We Spoke to the Man Who Soundtracks Wes Anderson’s Movies

With the release of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' we spoke to Randall Poster, the man who soundtracks Anderson's lovingly offbeat movies.

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Mar 18 2014, 12:00pm
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He may have made the odd, self-consciously quirky misstep (I’m looking at you, Darjeeling Limited) but while it’s easy to think that Wes Anderson is always just about to go too far down into the rabbit hole of his own mind, his films are almost always funny, artful and effecting. His latest, Grand Budapest Hotel, is no exception. In fact, it’s his best since Rushmore, which was an indisputable masterpiece. Over the years, Anderson has worked with the same music supervisor, Randall Poster, who works with the director to choose the songs that will be used in his films as well as determining the overall direction of the film’s music. I caught up with Randall to find out what his job entails.

Noisey: How did you get into this? Were you a musician or just a man with great taste in music?

Randall Poster: I’m not a musician to speak of and I didn’t work for a record company, I was just crazy about music and about movies. I started out because a friend and I wrote a script about a college radio station. We developed it at the Sundance Institute and then we made it. It was called A Matter of Degrees and was filled with music and I decided that music was what I wanted to make my focus.

How did things get started with Wes Anderson?

I met Wes right when he was finishing Bottle Rocket and he asked me to help him put together the soundtrack album. We’ve been working together ever since.

I think Rushmore is my favourite of the soundtracks because there’s this 60s vibe running through it that really works with the film and with the kid – the main character, Max Fischer. Is that an era you feel particularly attached to?

I think with Rushmore, the idea was to pick some of the lesser-known bands of the British Invasion. Wes always talks about how those guys would wear coats and ties on the cover of their records but that the music was so aggressive and rebellious. I think that corresponded to Max Fischer because he was this kid who, underneath it all, was looking to break through. The music speaks to his character, who is out of time with the world, and I think that’s a running theme in our movies and you can see it with M. Gustave in Grand Budapest Hotel, who is holding on to a more mannered, genteel era.

How is this reflected in the music?

Musically, we landed on this folk sound of the Balalaika [Author’s note: a Balalaika is a Russian stringed instrument. You can watch a very unusual young fellow playing the Super Mario theme tune on one right here], which goes back to a more primal humanity and to enduring human values that have nothing to do with fashion. Then we have that juxtaposed with the courtliness of Vivaldi.

You have courtly Ralph Fiennes, who is still an unusual character, and then underpinning this is Alexandre Desplat’s frantic music. How do you work with composers?

Alexandre and I have done the last three films together with Wes. There’s work I do with Wes prior to the point where Alexandre digs in with Wes and we sort of try and land on a sound or a sensibility that his music is then filtered through. I think that’s how Wes organises it. Our work together – picking songs but also landing on a sound for the score, helps him go to Alexandre, who can then create the music for it. When Alexandre created these melodies we had the notion that we were going to use this folk sound.

A lot of that music is fast-paced. I was wondering how you navigated that in terms of the more emotive points in the film.

I think the transitions are nice and I will say that the music in Wes’ films is always exactly the way he wants it. The Balalaika and the original score help drive the film forward and I think that’s what helps make it exciting. Certainly there are pauses when we have beautiful emotional moments.

If Wes wants the music to be exactly the way he wants it, are there times where you end up tearing each other’s hair out?

It doesn’t create tension but it keeps me on the phone in the middle of the night making travel arrangements for thirty Russian Balalaika players and their minders.

They do have notoriously demanding minders…You guys have used The Stones in a few of your films. That’s not particularly common- I guess because they cost a lot. How do you think about budgets and can you give me an idea of how much a particular song would cost?

I don’t want to be indiscreet to talk about money in those terms but I’d say that my commitment to all my directors is to get them everything they want. I think that artists are certainly sensitive to the scale of production. It’s obviously a different scenario if you’re working on a movie that has a $100 million budget to one with a $500,000 budget. Hopefully by virtue of my involvement they appreciate that at least the music will be used well so for the most part artists are willing to adapt to the budget and hopefully you can share the upside, so that if the movie does well, the artist does well too.

And that applies to Mick ‘n’ Keith just as it does to anyone else?

What happened with The Stones is that we started making our soundtrack albums with ABKCO and ABKCO was the label that had The Stones pre-Sticky Fingers, which is our Rolling Stones sweet spot. I don’t mean to be too glib about it but at some point The Rolling Stones became our house band.

A persistent criticism of Wes Anderson is that his films are too self-consciously quirky. Is this something you even think about and what would your response be?

I think that with certain artists, they can only make the work they make and if the criticism of Wes Anderson movies is that they’re too much like Wes Anderson movies, I don’t know how to respond to that. I find Wes’s movies really satisfying on a creative and emotional level and the attention he puts into his work is unparalleled. Tell me if this is wrong but they say sometimes, in sport, something like: “Wayne Rooney leaves it all on the pitch”. When Wes finishes his movies, he’s left it all out on the pitch. The other thing I’d say to all those critics, very simply, is that they should all just go and fuck off.

That’s better!

Fuck off and watch whatever it is they want to watch…

A bunch of Michael Bay movies…

Yeah, or Frozen

Do you get ideas for songs when you read the script? How does the process work?

There’s movies I’ve worked on where they are set in a particular historical time period that you have to think about, or there’s an on-camera musical element where the characters are performers or the setting needs to have live music, which dictates your thoughts about what the music might be. Otherwise, some of it comes through dialogue with the director about what sound or emotion or counterpoint you want to provide with the music. And then sometimes it’s not until you’ve got into the editing room and see what’s been brought back that you get to play intricately with it. It’s not just an intellectual exercise: at some point you have a red-blooded movie to work with so you can put songs against it and see what happens.

And how much are you matching music to specific scenes?

I think largely that it happens in a lot of conversations that occur before he’s even written the script. With Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums we knew we had certain songs that we were going to try and use in the film, so it sort of becomes a bit of a game to use as many of them as we can. I think one of the reasons why the work Wes and I have done together on the music side of things has been as potent as it has been is that we spend a lot of time between movies thinking about the music.

Have you had significant disagreements with other directors you’ve worked with?

I think that people who are confident artists are happy to get some pushback and to engage in dialogue that would be looked at as a disagreement. That’s the wonderful thing about filmmaking: you get to take advantage of other people’s passions and it moves you to places that you might not have anticipated going to. People working in different areas of the film are all trying to push their work and a great director has to be able to deal with some of that challenge and energy.

And there’s no point surrounding yourself with sycophants or idiots

I mean, I’d say that over the course of my career I probably cry less when it doesn’t go my way.

Has there been crying before?

Yeah, there’s been a little bit of crying. I probably do most of it in a bathroom stall by myself but we care a lot about it!

Yeah, we all have the rage or tears in the toilet stall moment a few times in our working life and sometimes people need a little emotional demonstration to let them know you care.

I agree.

One last thing: are music supervisors frustrated musicians at heart?

I have to say I’m the farthest thing from being frustrated and given the way I played the bass guitar, I think I found the right avenue for my musical expression.

Happiness is acceptance. Thanks for chatting Randall.

Follow Oscar on Twitter @oscarrickettnow

My Favourite Soundtrack: 'Romeo + Juliet'

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