Music Supervisor Robin Urdang Finds The Soundscape For "Love & Death"
Robin Urdang
Cinematographer Checco Varese helps to tell story of human drama and music in "Daisy Jones & the Six"

In 2017 the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences opened up the Emmy competition to include music supervision. The recognition means the world to Robin Urdang--in the big picture and personally. On the former score, the music supervisor explained, “Music plays such an important role in storytelling; it’s an artform and a craft that is finally being acknowledged.

“Music can make or break a project and music supervision requires both one’s left and right brain,” continued Urdang. “It is 50 percent creative, finding that soundscape, the songs, the composer, musicians, singers, et cetera, and 50 percent business having the ability to work well with producers, directors, showrunners, post supervisors and the studios, etc.  And we can’t forget the clearances, research, licensing, budgeting cues sheets, Google Docs and on-camera music and pre-records (though maybe that’s left and right brained?). So yes, I am grateful to be part of a community that is now eligible for Emmys.”

Personally speaking, over the first six years of Emmy having an Outstanding Music Supervision category, Urdang has scored a total of four nominations--all for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Prime Video). She’s won the Emmy three times--in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Urdang’s fourth nod came last year.

Urdang’s work, though, goes beyond The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This year she’s also once again in the Emmy conversation for her music supervision on Love & Death (HBO Max), which marked the first coming together of two Emmy stalwarts--show creator/writer David E. Kelley and executive producer/director Lesli Linka Glatter. The miniseries involves a gruesome killing in Wylie, Texas, in 1980, and centers on two church-going families. Candy Montgomery (portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen) is married to Pat (played by Patrick Fugit). They ostensibly seem a picture perfect couple with two kids, situated in the suburbs with a social life centered around the church. But as Glatter said, Candy “had a hole a mile wide in her soul.”

Candy looks to fill that void through an affair with Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons), who’s married to Betty (Lily Rabe). When confronted about the affair and physically attacked by Betty with an axe, Candy wrests the weapon away and hacks Betty 41 times.

Glatter, who directed five of the seven episodes, and Kelley delved into each character’s background story, emotions and complexities. While never minimizing the horror of what happened, the story is told with compassion, perspective, a deft touch and early on even elements of humor, exploring in the process the so-called American dream and the emptiness that sometimes goes with it.

While adultery and a heinous murder translate into sensationalized media coverage--which is depicted in Love & Death--the miniseries is the antithesis of sensationalism, instead examining the inner workings and needs of these people who are largely likable and relatable. But this is all happening during an era and in a place where folks didn’t go to a therapist to discuss and get in touch with their feelings, making it all the more difficult for a person to fill that chasm in a soul described by Glatter. 

Love & Death takes us to the late 1970s, leading to the murder in ‘80 and then chronicles the courtroom drama as it unfolds and ultimately yields a verdict.

Urdang recalled when the opportunity emerged for her to take on Love & Death. “I literally was sitting in my office and said to my team, ‘okay, I’m ready for a new interesting, fun project with great people’ and a few days later the phone rang.  It was Evyen Klean, the music exec from HBO. He asked me if I was available for a new show which he briefly described. Lesli Linka Glatter, David E Kelley  and [executive producer] Per Saari were attached and being a fan of all of their work, I was very excited to meet on the project.  I read the script and then Lesli and I met on Zoom to discuss the show. I am pretty terrified and terrible at interviews and public speaking but Lesli made it so easy. We spoke about the film, the music, our ideas and our lives which was all so inspiring.  When Evyen called to say the job was mine if I wanted it, I was ecstatic. The era! The 1970’s! How fun!”

The biggest challenge for Urdang was “to find the music, the soundscape that would support the very delicate balance between the complexity of Candy’s inner turmoil, vulnerability, and rage and her external happy go lucky façade while staying faithful to the storytelling, which is ultimately about deceit and a murder in a small church-going town.

“It was very important to the filmmakers to make sure that the audience felt compassion for Candy, and a connection between her and Allan. The music had to have a glimpse of discomfort, wrongdoing, darkness, but it had to have an innocence and sweetness to counter-balance the illicit affair and murder and underlying storyline.”

