Michael Hill started his illustrious career as an A&R guy for Warner Bros. Records back when legendary music industry execs Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker would walk the hallowed halls. Music supervision was the natural evolution for Michael, especially when the "major labels" were losing their power and influence and the time was ripe to jump off the Titanic and fly! October is looking busy for Michael with releases including season 2 of Blunt Talk, Divorce, and Ordinary World starring Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day. Currently, Michael is hard at work on a new Netflix series called Gypsy. It's a psychological thriller, starring Naomi Watts and Billy Crudup, debuting in 2017.
Can you tell us about your transition from the record business into music supervision?
Near the end of my time at Warner Brothers, the label changed dramatically, getting rid of me along with everybody else who had been working there for 15 or 20 years. Earlier, we were doing artist development, taking a lot of creative risks and seeing people through their careers. By the time I left, there were no careers and no artist development. So, naturally, necessity being the mother of invention - I had to figure out something to do. I had already begun to plant the seeds for this (music supervisor) career.
While I was still working at Warner’s, my former intern - a young man named Tim Perell, became a fledgling movie producer and made a film with Bart Freundlich called The Myth of Fingerprints, circa 1997. It did very well at Sundance. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up, and that was my second gig as a music supervisor. I still didn’t know all that much, but with Tim, I kind of learned by doing, and so by the time I left WB, I already had a couple of credits. It took me about another six years really, to establish myself to the point where I could honestly say this is what I do for a living.
How did you build up your network of musical contacts after Warner Bros.?
After Warner Bros., I worked for this Independent label run by a good friend of mine named Glen Morrow, called Bar/None Records. We worked with a lot of bands, and I also used to get hired regularly by Sony and BMG, and WB to write liner notes for their reissues. I found a way to multi-task in music and build my network and knowledge base, so by the time I was able to do this gig I knew so many more people really than I did back in the WB days. And honestly, I never treated people particularly poorly when I was at WB. I gave honest opinions, even if I didn’t like something. That made for a nice transition for when I had to call a lawyer about something I wanted to put in a show.
Yeah. It’s always a good policy to be nice to people.
Yes. Don’t be rude to anyone. You never know. My former intern and tape listener was the guy who gave me my first music supervisor job, and in many ways he opened the doors that led me to this career. Along the way, a post supervisor or producer started giving my name out to other people and then when HBO started to ramp up production in NY city, my resume got over there, thanks to a friend, and you know, that was kind of that! So, then I started doing Bored to Death and then immediately Nurse Jackie, from that point on I always had like two shows going at any given time.
The record business changed dramatically and kind of imploded in a way, how did this affect syncs for artists?
I think in a way, it allows artists from anywhere to get their music in a TV show or a film or something. You don’t have to go through a small group of gatekeepers anymore. There are positives and negatives - but, the availability of a wide range of music is incredible right now.
Share with us your experience working on Nurse Jackie.
Yeah, it was great! It was billed as a comedy, but wasn’t particularly comic in many ways. We kind of run counter intuitive to what’s happening on screen, which is something I always love to do. So, if it was a dramatic arc, we might do something really funny with the music. The acting said it all, so we wanted to have some comedy with the music. Unless someone really wants to underscore something, I really try not to have the music tell you what we are feeling in that moment.
One of the best examples of that is in episode 708 of Nurse Jackie, near the end of the series. It is a little party scene celebrating a nurse’s marriage to his partner. Jackie learns that one of her fellow doctors has a tumor, and he’s been hiding it, and he says something like, this is a party – so let’s dance. We had some ideas of songs to fit in there and it was meant to be a slow song, and it had to cover a lot of ground. I gave them a cover of Whitney Houston’s I Want to Dance with Somebody, done incredibly by this Australian singer named Scott Mathew. It was a lot of work thinking about it all, but when we found it, and it turned out to be right– everybody was really happy.
So you know Michael, it sounds like you were kind of ahead of a major trend of using slow, sad cover versions of upbeat songs.
I hope I was ahead of the curve. That episode would have aired in Spring 2015 I believe, so yeah, I think was ahead of the curve!
What is your favorite sync that you’ve done?
One I will love forever and ever is in Bored to Death in season one. Zach Galifianakis’s character was donating sperm to this lesbian couple from Brooklyn and he discovered that they were selling it to other lesbian couples too. So, now he wants to go and see how many little Rays there might be. So, they shot it as a wordless montage of them going door to door, knocking on doors, and people slamming doors in their faces. At the end of the scene, he puts his head in his hands and starts to cry. It’s just so sad, but so funny.
It was my first episodic TV series with HBO, and it was a big deal for me. So, I went one weekend, down to the Jersey shore with a box of CDs I wanted to listen to, and the one I really loved was a song, Forever by a really young band, called The Explorers Club. The song sounded like a homage to the Beach Boys, just pre Pet Sounds. On the chorus, the guy sings in falsetto, “Every time I look at her I cry…” and we cut it just as Ray falls down on the curb, and it was so funny. We were thinking, “Please let them love this song – and they did! So that still remains one of my most favorite moments ever.
How do you like to work with a composer on a show?
I prefer, whenever I’m given the latitude to do it, to be as involved with composers as I can so that we can work holistically together.
Television is such a collaborative art, what’s the process of finalizing a song in a particular scene?
In television, it is a team of people and hurdles along the way. You start with a script with some cues written in, then, the editor starts temping music in to show the director. Then, the director does his or her cut, and I’m feeding them music. Then, we send it to the producers who “yay or nay”. Finally, it is sent to the network that has their own ideas. I never really tell anyone that their song is in my show, until I’m at the mix.
Sounds kinda like the wild west!
I came out of the A&R world where I had to have a strong opinion about something and then present it to a whole group of people, many of whom (at Warner Bros.) were among the producers and executives I admired most. People like Lenny Waronker, Mo Ostin, Tommy LiPuma, Russ Titelman, who to me are like legends. And you’ve got to also understand how to work the room and know that your opinion is not going to be one that everyone agrees with. So you need to have a Plan B and sometimes Plan C.
Sounds similar to music supervision. All this talk of music is making me hungry! What's your favorite pizza place in New York?
Damn! That’s a tough one. Honestly, the pizza I love the most and I would make a trip to go to is a place called the Star Tavern in East Orange, New Jersey. It’s like super thin crust, really wonderful tangy tomato sauce with mozzarella cheese, and it’s only good when you are there!
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Michael Hill.