Steven Gizicki is an award-winning music supervisor, whose most recent achievements include international sensation, La La Land. He has had the distinct honor of collaborating with icons, such as David Bowie and George Lucas. For a man of his stature, Steve is incredibly down to earth and humble. In our interactive discussion, Steve shares about his friendship with composer, Justin Hurwitz and the majestic world of Strange Magic.
Could you talk a bit about how an unusual movie like La La Land came about?
Damien wrote it before Whiplash, so it had been floating around for years before Whiplash got made. From what I understand, he couldn't get it off the ground because it was so ambitious, it was a lot for people to swallow with a first time director. When Whiplash was as successful as it was, everyone in town wanted to work with him, so he used that currency to say, “Okay, here's what I want to make.” And you know, I think even then he experienced quite a bit of reluctance. But Lionsgate dove in and decided to just take a chance.
Absolutely! I mean, the world needs that kind of a movie, it's so exuberant and upbeat!
Well, you know how it goes, I was at a record label for a long time and these industries are more reactionary than anything. We would like to think that they're all driving culture, but they're sort of reacting to what's happening and to go out on a limb, it's a lot of money. And sometimes people take the risk, most of the time they don't. Up until this past weekend we were only in a few hundred theaters I believe. I don't think we had even hit 1,000. But we went up to like 2,000 or something this past weekend. It is rare for people to go to see a film again and again. I know people who have seen this movie five or six times already.
The opening traffic sequence, how did you come up with all those songs for every car that it went by?
It was a lot of trial and error, and we wanted to represent as many different genres as we possibly could. But we wanted them to all be original to us, as opposed to licensing. We didn't want to hear, you know, a Kanye West song coming out of one car, and then a Katy Perry song coming out of the next, right? We wanted it to all be in our world, so all of those pieces were composed by Justin Hurwitz, the composer, and some were co-composed by Marius De Vries - with the exception of La Traviata and the 1812 Overture. We wanted to represent a wide variety - there was a prog rock bit in there, there was a hip-hop thing that we partnered with this rapper named Pell. Then there's a little bit of NPR Radio in there as well, that we licensed. I always say, with every job I've ever taken, “If a job doesn't terrify me, it's not worth taking.” We need to shoot a song with 100 kids dancing on cars on a freeway. Okay. Absolutely!
So, each one was like five seconds, right? Very short.
We timed it out, and it was very complicated as you might imagine. And on the day of the shoot, the cars…surrounding each car, their bit was sort of on a loop so the camera would catch it. So that with the kids in the techno car are thumping their heads to the beat, and the opera guy is singing along with the opera.
How did you get involved with La La Land?
I was at Lucasfilm and my time there was coming to an end, because of the Disney purchase. So the music department, which was me, was just going to be eliminated. I was working with a producer, a composer named Marius De Vries on a film called Strange Magic. And he had started to work on La La Land, while I was still at Lucasfilm. So, I was in Marius' studio a lot, I would hear the material and I had met Justin, the composer, and I kept poking at him (Marius), like “Do you need a supervisor?” And the Lionsgate music department, combined with Marius and Justin were sort of handling everything. So, the thought was maybe we just don't need a music supervisor. But soon after I moved back to Los Angeles, the cast switched, so it went from being Miles and Emma, to Ryan and the other Emma. All of a sudden, they cast those two and shoot dates got locked, release date got locked, everything just needed to happen because of their two schedules. I was initially brought on to manage the two of them, because having worked for a record label for a long time as a product manager, I'm good at managing talent. I have worked with David Bowie and Lenny Kravitz. So, they brought me on initially to oversee their schedules and training. So, that was my first task, and then that just very quickly evolved into being a full time music supervisor gig.
Did Ryan Gosling actually learn the piano for this movie?
That was the most challenging mountain to climb, clearly. Because Damien didn't want to cheat and cut away, he loves his single takes. And my job was to find a hand double, just in case. Just as you always need fire insurance, and you hope there's not a fire, so we had insurance and we found someone, but the guy never left his trailer. He sat in his trailer for a couple of days and we sent him home. Ryan was working with this woman named Liz Kinnon, and we couldn't have found a better teacher. She worked with him two plus hours a day, six days a week for a few months. And we had this piano advisor named Randy Kerber, who's a really great pianist, and it's actually his piano you hear in the film. And he helped Ryan with the physicality of it, sort of how to make it look real on camera. And Ryan just really committed himself to it, and was absolutely devoted.
