From its first frames, HBO limited series Big Little Lies is imbued with palpable atmosphere and a very defined sense of space—as the waves crash violently against Monterey’s shores, and the old soul, blues-infused soundtrack plays, we know exactly where we are, both physically and emotionally.
Working alongside French-Canadian auteur Jean-Marc Vallée of the Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club—an artist known for going without a composer—Grammy- and now Emmy-nominated music supervisor Susan Jacobs helped piece together one of the year’s most atmospheric and poignant soundtracks. In the seven-part series, every character has a sound or a musical artist all their own, providing a window into their complicated interior lives.
Speaking with Deadline, Jacobs explains Vallée’s thorough and unusual approach to music, and how all paths led to Elvis with Big Little Lies.
What were the elements that attracted you to Big Little Lies?
Jean-Marc [Vallée]. I’ve had this fortunate career with these really wonderful, creative directors and if Jean-Marc said, “Sue, I’m going over here to do this,” I’d follow him.
I was on my way to Africa or someplace, and I picked the book up in the airport, and he was like, “Oh no, don’t read the book,” because he had a very different take on how he was going to present this.
What was conveyed in your initial conversations with Jean-Marc about the tone he’d like to strike with the music?
Jean-Marc is a very different director because he knows he’s not going to use a composer. That’s why I believe the music is as effective as it is. We do the first pass of the script, and then Jean-Marc will do his pass. His pass is when we start getting our devices worked in, like Chloe having an iPod, or the record player.
Tonally, he’s going into this having a very good sense of the spectrums of where he wants to go, because it’s really part of a narrative. It’s very different—these [choices] are not just about songs. This is about emotional beats one needs to hit during a certain scene.
I think of it more like a color box. It finds its way through the devices that he has already woven into the script, which I think is why the music pops so well—it’s woven in there. It’s purposeful. That’s, I think, the big difference.
The series features strong genre undercurrents—atmospheric funk, soul and blues tracks are prevalent and conjure such a specific tone.
Working with Jean-Marc, there’s no boundaries. We go from funk to rock, to we’ll suddenly have a classical piece. I’m a facilitator of this artist, and I think this is very much how he works in all his genres. We knew that we’d have Avenue Q, which is in the book, and Elvis was already in the book. So we already had those colors. Then, it’s how to do those things in an interesting way.
I think it’s really about range, because that’s exactly what he tries to get with his performances and these characters. This was really representing a town: You have Jane, who’s sort of working class and maybe The B-52s was going to kind of be her [musical emblem]. It’s about giving voice and heart to all of these things.
When we pre-recorded the Elvis [karaoke], it was finding the range that was going to express emotion. The kids have their little “Otter Bay” [song], which we wrote the lyrics for, which was super fun. It was very difficult to write a children’s song, so I’ll never do that again.
Everybody has a musical voice. I think of Jane with PJ Harvey; I think of Martha Wainwright as Jane, and then you’ve got “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” for Ziggy. Agnes Obel was very much Reese [Witherspoon]’s, that family, and that whole “September Song” scene that comes through. Then we had the Neil Young, which played such a big relationship, in a very positive and beautiful way, for Nicole [Kidman]’s character and her husband.
We already knew we were going to have a lot of music in here, because that was in the book. Everything was going to flow towards Elvis, so suddenly having all these blues-based songs in the beginning of the show—the Michael Kiwanuka and Leon Bridges and all those—everything kind of flows into this river at the end. It’s all going to lead to Episode 7, where you’re not suddenly bounced out into some musical world that doesn’t make any sense.
I think by the time we get to those Elvis songs, they really feel right. We started with “It’s Now or Never,” then we go into “Treat Me Nice”, and then “Don’t” was so beautiful, that Zoë [Kravitz] did.
This is really about Jean-Marc’s intention of these colors—you know, we’re scoring here. I think it’s a very different approach to using scores.
Certain artists like Neil Young, Charles Bradley and Irma Thomas recur in the series with different tracks. What’s the significance or intention there?
I think that this is very much about Jean-Marc wanting to have things in there that were representing the [characters’] humanity. It’s really about the foundation of the color box. The blues are where everything kind of sits, with all these fluctuating things, like The Flaming Lips.
