Name: Matt Biffa
Occupation: Music Supervisor
Bands/Projects: “Harry Potter”/ “Snatch”/ “Filth”/ “Seven Psychopaths”/ “Paddington”/ “Fresh Meat”
Film/series recommendations: “Breaking Bad”/ “American Hustle”
When did you start as a music supervisor and what were your early passions and influences? What drew you to film music in the first place?
My first ever job in the music was here at Air Edel, prior to that I was working on a landfill site driving a dump truck. I was about 26, which is old for the music industry, and I knew I wanted to get into the industry but I didn't have a clue about how to do it. I applied for an ad in The Guardian for a receptionist at a busy music production company. I didn't know what that was exactly, but it had the word 'music' in it so I thought well - what is there to lose?
I got the job. I didn't know there was such a job as a music supervisor so I had no ambition to become one. The head of production Peter Waygood realised by accident that I knew quite a lot about music, so he got me finding material for commercials. That's how I started putting music to picture. Back then, you worked on cassette, you had the visuals on U-matic and then you would use a pencil to cue the cassette, very much trial and error.
What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
An incisive moment was when I did my first proper film, called “Bodywork”. It starred Kate Winslet's sister Beth and that was a quiet, low pressure way to start. I was shown how to clear a song and sent on my way. When I did my next film, “Whatever Happened to Harold Smith" in 1999, it was a bigger feature and offered every aspect of the job that I could have hoped for. I was working with Gizz from the Prodigy to get original songs written. Harry Gregson-Williams scored the film so I was in the scoring sessions and all that kind of stuff. It was also a period film, set in 1977, that straddled disco and punk, so I did a lot of research into those genres and found myself clearing “Anarchy in UK” and “Night Fever”. At the time I cleared them for really low fees, which I didn't know at the time, but I have since learned that I'm quite good at that side of things. I made some mistakes on that film. I hadn't included the US in the “Anarchy in the UK” master clearance, and so had to get that done just before the final mix when the budget had already been firmly established. It could have been a disaster.
What were the main challenges in your role in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main challenge has always been that there's never enough money in the music budget. It used to be that you could get 150 grand or something like that to clear a set of songs, but now it can be as low as 20 or 40 and that's a dire situation. Everything comes back to budget.
With every film it's a battle between the director's ambitions and the reality of what can be achieved. Directors take a really poor view of you coming back to them and saying that the song has been denied because they want another 20 thousand more than we have.
There are some estates that never undersell or undervalue their music. The Irving Berlin estate for example are very savvy, they know the value of key copyrights. Led Zeppelin will also never undersell their catalogue. But there are other bands who are really helpful and will take the view that if they like the project, then they're open to a good deal.
Other times there are things like copyright disputes where one publisher says they have 75% of the copyright and another publisher is claiming 50%, which doesn't tally. What you should be able to do is get approval, put the money into an escrow account, let them fight it out and when they've decided who gets what, they can take the payment. But it never works like that because it can create a precedent where someone is admitting that they might have the wrong share, and when that's been admitted then they're open to more disputes about ownerships.
From a creative perspective, the challenges are very different. It's very difficult to articulate what you want when it comes to music. People use their hands a lot when they talk about music. You have to learn how to translate what it actually is that someone is asking a piece of music to do. That's half the battle. To that end, from a creative perspective, I always follow the brief and do what I'm told, but then I like to throw in things that are totally outside of that which may or may not work. The reason I do that is because very often, you have a preconception in your mind about what's going to work, but actually you've never considered this other avenue which might work out much better. What I suggest might not work, but it could spark other ideas and accidents.
In the past, I've had a song cued up for a scene and the tape op started playing it at the wrong time and actually it ended up being much better. And other times a different song might come on from what you've asked, and yet it works out to be a better choice. You have to leave everything open.
What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? Should film music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should have it an intrinsic value outside of the movies?
Very simply the main function of soundtrack and film music is to help tell the story. There shouldn't be any other agenda.
There are certain outside influences that affect the choice. Sometimes if a publisher knows you can't afford the song you want, they offer you a bulk deal to use more stuff from their catalogue, so you can spread the cost across the movie as a whole. That's all well and good but you can't really commit to that sort of thing because creatively, it's too limiting. In these synergistic times that we're living in, a label might offer to do the soundtrack but then we're tied into that label's roster and then it becomes their agenda in terms of pushing their key artists and so on, and that might not be right for the film.
