Robin Urdang is the graceful and valiant music huntress behind Reel Music SuperVision. Throughout her illustrious career, Robin has supervised a broad diversity of high-profile films and hit television shows, such as A Bigger Splash, Thanks For Sharing, Center Stage, Burn Notice, Younger, Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life, and many more. In advance of the theatrical release of Luca Guadagnino's Academy Award contender, Call By Your Name and the first season launch of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Robin spoke with us about the passion she brings to every project and her personal mission to turn her collaborators' soundtrack dreams into reality.
You studied psychology and photography in college at SUNY New Paltz in New York. What skills or insights from your studies have informed your career as a music supervisor?
Majoring in psychology has enabled me to do what I do well. In this profession, we deal with a lot of different personalities. I feel better equipped to deal with people and understand how they work, so I can get them what they want. I joke around and say that anybody in this business would benefit from taking a few psychology classes.
Photography, I just loved it. I still do. I think it’s been my way of expressing myself because I can’t draw. My grandfather was an artist and yet I can’t even draw a straight line. The environment of the school I went to was gorgeous. I would go outside, drive, and take pictures of the waterfalls, streams, mountains, and country. I lived in a little cabin in the mountains for one semester, it was stunning. I suppose I use those skills in the visual aspects of my film and television work. For example, my ongoing collaboration with director, Luca Guadagnino — his films are always shot so beautifully. The visuals are outrageously breathtaking and that brings inspiration to my work. My background in photography makes me appreciate everything on a deeper level.
When I lived in Manhattan, I had a studio apartment and turned this little area, between my bedroom and bathroom, into a dark room to develop my own pictures. When I moved to LA, I used to go to Santa Monica to develop pictures. I miss it, but my patience level has never been high enough to become a true expert.
Can you tell us about your entry into the field of music supervision? What would you consider your first big break?
When I was young, I used to read a lot of books and I would always play music simultaneously. When those books were turned into films, I’d see the film and be like, "Wait, they have the wrong music in there”. I remember being jarred by the music, listening to what they had chosen, but expecting to hear what I had been playing in my room, on the screen. I didn’t realize it until recently but that experience was very influential to what I do today.
After college, I worked in Manhattan for a management company that handled musicians and comedians. I loved the music part of it and the production part of it, so I decided to continue in the music field and move to Los Angeles. Part of my decision to leave New York was because I lost my soulmate to drugs while he was touring with a band. I needed an escape and chose to move to Los Angeles, where my mother lived.
After spending significant time in Los Angeles, working a few jobs in music and production, I decided it was time to move back to New York. I had been working with The Manhattan Transfer right before that, and one of the members, Janis Siegel called me and said, ”Robin, are you still moving back to New York?" and I said, "I'm packing up right now". She said, "Robert Kraft is looking for someone to work with him on The Mambo Kings. Would you be interested?”. Absolutely, I was.
I met with Robert in New York and got the job. The Mambo Kings was my big break. It was an incredible and intense movie, which taught me so much. It was the first American movie Antonio Banderas ever did. He used to come sit in my office, smoke cigarettes and just hang out. We’d dance on set, we’d practice songs. I was there for every recording session in pre-production, production and post production. I was on set for every musical number and I was so lucky to work with Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Armand Assante. It was SO fun.
Working on The Mambo Kings guided me in a new direction. I began getting hired for films with “on camera” musical performances, such as Out To Sea, Center Stage, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Glitter, and more.
First of all, congratulations on your Hollywood Music in Media Award! You are continuing your collaboration with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The pilot episode was one of Amazon's most watched in history. I noticed the music plays a huge part in the pacing of the storytelling and translates a retro, vibrant, and larger than life impression of New York City in the late 1950's. Going forward, what can we expect musically from this series? What is the most rewarding part of working on this historical drama?
Wow. Where do we begin? There’s no composer on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It's strictly licensed music from 1950s and 1940s. Sometimes, we cheat a little bit and delve into the ‘60s. Amy and Dan, who have an ongoing relationship with Sutton Foster, asked her to record a version of I Enjoy Being a Girl, so we put that session together quickly and it turned out awesome.
