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The Darjeeling Limited - Randall Poster interview

Randall Poster, music supervisor for The Darjeeling Limited

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RANDALL Poster, the music supervisor for all of Wes Anderson’s films (including The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums), talks about travelling to Calcutta for his own Indian odyssey as part of the preparation for the film.

He also talks about the difficulty of securing rights to use songs in films, his own personal favourite movie soundtracks and his own favourite albums and bands…

How did you become a music supervisor?
Randall Poster: When I was graduating from college my twin passions were music and movies. I always say that my three body passions were music, movies and girls but I could be more proactive with the other two [laughs]. So, some friends and I from college wrote a script about a college radio station and it was developed at the Sundance Institute and we decided to make this movie independently. It was called A Matter of Degrees and it came out in 1990 and we did a big soundtrack and recorded a lot of music. It was sort of at that time when what they were calling college radio became alternative music. So, we were really anchored with a lot of seminal bands of that period, The Pixies, Sonic Youth, and John Doe of [US punk rock band] X was in the movie.

At that point, I just felt that I really enjoyed that experience and felt also that what I really wanted to do was work with great film directors, so I sort of made that my focus. I didn’t come to music supervision having fallen from another vocation; I decided that would be really what I wanted to do and so have been pursuing that really diligently.

I guess meeting Wes Anderson was a dream come true for you?
Randall Poster: Well, that came at a time when Wes was just finishing Bottle Rocket, which I saw and nobody was really paying that much attention to. But something about it really triggered something inside of me and I helped him to then produce the soundtrack album for Bottle Rocket and we’ve been working together ever since. So, it’s been a really lovely collaboration and very rewarding on both a spiritual side and in terms of the music we’ve been able to chase, pursue and create over the course of the last number of years.

Was The Darjeeling Limited a particularly challenging one to pursue?
Randall Poster: I would say yes and no because at the outset of the project it was a really steep learning curve in terms of exposing ourselves to Indian film music that I wasn’t really familiar with and he really knew mostly from having watched some movies. So, there was a real challenge to just sort of gather the material because it wasn’t readily available. There were a lot of late nights trawling Ebay and trying to find archives.

Ultimately, Wes sent me to Calcutta where I had made a connection with the people at the Satyajit Ray Film Society. They turned over all of their archive to us, so that was really the most challenging part. But we went into it with a really strong sense of some of the pieces that we really wanted to use. Sorting out some of the Indian film rights and music rights was challenging and took us into some unknown territory. But I think we really sort of challenged ourselves to see if we could use pre-existing Indian film music, so that was very exciting.

Wes mentioned his own Indian adventure with [co-writers] Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, so was going to Calcutta your own little adventure?
Randall Poster: I was actually the only person who went to Calcutta. They were on the other side of India and so to be put down into this completely exotic and complex kind of city was really… at least I had a specific purpose, so I had some place to go and something I had to do. But it really helped to fuel my connection to the project and then after I finished working in Calcutta I went over and met them in Rajasthan and was on location for the first couple of days of the shoot. So I did get to have my own Indian experience that was both separate and parallel to the group’s.

So did that help to make the film more personal to you?
Randall Poster: I think so, yeah. I think that the film has a remarkably exotic quality that I got to see first hand. I would say, though, that really I feel a tremendous connection to Wes. He really does build bonds with the people that he works with. So, over the course of working with him on five films, I have a real kinship with a lot of the other people working on the movie. When people ask me: “Why does it work so well between you and Wes?” I point out that we really do a lot of work together between the movies and I think that we bring that to bear in the effort that we make together on the movies.

Is it rare to have that kind of relationship with a director?
Randall Poster: Yeah, it’s rare that films get made as deliberately as Wes makes them in the sense that he’s not really dependent on anybody else to create the material, or he’s not waiting for the studio to offer him something and the development process is on his own schedule, not on anybody else’s schedule. So that’s what’s really unique about it. There are other directors I’ve worked with over time who I’ve developed relationships with where I think that we benefit from that same kind of interaction tat goes on between the movies.

Is Todd Haynes another of those? Because you’ve also just worked on I’m Not There
Randall Poster: Yeah, I worked on I’m Not There and we worked on Velvet Goldmine. Todd, myself and Christine Vachon, who produced those two films, went to college together, so again that’s a very long-standing and deep connection.

I’d imagine it’s quite difficult to get the balance right where music works in tandem with the film rather than dominating it? How easy is it to strike that balance, because you seem to do it so well?
Randall Poster: I think your ability to do that is largely dependent on how good the movie is and on how good the filmmakers are. I always say… I’ve worked on almost 70 movies, young man that I am, and a lot of times there’ll be a movie that people go and see where they’ll come out and say: “Oh, the music was the best part!” It’s almost a little bit of an empty compliment by virtue of the fact that I think on a certain level the movie’s not working.

So, really it’s interesting and you have to keep your ego in check because sometimes the best effort that you make is one where you’ve done it with an invisible hand and people don’t necessary separate the music from the movie and just sort of feel like: “Oh really, that’s right, the music was great!” When that can happen I think in a good movie that’s a good sign. But there are certain situations where you want the music to pop and really render a strong impression.

