Mar 17, 2023
By Kyle Mullin
Photography by Thomas Golubić
After 10 episodes of sleuthing from one corner of the country to the next, Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), the central figure of the Rian Johnson-created Peacock series, Poker Face, needed a soundtrack when hitting the road one last time in the finale. Thankfully, the series’ music supervisor, Thomas Golubić pegged her as a Neil Young fan. The revving guitar of Young’s “Walk On,” with its wistfully free-spirited chorus, helped bring a fitting end to the mystery-dramedy’s first season—one that was flush with not only plot twists, but also gripping song choices.
Indeed, if you have a favorite music moment from our ongoing prestige TV era, chances are the Boston-raised Golubić and his SuperMusicVision team curated it. Among his stacked credits are Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under, and of course, Poker Face. The Emmy- and Grammy-nominated Golubić talks to Under the Radar about clearing licensing hurdles for one of Poker Face’s best scenes, what it’s like to see Johnson ascend from directing Breaking Bad to hitting it big with Knives Out and Poker Face, using an idiosyncratic song during one of Breaking Bad’s most emotional arcs, and more.
You’ve enjoyed so much success in TV, but I understand you first came to LA with another medium in mind: writing The Great American Novel.
Something like that. I worked as a journalist in the ‘90s. I wanted to explore other cities and other ways of living. Portland was one stop, then L.A. I was going to write about “the end of the American empire.” That kind of pretentious bullshit is insufferable once you hit your 30s, and embarrassing by your 50s. I came to LA from Boston with this obnoxious North Eastern superior attitude about it. But then, the city just made me completely fall in love.
Do memories of those transient years help you relate to Charlie on Poker Face, as she zig zags across America?
I relate to her tons. She has such an anxious version of that adventure though. That’s part of the excitement of the show: she can never quite relax. But the joy in the show is watching her relax and bond and connect with people in a powerful way. That’s one of the great things about travel: meeting a stranger, and having a more surprising relationship or experience than you would have expected. That’s the magic of her journey and the characters she meets.
One of the things I love about the show is the way it’s built and structured like a beautifully written novel where everything is exactly in place. But it’s the structure of a TV show. Rian Johnson has a masterclass in narrative storytelling structure and Poker Face is a great vehicle for it.
Is Rian pretty hands on? If so, you must have some pretty interesting conversations about song choices.
Yes! He’s a very passionate filmmaker. He loves the process. We get a chance to work through each episode, and every episode was a very unique challenge. As a veteran supervisor, the fun for me is using different types of experiences I’ve had professionally to figure out what my best role would be in each episode. It felt like a good thing to do at the later part of your career, to go: “Ok, what are my actual skill sets, and how can I test them?”
What’s an example of that?
Episode 4 is an amazing episode about a band. Outside of all the beautiful characters that are part of it—guests like Chloë Sevigny [Zodiac; Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane” video] and John Darnielle [of The Mountain Goats]—you really feel like the entire team is doing something exciting. I’m watching it live and helping to figure out the practical things, like having a song prepared, and it has to be played back in the scene, and we have to make sure it looks like the band is actually playing it. That was wonderful. And to do it in person, during COVID, in upstate New York, was an exciting adventure.
Sometimes it’s just about being around, and gently nudging things in different directions at key times. Then you have other times where you have to figure out what a horror movie is going to sound like, and do this really unique episode  with our favorite film scores from Vertigo and others, and connect the dots between them. Find ones that are licensable, and present those as options. You get to have so many creative adventures on one project.
The finale had some of the best song choices in the series.
We had a Bob Dylan cover on that episode—and this was Rian’s idea—by Burl Ives. It was so nice to hear his warm, charming and personable voice, which is just like Santa Claus, singing the bleak and bitter “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.”
There’s the Sammy Turner song, “Lavender Blue.” It’s in this really lovely scene where Cliff [Benjamin Bratt, who has been hunting Charlie down all season] is waiting for her outside the hospital. It’s one of those splashy moments. We wondered “How can we do this?” because we couldn’t clear the original master, because the owner couldn’t come to an agreement to validate the paperwork. And nobody wanted to get sued. So we had to navigate this complicated business. People don’t want to get in trouble and everyone wants to do good business. So how do you navigate that comfortably? In this case, we found a different recording of that song. We got it done, and it splashes beautifully.
The Neil Young song was tricky too. Because Neil doesn’t always clear. There are many different ways we could have closed the season, but it was just like, this is what the show feels like, the weight of the guitar on your body. The relaxed quality of it. The troubadour moving toward the future, with a jaundiced eye but also some warmth. That’s a Neil Young song. That captures, to me, how you close out Poker Face’s first season.