The show is incredibly challenging but in such a positive way. There was never a time during the process where I thought "Oh my god, this is too much work," or "I can't do this”, but there were certainly times that I struggled to get Amy and Dan the perfect song for the bar or Yiddish radio. The key was to make everything feel authentic. The music, the pre-records, the on set recordings. Amy and Dan do everything with such heart and perfection. They love obscure songs, as well as the best pop of the era. They made the final decision on every song, every musician, every instrument, every actor or singer performing on set.
We would get a script about a week before the episode was going to shoot, and I’d be casting musicians, who would not only play, but also look the part for camera. It wasn’t until I was sourcing musicians for the Latin band for the Copa Cabana, that the casting department said, “no facial hair, no bald heads, no long hair”. That was a bummer – one of our guys had to bow out because he wouldn’t cut his hair and was immediately replaced. Amy and Dan like to shoot live on set to keep the intimacy of the real sound of the room. We did that with most of the music, but had to go into the studio for the bigger band recordings.
In one episode, Dan wanted a Yiddish song from the 1940s. I found the perfect song and it wound up that the label would not clear the master recording. There were a ton of versions of this song, but this was the best and the only one they wanted to use. The German company would not allow us to use the song and refused to give Sony a reason. It was quite frustrating and we finally had to replace it. We used Kate Smith’s rendition of God Bless America. Luckily, they chose it, but we really missed that Yiddish song and I’m still trying to get a straight answer on why they wouldn’t clear it. I never like to say “no” or “we can’t” to Amy and Dan, so this was a tough one for me. They do not like “library” music. It needs to feel genuine. I don’t blame them – that’s why their shows are so fantastic.
I am so thankful for the most incredible post-production team we have on the show. I couldn’t have done this without the amazing support of Matt Shapiro, the co-producer who helped keep everything together and was so amazing to work with in every capacity, and Annette Kudrak, our music editor.
We had more time with the pilot than we ever had with each episode of the series. I was planning to take a trip to Hawaii with my son and some friends for four days, a Thursday through Sunday, but I ended up canceling it. I was nervous to go on vacation, anticipating a call like "Hey, we have to have five singers, and a piano player, and two piano players for next week." Ironically, it wound up being the only slow week of the season for me, but I couldn’t even imagine someone saying, "Sorry, Robin's not available. She’s in Hawaii.” during this project.
How did you approach Netflix's Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life? The original series had a beloved musical and emotional tone featuring a theme song by Carole King and even a live performance by The Bangles. Which musical aspects were important to retain and how did you musically distinguish the passage of time between the original series finale and the start of the sequel?
I don’t even give myself credit for Gilmore Girls. It has always been Amy and Dan. I literally came in and found incidental little pieces of music, but everything else was scripted, so I cleared it for them. Regardless, I was happy to be a part of it. The experience was constantly changing because they didn’t shoot episode-by-episode. They shot the entire four episodes as a movie.
We are fresh off the theatrical release of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, which is a coming of age romance that centers around a homosexual relationship between a 17-year-old Italian American boy and the American academic staying at his parents' villa. The soundtrack has a bright and dream-like quality from the timeless classical pieces to the stand out tracks from Giorgio Moroder and The Psychedelic Furs. Composer, Sufjan Stevens brought his own magic to the project as well. How did you first become involved with the film and what was the most unexpected takeaway from the experience?
A producer I worked with years ago called me and said, "I have this movie and I need a little bit of help. It's not a big job, but would you please do it? Can you help me?”. I agreed and it happened to be A Bigger Splash, which wound up being a much bigger job than anybody ever imagined. It starred Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. We got Rolling Stones songs placed. It was incredible. I love the movie. We were going to record Tilda singing a Stones song and hired Waddy Wachtel. She is such a warm and lovely person. She came to L.A. for a rehearsal, but for some reason, we never recorded the song. We had St. Vincent record a version of Emotional Rescue for the end titles though.
Originally, I was told that because the director didn’t know me, I was to interface with the producer who had hired me, but one day, I got on a conference call and Luca, the director, was on it. I’m not one to keep my mouth shut, so I offered my suggestions. Ever since then, we have dealt with each other directly, continued to work together, and have established a wonderful friendship. I just finished Call Me By Your Name and am currently working on Suspiria. There is another one, which will be starting shortly too. Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria could not be more polar opposite. One, a beautiful love story, the other, a remake of the cult 70’s horror film. Yet the commonality in both is that you can’t take your eyes away from the screen.
