Maggie Phillips is the brilliant and artful music supervisor, whose limitless devotion to her craft is apparent in every soundtrack she curates. Spontaneously breaking into the field through her association with the Duplass Brothers, Maggie navigated beyond her background in fine art and transformed into one of the leading resources for independent films, most notably Oscar and Golden Globe winning, Moonlight and Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. In recent years, Maggie has broadened the scope of her professional pursuits, shaping the musical worlds of a prestigious array of television series including Legion, Fargo, The Handmaid's Tale, Snowfall, Altered Carbon, and Dietland. In our animated conversation, Maggie unfurls the tale of her winding path to prominence.
You were raised in Austin, Texas and went on to pursue an art degree at UT. Austin is known for its cultural diversity and flourishing creative community. Can you tell us how you originally fell in love with music?
Definitely. It was at an early age. I started going to see shows when I was young, like 15 and 16. It was a different then, safer for kids to go out at night. If you were a minor, you would get marked with those big black Xs on your hands. I used to go to a place called Liberty Lunch that some old people still remember fondly. I'm one of those old people. My love of music grew from there and stayed with me during college and after. But, I am not a musician. I studied art at the University of Texas at Austin. I am a painter, but music was always a passion and I was a part of the music scene in Austin during the 90s. I was close to a lot of the bands/musicians. Now, I get to marry my two loves - visual arts with music.
What made you gravitate towards the arts in the first place?
My parents were awesome and encouraged all of us kids to follow our passions. And art was something that I showed interest in early on. It was something I had done my whole life. I went to a private high school that had a strong academic focus and my parents definitely prioritized education above all else, so they wanted me to attend a liberal arts school with a strong art program. So, that was always kind of the plan.
I pursued a painting career for the first 10 years out of school. I went to New York in my mid-20s to follow my dream. And of course, the reality wasn’t what was imagined and I quickly became disillusioned with the New York City art world. But, the arts, whether painting, music or film/TV is all I’ve ever been about. I don’t know anything else.
I understand that your entrance to music supervision was through your association with The Duplass Brothers on their first film, The Puffy Chair. How did you end up in Los Angeles?
I moved to LA from NY because I had some family out here. They were like, "Come and live at our house. We have an extra room. You can use the garage to paint in." I was not happy in NY, like I said, and honestly, it was just supposed to be a stopover thing. I was like, "Okay, I'll go to LA for a year, then go back to Austin to figure out what I’m going to do next." I was still relatively young. But, back up - in NYC, I got very close to Mark and Jay Duplass and their now wives - Katie and Jen. We met in Austin, but all moved to New York around the same time. We became very close. We are still very close. They’re like my family. When they started making movies, The Puffy Chair being their first, they asked for my help. I was always the friend in the group making mixes, introducing friends to new music and I also knew a lot of musicians - and with The Puffy Chair, they actually needed help with one artist in particular, a friend of mine from Austin who they wanted to license a song from. That's really how it all started.
I started out helping them in NY with The Puffy Chair, which was a successful indie film and because of that they got signed to William Morris and moved to L.A. That was right before my family asked me to come out to LA...so it was kismet. The Duplasses had moved to LA to pursue filmmaking, I wasn’t happy in NY and my cousin had a spare room and an empty garage. So I moved to L.A. with the intention of painting for a bit, then moving back to Austin. But, they continued to make movies and kept asking for my help. And that lead to other young filmmakers asking for my help. I didn’t even know that music supervision was a career. My cousin’s husband is a producer. He was the one who said, “You know this is a job, right? You know what you’re doing is an actual career?” He was instrumental in my career. He actually took me to a bookstore in Studio City that day and bought me a few books on music supervision. For the next five or six years, I tried to do both, painting while working as a music supervisor. I really started falling in love with music supervision. And, ultimately, I decided to just pursue music supervision full throttle. That was about a decade ago.
In the early phase of your career, did you have a mentor or did you learn most everything through trial and error on your own?
