THE LIFE ACOUSTIC: Meet Randall Poster, The Man Who Makes Wes Anderson Soundtracks Sing

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was first published in issue #104 of MAGNET MAGAZINE.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA How’s this sound for a dream job description:

Sit around all day rolling doobies with Wes Anderson, reading script pages as he pecks them out on a vintage Smith-Corona and then firing up your iPod for the perfect vintage Kinks b-side/deep-cut mid-60’s Stones track/David Bowie song sung in Portuguese to go with each scene. Must have and impeccable ear, a kaleidoscopic mind and an encyclopedic record collection epic in its scope and unknowable vastness. Some time travel required.


The bit about smoking doobies and the typewriter is just my personal fantasia, but the rest of it pretty much describes music supervisor extraordinaire Randall Poster’s actual day job. He first broke into the biz back in 1995 working with Harmony Korine on his career-making debut, Kids. He’s been the music supervisor on every Wes Anderson film since Rushmore. To date he has more than 98 film and TV credits, working with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, David Fincher,  Richard Linklater, Todd Hayne, and Sam Mendes.

His current project is Volume 2 of the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, featuring vintage Prohibition-era tunes sung by people like Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and Neko Case. Which was a good excuse to get him on the phone and ask him the question everyone wants to ask him: How do I get your job?

MAGNET: Many people reading this, present company included, will be wondering how do you get this dream job?

RANDALL POSTER: It all started all pretty organically. I met Harmony when they were starting to make Kids and I was really impressed with script. The title page of Kids read, “Kids: By The World Famous Writer Harmony Korine”. He was all of 19 years old at the time. I just had to meet him  With Wes, somebody introduced us while he was making Bottle Rocket and I was so impressed with the film and so impressed with his point of view that I just basically made it an oath to stand by him for the rest of our lives. That’s how we maintained our relationship over the course of eight movies.

MAGNET: What advice would you offer to other people who would be interested in pursing this line of work?

RANDALL POSTER: My advice would be to throw in with your contemporaries who want to make movies and find the person you want to be the director and find the person you want to be the cinematographer and make something. I think that’s the best way to do it.

MAGNET: How many records do you own?

RANDALL POSTER: Tens of thousands. Mostly CDs. I used have great vinyl collection that I took across the country a couple of times and unfortunately I moved into a house, and I’ve never lived in a house before, and I kept the boxes in the garage and I didn’t know that garages could flood.

MAGNET: How many records do you think you lost in that incident?

RANDALL POSTER: 5,000 to 7,500 records, basically all my vinyl. I’m old enough that I was collecting records before there were CDs.

MAGNET: You mentioned you were old enough that vinyl was your primary form of music, so how old are you?

RANDALL POSTER: I don’t want to say.

MAGNET: Because?

RANDAL POST: I’d rather not.

MAGNET: Let’s talk about Boardwalk Empire. One question that I always wanted to ask someone involved in the project is that most of the music involved seems very period-appropriate, but the opening credits is a Brian Jonestown Massacre song. I know they’ve been around a long time, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t been around since Prohibition.

RANDALL POSTER: I think that’s where HBO and people who are savvier than I am at bringing a broader audience to the show, I think they saw that as a key attraction. I think at some point it dawned on people that having something contemporary at the top of the show was a better strategy than something from the 1920’s.

MAGNET: Let’s talk about the process of making Volume 2 of the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack. The window of time we’re talking about here is roughly 1920-1923, is that about right?

RANDALL POSTER: In season four it’s 1924, but we started in 1920. In the 20’s what’s really happening is that ragtime is becoming jazz in 1920. Then in ’24, the most revolutionary moment that is happening is that Louis Armstrong joins Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924. So you come to see Armstrong’s solo capabilities and his unique sound as far as adapting the arrangements to suit Armstrong’s particular sound and skills and jazz is never the same.

MAGNET: I’m guessing Steve Buscemi is a big music head? Do you guys talk about music a lot?

RANDALL POSTER: We talk about it a little bit. Steve’s grandfather played with Jimmy Durante and Jimmy Durante is just emerging around the period that Boardwalk Empire is set in. God willing we’re into another year and another season and we’ll get to Jimmy Durante.

MAGNET: So in Volume 2 you have David Johansen, Elvis Costello, Loudon and Rufus Wainright, Neko Case, Patti Smith, St. Vincent, among others. What’s the criterion for selecting singers to participate?

RANDALL POSTER: These songs are really hard to sing. This material is not easy. We incline ourselves toward singers we feel have an appreciation and a grounding in the repertoire.

MAGNET: Right now you are finishing up post-production work on Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. What can you tell me about it?

RANDALL POSTER: I can tell you that you’re going to love it.

MAGNET: Is it true that The Royal Tenenbaums started with a sentence that Wes Anderson wrote down on a piece of paper that said: Richie Tenenbaum steps out holding his tennis bag, wearing a Bjorn Borg head band.

RANDALL POSTER: I still have that piece of paper. Basically, after he wrote that down, in no time we knew 80% of the songs were were going to use before there was even a script.

MAGNET: How did you arrive at the idea of using David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese for Life Aquatic.

RANDALL POSTER: The story I tell is that when Wes was writing The Life Aquatic we used to meet on Sundays and I’d read the new pages, and this went on for a couple of months. One afternoon we got together and I was reading the pages and the one scene was Pele comes on deck and plays a David Bowie song in Portuguese. And that was it. Then by the lord’s grace we found Seu Jorge and we knew by virtue of his audition that he could sing, but we had no idea how brilliant he was. Subsequently before Wes started to shoot the movie we made a list of 13 David Bowie songs and over the course of shooting or in the latter parts of pre-production I went over a couple of times and recorded Jorge doing all these songs. He had to basically create them because he was not familiar with the David Bowie canon. He basically, through alchemy, transformed these pieces into bass nova. That’s how it came to be. Once we had them and they were so wonderful, that at the end of almost of every location shot, we’d bring in Jorge and do another one on camera.

MAGNET: What was Bowie’s reaction?

RANDALL POSTER: He loved it.

MAGNET:  How could he not? What are you listening to now that’s currently blowing your mind? Are you still able to listen to music for pleasure?

RANDALL POSTER: Yeah, I am. That’s one of the great gifts I’ve been given. I can still listen like a civilian. Let’s see, the new Washed Out record, I’m listening to these re-mixes by these guys Boys Noize, I’ve been listening to the new Kendrick Lamar, I’ve been listening to Dog Blood, which is a Skrillex thing.

MAGNET: Is there a form of music that you see no redeeming value in?

RANDALL POSTER: No. I wouldn’t say that, but I would say it’s taken me longer… classical music was never really my music of choice, so that’s been the music that I’ve been slowly coming to appreciate as I’ve gotten older.

MAGNET: If you could go back and music supervise any film from that last 50 years or so, what would it be?

RANDALL POSTER: American Graffiti.

MAGNET: And what would you do differently?

RANDALL POSTER: I wouldn’t do anything differently.