Interview with Music Supervisor Brian McNelis

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At the sync summit last month I was lucky enough to have a chat with Brian McNelis, the Senior Vice President of Music and Soundtracks at Lakeshore Entertainment. He’s music supervised and produced soundtracks for films including Drive, Underworld, and The Lincoln Lawyer.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got into music supervision and how you got involved with Lakeshore Entertainment?

I originally got into music supervision producing a music documentary film. I actually worked with three music supervisors, and I didn’t really think I was doing music supervision myself but as the producer of a documentary you are kind of doing a little bit of everything. Sometime after that I was hired at Lakeshore to run the day-to-day of the record label and they invited me to work on the films. The first film I have a music supervision credit on is The Last Kiss. Working at Lakeshore has been the best experience of my life, second only to meeting my wife.

It’s a great soundtrack

Thank you. Truth be told Zach Braff had a large influence on the music in the film. It was his first film after Garden State and it was really great working with him. He didn’t direct Last Kiss, he was an actor, but obviously knowing what a huge music fan he is, it was really a great experience.  So that was the first official music supervision job I did. I’ve done most of Lakeshore’s films since then with Eric Craig my music supervising partner at Lakeshore Records.

I wanted to talk to you about Drive because I love the soundtrack. Was it you that found Cliff Martinez?

There are lot of great and wonderful composers that had been considered for Drive. Cliff and I had just finished working on The Lincoln Lawyer where we worked pretty closely. Cliff has a one-of-a-kind instrument called the Cristal Baschet. It is made by French instrument makers and artists Benard and Francois Baschet. The Drive temp score had a lot ambient processed loops and pads. If you hear the Cristal Baschet being played it’s an even more pure expression of that kind of sound because it’s not processed in any way – it’s just the crystals vibrating.

I had shown a video of an interview we did with Cliff to the film’s producers and they saw him playing the Cristal Baschet and that got everyone really excited. In film music circles Cliff’s score for Solaris is considered by many to be one of the high watermarks for ambient film scores.

How did you go about finding those artists/songs such as Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’?

The goal on every film is to preserve the intention of the director. It’s always a team effort. When you’re supervising a film you’re not necessarily the one who is bringing in and discovering all the music. The Chromatics, College and Desire were temped in by the director who had a prior relationship with Johnny Jewel. We were already familiar with Kavinsky as we had already licensed ‘Nightcall’ for The Lincoln Lawyer, but it’s a different part of the song than the part that’s used during the title sequence of Drive.

In the canal scene we were asked to try more options. Filmmakers always want to explore options to see if we can make the scene better. We put in about 70 songs including songs by LCD Soundsystem, Alt-Ctrl-Sleep, and an M83 track. It was one of those scenes where lots of songs worked really well, but at the end of the day ‘A Real Hero’ was hard to beat, especially with the lyrics.

I guess that’s an example of when a budget limitation was beneficial creatively?

I know that there were some very big artists was temped into at least one scene, and some of these artists rarely clear stuff for movies and when they do it’s extremely expensive. I think that Drive is an example of how creative limitations can be very positive. But at the same time music can make one film into a completely different film, so it’s always a balance. In the end I think everyone was very happy with the outcome.

You’ve spoken quite passionately before about artist’s rights and what musicians can do to help themselves. What advice can you give?

I think that artists have been slow to engage in public conversation about the value of their work, and the things that are devaluing that work such as ad-funded piracy. All these pirate sites are funded by advertising – it’s not kids in bedrooms sharing, it’s corporations in boardrooms profiting. Ad-funded piracy is creating all the downward pressure; it reduces record sales, which then pushes people into getting more aggressive about sync licensing fees. Then, the more people that get into sync, the more the prices are depressed.

Prior to rampant online piracy a lot of artists, especially larger artists, just wouldn’t do syncs. They didn’t want the money. However, as many saw their revenue streams dissipating they started looking for other places to make up for that lost income. Because these artists have the command in the marketplace they’re the first ones to get a shot at the premium sync placements. So it’s made it difficult for smaller artists to get those placements and fees.

What are your sources and methods for music discovery?

A large part of it is what I seek out personally for my own enjoyment. Sometimes that music that ends up in our films, but a lot of times it does not. One of the great things about the job is that a lot of it is research based as every director and every project has its own needs. It’s like when I was working in a record store, you didn’t need to know everything because your customers would educate you. Films are really the same way. An exciting part of the job for me is that we get to research and we get to learn.

There was a film I was working on recently and a producer mentioned an artist named Wayne Cochran who I hadn’t heard of. He was a guy with a pompadour hairdo and a 12-piece rhythm and blues band, it was the 70’s (I think) and he was inspired by James Brown. It’s the craziest thing I’d ever seen in my life! So it was great to learn about that and it to my knowledge base and repertoire.

Are there any artists you’re particularly excited about at the moment?

The stuff I’m personally most excited about is ambient instrumental guitar music. I’m really into This Will Destroy You, Explosions In The Sky, Lanterna, Startle The Heavens. The more ambient, experimental processed guitar kind of stuff. I like hearing music that has its own intention and maybe not the obvious one. I’m loving Squrl at the moment.

What project do you wish you’d worked on as a music supervisor?

Sometimes I watch films from the 80′s and early 90′s on TV and I just go “wow, that would have been amazing”. I think that if I had my choice it would have been working with Tangerine Dream on films like Risky Business or Thief or Sorcerer.

I would have loved to have been a PA on Purple Rain, just to have been there. Valley Girl – I would have loved to have been the supervisor for Valley Girl. For me it was a very seminal soundtrack growing up in the 80′s. It wasn’t just the soundtrack to Valley Girl it was the soundtrack to suburban life; there was Punk Rock and then there was New Wave.

It must be hard for you to switch off when you watch a film!

Yeah, you definitely always have one ear out. Sometimes I look at scenes and think, “that’s amazing, I wonder what the story is behind that”.

Can you tell me about any upcoming projects?

We just wrapped Song One, the new Anne Hathaway film, and it’ll be coming out soon. It’s a love letter to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn music scene and the culture there. I think it’s really going to speak to this generation about their references in the way that Garden State and Lost in Translation did a decade ago. So that’s really exciting.

Walk of Shame is coming up – it’s a great fun comedy! I’m currently working on The Vatican Tapes which is a satanic possession horror movie. Those are fun, especially when a composer really nails a spot and you can see the audience jump. Joe Bishara really did an amazing job.

What is your favourite film soundtrack?

I would say Sling Blade is way up there. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Lanois. I love his guitar sound and his first solo album ‘Acadie’, it unscrewed my head and changed my consciousness around music. The Birdy soundtrack is another one of my favourites which features Peter Gabriel tracks that were reinterpreted by Daniel Lanois. So I would say Birdy and Sling Blade are two of my absolute favourite film soundtracks.

Huge thanks to Brian for such a fantastic and insightful interview.

E x

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