As Sam Esmail began creating the visual tone for his new Amazon series, Homecoming, he harked back to old-school thrillers. “The kind that don’t get made any more,” he says. “You take your pick with Hitchcock, Pakula, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, the paranoid thrillers of the ’70s.”
As shooting progressed on the half-hour mystery thriller starring Julia Roberts, which premieres Nov. 2, Esmail provided his editors soundtracks from such like-minded films to patch in as the temporary score until a composer could replicate the mood. “Then I realized it’s a little unfair to ask any composer to ape these brilliant scores,” Esmail says. Instead, in an unheard-of move, he made an ambitious decision: to use only pre-existing scores for the show’s musical accompaniment.
That’s when things got complicated.
Esmail had utilized Michael Small’s score from The Parallax View in key scenes in an episode of Mr Robot, which he also created, so he had an idea of the complexity involved, but multiplying that process for an entire season was a different story.
Using existing scores from such films as The French Connection, Body Heat, Capricorn One, The Eiger Sanction and All The President’s Men involved clearing the music with the original rights holders and figuring out a fair licensing price. Since these scores were mainly recorded by union musicians, it also meant working with the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) to find the musicians who played on the sessions to make sure they got paid.
At one point, the task seemed too daunting. “About a week into production, the editors are cutting, I’m directing on set, I get this rather urgent call from a post production supervisor saying ‘The editors need to have a conference call with you. They’re very concerned. They think they should add a music composer to the mix [for] additional music for certain scenes that they can’t find tracks for’,” Esmail recalls. He advised everyone “‘Let’s not freak out. Let’s just dig deep and give it at least a month and if we still have the problem, we’ll revisit.’ I think they firmly believed that they weren’t going to be able to pull off some of the scenes.”
Esmail credits the team, including music supervisor Maggie Phillips and post production consultant Sean Schuyler with “finding those little gems that worked for those scenes we were struggling [with] and elevating them.”
“Sam was really clear. He said at the beginning that he wanted it to be all pre-existing score, he didn’t want to cheat or fudge it in any way. It was important to him” says Phillips. “It took a lot of scouring. It’s wasn’t just finding score that works, we have to keep a budget in mind.”
Music budgets range widely from $25,000-to-$150,000 per episode for most shows, according to music supervisors surveyed by Billboard. Homecoming started near the top range and then tacked on another 25 percent as the season progressed, according to sources.
Esmail readily admits that his music budgets are “significantly more than what’s traditionally allocated,” he says. “That’s my production value. I don’t have dragons, I don’t have period outfits. What I think is important is to spend it on music, it’s the heart and soul of the show.”
The initial plan was to use only orchestral music from ’70s films, but the playlist expanded with scores from films as recent as 2015, as well as the addition of synth-based scores, including John Carpenter’s The Fog and Escape From New York.
Phillips, who has also worked on The Handmaid’s Tale, Legion and Fargo, calls it the “most time consuming” project she’s ever tackled, with the team trying an average of 25-to-30 scores for each scene. Up to six scores were used per episode, sometime with multiple cues taken from each score.
“It became a puzzle piece because you’re also paying union fees for up to 60-to-70 people,” she says, “so even though John Carpenter’s licensing fee was comparable, it was much cheaper because it was just him and a synthesizer.” Additionally, the union used a tiered system that called for fees to rise based on the minutes used. “The hardest part for me and the editors was trying to keep the scores limited for how long we used them,” Phillips says. “We had someone at [Homecoming production company] NBCUniversal working directly with the union to figure out the fees. That was a beast.”
“We had someone at NBCUniversal working directly with the union to figure out the fees. That was a beast.” NBCUniversal’s Universal Cable Productions co-produces the show with Amazon Studios.
Chasing down some scores required forensics work. “There was one piece that we had to lose because the film studio didn’t own it and couldn’t tell us who did,” Phillips says. “We called the composer. He said, ‘I did it 40 years ago, I have no clue who owns it.’ We had a lot of that.”
Homecoming has already been picked up for a second season. Esmail, who is returning to Mr. Robot for season four, isn’t so sure the pre-existing score rule will continue. “I wouldn’t say we’re committed to it,” he says. “Season one had a very specific tone. I’m stepping back and letting [the show runners] run with it for the next season. I’ll be curious to see what they do.”