If you're doing a good job, then things will have resonance outside the film anyway. Off the top of my head, “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel has got an entirely new meaning as a result of “Reservoir Dogs”. But it's also front and centre, and absolutely intrinsic to the movie. So you can't put a cigarette paper between the song and the film in that respect, and yet it's then gone on to have another life outside of it.
Can you describe your working relationship with the score composer? Who takes the lead in terms of tone/style? How do you decide when extant tracks or original music should be used?
Scores are not my area of expertise, but I do work with composers. We'll sit down with the producer and director, and the director will say "I want Jonny Greenwood" because I think virtually every meeting on virtually every film that I’ve ever worked on, nine times out of ten, everybody says they want Jonny.
We'll put together some ideas and then we'll look into who's available, and then we talk about money, and what the publishing situation is on the score and all that sort of stuff.
In terms of taking the lead on the tone and the style, that's very much a collaboration. I've done films where we're told what to clear, and you're really just the clearance person. But the more satisfying jobs are when you have a meaningful, creative collaboration with the director, the producer and the composer.
Sometimes the composer and I will duel it out for a particular scene. The composer will write something, I'll put some selections together for it and then we'll sit there and watch and listen and decide what's best. Sometimes a song can say the wrong thing. It could be too cheesy, or too on the nose, or it might explain too much. The scene might need something more ambiguous.
At what point in the production of the film do you get involved, who decides and how are you guided in terms of what music is right for the tone of the film?
It can vary. The best time to get involved is preproduction when the script is being finessed, or during production. The earlier the better. Things always take longer than you think, and it's always more expensive than you think. So the more time you have, the better. What you don't want is the editor and the director to be in the editing suite for three weeks putting all the songs that they want into a film with no consideration for the cost, because what happens is everybody becomes really attached to the temp tracks. And then when it can't clear because of a dispute or because someone's committed suicide, you can't use it. The worse time to come in is a month before the final mix, where everybody's in love with everything and then you come along and tell them they can't have that and everyone hates you.
However, while a director might be adamant that 'this is the only song for this scene' by and large, actually there's never only one piece of music for one scene. Although it is hard to imagine anything other than “The End” at the beginning of “Apocalypse Now”. In my experience I've always been able to find stuff that worked as well, if not better than what was originally requested.
Could you describe your process on the basis of a soundtrack that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas? How much of this process is based on a system, how much is serendipity?
“Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows Part 1” is particularly dear to me because I was going through a personally traumatic time in my life. It's a dark film, but there's this moment of lightness when Harry and Hermione dance together in the tent. The scene needed poignancy, so you couldn't throw in some harmless fizzy pop. It was a muggle station that the song was playing on, so technically it could've been anything.
The process for finding a song for a scene like that, is not so different to how I work with any other scene, which is to sort of start from my memory, go through my library and hurl stuff into a playlist. I always make an overall playlist for the film or the series, and then as we go through it I'll break it down into individual scenes and create playlists for those. Then I'll go through my library and search some keywords maybe. Then I'll go away and let things comes to me. Ideas come to me usually at two or three in the morning when I'm not thinking about it and I'll jolt awake with an idea. Or I might be driving along in the car or watching TV and something will come on and that will set me off. It might not be that exact song but it might be something in that genre or from that artist's catalogue and I'll be reminded of something.
So from a large playlist, I go through and edit it. Sometimes the songs I thought were a very, very good idea at the time, are actually a load of crap, and that happens quite a lot. In the case of Harry Potter, I'd been sitting on “O Children” for a while. I absolutely knew that I wanted to use that song, it was such a good track that I knew it had to have the perfect scene. So this opportunity came along and just from reading the script it was one of the first few songs that I thought of. It was the fourth song on the first of nine playlists. There was some Radiohead in there. The weird thing about Radiohead is that virtually every single scene that's ever been shot in the world, would always look good with a Radiohead song. They're just one of those bands. But they were too well known for this scene. I considered other Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds songs like “Bless His Ever Loving Heart” and “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”, I considered Beck, “This is a Low” by Blur, “Into the Hollow” by Queens of the Stone Age as well.