How Wes Anderson Soundtracks His Movies

May 24, 2012
Originally published on May 24, 2012 4:28 pm

If you see the new Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom, you'll hear background music from composers Benjamin Britten and Alexandre Desplat, as well as several songs from Hank Williams.

How those songs ended up in the movie is partly the work of music supervisor Randall Poster, who works with Anderson to help find and license music that helps add nuance and emotional depth to each scene.

Poster is one of the best-known music supervisors in the movie industry. His credits include indie films like The Darjeeling Limited and Rushmore and blockbusters like The Aviator, Meet the Parents and The Nanny Diaries. For The Royal Tenenbaums, Poster tracked down "These Days" by Nico and "Needle in the Hay" by Elliott Smith. For The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, it was Poster who helped Anderson pick out the David Bowie covers by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge.

Creating a musical identity for films means working closely with directors to understand the nuances of each scene, Poster tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"I just stand by [Anderson] and help him put mortar on the bricks and come at him with musical ideas and listen to what he has to say and read the scripts as they evolve, and we sort of take it from there and keep going," Poster says. "I don't know that we've ever stopped working since we started [shortly after Bottle Rocket]. We're just trying to make music and trying to bring great music to it and make this our life together. That's how we go."

Anderson and Poster met in Los Angeles through a mutual friend. While walking around a farmer's market, Anderson told Poster about a piece of music that he wanted to use for Bottle Rocket but couldn't because of a rights issue.

"I was so smitten with the film that I basically promised to get any piece of music that he ever wanted to use in a movie," Poster says. "And that kicked us off."

Part of Poster's job is to acquire licensing rights for songs used in the movies he works on. That's a difficult task, he says.

"You have to deal with the creators, the publishers on each song," he says. "Sometimes you're dealing with bands where the guys in the band haven't talked to each other, or there's history and animosity, or there's a member of the band who doesn't want the music used. Humanity enters into each situation, so it can get complicated and messy, but we do pretty well."

Interview Highlights

On how Poster files music

"It's a bit of a mess. I have to say I try my best to put things in terms of era or genre. But it's a bit overwhelming. So I would say if anyone has any kind of great idea for filing or categorizing, this is an SOS. But the work I do on Boardwalk Empire, I try to collect as much as I can by period or by group or artist — or actually, year by year is critical in that scenario."

On the song he's happiest about introducing to a mass audience

"I would say Cat Stevens' "Here Comes My Baby" in Rushmore is a song that I'm really happy that we were able to bring to a film audience. Up to that point, Cat Stevens had stopped licensing his music, and we had "Here Comes My Baby" and "The Wind" in Rushmore, and I was really pleased we were able to make that work out and make him comfortable. That was the first time he allowed his music to be used in a film in many years. ... I think it's one of those iconic Wes Anderson cinematic moments that I think will thrill people forever."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Lots of movies and TV shows use pre-existing recordings on their soundtracks. My guest, Randall Poster, is a music supervisor, which means he helps choose the recordings that will be used and then has to negotiate the licensing rights to use them. He's been the music supervisor on Wes Anderson's films, including "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and the new one, "Moonrise Kingdom," which opens in select cities Friday.

One of the pleasures of Anderson's films is the way in which the music connects to the characters, plot, and mood. Randall Poster has also worked on the soundtracks of "School of Rock," "Boardwalk Empire" and Martin Scorsese's films "Hugo" and "The Aviator."

The new film, "Moonrise Kingdom," is set in 1965 and is about two 12-year-olds who fall in love and make a pact to run off together. The boy sneaks out of Khaki Scout Camp. The girl leaves home. The film contrasts the children with the adult who have tried to guide them and are now trying to find them.

Here's one of the key recordings used in the film, Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Lots of children have learned about symphonic music through this now classic recording from the 1960s.


UNIDENTIFIED BOY: In order to show you how a big symphony orchestra is put together, Benjamin Britten has written a big piece of music which is made up of smaller pieces that show you all the separate parts of the orchestra. These smaller pieces are called variations, which means different ways of playing the same tune.