I didn’t really have a mentor - it was mostly trial and error. For the first few indies I did, I just figured it out somehow. Cyrus was the first “real” movie I was on - no more super low budget indies with only friends...I had to do things properly. It was definitely a “trial by fire” situation. God, Mark and Jay must’ve fought tooth and nail to keep me on that project. They are so loyal. I mean, I knew the music, but the business part, I really had no clue! I used the books. Wende Crowley over at Sony/ATV Music Publishing quickly saw that I was in over my head and she helped me out a bunch - walked me through things. She was awesome. Honestly, I reached out to a lot of people to ask for help and guidance, but I didn't get a lot of responses. Gabe Hilfer was one of the only people who responded to me, met me for coffee and became a resource. I’ll never forget that. I really try to give time to anyone who reaches out to me now.
What was the aspect of music supervision that provided the steepest learning curve?
Clearances are complicated. There’s no guidebook. Every song is different, every artist is different, and every person you're talking to is different. The only way to learn is through experience. But, I think the most challenging aspect of the job for me is learning how to collaborate with different people - different tastes, different projects and different visions. If I had free creative reign on my jobs, it would be a snap. I think that’s a large misconception of the job, most people think we simply get to pick the soundtrack, that it’s all us and we’re responsible for every song. But, whether we like it or not, it’s a collaboration. Even if I’m responsible for all source in one episode, I’m still listening and selecting songs with the creator/director/showrunner’s vision in mind. I am ultimately there to serve someone else’s creation, not mine. It’s challenging always and very frustrating at times. It’s also rewarding as it teaches me to listen in different ways.
Fargo was something of a turning point in your career, expanding your professional reach beyond the independent films you had supervised previously. What can we look forward to from what could be Fargo's final season?
Of course, I know, but I can’t tell. What I will say is that while I was working with Noah [Hawley, the showrunner] on season two of Legion, I had sent him like 10 emails, trying to get some answers and hadn’t heard anything back - he’s just so busy. I may be exaggerating on the number of e-mails, but I hadn’t heard anything back from him. Then one morning, I saw an email in my inbox. Noah always writes emails super early in the morning. It was sent to me and Jeff Russo and simply said, "Fargo Season 4, looking ahead, this is what I'm thinking....” And then he sent us out into the world to start listening and researching. So typical of Noah and why I love him so. I needed answers on the boring stuff for Legion, but instead, he’s thinking ahead for Fargo Season 4 even though it probably won’t even start shooting until the winter of 2019. Even so, though, of course, after that, I immediately ignored the rest of my work and started listening for Season 4. It’s just too much fun.
Is there a particular sync that you would identify as being emblematic of the series so far?
It’s hard to say because every sync is so specific and different. For Fargo Season 2, I love so many of the more obscure, international songs - “Yama Yama” by the Yamasuki Singers or “Bashi Mwana” by Musi-O-Tunya but I also love “Reunion” by Bobbie Gentry, “Children of the Sun” by Billy Thorpe - I just love so many from that season. Towards the end, we felt like we had earned the opportunity to use some bigger songs like “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull in Episode 8. But, the one that most people mention to me is “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, which we used in the finale. Noah asked for some ideas for that scene, so I sent over five or six songs. He wrote back and said something like, “Well, of course, it must be Black Sabbath.” I was like, “Thank you, sir. Done and done.” That was a very satisfying moment. I think I might have texted back, “I can die happy at this point if we use that song.”
For me, it was such a positive experience overall because up until then I'd been exclusively doing indie films with indie budgets. Not that Fargo had a lot of money, but it was period. We had to spend some money. It also happened to be a decade of music that I love. I tell people ’64 to ’78 is my favorite time for music. Also, with indie movies, we had to use indie artists (because of the indie budget). Obviously, I have love for indie music but it was deeply satisfying for me to finally to get to work with music that I’ve always been very passionate about.
Can you tell us about some of your personal favorite bands from that period?
You know, I've probably expanded my preference up to '84/'85 now because, after listening to music for Fargo which was set in '79, and right at the cusp of punk rock and also because of listening for another period piece on FX, Snowfall, which is set in '83/'84.
Asking a music supervisor about their favorite bands is such a hard question! I truly love almost every genre of music that I have to listen for, except maybe contemporary country. The music I love, no matter what genre or time period, has got to have some soul, especially in the vocals. I want to hear and feel the person/people behind the music, I want to connect. I think that's why I have a problem with a lot of contemporary music. I just feel like it's lost its soul. I know I sound old, but I want to feel like someone is singing from their heart, from their gut. And also, I do love a strong melody. I find that lacking in modern music too. I’m sure I could be proven wrong though.
