You’d never guess what the Emmy-nominated music supervisor for edgy TV shows like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and, most recently, the Drake-produced “Euphoria” chills out to during her downtime. “On the weekends, I love to listen to the yacht rock station on Sirius XM. It just calms me,” says Jen Malone, who previously worked as a publicist for the likes of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. “It’s funny because whenever I listen to music — for better or for worse — it’s like, ‘Hmmm, what project could this fit in?’ And I don’t do that when I listen to yacht rock.”
But her familiarity with that genre came in handy for one of the acclaimed HBO drama’s graphic depictions of violence: A young man who has been accused of rape gets beaten within an inch of his life and lies on the floor, barely breathing and bleeding, while Air Supply’s “Even the Nights are Better” plays on the radio. “I was like: Oh, this could be really interesting — and really disturbing,” Malone says of the unlikely selection. “I’m horrified by what I’m seeing, but we’re listening to this classic yacht rock song so it’s kind of funny. It causes this weird feeling for the viewer, or at least it did for me.”
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For a series with only eight episodes, it turned out to be a surprisingly long project. Malone began compiling a playlist in late September and sent out the final clearance confirmations in May, just one month before “Euphoria” premiered. The sheer volume of songs in Sam Levinson’s show about at-risk teens required a sign-off from 350 separate parties. “We are living in their world and there’s always music around teenagers,” says Malone. “Music is an important character in the show.” In fact, music arguably plays a bigger role than Zendaya, who stars as the drug-addicted bi (-sexual as well as -polar) high school student Rue and serves as the omniscient narrator of every episode. Variety caught up with Malone while she was taking a long-overdue vacation on the eve of last night’s finale, which, like most of the season, was trending on Twitter.
“A few months ago when I was in the thick of it, I had no idea how this show was going to be received,” Malone says. “I just had my head down in the grind. New problems had to be solved on a daily basis and I was going through sometimes 20 songs for a scene just to find the right one. I was in so deep that I could not see outside of it. When my husband and I watched the premiere and saw the reaction on Twitter, with the numbers ticking up higher and higher, we were like, ‘Oh my God, people are freaking out about this.’” And last night was no exception.
Walk us through a typical day in your life while working on “Euphoria.”
No two days have ever been alike on this show. My coordinator, Candace Meade, is a rock star, and we work very closely together. In the morning and at night, we stay on top of clearances as much as humanly possible just to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. I also spent a lot of time in the edit bays with the editors, which I always looked forward to because we had a lot of fun in there. But it was by far the most intense project I have ever worked on in my career.
We recently interviewed Danny McBride about his new HBO series, “The Righteous Gemstones,” which also contains a lot of full-frontal male nudity. He said: “We heard that ‘Euphoria’ had a s–tload of d—s and so we wanted to keep up with that.” He was right: We weren’t prepared to see Zendaya’s tutorial on taking the perfect d— pic, for instance.
Neither was I! As a business owner and a boss, I felt that it was important to put in writing to my coordinator: “If at any point you feel uncomfortable watching this show, no problem. We will work around it.” It was hard for me to watch sometimes, especially that beat-down.
There are moments like that scene in “American Psycho” when Patrick Bateman murders his coworker with an axe while playing “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis, who was reportedly not happy about the use of his song.
When we did clearances, we made sure that we were upfront about how the music was being used — and what was happening in the scenes — to avoid any issues down the line. With the Air Supply song, I felt it was important to have that conversation of, like, “I want to let you know it’s very graphic” with the copyright owners. But we’ve gotten a couple of denials for a few uses. Just a handful.
How did you get Arcade Fire to approve their song for a scene set at an abortion clinic?