Urdang went on to explain that “popular, feel good, recognizable songs were used to emphasize Candy’s external happiness while she was cooking, driving, dancing, singing, and hopefully gave the viewers a bit of relief while being immersed in such an unsettling, riveting and dark true story.  And finally, as we move on to later episodes, this music becomes part of the internal Candy and songs are used less often as she is no longer the Candy we thought we knew. The balancing act of all was incredibly delicate.  

“There was such a fine line between using the score, songs and sound design to achieve everything and it was definitely a challenge to get it right.”

Another challenge was to find the main title theme song, “Don’t Let Me Be Miss Understood” by Nina Simone. “But once Lesli heard it, there was no going back,” recalled Urdang.  

As for what she walks away with first and foremost from her Love & Death experience,” Urdang shared that her biggest takeaway is “gratitude and becoming more brave. There is nothing better than working and communicating with an incredible team of creators, writers, directors, actors, producers, composer, etc., and raise the bar to support the storytelling. I’ve been so lucky to have learned working on the most incredible projects and to continue to grow as an artist, always loving the challenges. I have learned that the best results come from teamwork, communication and passion.” 

Relative to the alluded to Emmy credentials of Glatter and Kelley, the latter has been nominated for assorted Emmys, winning 11--Outstanding Drama Series thrice for L.A. Law and twice for both Picket Fences and The Practice, Writing for a Drama Series twice for L.A. Law, Outstanding Comedy Series for Ally McBeal and Outstanding Limited Series for Big Little Lies.

Glatter has thus far received eight Emmy nominations--Outstanding Drama Series for Homeland twice, and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series six times (five for Homeland and one for Mad Men). Glatter has additionally amassed eight DGA Award nominations, winning three times--two for Homeland and one for Mad Men. Her TV directing over the years also spans such shows as The West Wing, E.R., The Morning Show, The Leftovers, the iconic Twin Peaks, and the pilots for Gilmore Girls and Pretty Little Liars.

Checco Varese, ASC
Last year, Checco Varese, ASC won his first Emmy--for lensing the “Breakthrough Pain” episode of Dopesick, the limited drama series which delved into opioid addiction in America, taking us not only to a distressed Virginia mining community and a rural doctor’s office but also the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma, and the inner workings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Based on Beth Macy’s 2018 best selling nonfiction book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” the series spanned some 25 years with different storylines that personalize a drug epidemic fueled in large part by Purdue’s insidious behavior. The “Breakthrough Pain” episode was directed by Barry Levinson.

Fast forward to today and Varese may well be in Emmy contention again--this time for the musical drama Daisy Jones & the Six (Prime Video), which centers on a rock band in the 1970s fronted by two charismatic lead singers: Daisy Jones (portrayed by Riley Keough) and Billy Dunne (Sam Claflin) who have palpable onstage chemistry and a tumultuous behind-the-scenes relationship. The 10-episode series, based on the best-selling book of the same title by Taylor Jenkins Reid, chronicles a high-profile rock band’s skyrocket-like ascent to fame and then its precipitous fall.

While Dopesick and Daisy Jones & the Six seem worlds apart, Varese doesn’t regard them as such. In fact, they share a deep common bond--”human drama,” whether it be tied to the addiction crisis in Dopesick or the complexities of creative and personal relationships in Daisy Jones. Similarly Varese views his other credits in recent years such as Them as “a human drama with horror,” It Chapter Two as “a human drama about a clown who eats people” and so on. Varese observed that human drama is the thread that runs through assorted films, including this year’s Oscar nominees with settings ranging from “a trench in Germany” (All Quiet on the Western Front) to the concert circuit and “life in Graceland” (Elvis).

This common denominator of human drama also helped Varese come up with solutions to make producing Daisy Jones & the Six doable during the pandemic. While big crowds at a concert calling for numerous extras are typical in rock ‘n roll stories, Varese didn’t think they were essential as he mulled over how to bring Daisy Jones to fruition in light of COVID-19.  “You couldn’t rely on the massive audience. You had to rely on the relationships within the band itself, their experience being on stage, the sounds they hear and emotions they feel.”