This season of Legion continues to expand upon the psychedelic energy you channeled in its first, which concluded with two cuts from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. What was the initial inspiration behind this musical direction from the start of the series?
Early last year, Noah took both Jeff Russo and me out to dinner to tell us about Legion. We spent the whole evening talking about it, but it wasn’t until we were all standing in the valet line that he casually dropped "Dark Side of the Moon." That’s it, no other context. I don't even think he said, Pink Floyd. Jeff and I looked at each other, and honestly, I think in unison, we both said, "Fuck.” (Like, fuck, this is exciting). It was obvious in such a brilliant, perfect way. I went home and listened to that album from start to finish, which is something that I hadn't done that in a very long time, if ever. Listening again, I immediately knew what Noah was thinking and understood what he was trying to do. So, that was the jumping off moment for a major listening session that lasted a couple months.
For Noah's projects, I start listening before I get any scripts. Jeff writes music before he gets any scripts. Noah’s so inspiring. Sometimes when I'm too distracted in LA, I’ll go hide in a cabin for a week and just do nothing but listen, which is so much fun - it makes me remember why I do this job. I sort of put on blinders and don't do anything else, like honestly, I don’t even think I brush my teeth. It’s really how I find my best stuff. Noah calls it going down rabbit holes. I jump from one thing to another, to another thing, to another thing, and then finally something pops up and I save it, then move on to the next.
The music of Legion has a compelling interwoven relationship between licensed material and score. Can you tell us about the working arrangement between you and composer, Jeff Russo, as well as Noah Hawley?
Well, it's interesting. Jeff and I do our own thing. Jeff goes and does the score by himself and I go and listen by myself. But we talk all the time. We're good friends. We keep each other updated, but it's not like we're sitting in the room together while we do our creative work. It’s funny because the same night I went home and listened to Dark Side of the Moon from start to finish, Jeff went home, listened and researched what synth they used to make that album, then bought it. That same night. We were both so excited.
We always spot everything together — me, Noah, and Jeff. That doesn't happen on every show. So, we're in the same room when we decide what's gonna be the score, what's gonna be a song. We work very closely. There’s never a time that we’re not working together. We did Fargo Season 2, then Legion Season 1, then Fargo Season 3. Now we’re wrapping up Legion Season 2, and actually, Noah just started working on a movie, so we’re starting on that now too. After that, we’ll Legion Season 3. Then, there's overlap with another movie next summer, and then Fargo Season 4. So, we're always working together. We have a shorthand and it's really nice.
It’s almost as if you are all in a band together.
Jeff and Noah are the band. Maybe I’m the manager? It's great. There's a real trust involved. Noah trusts me and I know his taste now. I know what he likes. It’s become easier for me to listen for him, but honestly, it’s never easy with him - that's the thing about working with Noah, he always challenges and he expects excellence. I love that about him.
Can you tell us about the decision to implement eerie and esoteric covers of popular rock songs in the second season?
That’s Noah and Jeff. I helped them come up with the songs that we covered, but they executed them. Jeff really did a brilliant job with those. Also - Noah was in a band before he started writing, so he's very musical. He and Jeff are very close. They love working together on these covers.
They originally did a cover for Fargo, Season 2, honestly because we couldn't find the right artist to do it. We were doing some covers of Coen Brothers songs and they recorded “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” from O’ Brother Where Art Thou. They had a lot of fun doing it, it was successful and then for Fargo Season 3, they did a cover of “Ship of Fools” by World Party. So, they just kept going, and we get to benefit.
Hulu's award-winning The Handmaid's Tale enjoyed breakout success in its first season. How did you originally come onboard for the second season?
Warren Littlefield is the executive producer on Handmaid's Tale and he also happens to be the producer on Fargo, which is how we know each other. I absolutely love Warren. He’s so great. I can't speak more highly about him. He was the one to pull me in. I was a huge fan of Season 1 and was excited when Warren got me a meeting with Bruce Miller. Bruce and I had a great initial conversation and I found out a few hours after my interview that they were going to hire me. I started listening right away. It was on a Friday and I holed up all weekend long listening. The Handmaid’s Tale is a huge show. I’d never worked on something so high profile. It’s a lot of pressure, to begin with, but I put a lot of pressure on myself as well. It was a challenge.