Arcade Fire was a tricky one for sure because they are very picky. It’s actually shot very beautifully: The doctor says, “Sometimes people listen to music,” and Cassie [Sydney Sweeney] puts on her headphones as it goes into an ice skating routine [dream sequence]. Because as we learned in episode 7, she used to be an ice skater, and it’s to Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” which is a song that’s very important to Sam. On the quote request, I put in the scene description: “Cassie goes in for an abortion and dreams of ice skating.” So I felt that I needed to make a call to the publisher and the label to give it more context. Another one of the songs from the finale that we were excited for is Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You.” Given his background [with mental illness and addiction], it was just so powerful.
Zendaya seemed to have given up singing for acting, so it was a surprise to hear her big musical number at the end.
Zendaya sings Labrinth’s “All for Us” and it was a massive undertaking because it was supposed to be another song. Then Sam heard that one and he wanted to use it for the musical number. So we took Lab’s track and we sweetened it with a full marching band — you know, the drums, horns, wind — and a choir. We did a whole pre-record and had a music contractor create those different parts. We were in the studio all day on a Saturday: We had drums come in first, recorded all of the different percussion pieces at 8 a.m., and then at 10 the brass and the winds arrived. We had this amazing choir present it to Sam, who had some notes. Then we had to change a bunch of stuff and get it to the choreographer. It was an all-night shoot, so we got there at 4 in the afternoon, left at 6 a.m. I was absolutely delirious but it was f—ing cool. This was advanced music supervision.
Who knew that would be part of your job description?
People just think that we just sit around and pick the music for movies and that could not be further from the truth. It was so inspiring to fulfill Sam’s vision, to create this emotional resonance by using music to enhance the love and the pain and the disconnection and the friendship [between characters]. Music supervision is creative because we have to do that for our director, but that is not even close to half our job. Somebody told me that I turn anxiety into execution and I’m proud of that. Because it’s so much pressure in such a short time period. I cannot emphasize this enough: A music supervisor’s job is not to make cool playlists.
And yet that’s exactly what countless bloggers and websites have done with your work on this show. Episode 6 alone features 26 songs.
It’s interesting because you have the Flamingos and then you have a Lizzo song and in the party [scene], the Animals. And there’s Xanprincess, who’s an up-and-coming artist, the JID — I love that placement — and Anderson .Paak. But then you also have the Dreamliners, a Chicana doo-wop group from Texas, and then of course Bronksi Beat. We were going in and out of the diegetic to the non-diegetic music constantly in that episode, and we had to make it sound seamless. I would sit with the editor for hours and play stuff to picture. I’d be like, “Wait, this could work. Oh, what if we use this one here?” That one was a puzzle. And I’m really proud because I think we found all of the right pieces and made it fit.
Did Drake offer any feedback on the placement of his songs?
Unfortunately not. I mean, he gave us a break on the price. He was more overseeing the entire project.
You’re also helping lesser known artists get exposure.
Dodgr’s “Hot” apparently got like 13,000 Shazams on Sunday night alone. We received that song as a demo. It’s kind of like when I was a publicist: I got to wake up every day and talk about my favorite bands and introduce them to people. Now I’m picking out songs that I think are f—ing dope and I get other people to start listening, too.
Which song proved to be your biggest challenge?
Everybody would immediately think that Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” was the hardest, but thankfully everybody was just like, “If Beyoncé approves, we approve.” She was the biggest “get” because she is not in a lot of TV. It took a while and there was a lot of paperwork involved because there are so many writers. But the more challenging one was in episode 4: The very last scene where Rue and Jules [Hunter Schafer] are in bed together. We had a piece of music from the 1974 film“Don’t Look Now,” and in the end, Sam wanted to keep it. On a Monday, he called me and was like, “Let’s clear this one.” And we were mixing on Wednesday. I said, “Sam, have a backup.” He said, “There is no backup.” So that was a mad scramble — setting my alarm for 3 in the morning to be able to call Italy — but we got it and it’s absolutely beautiful and really powerful.
Going back to the finale, the ending seemed to support the fan theory that Zendaya’s character dies of a drug overdose, which is why she’s able to narrate everyone’s stories, not just her own.
Well, we got renewed for season 2, so …