Maybe, continued Varese, a select shot or two suggesting a big audience would suffice--perhaps with the aid of visual effects. “With face masks and shields, putting 60 people in a bar, much less 5,000 in a stadium wasn’t realistic. That got me to start thinking even more about focusing on the human drama among band members.” He summed up the creative challenge posed by the series as “to make the music resonate within a human drama.”

The cinematographer further observed that there is a solitude surrounding the singers and musicians that he visually had to convey, distill and sift through. This solitude is part of the drama as these performers come together to form a new, albeit often dysfunctional family, the band itself.

The pandemic also carried the silver lining of helping the cast to transform into a believable band. With shooting of the film postponed for some nine months, the actors kept rehearsing and became akin to a pod-like community. “They really became a band during that time,” said Varese who cited that dynamic as part of what has helped to make Daisy Jones & the Six so successful. “A smart producing team with the support of a smart studio made the right call--to keep them rehearsing and playing, to keep them working to be a better band.”

In that vein, to make a beloved band believable, it was important that the singers actually sang. Lip-synching to someone else’s vocals was not an option. The downtime from the pandemic was put to good use as it helped the actors to get where they needed to be musically including such performers as Claflin as singer Dunne and Suki Waterhouse who portrayed keyboardist Karen Sirko. The time to work on and hone their musical chops was also invaluable to Keough who didn’t rest on the laurels of her lineage as the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and daughter of Lisa Marie Presley.

Hello Sunshine, founded by Reese Witherspoon, and Amazon Studios were the lead production companies behind Daisy Jones & the Six. Witherspoon and Lauren Levy Neustadter were executive producers along with, among others, series creators and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

Varese also had to be conscious of the 1970s’ setting. He noted that ‘70s architecture is often located in surroundings reflecting a more recent era. A watchful eye had to be exercised to avoid the pitfall of showing a ramp for the disabled or other such physical giveaways that suggested something post-’70s. Varese takes us into Los Angeles music culture, shot on location, including bringing us a ‘70s Sunset Strip with iconic venues such as The Whisky a Go Go and The Viper Room. (The series also entailed shooting in New Orleans and on a Greek island.)

Varese set the look of the series, lensing the first five episodes (directed by James Ponsoldt) along with the seventh installment (directed by Will Graham). The other four episodes were shot by Jeff Cutter. The two DPs had a brief conversation so that they could coordinate properly without sacrificing creative latitude. “Jeff inherited the look of the show,” said Varese but still had the “freedom for adjustments to make it his own look.” Varese said it was analogous to a recipe for his mother’s pesto which he’s evolved, a genesis which makes it your own and can hopefully make it better.

Varese went with the Sony VENICE for Daisy Jones & the Six--in part because of much night work, which made that camera’s “latitude and ability to read in the darkness” an appealing choice. After testing several lenses, Varese opted for Angenieux Optimo Primes with an internal glimmer glass filter to help capture the allure of the 1970s’ L.A. music scene. Varese also deployed the Sony FX3 camera, which he referred to as “a younger sibling” of the Sony VENICE, with the same sensor and color space applied to a smaller camera. He had worked with the FX3 on Dopesick and found it ideal when working in confined spaces, which he found himself in, for example, in Greece, for Daisy Jones & The Six. He could carry the FX3 on his shoulder and go to work immediately in tight spaces.

In addition to the Emmy win for Dopesick, Varese has received such plaudits as a Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage in 2015 for The 33, a feature film directed by his wife, Patricia Riggen. The 33 followed the extraordinary real-life survival story that captured the world’s attention five years earlier--the collapse of the Copiajo gold and copper mine in Chile and the miraculous rescue of all 33 miners after 69 days of being trapped. Varese garnered a second Golden Frog nod in 2021 for the TV anthology series Them (directed by Nelson Cragg).

This is the third installment of SHOOT’s weekly 16-part The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. Nominations will be announced and covered on July 12. Creative Arts Emmy winners will be reported on during the weekend of September 9 and 10, and primetime Emmy ceremony winners will be covered on September 18.

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