I noted that there is an enhanced female presence in this season's soundtrack. What ultimately led you to bring about this shift in emphasis?
That was important to me. I felt like we needed to hear more female voices this season. Elizabeth Moss and I had discussions very early on and she played an important role in the music selections too. She's great to work with and was super supportive of me. I really enjoyed working with her. We both wanted the best songs, but we also both wanted to focus on female voices. People often ask me how I know when a song works and for me, and honestly, it’s just when something feels right, I feel it in my gut or get goosebumps. When song and picture align, something happens - you are creating something completely new, which I think is art. I listen to so many different songs in every spot. There’s a lot of trial and error and those magic moments are far and few between. And, honestly, with Handmaid’s Tale, female voices just felt right in most spots.
The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a dystopian realm, where women are taken as concubines within a feudal theocratic social framework. What emotional characteristics and sonic textures were you looking for in your song selections? What particular song from the series stands out for you as symbolic of June Osbourne's experience?
In the third episode, you have a flashback of June with her mother, Holly, in her car. They're singing along to the radio, singing along to “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani. It epitomizes a different time and a different woman. It's such an absurd song. It’s so silly - they're just having fun. It's a song that everyone knows. Even if you don't like it, you have heard that song and you can sing along. It's just frivolous, fun, and free, representative of a time pre-Gilead. So, I think it captures June before she's thrown into Gilead.
We are very excited about AMC's Dietland, which follows the experience of a 300-lb ghostwriter at a leading beauty magazine, who finds herself caught in the middle of a violent feminist agenda. The concept of the show challenges the status quo and exposes a darker, uglier side of the female experience in America. How did you become involved with the project? What inspirations did you draw from Sarai Walker's novel?
I don't know how they knew about me, but they reached out to me. I am and always have been a huge fan of Marti Noxon. I was very excited to talk to her. We had a conversation on the phone and got along great. It's been so much fun. I can’t wait for people to watch it. It's very different. It has a tone unlike anything else on TV. I think people are really going to embrace it. These protagonists…they’re not like any female characters that you're used to. They're all flawed and all fucked up. There's no one perfect involved. The portrayal is very real - they are all unique and complex.
Marti and all her producers are so much fun to work with. They are so nice, so respectful; it’s been a wonderful experience. The music is very young. We didn't have a huge budget, so we use a lot of indie baby bands. I hope the audience discovers some new artists.
You are known to champion the work of lesser-known independent artists across your projects. Who are some of the emerging musicians in your purview that you think more people should know about?
That's such a hard question to answer. I love supporting artists and it excites me to introduce the audience to an artist they might not have known. Also, it excites me to do something that hasn’t already been done before, which is very hard in this climate. I loved that I got Julianna Barwick in The Handmaid's Tale because I feel like she's an artist that people should know about. But, I also just thought her song worked beautifully at the end of the fifth episode. It was perfection.
Zach Cowie, who is the music supervisor for Master of None, taught me a trick - checking Spotify before an episode drops, then going back after an episode comes out to see what happens to that number. Julianna Barwick’s numbers jumped like 50k in 24 hours - it was really cool to see.
Moments like that are very gratifying for me. At times, the job can be pretty soul-sucking. The film and TV industry can be pretty soul-sucking in general, so little moments like that are really amazing. Another example - I work with Eothen [Alplatt, founder and president] at Now Again Records a lot. In Fargo Season 2, we licensed one of his bands from Zambia. We didn’t have a large budget, so we couldn’t pay them that much, but I found out later that they ended up being able to buy a plot of land and expand their farm from the fee. It was life-changing for them. Something like that makes a whole year worth it.
What are some of your most obscure methods for music discovery?
Haha, actually, I go on Reddit threads, really random ones and dive deep into those. You find the nerdiest, weirdest conversations there. To be honest, I don't even understand Reddit exactly but scouring those conversations normally leads to a band that I’ve never heard of....that’s probably my trickiest way of discovering a lot of crazy music.
Tune into the second season of Legion every Tuesday on FX at 10/9c.
Catch new episodes of The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu on Wednesdays.
Save the date for the series premiere of AMC's Dietland on June 4th at 9/8c.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Maggie Phillips, Thomas Golubić, the Guild of Music Supervisors, and Impact24 PR.