involved with the project – it was incredible! It was almost what got me into music in the first place. I used to make mixtapes and cut their shows into highlights and give it to some of my friends when I was 15. It’s one of the things I credit with being the start of my obsession with music.
What was it like to work with composer, Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled) on Sausage Party?
He was great! Seth and Evan were fans of his big Disney songs, and they went to him very early on and they asked him if he’d be interested in doing the song for the movie and they pitched it to him and he was super game. It just shows that just because somebody is known for one genre doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not interested in expanding it. He was such a good guy, he came and took notes and really was able to come up with such an awesome song. The Great Beyond is such a hit! I’m sad that it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. Somehow, I think the overall vibe of the film may have affected that (cracks up) lack of not being nominated. Working with Alan was an honor and a privilege.
Animation is a slow process, how long were you working on the movie?
I was working on Sausage Factory for about two years, from the very beginning. They brought me in and showed me an assembly of sketches with a voice over. It was crazy to see it evolve over time, from stick figures, black and white on paper with actors’ voices behind it, to full blown animation with shadows and hair, and lighting, and all that stuff. It’s really fascinating to see how that happens.
That’s awesome! Here’s a sort of fantasy question. If you could be in any band, living or dead, what band would it be, and why?
I’d probably say Zeppelin because I would love to see what those tours were like. (laughs) It would be so interesting, I guess, to see what that whole lifestyle was like, ‘cause that kinda’ pre-dated me. Otherwise, I would say Radiohead, just because I’ve seen them a couple times and it’s always new and energetic every single time. But, I’ll go with Zeppelin. If you could transport me right back to after the concert like at the Sunset Marquis, that’d be great…then, I’ll see what happens!
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Gabe Hilfer.