We’ve been waiting for that reunion scene with Cliff all season, so the song had to be pretty carefully considered.
Yeah, and replacing it was tricky because we had tried a lot of different ideas and couldn’t clear it. They were all interesting, but I don’t think any of them have the charm. Nobody wants to have a moment like that where you’re looking at the B choice, which is great and wonderful, but not the A choice. And what a luxury it is to put in the A choice.
Rian chose “Don’t Think Twice?” Are his music ideas always that inspired?
One of the projects that introduced me to Rian was Breaking Bad, in an episode where we had a very unusual country song in a moment that was powerful. It was an inspired idea that came out of the music spotting sessions, where we’d have a blank slate and just talk through ideas. We had a really wonderful song, “Take My True Love by the Hand,” for when Walt is pushing this barrel through the desert. We didn’t expect to have music there, because the character Hank had just been killed—sorry, spoiler alert. The audience was in shock, and we were trying to figure out how to move forward with Walt. And that song just puts a little bit of a shift in. It’s a smart way to take that moment and shift it into a new situation, a new world. That’s a great storytelling device, and it’s something Rian does really well.
It must be interesting to see Rian grow to the powerhouse he is now.
I love how Breaking Bad was a film school for so many great filmmakers. With television you can breathe exciting life into things, or it can slowly deflate and become diminishing returns. Breaking Bad had Michelle MacLaren, and Vince Gilligan obviously. That’s also the case with guest actors—there are star turns with actors I’ve never seen before that I love on Poker Face. And you can get actors who don’t act often. How beautiful is it that we got to spend an hour with Nick Nolte? I just love seeing him and Natasha as two veteran people who have lived rich lives. You feel that energy in those scenes.
Having America’s “Lonely People,” in that episode was Natasha’s choice. It established the warm center of Charlie, and in a way sets up her relationship with Nick Nolte.
Aside from the big needle drops, there’s a musical motif throughout Poker Face that sounds like a banjo anytime things get suspenseful. How did that come about?
Rian threw out this song idea, this beautiful piece of music, and everybody listened to it. And it kind of perfectly captured the emotional tone. It was up to Nathan Johnson, who is Rian’s cousin, they work together on all his projects, to create a theme that would capture the personality of this song, but not be in any way close to it. And what he did is fantastic. I love how it morphs in the different episodes. It becomes a thematic throughline that you hear in different manifestations in the episodes.
I also love the score in Episode 3, where Charlie is smelling some southern BBQ wood to find out clues. We had beautiful temp music for it. And what Nate and [guitarist] Judson Crane were able to create with that concept was so memorable. The idea was: when you’re smelling wood and figuring out a mystery, it’s like musical notes. Those notes tell you something about the story. That’s great storytelling! They transported you into Charlie’s experience of solving the crime, which gets you emotionally engaged.
The theme comes again in the episode with Nick Nolte, where it’s not a banjo but a horror score variation of that theme. If you pay attention, you can enjoy what they did on every episode.
What are you working on next?
We have a lot going on at SuperMusicVision, including a new series for Apple. It’s very unique and quite striking. It’s called Silo. The trailer just got released, and it’ll debut May 5.
Vince Gilligan has a new series that he’s working on for Apple. I have not read a script. I know nothing more than what’s in the press about it. So I’m about to get to read something that’s really special. And I have an opportunity to contribute to it in a way that’s really exciting.
We also have Mayfair Witches, which is a really wonderful project we worked on. The first season finished up and we’re doing a second season.
There’s something nice about these projects: they require you to use different muscles–sometimes within the same project. That’s a gift when you get a chance to do it with lovely, high-level people.
What are your thoughts on Stranger Things and The Last of Us reinvigorating retro songs with “Running Up the Hill” and “Long Long Time,” respectively, for a new generation? Does that make this an exciting time to work in your field?
Anytime a music placement resonates in the broader pop culture landscape, I think it is a good thing for the music supervision profession. It opens up a dialogue about what music supervisors do and how our work can impact the culture. Nostalgia is a potent force in media and storytelling, and Stranger Things is a brilliant delivery device for nostalgia, especially for the 1980s. It is encouraging that music artists like Kate Bush can experience a resurgence of attention and income from highlight placements. I found the Last of Us placement of Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” and its popularity particularly wonderful as it highlighted such a beautiful hour of television, and helped extend the afterglow of that touching love story.
I try to focus my efforts always on character and storytelling in my work. If a song placement resonates into the broader culture, that is exciting for everyone involved, but it is important to me to support the integrity and emotional needs of the storytelling moment. I find that trying to steer toward a “lightening bolt” cultural moment is a fool’s game. If you tell your story with honesty and integrity those moments will happen on their own.