Earlier this year we were lucky enough to chat to music supervisor Tracy McKnight at CMW. During her time in the industry Tracy has worked on numerous high profile projects from The Hunger Games, Warrior, and The Expendables, to Selma and Triple 9.
Hi Tracy, can you tell us about your journey into music supervision?
What I find fascinating about my own story is that none of it makes sense and yet it all makes sense in the end. I went to The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, which was the only school that had a program in cosmetics for fragrances and toiletries, and I thought I was going to be in a laboratory making soap and shampoo. And then I got a job as the night manager of a recording studio and the bug was bitten – I realised this is it, this is what I want to do. So I got my degree in Marketing Communications and I went on and started my music journey from there.
Before that I tried a lot of different things – I took a year off from college to be a flight attendant and travelled the world. But when I got to the recording studio, there was something about it that mesmerized me and that also made me really dedicated to learning more about it. So what I learnt there was how music was made, how sessions are created, how musicians work, how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
After I graduated I pounded the pavement – I researched companies and sent my cold letter to their human resources departments. I had to write really charming letters about why a gal who went to FIT was going be in the music business. And Arista Records hired me – there was a gentleman there named Mark Rizzo who worked in video and radio production and he worked with a woman named Mary Harding, and they gave me my break. And it was fantastic – I saw a whole other side of the business. I worked in radio and video promotion and really learnt so much about how artists are promoted, how radio singles go out, how it all works internationally, I was a sponge. And it’s a true story that in the mornings from 9 ’till 10 I had to come in early for a short period to get Clive Davis’ office ready which was fun.
Then, as we journey along, I went from uptown to downtown, and this is where my life really took a creative turn. I worked with a record producer named Bill Laswell – he was one of the writers on ‘Rockit’ by Herbie Hancock, he was in a band called The Golden Palominos, he was working with Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Parliament Funkadelic, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Henry Threadgill, Iggy Pop, Motorhead, Peter Gabriel, and he also had a few different labels, one was on Island called Axiom. So Bill really taught me about musicians, and that changed my life because he let me pretty much run his company. I was a kid just out of school but I was smart and I worked hard and he taught me the business. So now I was looking at the deals, I was looking at publishing and what that all meant.
And when I was working with Bill I met a music supervisor named G. Marq Roswell and he invited us all to the premiere of The Commitments, a movie he had supervised. And I was like, “ah! That’s a good gig!” and I spoke to Marq about it and it was right then and there that I thought that’s what I want to do. I can take my creativity and all of the knowledge I have now – it was my “aha” moment.
Were you also a fan of film during that time?
Big time. I was the kid that went to see Grease in grammar school and watched it four times in the same day. But it certainly became more and more of a passion as I became more involved in it.
What was your first music supervision gig?
Love God – but the great story about how I got in is that I decided to move to Los Angeles because I felt like as a New Yorker that was where I should be. I was pounding the pavement trying to get work under a music supervisor and at that point I was an intern in Women in Film. So I was out there networking and a friend of mine Mark Lipson said you should meet Ted Hope, who is a prolific producer in New York City. So he gave him my resume and I went to meet Ted who hired me on my first movie which was Love God.
So I get my first gig and it’s a crazy monster movie and there’s 80 million songs and $4 dollars and it was kind of like bootcamp in a way. You’re bright eyed and bushy tailed and you make no money and your big pay off is your credit, but also working with all these amazing people. When you get to your first job as a music supervisor it’s like do you love it? Because you learn what’s really fun about it and what’s really hard about it.
Was it as fun as it was scary?
You know it was a little bit scary. You realize that when you’re on a film you’re part of a team and when one part of the system doesn’t work the other parts don’t work. If you make a mistake with music it affects the bigger picture. That being said it was my first film and it was very low budget – I was clearing songs for $1 a side. I had 52 songs on that movie and we were on a very small budget.
Can you take us through the process, from getting a brief to sourcing the music?
What’s really great is that there are no rules, so you approach everything as an individual experience but you have your way of working. Sometimes I don’t have the script yet but I have an outline and I can start working that way. Normally you get a script and you read it and break it down. I have my marker and I turn pages down and write notes and just get the lay of the land. And then I read it again with a different set of eyes and now I know what it’s all about, now I’m going to go back and really think about music. And then I type up some notes and ideas. So when I’m sitting down with a director and a producer I’m mapping things out and getting their feedback.
And then we figure out what the budget is and I say this is the journey, this is the wishlist, this is what is going to help this filmmaker tell their story, these are my finances, and then they all converge together. My job is to map out the plan and make sure that I’m managing expectations, but also to make sure that the dream is kept alive because that’s the most important thing. In a business we tend to shoot ideas down – “you can’t afford that” or, “you can’t have that” – and I’ve never approached it that way, I never will. At the beginning of my career when I said, “you can’t get The Beatles”, or you can’t get this artist..I would then go and do it. You shouldn’t be surprised that artists want to be involved with good projects. Sometimes it’s not about a deal but it’s about art. I like to stay in that line because it makes me happy, it’s why I’m here, and yet I know there’s a business side of it that I understand very well.
Can you give us an example of when a high profile artist wanted to be involved in a project?
An example would be Adventureland. I loved working on that movie, I love working with Greg Mottola. There’s a scene where we had ‘Tops’ by The Rolling Stones where you meet Lisa P in the amusement park. I worked on that for 7 months and it was a low budget movie, it was an under 10 million dollar movie, but we got the song. I think we got it because firstly it was a song that hadn’t been used a lot before, but secondly because they (The Rolling Stones) loved Superbad, they thought Greg Mottola was a really interesting filmmaker, and I hope they liked me a little bit because I was in there fighting the good fight. And we got it – it was a high five moment. And years later when Rolling Stone released the “Top 25 Rock & Roll Moments in Film”, ‘Tops’ was up there.
