Thomas Golubic is a Grammy nominated, award winning music supervisor who has had the rare opportunity and privilege to work on some of the most critically acclaimed shows of recent years including Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul and more! I talked to Thomas via Skype from his lair in Hollywood. He regaled me with his wisdom, advice, and behind the scene stories that I shall now pass on to you, the beloved reader!
How did you land the music supervisor job for Breaking Bad?
I was recommended by an executive at AMC who liked my work on Six Feet Under. When I got to the meeting, it was very clear that they were considering a lot of supervisors. I waited for about an hour and they came in, and said, “sorry we're delayed, it's going to take a little bit longer, can you wait another half an hour?” Then they came back a half hour later and said, “we're still running late. Would you be willing to look at the pilot?” So, I went in and I watched the pilot and it was fantastic.
It was so good on every level, but they had music wall to wall. I mean, everywhere, whether it was score or songs. Then they said, “Well, what did you think?” I told them I honestly think it’s one of the best pilot I’ve ever seen. I would love to work on this thing. I just really think the music is not working at all for you. In fact, I would take everything out and start from scratch. They were like, “Really? We just spent the last three weeks doing this!” Then they said, “All right big shot, what would you differently?”
I just said, less. Less. You know? Use music really sparingly, very intentionally. If I’m assuming right, you guys probably have a very small budget. This would cost you a fortune and honestly, it’s taking away from what you already have. It looks like you’re trying to spackle and cover things when what’s there is gorgeous. It’s so good and you just don’t need all of that music.
That makes sense.
To my surprise, they were a little bit taken aback by it, but they were very generous and very confident. At the end of the meeting they said, I think we'd like to bring you on board.
How do you find the subtext of a scene? Is it more intellectual or intuitive?
It's a combination of both, I think. The job of the music supervisor is to act as a storyteller and to find ways of bringing out elements of a scene that are part and parcel to the scene, and part of the storytelling, but may not be on the surface. If, for example, you have an anxious person and you have music which is almost excessively slow and plodding, or if you have a character, who is very syncopated but you have music that is off in rhythm, sometimes that can really change the dynamic of a scene and help to take a scene that would have otherwise just simply coasted by, and give it a new energy. Part of the job for supervisors is for us to be able to look at a scene from a storytelling perspective. What would be a way of adding a color, and a flavor, and an energy that changes what's there and adds a new element? On the other hand, I think that in many ways, our capacity to know when to be invisible and when to not let the music shout for attention, or when the music can really carry it is an important aspect of the job.
One of my favorite songs is “Black” by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi featuring Norah Jones on vocals. You used it to great effect in a Breaking Bad episode.
It's very melodic. And Norah’s voice is just gorgeous.
That album “Rome” wasn’t a huge pop record, but maybe you helped it get more exposure?
I think that our job is not to break records ever, but it is hopefully to lend inspiration. I'm always happy if somebody discovers something through a sync use and gets the chance to hear a record and really explore it.
Right on! How did the Breaking Bad theme song come to be?
Well, that was actually built for the show. Dave Porter was the composer. I was working on the pilot and trying to figure out what the flavor of the score would be. I was really not having a lot of luck. I reached out to Dave, who's a very talented composer and most importantly, is a really great collaborator and asked him for his opinion. He said, “well, let me see if I can build something for it”. He built this piece of music and it worked beautifully. When it came time for us to hire a composer for the series, Dave was one of the guys that we set up to have a meeting, and they just really connected with him, and with his work. He ended up really building the score sound of Breaking Bad. Dave is just a very smart guy and he's very thoughtful and sensitive, and he projected into the future where he thought Walter White would be at the end of that story.
How did you know when the title was actually the final version?
It was a work in progress and I've heard many drafts of it, but when we got there we kind of all collectively knew this was it. I think, that the show is very unique and it needed its own sound. It was a sound that wasn't easily defined. It kind of had to be built brick by brick.
Lightning strikes more than once! Were you excited when you read The Walking Dead script?
I knew when reading the script how good it was and I had read the graphic novels. There was already a sense that this could be something really special. Frank Darabont is an incredibly talented guy and Gale Anne Hurd is an incredibly talented producer. You're dealing with a lot of really, high wattage talent and it was exciting to kind of watch it all come together. When we saw the pilot, I mean it was magnificent. It's one of the finest hours of television. I think he just knocked it out of the park.
