'Handmaid's Tale' Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips on Secret Character Playlists, Gilead's Contraband Vinyl & The Songs That Got Away

Courtesy of Impact24 PR
Maggie Phillips

The music supervisor is a key decision-maker in creating some of television’s most lingering, pointed moments. Think about how the Breaking Bad finale would have felt without Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” It’s unpredictably beautiful when a soundtrack hits the mark just so. At the same time, a lazy musical selection can undermine a scene’s effectiveness; think about every single overuse of every version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” ever.

Maggie Phillips is the music supervisor for season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, coming to Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 4. Phillips is the brain behind some of the most inspired, haunting Handmaid’s sequences -- from Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” in the season 2 premiere’s mock-hanging scene, to X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours” after the bombing in episode 6, to Annie Lennox's “Walking  on Broken Glass” as a frenetic counterpoint to Emily’s fear in the finale.

Billboard caught up with Phillips to discuss the creative process that brought her to some of The Handmaid’s Tale's most searing moments.

My first question is kind of off the wall, but it’s something I was curious about from episode 8: How did you decide that Serena Joy was a Motown fan?

We went through a lot of options for that spot. We figured that it’s not Serena Joy’s album collection. It was either the Commander’s or maybe her parents’. Or his parents'. We thought that all her stuff would have been burned or confiscated and the only people who would have maybe been able to hide their collections would have been the Commander. Would he have saved some of their parents records, or would he be a Motown fan? We already established he was a jazz fan. So that was the thinking.

I would have expected the Waterfords to be into Christian choral music, but I saw her pick that Commodores record out, and Commander Fred plays blues at one point, when he’s alone in his office. I’ve always found it to be a kick in the gut that they like pieces of our popular culture and that they could have participated in that before Gilead, but it failed to have any mitigating influence on their worldviews.

Exactly. Well, that’s the thing about the Commander. You wonder what kind of man he was before. And same with Serena Joy. Everyone had a different opinion of what he was like before. I kind of pictured him as an over-intellectual -- and this is not the view of the show, this is my view. I see him as the one in the couple that could have been a collector, or a little bit of a nerd, intellectual, so he would be the one in the couple that would have collected records. Whether or not they were his collection, or something that he held onto as something important to him from his past. I still have my parents’ records. And yeah, I think he has to have some sort of soul.

Yeah, and that also goes into our world. I don’t want to say, “Conservatives don’t like music.”

Even if it’s nonsensical what they listen to. Soul music and blues and jazz -- I mean, you would hope that the plight of some of the people that sang and produced that music would rub off on these people, but no, it doesn’t. And you see that all the time with music. People appropriate it and look into it without knowing what went into it, or what the origin or history was.

Do you decide what music the characters are into when they make a musical selection in the show, or is that more [showrunner] Bruce Miller?

It depends on the character. If it’s June, you know, Lizzy [Handmaid's star Elisabeth Moss] has some opinions and Bruce has some opinions and I have some opinions and the writers... it’s a committee. Ultimately, it’s Bruce’s decision. He makes the final call.

Is June a Velvet Underground fan?

Yeah. I mean, she sings [“I’ll Be Your Mirror] to her child. Wherever it came from in the past came to her in that moment, and she sang it. I do see her as someone who has a little of an eclectic, cool taste, like a lot of women her age. She grew up in the age when MP3s were available. She had a lot of music at her fingertips and could store a lot of different genres.

I love that you used X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours” after the bombing in episode 6. Could you speak to that choice for a bit?

Yeah, that was me. That comes from my own personal record collection. I mean, that’s more of a commentary, less of a character-driven choice, as end titles are. It’s our chance to editorialize it, speak more as filmmakers and less as storytellers. We actually had a Patti Smith song in there till the very end; it’s called “Gloria,” and it’s off her 1976 album [Horses]. It was the first song I thought of when I knew I was gonna do season 2. I think it was the first song on my first playlist. We wanted to place her in the very beginning and everyone was in love with that song, and it’s actually -- part of it is a cover from Van Morrison. And we could not get an answer from his people. We tried for months. Patti Smith really wanted it, she tried to help us. We just couldn’t get an answer, unfortunately. It was sort of at the 11th hour. We were finally like, “We have to give up.” “Maggie, will you send us some last-minute ideas?” was what I got maybe the night before the mix. Very last-minute. I threw on a bunch of ideas and I almost did not throw that one on because I thought to myself, “There’s no way they would go for that one.” It was a Hail Mary…but everyone loved that one. They surprised me with that choice, and I was really happy.

I think everybody was waiting for the rebellion to start.

I know, and it just made it a little even more rebellious. I mean, people are waiting this whole time, people have been waiting for a season and a half for these girls to rebel and stand up. Obviously, it’s hard. I mean, they’re severely oppressed. But you’re still waiting for it. So when it finally happened to have a little “f--- you” in it was nice, and that’s what the song gave you.