First of all, he lets us hear the tune or the theme, which is a beautiful melody by the much older British composer, Henry Purcell. Here is Purcell's theme played by the whole orchestra together.


UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Now Mr. Britten lets you hear the four different families of the orchestra playing the same Purcell theme in different ways. First we hear the woodwind family: the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets and the bassoons.


UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Here comes the brass family: the trumpets, the horns, the trombones and tuba.


GROSS: That's Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It's on the soundtrack of the new Wes Anderson film, "Moonrise Kingdom."

Randall Poster, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the things I love about the use of this music in the movie is that the movie is about young people, like two young - a young boy and girl who like fall in love and have this like secret relationship and run away together. And then there's the adults and the adults' lives are just like falling apart, they're messes, but nevertheless they're trying to guide the young people and not doing a very good job of it.

And so "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," it's kind of like, OK, children, here's the woodwind section. Here's how the brass works. Here's how the strings work. And here's what it's like when your mother has an affair.


GROSS: That's kind of like what the movie is, you know what I mean?

POSTER: Yeah. I think the movie, you know, I think the movie in a sense is kind of a young person's guide to life.

GROSS: Exactly. Yeah.

POSTER: And I think that the Leonard Bernstein and "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" is maybe an initiation to that part of a, say, a sentimental education. So you know, I think you're very right to say that "The Young Person's Guide" is - looms larger over our story than simply being some musical interludes.

GROSS: Another main character musically in the soundtrack is Hank Williams. There's several Hank Williams songs that are used, the great country singer.

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: And it's such a great contrast. I think it's perfect in its own way. And here's what it did for me watching the movie. You know, the Benjamin Britten music, there's something so just kind of like majestic. And then Hank Williams, they're all songs about being broken.

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: You know, like you're drunk, you're cheating, you're rambling, you know, somebody's cheating on you, you can't sleep, and things are never going well. And so "The Young People's Guide" and stuff, it's like the young people just like learning life and still being excited by it. And the Hank Williams, that strikes me as like the adult songs, like after they're broken and things have gone really wrong for them.

POSTER: Well, in a way sort of Hank Williams and kind of the emotional intensity of the Hank Williams songs, I think they kind of provide adults with a bit of a context and a framework in which to kind of hang their own feelings too. You know, I think all these great - some of the great popular songs, they endure because emotionally we connect to them and they speak to us and they help guide us through the troubles in our own lives. So maybe Hank Williams is providing that kind of adult education, say, that maybe mirrors some of the more naive instructional music that we hear in the film.

You know, it really is so kind of refreshing and surprising, I think, when people first hear the Hank Williams in the film. And really, that came from, I went on a set visit, as Wes was beginning to shoot the movie, and basically it was like, well, I'm thinking maybe about we should use some Hank Williams. And then as we do, we kind of gathered all of Hank Williams and then we said, well, let's listen to a little bit of Lefty Frizzell or let's listen to a little bit of Ferlin Husky and it just, it was basically - it's like Hank was our man and it just seemed, it stuck, and married it really to Bruce Willis's character and it gets plotted throughout the film.

And it was interesting. When I - I had done some work a year or so ago in Nashville and got to know some of the people down there who we had to deal with to get the rights to all the Hank Williams, and when I went to them at first and said I think we're going to use seven Hank Williams' songs, they were kind of - they just turned around, sort of like, really? Seven Hank Williams songs? So I don't know that there's a movie that's used more Hank Williams songs than maybe "The Hank Williams Story"...


POSTER: ...which is kind of fun and a treat.

GROSS: Some of the Hank Williams songs are used in the scenes with Bruce Willis, who is the sheriff and he's a lonely guy but he's having an affair with somebody he probably shouldn't be having an affair with. I don't want to give too much away here. And so one of the songs that you use is "Ramblin' Man." You want to listen to it?


GROSS: OK. So this is Hank Williams, "Ramblin' Man," and it's on the soundtrack of the new Wes Anderson movie, "Moonrise Kingdom."


HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) I can settle down and be doin' just fine. Til I hear an old freight rollin' down the line. Then I hurry straight home and pack and if I didn't go, I believe I' blow my stack. I love you baby, but you gotta understand. When the lord made me, he made a ramblin' man. Some folks might say...

GROSS: That's Hank Williams as used on the soundtrack of the new Wes Anderson film "Moonrise Kingdom." And my guest, Randall Poster is the music supervisor for that film, and he's had the same job for all of Wes Anderson's movies.

So let's talk about another Wes Anderson film you worked on, "Fantastic Mr. Fox," which is a wonderful animated film about a family of foxes, and when - who are endangered both on the dysfunctional family level and on the enemy animals out to get them and enemy humans out to get them level. And at the end of the film, you use a great recording called "Let Her Dance" by The Bobby Fuller Four. It's from the mid '60s, and that group was most famous for the iconic song "I Fought the Law and the Law Won."

How did you decide to use this record at the end of the movie?

POSTER: Well, this is one of those sort of special scenarios. That song that I played for Wes probably 10 years ago, and when we played it, we basically, we were listening to it, he said, you know, let's put this one away, let's lock it up in the safe. And so we had it and we'd been carrying it all these years and then finally there was the opportunity at the end of the movie to use Bobby Fuller. So Wes and I, we're always working, and so - and we're always sharing music and we find something and we sort of tag it and say, OK, this is something that we know we want to use somewhere, some day, and good fortune smiles upon us and we find what we think is the perfect moment. And so that's how Bobby Fuller's "Let Her Dance" ended up in "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

GROSS: So I want to play it. And I'll just like describe the scene. This is the end of the movie. Mr. Fox, played by George Clooney, in a voice by George Clooney, is in the supermarket and all the rest of the family foxes are there too. And so, you know, Mr. Fox is toasting about how they've survived and they're going to survive, and even all the supermarket food that they have to eat now is fake food...


POSTER: Right.

GROSS: ...they can make it work. And then they just all break out into this dance in the supermarket. And, of course, it's all animated. It's all beautifully animated. And so here is the song they dance to. This is The Bobby Fuller Four.


THE BOBBY FULLER FOUR: (Singing) Well, there she goes with a brand new love affair. Dancing with him like she don't even care. Well, let her dance, just let her dance all night long. Dance. Let her dance. Let her dance, dance, dance. Let her dance. Let her dance. Let her dance, dance, dance. Well, who would've known that just yesterday, hey, she danced with me the very same way. Well, let her dance with him. Let her dance all night long. Dance. Let her dance. Let her dance, dance, dance. Let her dance. Let her dance. Let her dance, dance, dance. Well, let her dance...

GROSS: So that's "Let Her Dance," The Bobby Fuller Four, which was used on the soundtrack of the Wes Anderson animated film "Fantastic Mr. Fox." My guest, Randall Poster, was the music supervisor on that film. He's the music supervisor on Anderson's new movie, "Moonrise Kingdom," which is about to open.

So does it bother you that the lyric in "Let Her Dance" is really about jealousy? You know, let her dance with him all night long. Let her dance to our favorite song. You know, just yesterday she danced with me the same way. How literally do you take the lyrics when you're fitting them into a movie?

POSTER: You know, it just feels, it just felt so right. I mean when you put it to picture...

GROSS: I mean all the foxes are dancing to this.

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: But the lyrics themselves are about, you know, jealousy and a guy whose girl is with another guy.

POSTER: You know, I think maybe in that circumstance, I think that we felt a connection because it just, again, is humanizing these animals. And so like I think it kind of imbues them with a human complexity. And so I guess the answer to that is that to a certain degree there is an emotional correctness that sort of trumps lyric literalness.

GROSS: My guest is Randall Poster. We'll talk more about choosing music for movies after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Randall Poster, a music supervisor for movies and TV shows. He's collaborated with Wes Anderson on all of his films, including the new one, "Moonrise Kingdom."