Yeah! So do millions of other fans of the show!
To me, that's sort of one of those things that you hope for, but you don’t know what will happen. I've read film scripts that sounded fantastic and really read well and seemed great. Then by the time you get to the finished product you're like, oh wow, something is missing or something just didn’t quite connect well. There's a lot of things that can go wrong. Everybody wants to make a masterpiece.
It’s such a collaborative art form.
Yeah, there's a lot involved and I think one of the great things about the job is that it is so collaborative. You may have home run hitters, but the fact is that nobody carries the team. It's a group effort - this is definitely the case with Breaking Bad and definitely the case with The Walking Dead, and with Better Call Saul and Halt and Catch Fire. All of those shows, and Six Feet Under way back when. When everybody is doing their best work, you get a chance to really make something magical happen.
Tell us about your process building the theme song for Better Call Saul.
We were experimenting with different sounds, bringing different ideas to the table and we ended up feeling that a song by Little Barrie really captured the feeling of Saul and the character Jimmy McGill. But we weren't able to license it because Sony, the studio behind it, doesn't allow licensing of main titles. It has to be something that they own.
I reached out to Little Barrie and they were very excited about the prospect of building some demos. So we started to work with them and we created one wave after another wave of demos. They would send me in the morning, like 12 different versions and ideas, and then I would get on Skype with them at night and we would talk through different ideas. One of the versions that they did was the one that we ended up using for the main title.
That’s a great theme song! Back in the day, you used to do a show on KCRW called “The Great Escape”.
Yeah. The concept was essentially a radio show that was creating an imaginary soundtrack to a different film every week. For me it was an opportunity to explore films that I really love and find new ways of interpreting them with songs that I know. For example, if I was doing Cool Hand Luke, which is a Paul Newman movie about a guy who was in jail - I did a lot of working songs and prison songs. I did one of Dog Day Afternoon and it was a lot about being on the clock and the desperation of the bank robbers. It was a fun way of kind of getting people excited about a film. I would sample aspects of the dialogue to help tell a story. If you didn’t know the movie, you would still be able to follow along with the story. It was a way of mashing up different ideas and creating sort of a, fun mound of contemporary music, and classic music, and films.
Sounds really cool. What shows are you currently working on?
Right now I'm working on Better Call Saul, season three, which we just started. It's fantastic. The scripts for the first four episodes are astonishing. We're going to be starting up soon on Halt and Catch Fire season four. We're working on season two of Love, the Judd Apatow series for Netflix. We just wrapped up season three of Grace and Frankie, which is another Netflix series, and we have two new shows coming up. One of them is called Sneaky Pete, which will be on Amazon. Also a show called Shut Eye, which is for Hulu, and that's going to get released in the next couple months as well.
Wow! You’ve got a lot going on! What do you do for fun?
I mean, basically my job is fun. I do extensions of that. I basically listen to as much music as I possibly can. I read quite a bit. I watch a lot of movies. I now love television, so I'm watching a lot of great TV series. I try to travel a lot. I live in LA, a city that’s filled with excitement. I do Lots of fun activities and creative adventures, so it's very hard to get bored. I don’t have enough lives or enough years left to do all of the things I like to do.
What is one or two of your favorite placements that you’ve done in the past year or so?
Oh, God. There's one in Halt and Catch Fire, which I love. There's actually two in Halt and Catch Fire that I can think of right now. One of them is the Pixies, Velouria. The Pixies was one of the most important bands for me growing up. I was so happy we were able to find a home for it in the show and we have our main characters dancing gloriously to it, in the year 1990, when it got released in the same month. To build a new period piece and to be able to feel what it's like to be in the room when you're playing a Pixies song, and the DJ's having a good time, the whole party is going crazy, that's a pretty exciting thing.
We also put David Bowie's Absolute Beginners in another sequence in Halt and Catch Fire, which is really fantastic!
Can you recommend a good restaurant in Los Angeles?
Oh my, God. The best meal - my favorite restaurant is called Jitlada. It is a Thai restaurant that's in Hollywood. Everything they have there is super spicy. It's pretty great. The restaurants here are ridiculous. It's getting better all the time.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Thomas Golubić.