What was the hardest song you’ve ever tried to get the rights to?
Randall Poster: Well, I think that when we did Rushmore we wanted to use some Cat Stevens songs and at that point Cat Stevens had stopped. For years, he had not been licensing his music to films. So, through persistent effort we were able to open that up and now he actively is licensing his catalogue. I think he was Yusuf Islam and he was looking to build schools around the world and so Wes and I said he should call one of those schools Rushmore – the Rushmore Islamic Academy, I think. I think we probably paid for half of one.

But it’s always challenging because what people don’t understand is that there’s two sides to every song – there’s the publishing and the recording that you want to use. A lot of times, particularly with pop muic, there’s a human element. So, sometimes there’s old history such as antagonisms within bands and old grudges that come to bear, so you really have to be a diplomat to make things work or amenable to different sides. That’s why it’s somebody’s job to do that.

What are some of the best examples of soundtracks you haven’t worked on?
Randall Poster: Um, I guess I talk about American Graffiti as being a soundtrack that was particularly impressive upon me. Quentin Tarantino does it really well. Lately, something that wasn’t so song-driven was the music that Pedro Almodovar uses. I find that to be really delightful and compelling.

How vast is your own record collection?
Randall Poster: It’s pretty vast. I’ve been collecting records for a long time and this new digital revolution has made access to certain things a lot easier. It’s very easy to get your hands on certain things. On the other hand, given the fact that I’ve been doing this for quite a while, everything pretty much comes my way. It’s great. I would say that music has really been my abiding passion and as long as I’ve been digging I’ve been discovering new things.

So, it’s something that has never disappointed me or let me down. Wherever I’ve turned I’ve found great things. I’ve been doing a lot of work on period dramas… I worked on The Aviator with Martin Scorsese and a lot of that is set in the ‘20s and ‘30s, which was music that I didn’t really have an encyclopaedic knowledge of. So, I really did a lot of research and was astounded by what was there and how rich the musical legacy was. That’s what’s so much fun about doing what I do – that you get to explore all these musical avenues that are filled with just such rich, great things.

Where do you stand on the whole CD versus vinyl debate? Is your collection mostly one or the other?
Randall Poster: It’s moved to CDs really. I lost a good portion of my record collection in a flood. But as far as listening to the music goes, I have all those things. Actually, now we’re moving from CDs to a place where you spend a lot of time just loading our libraries into a drive, which makes it so much easier in terms of just clicking and dragging something if you’re working with a movie. With QuickTime movies you really have great access to putting songs into a scene and really seeing how they work. Not so long ago, I used to travel around with suitcases filled with CDs. So that’s one thing that the digital revolution has really expadited the process in terms of what I do. But I’ll take music any way I can get it really. I always get into conversations with people who say: “Wow, you must have an incredible stereo system…” But to tell you the truth, at the moment at home I have an iPod with a little JDL speaker and a Hello Kitty boom box [laughs]. I’ll take it any way I can get it.

Do you miss trawling through record shops in search of hidden gems, though? Has some of the fun of finding music been taken away by having it so easy?
Randall Poster: I don’t know that it’s an either or situation. I don’t necessarily exploit all the values in vinyl. I miss the access to music stories. I used to live at Tower Records, so that’s been a big life change for me aside from what I do professionally. I used to really love spending time in record stores and there was always a certain amount of visual invitation that you would get from a new record or CD. I miss those invitations. All the albums that I bought because I thought they had cool covers took me into a place that I sometimes didn’t know I was going.

I also think I made my professional bones reading line notes, really. That was sort of my basic training to be a music supervisor – seeing all the names on the albums and all the details, remembering the publishers and the writers and things like that. You took something that was 12” and you made it 4” or whatever, so it’s not hard to see that there’s a certain diminishment of the experience because of that. But then again people are making vinyl again. What’s crazy is that something like I’m Not There – where I’d usually be the one fighting the record company to do this – they’re releasing that soundtrack as a four LP set on their own. So that’s cool. We got it in this week and I was kind of amazed by it. And again, as much as you can replicate the sound through digitized music, there’s something about that needle in the groove that somehow feels really warm and great. So, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away, I just think that people have to be reminded that it’s there for them to enjoy.

What are your favourite albums if you really had to pick them out?
Randall Poster: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, a record called Stormy Weather by a band called Thelonious Monster, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones probably, Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Neil Young… these aren’t exclusive, of course, because at any given moment there might be five others. But let’s say Los Angeles by a band called X.

And which are the bands that have influenced you the most?
Randall Poster: I was pretty much caught in the American punk rock revolution, if you could call it that. The Minutemen, The Pixies and X. I would say that the sort of “do it yourself” spirit of those bands were really influential on the way I try and sort of carry myself professionally. It’s sort of my abiding ambition to stay true to a certain musical spirit, really. I love so much music that it’s really hard to reduce it and it changes in the course of a week. But if you think about a record like Déjà Vu, all I can say about the Neil Young records is that I’ve been listening to them for 30-plus years and there’s something to be said that these things still have such tremendous vitality. They sort of connect you to who you were but also really help you see the world today.

b>Read our review of The Darjeeling Limited soundtrack