Back to Call Me By Your Name, Luca is the most genius, brilliant director. Everything he does is a work of art and I love being a part of his team. The movie is incredible, it’s got nine or ten stars on Rotten Tomatoes. Luca wanted Sufjan Stevens to narrate the film. Though Sufjan did not feel comfortable with that, he created two songs that basically become the narration themselves. They are beautifully written. I expect that Mystery Of Love will get on the short list for awards season.
We read that you are largely responsible for the recruitment of Radiohead's Thom Yorke to score Luca's forthcoming remake of Dario Argento's cult classic horror film, Suspiria. Are there any additional details you can share about that project?
Luca asked for Thom Yorke. I reached out to him, but we hadn’t heard back. I called his manager, who responded, “Well, if you haven’t heard back, he’s probably not interested”. I wasn’t willing to accept that, so I called over and over again, not taking “no” for an answer. I explained Luca’s film making process and his body of work, as well his passion, his heart, and loyalty as a person. Then it happened, they called back and said Thom wanted to re-read the script. When Thom came on board, Luca and the producer, Marco were ecstatic and sent me a bottle of champagne with a note that said “We’re drinking the same bottle here in Italy with you as you are there. We could not have done this without you”. It was actually written a little more poetic than that, but you understand the sentiment.
You served as music supervisor of Burn Notice for almost 100 episodes. The show featured a lot of music with Latin flavor due to being set in Miami and always had an undercurrent of espionage and intrigue. What were some of the stand out moments of working on the show?
Burn Notice was a dream. I loved all the producers that we worked with, all the editors. I did it for seven years, seven seasons. The first season, they had no one and then I came on board. The music budget was nonexistent. We had $10,000 allocated for the first season, but I came in under budget so they reduced it to $9,000 the following year.
I had to beg people for music, recruit groups, and find the music I loved from independent artists and libraries. Our composer did not do the majority of the underscoring, so we usually used about 18 licensed tracks per episode.
I'd give the editors all the music to temp with and we would wind up keeping it in. Anything I gave them, we had to be able to afford. It was a great show. Since then, I’ve worked with both of the producers in different capacities. The one that brought me onto Burn Notice introduced me to supervise A&E's SIX, which is on its second season. We have great composers on board. They're scoring most of it, so I only have to find a few songs to be used for a distinct purpose, not to take the place of the score. It’s much more manageable.
Younger is shining a bright light on TV Land as a network. The music thoughtfully captures a very playful, trendy, and sometimes, glamorous spirit of a millennial career woman. What are some of the standout placements from this series for you?
Younger is such a fun show to do. Darren Star is the executive producer and creator. I work with Jax Media on many of their shows throughout the year. If you’re familiar with the story, it’s hard not to be on Team Charles or Team Josh. The supervision process is usually fast paced because I know what we need and gather a plethora of music before and during each season. The vibe is clear. We’re entering season five now, and it feels like eons ago when we first started.
Let’s see. There have been a lot of memorable moments. Like most shows, we always have to have a mix of songs we can spend real money on and ones that come at a lower price. It was great to include the Gemma Hayes cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game in season 3. There was also a cover of Burning Love by an artist named Lae. I fought hard for Joy Williams’ beautiful cover of Ordinary World. I tried try to throw a few covers in because we’re catering to both millennials and the older crowd. I didn’t want to make that the musical theme of the show because "Oh my god, how boring can we be?”. It is important to me to make sure that we include a lot of today’s music.
Really great things from Sleep Machine, Danger Twins, Maggie Eckford, Warpaint, Flume, and Glass Animals. I loved the use of Dare by Daya. We also used Bad At Love by Halsey in the last season finale. Hilary Duff, who stars in the show, also recorded original music for us, which was used in the trailer for the first season.
We must know...Can you tell us about your experience working on Mariah Carey’s Glitter back in 2001?