One of the Wes Anderson films that you worked on was "The Royal Tenenbaums," a wonderful film about a very dysfunctional family with a brother and sister who are in love. And you've said that the idea originated with two lines that the Wes Anderson had written out on a slip of paper - a slip of paper you still have.

POSTER: I still have it. Yeah.

GROSS: What do those two lines say?

POSTER: Richie Tenenbaum steps out holding his tennis bag, wearing a Bjorn Borg head band.

GROSS: Wow. Would I never have thought this is going to be a great movie based on...


GROSS: ...on those two lines. And Richie Tenenbaum was played by Luke Wilson...

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: ...very effectively. And so when he gave you those two lines...

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: ...he told you that he was going to build a film around it. What did he tell you that he was looking for musically?

POSTER: Well, in terms of that scene where Richie Tenenbaum - where we see Richie Tenenbaum when he arrives back from his travels abroad trying to erase Margot Tenenbaum from his mind, we use "These Days" by Nico, which I think is really probably one of the most iconic moments in Wes' movies musically.

GROSS: So let's hear it. This is Nico doing "These Days," the Jackson Brown song.


NEKO: (Singing) I've been out walking. I don't do too much talking these days. Hmm, these days. These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do, and all the times I had a chance to.

GROSS: That's Nico singing the Jackson Brown song "These Days." It's on the soundtrack of the Wes Anderson film, "The Royal Tenenbaums." My guest, Randall Poster, was the music supervisor for that film and all of Wes Anderson's films with the exception of Anderson's first "Bottle Rocket." But Randall Poster co-produced the soundtrack for the album of that film. Tell us how you first met Wes Anderson.

POSTER: Wes was living in Los Angeles and I'm a native New Yorker and was living in New York. And I was out in L.A. working on something and there was a person who was working at a record company, I guess, who had met Wes and just felt like we should meet, and introduced us. And basically we met one day at the farmers' market in Los Angeles and we started to talk about movies and music.

And I think Wes said something to the effect that there was a piece of music maybe that he wanted to use in "Bottle Rocket" and he wasn't able to. They weren't able to afford it or they weren't able to get the rights. And I was so smitten with the film that I basically promised that I would do everything I could to get any piece of music he ever wanted to use in a movie.

GROSS: So, part of your job is to get the licensing rights...

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: ...for the music that you use.

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: How hard is that? I mean, you've used music by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It probably doesn't get much harder than that.

POSTER: It can be difficult. I mean, you know, you have to - for those people who don't understand the process, each piece of music is - there isn't like a bluebook where you can just go in and order these things up. You have to deal with the creators or the publishers on each song. And each song, there's both the song, the composition and the recording that have to be negotiated for. So it can be complicated.

Sometimes you're dealing with bands where guys in the band haven't talked to each other or there's history and animosity that they don't want the music used as sort of one member of the band punishing another or - humanity answers into each situation. So, it can get complicated and it can be messy, but we've been able to do pretty well.

GROSS: Give me a sense of what you said to the Rolling Stones' people the first time when it was a very small budget and you wanted one of their songs. Because you've used their songs in most of the Wes Anderson films.

POSTER: Right. Well, we put our records out actually now on Abco Records. The last three records have come out on Abco which is, you know, which holds a good portion of the Rolling Stones' catalog. And so, I've sometimes said that the Rolling Stones have sort of become our house band a little bit.

I think that they've really been pleased with the way that Wes has used their music. And I would say, just to answer the question, the first question about what do you say, is that on the first movie we paid. We paid. We paid the piper.

GROSS: What was the song? Why did you want it so badly? And how is it used in the movie? And then we'll hear it.

POSTER: The first Rolling Stones song that I cleared for Wes - in "Rushmore," the Rolling Stones' "I Am Waiting" plays and it's a point where Max Fischer is in transition and is sort of at his lowest moment. It's just so...

GROSS: Max Fischer is the high school kid.

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: Yeah.

POSTER: Right. Played by Jason Schwartzman who's also...

GROSS: In his first role.