Why do you think La La Land is connecting with audiences so much?
Well, it was a rough year for everybody, and not just politically. I lost several of my musical idols, cinematic idols, and it felt like, everybody felt like they got beat up this year, whatever side of the fence you're on. And I think people were looking for something optimistic and hopeful, diverting and fun. That's probably the main reason it's connecting. Also, it's fresh, because it hasn't been seen or heard in such a long time.
Yeah, and the music too, is so memorable.
Yes, and we were really focused on making sure that the vocals sounded so real, like normal people. If Emma opened her mouth and she sounded like a modern day Ethel Merman, people would be turned off by it. People connect with her because we left a few voice cracks, and shows she’s not perfect. And it makes it so relatable and it's so easy to connect to, on a human level.
How was it working with composer, Justin Hurwitz on La La Land?
We became great friends through the process, and it was a lot of work, but boy, did we have fun. Justin is so fast, too. A score key just wasn't working, and he would go away and re-write it and I would be woken up by a ding at three in the morning and there was a new .mp3 in my inbox, you know? And he's funny, too. He's writing the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David. He wrote a Simpsons episode, he used to write for The League. He has a secret, double life. Not so secret, double life as a comedy writer.
Yeah, that's awesome. The scene at the party with those 80's songs. Was it was a live re-recording?
Yeah, actually we recorded in the studio, most of the vocals were recorded live on the day. But the track is a studio creation. And then you see D.A. Wallach, who you may or may not be familiar with, is a pop star in his own right. He was in a band with Damien, when they were in college, called Chester French. They had a couple of alternative radio hits in the 90s, and now D.A. does his own thing. He kind of steals that scene.
You toured with David Bowie. How was that?
Well, especially with him gone, it's hard to put into words. It was one of the great moments of my life. He was the reason I got into music in the first place. I was that weird kid, that never left his room, and listened to records, and his music helped pull me out of my shell. Him, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed…And so when he was signed to the label, I just jumped at the opportunity to be part of the department that would work with him, and then, he and I just clicked. I sort of became his day-to-day contact. He just was such a charming, very sweet, very funny, generous guy. When I ended up leaving the company, he gave me a going away gift, and he knew that Teenage Wildlife was my favorite song of his. His assistant came in one day and said, “Come. David wants to play you something.” And they broke into Teenage Wildlife and I just - I probably started crying. I don't remember (laughs).
Strange Magic was an animated musical. How would you compare working on an animated musical as opposed to a live action musical?
It takes a lot longer. Strange Magic was a five-year process. As opposed to La La Land, which took about a year and a half to get it out. And because it's animated, you can go back and change your mind and re-draw something. So, the process with Strange Magic was a very twisted road to completion. When it started off, it was George's vision, and we had one batch of songs, and then George handed off the reins of the company to Kathy Kennedy, so then the vision changed from there. And then, Disney bought the company, so things changed again. I think we demo'd well over 100 songs over the course of those years. But from a music supervisor perspective, that's a thrill. We all love looking for songs and trying to find the right fit for the story.
Steve, do you have a particular placement you've done in the past couple of years that is special to you?
Honestly, you just mentioned Strange Magic and the song “Strange Magic” is really special to me. That moment in the film was hard to find the right song for. Two characters have met and it's not an “I love you” song, but it's a “hey, you're kind of interesting song”. And when I found the song, it just felt like one of those ‘aha’ moments. And it's I think the most beautifully animated sequence in the film, and Evan Rachel Wood and Allan Cumming sing their faces off, and Marius' arrangement is absolutely beautiful.
So, what are you currently working on?
I am doing this film called Teen Spirit, with the actor Maximillian Minghella, his father is the very famous director, Anthony Minghella. It's with Fred Berger, one of our La La Land producers. It is set overseas and it's about a teenage girl who wants to be a pop star. I’m also starting work on an animated musical, which I can’t talk specifics about yet, because it hasn't been announced.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Steven Gizicki.