Well, this goes back to Michael Costigan, the producer that hired me to do A Bigger Splash and introduced me to Luca Guadagnino. Thank God for him because he was on Glitter. I originally wasn’t going to work on the film because I was getting married. I was in Las Vegas for my wedding, which was a beautiful ceremony at the Bellagio. While I was there, I got a call from Sony asking me to come onboard. I was like “Oh, I don’t know that I want to do a movie right now”, but they were persistent. I agreed to meet with them and got in the car to go home. They planned to pick me up in a limo and take me out for pizza, but it never ended up happening. I went to Sony and we all met shortly after, then I went to Toronto for three months.
Mariah Carey was a dream to work with. You know, when you’re a celebrity of that ilk and you have a hard time trusting people? One day, I happened to be on the phone with my back to the door. I was being really hard on a lawyer over a Mariah situation. After I hung up, I turned around to find Mariah and her manager standing there. They clapped. I didn’t know anybody was there and thought “Oh my God”. They heard me taking care of Mariah. From that day forward, they trusted me. We even went lingerie shopping together.
It was exciting. I would stand on set while they were singing. She wouldn’t pre-record all the music for the film beforehand because she didn’t want it to be stolen, so she would either sing on set or use an unofficial track. I didn’t understand until one of the songs they wrote was stolen and didn’t feature her voice.
During the time of working on the movie, I had gotten married, then I got pregnant, and had my son, Ethan. It was tough because I was 7 or 8 months pregnant at the studio in the evenings, always having to wait for hours for the recording sessions to start. Randy Jackson was Mariah’s musical director on Glitter. He was always there to lift our spirits. Mariah gave Ethan a beautiful birth gift from Barneys New York. She was always very thoughtful.
What is the most difficult part of dropping into a new project? What are some of your strategies to bring someone else's vision to life while staying true to yourself and within the confines of the budget?
That’s the job and you have to do it. You learn. Every single director, every single producer, every single artist, they all want different things. Every show is different. Every movie's different. That's what makes it interesting. That's what makes the world go round in our business. Thank God because that’s what keeps us inspired.
There are some music supervisors that only do creative. There are some music supervisors that only know how to do clearance. I get hired through word of mouth and keep working with people I’ve built relationships and trust with. I never give up, never want to say no, and always try as hard as possible to succeed in delivering everything possible for each show or film. Those are the only things that remain consistent. When Luca says, “Robin, I have to have __________”, I make sure he gets it. When Amy and Dan say they want a song, I make sure they get it. When anyone from Jax Media asks me for something, I do it. I’ve created real partnerships. I am aware of the budgets that are available and I grasp what they are looking for creatively.
In my career, there have been a couple of projects that have made me want to stomp my feet and say “No!”. When working on anything, you need for the music to really work. If it’s not right, it takes away from the movie. It can make a movie, break a movie, and sometimes, be the only good thing in a movie. Same goes for television. You want to gain the respect and trust of your collaborators. I’m not always right, by any means, but I know I have good instincts. I know how and when to follow the lead of the people I’m working with. Some directors know music and what they are looking for. Some have no clue.
Many years ago, when I worked on this film called Out to Sea, the director, Martha Coolidge, John Davis, and David Friendly were all sitting in a room. The choreographer and I literally got up and danced to all the songs that we wanted to use in the film. Looking back, the fact that I did it shows I must have been carefree and committed. First of all, I don’t dance, but by demonstrating with Kim, the choreographer, we were able to provide them with a visual and show them how the songs would work. It was a blast.
I originally worked with the same choreographer on The Mambo Kings, Kim Blank. I remember that after almost a year of not speaking to her, she called me the day I was hired for Out to Sea. I said “Why the heck are you calling me?”, thinking she read my mind. She said, "I'm sorry." I was like, "No, no. I recommended you to choreograph for Out to Sea literally five minutes ago”. We laughed about the coincidence and then she ended up getting the job. I have these types of premonitions a lot. I’ll think to myself on a given day that I want a new movie to work on. That same day, the phone will ring. My last coordinator would always say “Doesn’t surprise me, doesn’t surprise me”.
Many people still believe the misconception that a music supervisor's job is purely creative. As someone who has executed clearances for countless notable films and television shows, what are the greatest lengths you've gone to clear a song for use?