The recurring of that “September Song”, using the instrumental of that—which is an artist Jean-Marc knew from Montreal—it’s about having a thread. I don’t know that we knew that that was going to end up being a theme, or that even Michael Kiwanuka, Leon Bridges, those colors would keep recurring.
You can sit down and think, Oh, we’re going to do this and that, then suddenly you get in the edit room of the picture that you’re working on and it’s like, “No, you’re not.” [Laughs] He doesn’t like it.
Some of these things, we actually shot with, like Leon Bridges—we knew that was going to work, because we’re weaving it right in there, and it’s giving Chloe that 70’s sort of [vibe]. That iPod was really the composer of the whole thing—it’s Chloe carrying around that iPod, setting the tone. Having that device allowed Jean-Marc to play around with what those colors are.
It’s so hard to think about a creative process backwards. I think we have a unique thing with Big Little Lies. This is my first TV series—I’ve never done anything like this before—but having to shoot the whole thing at one time and then do it, then you can keep having recurring themes. It’s a luxury, looking at this as a seven-hour film, and I actually think it’s very different, because all this was being made at one point.
I feel like this is a seven-hour film, and Jean-Marc’s commitment to lack of score is very much what made this whole thing work—committing way before he shoots, this is what works. I think the rhythm might have been very, very different if we were doing it episode by episode.
Of course, just like a film, you want themes to recur, and you want colors to recur, so I think it evolved out of 1 and 2, and then you keep pulling those threads forward, like you would a score.
Did you bring Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart”—the series’ theme song—into the fold? This artist was a huge discovery for many people watching.
I met Michael Kiwanuka a long, long time ago when I was working on Silver Lining Playbook—when I was introducing David O. Russell to Alabama Shakes. That song becoming the theme was a process. It did not start out that way. It was actually something where there was a lot of back and forth. There were many things that were going to be the theme. It took a long time for Jean-Marc to decide he even wanted one.
That worked backwards into the theme—it was already in the show, and then it kind of came back, because the lyrics are so perfect and the blues are so perfect. Then Jean-Marc started cutting the opening of the show, so everything fell back. There were many contenders for a little while. Creativity is never a straight process.
The title sequence imagery stems from the season finale—was it a more direct path for the team, arriving at that tiki torch-lit sequence?
It was all done almost after we finished. I don’t even think that Jean-Marc knew at all if he even wanted a title sequence in the show. I think he discovers his way forward. The one thing he kept saying to me was that the ocean was very important—the ocean represented the power of the women. He talked about that a lot, and I think that’s what he wanted to get out of the design.
He designed that whole opening. He’s got an amazing music collection and he’s very, very involved in whatever he’s doing. He’s that guy. I think he wasn’t going to get the opening title sequence unless he got it exactly as he wanted it.
The track list for Season 1 is full of big names. I imagine HBO series come with a sizeable licensing budget, but did you encounter any obstacles in that arena?
Yeah. For me, the licensing part of it is always equally creative in how we approach what we’re going to do. I always handle everything myself, and with someone like Jean-Marc, a lot of it is just in the patience with learning where we’re going, what we’re going to do. He likes to brushstroke with music, but those things are important. Whereas most directors are like, “Really? You’re going to use five seconds of that there?” [Laughs] That’s part of the commitment—we’ve kind of figured out how to work together.
Licensing is always a challenge, but it’s always a very creative part for me to get the stuff that gets put in there. I’m going to somehow do my damnedest to make sure we get it. We got everything.
With the huge mental inventory of music that your job demands, have there been any new musical discoveries for you on Big Little Lies?
Agnes Obel is amazing. I didn’t really know her records, and then I never stopped listening to her records. Her new record’s amazing. That was probably my biggest, most fun discovery. I always learn a lot of music from Jean-Marc because living in Montreal, he gets many versions that we never get in America. He’ll always go, “I like this version of that song,” and it’ll be something I’ve never seen that was only released in France. I learn a lot about versions because it’s like, “Wow, we didn’t get this in America. Where did you get that stuff?” He likes also to use a lot of French-Canadian artists, so he’s really deepened my love for a lot of the artists up there.
Also, the producer of all our live tracks—he’s a friend of Jean-Marc’s—he’s amazing. Every one of the Elvis tracks was produced by him. I created the voices, and he did the tracks—I cast all the voices, and we recorded that.
But again, we’re a team. We worked on Wild together; we worked on Demolition together. We work together a lot.