Creating Amazon’s Homecoming: How music supervisor Maggie Phillips rises to the challenge

Amazon’s Homecoming required music supervisor Maggie Phillips to create a soundtrack of scores. She talked to Culturess about how she pulled it off.
Everything in Homecoming, Amazon’s television adaptation of the popular Gimlet podcast, feels just slightly out of place. Julia Roberts’ stripped-down appearance and reticent performance as social worker Heidi Bergman clashes with her off-screen status as a movie star. Cinematographer Tod Campbell depicts Florida sunshine and sleek modernist décor the way an alien might see it, using odd angles and narrow aspect ratios. And the dialogue teeters between affected and stilted.

What really drives home the dissonance of Heidi’s world, though, is the music. If melodramatic strings and eerie synths seem at odds with a show that consists mostly of one-on-one conversations in nondescript rooms, that’s the point. Rather than hire a composer, Homecoming director Sam Esmail trusted music supervisor Maggie Phillips, whose previous credits range from Fargo to The Handmaid’s Tale to Moonlight, to realize his vision of using preexisting film scores as musical accompaniment.

The result is a hodgepodge of sounds derived from a variety of sources, including Vertigo, Klute, Capricorn One, The Thing, and High-Rise, that somehow come together in a coherent whole. Ahead of this year’s Emmy nominations, which will be announced on July 16, we had the chance to speak with Phillips about tackling such an unusual and demanding assignment.

How did you get involved in Homecoming?

Sam Esmail liked my work in Fargo. He pulled me in for a meeting and we hit it off… I’d listened to the podcast before the meeting, so I was excited about that and the casting choice of Julia Roberts. The director of photography [Campbell] is a really old friend of mine from Austin, Texas. So, there was a lot of synchronicity in us working together.

What about the show interested you?

The podcast was riveting, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. So, I initially just loved the story. Also, like I said, I was super excited about working with Sam because I was such a fan of his work. Then, I also was very curious to see how Sam was going to translate a podcast that was very talky – you know, conversation-heavy – into visual storytelling.

Homecoming doesn’t have a composer. It uses entirely scores from other movies and some classical pieces. What was the thought process behind that decision?

That was entirely Sam’s vision. He spoke to me about it at our initial meeting. I think his thought process was that he knew exactly what kind of score he wanted and it was from ‘70s [and] ‘80s thrillers, some ‘60s. I think the first movies he mentioned to me were All the President’s Men and Klute.

Because he knew that this is what he wanted, he wasn’t going to ask the composer to copy other composers, you know? It’s not fair to the composer he would be working with and not fair to the composers that they would be copying. So, I think he just had a very clear vision; he knew from the get-go. It was very challenging licensing-wise, but I think it was extremely effective.

You mentioned that he emphasized ‘70s thrillers. But there’s also some science-fiction and horror in the score.

The horror scores that we ended up using – I think it might have been one of the editors that just tried it out of sheer desperation and it worked. It was challenging for everyone involved in the project, because no one has worked like this physically. On a TV show, you use [a] “temp score,” and then you know that the composer is going to come in and make it better. So, because what we were selecting for — essentially, temp score was going to be our final score — there was a lot more pressure on picking the right piece, obviously.

I believe episode 4 [“Redwood”] is when we first hear the horror. We hear from Carrie, we hear from The Amityville Horror. I think it was [editor] Rosie Tan who just tried it out, and some of the scenes completely changed by putting that score on top of it. And then, because it worked so well, we ended up using it again throughout the rest of the season.

In addition to the classic film scores, you used a couple of scores from recent movies. Like, one of my favorite cues is from M83’s score for Oblivion in episode 9. What was the thought process behind that?
We had limitations because of budget and limitations because of union fees, which kind of goes hand in hand with budget. But also, [for] movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s and somewhat the ‘80s, the stuff that composers chose to release were the really big dramatic moments with huge orchestras and stuff. So, it was trickier to find the quieter moments, the musical bed, you know, stuff that isn’t super complicated but is still necessary in scenes. So, we had to get a little crafty in some moments.
Oblivion was a temporary track that still worked in the world we’d created. But it really just came out of necessity. We tried at first to find older scores that worked but weren’t able.

Were you hoping that viewers would be able to recognize the scores? Or did you want it to more just blend into the show?