What happens when you can’t get a song?
Once I was working on a documentary and there was a karaoke scene and this fine karaoke singer was singing ‘Purple Rain’. And this was when Prince was not known by his name but a symbol, and it’s very difficult to write a letter to a symbol! How do you address it? (laughs). So that was one where it was a really important song and we were trying to get to the artist directly, and while it didn’t work out in the end it’s those experiences that make you be creative. But it’s hard – filmmakers become attached to a song as part of their storytelling process. You’re right in there with them and you want to make it happen and when it doesn’t it’s difficult. You have to figure out how to move on – there will be another song and it will be ok.
You were Head of Film Music at Lionsgate for 5 years, what were your favourite projects there?
Many – being inside the studio you get to see a whole different way of working which is fantastic. Being involved in The Hunger Gameswas lightning in a bottle. Being a part of that and putting the music together and having a successful soundtrack album – it was really fun. And also seeing the passion from the fans of the book, in all the projects I had done I had never seen anything quite like that.
It was also a wonderful way of doing something a bit different. When we approached the artists we sent them the book, and it was wonderful to see artists and writers connect with a written word and then creating from that. Birdy, who was 15 years old at the time, wrote such a beautiful song from reading the book. It was great.
The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond was an album – it was curated and very meticulously put together by T Bone Burnett, and I really believe that magic shines through. Everything hung together and it was a musical journey. And for the fan you could hear, “Is that about Peeta?”, “Is that about Katniss?” For me it was a beautiful album not a compilation, and true to the book and just classy – I mean T Bone is the master – he’s an incredible artist and that really shines through. And it was nice to make that concept album – that’s really what I would call it. I think from the beginning we knew that we wanted to make an album that would be representivie of the world in the book.
The second album was different, I think that would be more of a compilation with a wide variety of artists – you go from Antony and the Johnsons to Christina Aguilera to Coldplay, you’re switching lanes. That’s great and that’s what creativity is about. When you’re on a project everything morphs as it moves along – you do a lot of brainstorming. The project might change shape or you realize your resources need to be reapplied in a different way, or you go to one artist and they’re expensive – it’s a puzzle. I look at supervision as a puzzle. You have a blank canvas in a way, you have a fund, and you have your creativity, and then everything has to fit into place.
I also worked on Now You See Me which was really, really fun – I love everything about that movie. Also What To Expect When You’re Expecting – it was great to see that phenomenon of a book come to life and I’m a huge Elizabeth Banks fan.
How would you describe the role of a music supervisor?
I think that people need to understand that with supervision it really is that fine line between creativity and business and you’ve got to have both, your brain has to move in both avenues. Because you can have great ideas but you also have to be able to execute them. The interesting part and what I love about it is that it’s never the same. Just when you think you’ve seen it all you see something different.
Is the dynamic nature of music supervision a big bonus for you?
It’s so much fun, and also the discoveries along the way and the journey of each project. Nobody knows everything about music because it’s this infinite discovery zone. So right now I’m on a movie that was shot in West Africa and I’m researching African traditional music. You’re moving into different worlds – it could be the Appalachian Mountains or 1960s New York City – and then you’ve got to map it out and find the cool stuff and the gems. It’s a great discovery zone.
How did you get involved in Selma?
I was brought on by the composer Jason Moran. I was overseeing the score in the producer role and making sure his journey was going the way he needed it to. So scoring sessions, working with the musicians, organizing and being that person who could help with the deals or help manage the budget and just being the anchor for that team. I was really honoured to be a part of Jason’s team and help him navigate that whole world. He’s an incredible musician and it was a pleasure. We all knew we were working on something special.
Can you tell us about your involvement in the Guild of Music Supervisors and Women in Film?
Well firstly, music supervision has been very very good to me – I don’t know if I could think of a cooler job. When the Guild of Music Supervisors formed and started gaining momentum it was great to see them championing the speciality of this role. When I started out there was nowhere to go, so to see 15/16 years later we have a Guild where people can come and ask questions, get advice, promote each other’s work, champion each other, it’s great. There’s not a college degree in music supervision that I know of anywhere, I know there’s classes in certain universities but you really need people to show you the ropes. Until you do it, you don’t know if you want to do it. So the Guild gets to help you with that. I’ve been involved for a year now and it’s an honour really just to do my piece.
I’m also on the board of Women in Film. My journey there started as an intern 18 years ago and it’s great to be back now and to be surrounded by a group of really smart, interesting women who are championing their cause. Women are still making 78 cents to the dollar, and women in Hollywood are not directing tentpole movies. Female composers also need a light – female composers in 2014 scored 1% of movies. So we all have to work together. There has to be a day when we’re not identified as a gender in a specific role – a female director, a female African American director. Hilary Clinton is a smart woman who’s running for president but she is a person running for president. Being on the board of Women in Film is wonderful, I’m starting a music committee and I’m so happy that I can be there.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring music supervisors?
Understand the role, read as much as you can, and then if it’s really something that you want to do start by becoming an intern – find filmmakers that you like, find projects that you’re passionate about. Pick a lane, stay in the lane, be passionate about the lane and your dreams will come true, because mine did.
We’d like to say a huge thanks to Tracy for taking the time to speak with us. You can listen to this interview and many others on our SynchStories podcast – listen via iTunes or on the podcast homepage.