I am willing to do whatever it takes. There are only a couple instances of when there were songs I really couldn’t clear. Of course, there are times when you just don’t know who owns it, but that’s rare.
On The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I found a song by Petula Clark that I had pitched to Amy and Dan. They wanted something to make the Chinese restaurant scene come to life. I go to clear and nobody would claim the master. I heard from everyone, "I don't own it. I don't own it. I don't own it," and I would say, "No, it says you own it.”. I literally sent people pictures of a CD and other types of proof to communicate, "This is yours. You are the owner.”
There are so many changes in old recordings, especially what is considered public domain outside of the US. Not to mention, the challenge of tracking down people behind defunct companies. These are the main hurdles on this particular show.
You go through that with publishing too. It's such a massive world out there and there have been so many technological changes due to the rise of computers. Every so often, we have to hire a musicologist and maybe they’ll find something different. Even if they don’t, at least you can get a written statement from them that they believe it’s public domain or it appears to no longer be owned by anyone, so we have that for delivery purposes. I've spent entire days, sometimes two or three, nonstop looking for the rightful song owner.
When working on HBO’s Ballers, I had a coordinator and an assistant working with me because we strictly do clearance for that show. Nobody knows what they own. We have all these hip-hop artists and people who claim to own something. You clear it with them. They sign for 100% and then all of a sudden, you have someone else telling you that they don’t own it or have the rights to do that. If it’s not on ASCAP or BMI, what are we supposed to do? Go through their database? Sometimes, it’s almost impossible. I hire great people around me to get the job done.
Right now, I’m working on this indie hip-hop movie. We have a live performance by French Montana in the film and I couldn’t get the information. Nobody knew who owned it. It took us weeks to find out who really owned these songs. Going back and forth between the artist, the writers, the manager, the publisher, and the label, every single person had something different in terms of shares and splits. I finally got the information and approval for one song right as they were on set, shooting the rehearsal for the song.
It's challenging. It's fun. You know what? There are days where all I want to do is clearance. There are days where all I want to do is creative. There are days where I want to do nothing. There are days where I love going back and forth, and back and forth, doing everything. There are days where I'm on the phone constantly and days where I don't get on the phone, even once. Every single day is different and I love it.
What genre of music or particular songs never fail to lift your spirits?
Earth, Wind, & Fire. I don't know why that just came out, but I can never listen to them without smiling. I love Reasons and September.
Having a song placed in film and television is a huge opportunity for a new artist or band, arguably providing more exposure than radio at this point. Are there any particular artists that you were excited to place?
There have been many artists that I’ve placed that have gone on to become very huge. I remember using Shawn Colvin's music before anybody knew who she was. I really liked Zayde Wølf and it was great to place him before he blew up. You know, Peter Gallagher's daughter, Kathryn Gallagher? I think she's great and I've used her music before. I really miss The Civil Wars. I love P!nk. She’s awesome. Maggie Rogers.
I love Steve Forbert. I worked at a bar during college and I knew all of the underground music. I remember going to an interview for a job and the company managed Pat Benatar and Steve Forbert. I remember saying "Well, I know who Steve Forbert is, but who's Pat Benatar?" They were like, "Oh my god." Ironically, Pat Benatar's drummer had just sold me a car.
If you could go back in time and choose one iconic film to have worked on the soundtrack for, what would it be and why?
The Sound of Music is my all-time favorite. I also love Dirty Dancing. When I watch those films, I think to myself "God, I wish I could do that music," because it was so great.
When I was younger, I went to Camp Tioga in Lake Como, Pennsylvania and participated in all the musicals and plays. Oh, my voice! I never got the lead because I always went out of tune even when I tried really, really hard to sing on pitch. My sister, Terry, who is an actor now, got the leading roles, and my sister, who is a producer now, did too, though she can’t sing either. It was amazing, the campers in each group would sit up at night after color war broke and we had three days to write a march, an alma mater, and a cheer. I would be one of the campers who did that. I think sleep away camp, reading books, and the bar I worked in in college are what initially inspired me to engage with music and led me to become a music supervisor. I feel very fortunate.
Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Name is out now in theaters. The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is now available for streaming on Amazon.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Robin Urdang.