We knew some people would recognize [them], and it maybe would take them out or make them excited, and then we knew some people wouldn’t at all. So, I don’t think there was one clear intention. We knew that people would be approaching the show differently and there would be different responses… And we hoped that people would discover these scores, as well, something they didn’t know – which I did. I only knew a handful of these scores going into this project. So, I got to listen to scores that I never listened to before, which was a lot of fun.

I guess it works on both levels, in that, if you do recognize it, even if it maybe takes you out of the show a little, it still creates this uncanny feeling that fits with the show’s atmosphere.

Yeah, even if [someone recognizes] it, it’s still going to create the tension and the effect that you want. I mean, it’s the same way I think about songs. You can’t control whether or not someone’s going to know a song that you use, and sometimes, people have memories that are attached to that song. So, you can’t control that… More important is: is the song, is the score effective in the scene? Does it do what you want it to do? That’s what we focused on.

Did you watch the episodes ahead of time so you could choose scores for specific moments or put them into context?

It was a constant back and forth with the editors while they were cutting. The editors chose a ton of this music. They were really the champions. Sam gave us some scores to run with, and then while they were editing scenes, they were finding stuff that worked or reaching out to me for help. Yeah, it was more piecemeal.

I mentioned the Oblivion cue before, and a lot of the ones I like have an emotional undercurrent. I liked the use of Vangelis’ “Abraham’s Theme” [from Chariots of Fire] when Heidi and Walter were discussing the road trip. What was the thought process behind that cue?

Again, those were the hardest spots to find stuff for, because they were quieter moments that didn’t need a huge dramatic score behind. It was the scenes [where] Heidi and Walter were in her office having an intimate conversation. We wanted to infuse some emotion there, play up their connection, but we didn’t want to lead the audience too much. So, it was tricky. How do you add emotion but not foreshadow too much? When you’re trying to do that, the smaller the better as far as music goes…
It was Franklin Peterson, one of our editors, who tried the Vangelis in one scene. Oh God, I hope it was Franklin, I don’t know – one of the editors tried Vangelis. We were all talking all at the same time. As soon as someone found something that they thought might work, then people started trying it. The other editors tried the Vangelis in another quieter moment. So, once we discovered it worked, we listened to his entire catalog to find the right one for those quiet scenes.

How do you know when something works? Is it just instinct?

I think it’s instinct. I think the editors would agree it’s instinct. But the way we knew something really worked is if Sam liked it, if Sam thought it worked.

So, you were heavily involved in the editing process?

More so than I have been in other projects because it was such a difficult process. And then our music editor, Ben Zales, helped me all along the way, too. He had to piece together scores from different composers and make it seem seamless. I don’t know how he did it.

It definitely worked in context. Since you have more of a song background, did you find using scores more difficult than finding songs?

Yeah, it was really hard. And like I said, the editors picked out a ton of this because I was primarily focused on the licensing stuff. When I got to listen for a song for [Homecoming], I was so excited because it was something that felt comfortable to me. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. It was a huge challenge.

Homecoming got renewed for a second season. Do you know if you’re going to be involved in that?

Yeah, I think I’m going to be involved, but I don’t know if we’re going to do the music the same way because Sam isn’t directing season 2. So, there’s a good chance that we hire a composer for it.

But I don’t know one way or the other. I just know that it was a very expensive exercise. I would do it again in a heartbeat because I love the outcome, but it’s not my call.

I also wanted to ask you about Legion, since the third season is starting. In season 2, there were cover songs by composer Jeff Russo and showrunner Noah Hawley released on an album called It’s Always Blue. Were you involved in that?

Yeah, insomuch as they talked to me about what songs they were going to choose. But as far as like being in the studio with them, they did it all by themselves.

Is there any track or song that you wanted to use in Homecoming or Legion but couldn’t find a place for it?
I had a lot of songs that I liked to end Homecoming with, when [Heidi and Walter] are in the diner. I had a pretty long list of songs that I loved there. But it was ultimately Sam who chose the Iron and Wine song.

For Legion, Noah and I have been able to collaborate for the past five years, so if a song doesn’t end up in Legion, I know it’s going to end up in another one of his projects, which I love. A song I picked for Legion season 1 ended up in Fargo season 3. So, we share music back and forth all the time.

Are you working on season 3 of Legion?
We just wrapped… People have asked if there are going to be covers, and there are definitely going to be more covers. There are some cool ones. I think if you like the music in season 1 and season 2, you’ll definitely not be disappointed with season 3. We’re going pretty big, as big as we can, because it’s the end of the series.