POSTER: ...cousin Ben in "Moonrise Kingdom." And it's just this really sad and beautiful moment and really helps Max shed some of his fantasies and sort of take on life in a more straightforward way. And I guess it's his moment where he - it's one of those moments in the film where Max grows up.

GROSS: So this is the Rolling Stones song that was used in the Wes Anderson film "Rushmore." And my guest, Randall Poster, is a music supervisor who has worked on all of Wes Anderson's movies.


ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I am waiting. I am waiting all year, all year. I am waiting. I am waiting all year, all year. Waiting for someone to come out of somewhere. Waiting for someone to come out of somewhere. You can't hold out. You can't hold out. All year, all year. You can't hold out. You can't hold out. All year, all year. Waiting for someone to come out of somewhere. Waiting for someone to come out of somewhere. See it come along, and don't know where it's from. Oh, yes, you will find out. Well, it happens all the time. It's censored from our minds. You'll find out. Slow or fast. Slow...

GROSS: That's "I Am Waiting" by the Rolling Stones, which was used in the film "Rushmore." My guest Randall Poster was music supervisor for that film. He's also music supervisor for Wes Anderson's new movie "Moonrise Kingdom." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Randall Poster, a music supervisor for movies and TV shows. He's collaborated with Wes Anderson on all his films, including the new one "Moonrise Kingdom."

So how did you first fall in love with music? And what's that music that's in your genetic makeup, the music that you first heard that made an impression on you and that's like the deepest grooves in your brain?

POSTER: You know, I think I would probably say - this may be surprising but it may be Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells A Story" with "Maggie May" on that record. It was maybe the record that - it was the first thing that I ever thought was really mine.

GROSS: And how old were you and why was it yours?

POSTER: I think I must have been around nine years old and I think I - nine or 10 years old and "Maggie May" I guess was on the radio. That was, I guess, the year of "Maggie May" and Don McLean's "American Pie." And I went and I, you know, discovered that you could buy LPs. And I went and I gathered some allowance money and I think that was really the first record that I bought.

Actually the first record, the first single I bought was "Laughing" by the Guess Who. And then the first LP I bought was "Every Picture Tells A Story" by Rod Stewart.

GROSS: When FRESH AIR was a local show, I used to open it every day with an early jazz recording, something from the '20s, '30s, or '40s, something that was like really lively, a great curtain opener like Fletcher Henderson.

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: Or early Louis Armstrong. And so my filing system was years was pre-World War II and post-World War II.


POSTER: Right.

GROSS: Because I knew I needed a lot of that really early that I'd want to play for the opening of the show. What's your filing system like? Is it just like alphabetical on your computer or however you store it? Or do you have like different categories, knowing that there's different emotions you'll want to refer to them for?

POSTER: It's a bit of a mess, I have to say. You know, I try my best to put things in terms of era or genre, but it's a bit overwhelming. But, you know, again, it's like, for instance, the work that I do on "Boardwalk Empire," I mean, there's where I just sort of get it together by period and by, say, group or artist or, you know, actually year by year is kind of critical in that scenario.

GROSS: You lost a lot of your records and I assume this is like vinyl albums.

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: In a flood.


GROSS: Which I should, not to dwell on this, but a flood is at the center of the new movie that you did, "Moonrise Kingdom."

POSTER: Right.

GROSS: So you could relate to a flood.


GROSS: So how much did you lose and what was the flood?

POSTER: Well, you know, I'd been carting crates of records, you know, to school and across the country and back and forth over the years. And then I moved into a house and had these things in a garage and there was a flood and I probably lost about 80 percent of my records. I really tried not to let it devastate me. And I put it back together for the most part, but it was a bit sad.

GROSS: Is there still a record that you're looking for that you lost, then?

POSTER: Well, you know what, I'm still looking - if I can get a mint copy of Neil Young's "On the Beach" that has the floral inner sleeve, that would be good. I still haven't found the perfect one.

GROSS: OK. Thank you so much for talking with us.

POSTER: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: Randall Poster is the music supervisor for Wes Anderson's films, including the new one, "Moonrise Kingdom," which opens in select cities Friday.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.