And [X-Ray Spex frontwoman] Poly Styrene would have haaaaated Gilead.

[Laughs] Yeah.

Are there any musical choices you’re glad you didn’t go with?

No. There’s some I wish we had gone with. But I feel good about all the choices now. I know there was some controversy over a few of the songs, but I feel like controversy was good. It got people talking, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.

How did you decide between a live recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” versus the album version after the Oprah moment?

It was easy in the end titles, because we had both the album version and the end titles. That was a specific choice and that was Bruce [Miller]’s decision, and that was because he liked the feeling of a group of people singing. He thought that was really the episode that brought them hope, and he thought having a group of people singing would give a sense of hope, a sense of unity, a cause, a battle cry.

Does Gilead have any official music?

No, I would think it’s just hymnals. The record player in the Commander’s house is definitely contraband. That’s not allowed.

I was also curious that the Commander and Nick both have record players, so I was wondering: Did they get rid of CD players, or are they both vinyl aficionados?

That’s a good question. I haven’t spoken to Bruce about that. My guess would be, since it seems like anything modern is frowned upon, that the record player is the older form of playing music. I don’t know. I’m sure there were conversations that were had about that. I wasn’t part of it; that was season 1. I came on for season 2.

Do you have any particular method for honing in on the subgenres or eras you use to underline specific moments?

We have it opened up to any genre or period. Mostly music from the United States. But when it’s character-specific, a little bit. June’s only a few years younger than I am. People in that age group have a lot of genres that come from any time period, so it’s not as limited as it might have been for maybe some of the older people in Gilead, or in the story. I tried to think about when she was in high school and when she was in college, and where she grew up and what kinds of bands were popular in that time period. I mean, I don’t know if any of that came into play. When I definitely started the project, I made playlists for each of the main characters based on their age and where they were born, what they would have listened to previously.

Will those be available to the public?

No. Probably not.

Were there any choices where you were held up, up to the last minute, and can point out specific examples?

Yeah, for sure. To point to a very specific one, the end of the first episode of season 2. And then the last episode in season 2. Both of those places were debated for a long time. And ultimately Bruce decided both of them. Very last-minute for those spots. There were so many songs to entertain, and it sort of got to the point where we had to force a decision.

Has there been anywhere else where you had an especially hard time, with an interesting story around the rights?

There is one, but I can’t say it because we didn’t get to license it, so I can’t put that in there. Most people were very excited to be a part of season 2. I wasn’t on season 1, so I don’t know what it was like on season 1, but I’m sure it was a lot harder when no one knew what the show was. There was no track record. But with season 2, after all the awards, it was one of my more easy licensing processes for shows, 'cause people really wanted to be a part of it.

With the Kate Bush song in episode 1, was that always going to be a female singer-songwriter?

I was pitching songs for the end song, and I had played Bruce Kate Bush’s song “Running Up That Hill,” so yes, when I was playing him end-title songs, they were all female -- they weren’t all female singer-songwriters, but they were all female vocals. I thought it was really important after how June makes that speech after she breaks free, that it was a female vocalist. When I played that -- “Running Up That Hill” -- it made him think of “This Woman’s Work,” and he played that at the end, liked it, and about a week later, I saw that they’d put it in the hanging scene. So that was the only song considered for that scene. Once it was in there, it stays.

Another circumstance is when Commander Lawrence starts playing “Walking on Broken Glass,” and Emily gets so annoyed by it. I was wondering if there was someone involved who either hated or loves that song, or had an interesting relationship with it?

They played a different song on set. We weren’t able to clear that song. The way I thought of that song, and Bruce as well, is -- Emily would’ve hated any song in that instance. She didn’t know what was going on, it was a total “what the f---” moment. With Commander Lawrence, it’s a scary situation, and the song plays as a counterpoint to it. It’s so poppy and has that kind of energy. No matter what song it is, it’s gonna make the situation even scarier for Emily. She’s sitting back there thinking that she might be driven to her death and there’s this obnoxious -- not obnoxious, it’s not an obnoxious song, but it’s a pop song, you know, on in the background. I wanted to play something it seemed like Lawrence would have listened to. And I felt like Annie Lennox could have been something that was in his collection, pre-Gilead.

Commander Lawrence seemed to like things that have a certain bright spikiness to them.

It just fits his personality. I think of him, compared to Commander Waterford, as someone who just goes with his gut and less with his head about what he’s going to play.

Have you ever made any choices that surprised you, where the journey to it took you to a different place than where you started from?

I think that Kate Bush is a prime example of that. That surprised me when I was watching it because my idea was for end titles, and I had really mixed emotions watching it, but ultimately thought it was a very provocative scene. I would have never thought to try a song in that scene. I’m trying to think of other places. It seems like a lifetime ago. It only finished four or five months ago, but it feels like a lifetime. I think that was for me the biggest surprise, plus discovery of what music could do in the season.

(Note: Interview has been edited for clarity, structure, and relevancy.)


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