HBO’s Big Little Lies has earned acclaim for its cast, its narrative, and even its real estate, but there’s still another signature component of the mini-series that deserves recognition: its music. Music supervisor Sue Jacobs and director Jean-Marc Vallée approached the soundtrack with the intent of starkly juxtaposing gorgeous, sunny Monterey Bay with the series’ dark narrative, which ultimately led to a hearty mix of soul and blues tunes. (Not to mention, Big Little Lies’ children having the most refined musical tastes in recent television history.) Last Thursday, Vulture spoke with Jacobs about how they shaped the show’s tense musical identity, why the soundtrack resonates with viewers, and the genius of Vallée.
Walk me through your creative process with Jean-Marc Vallée.
I like to say I’m the Ginger Rogers and Jean-Marc’s the Fred Astaire. The first time that we worked together was on Wild, and I didn’t know him at all. I had previously seen Crazy, and when I was done watching it, I couldn’t understand why he wanted me as a supervisor because I thought he was better at being me than me. He’s a director who really understands and knows what he wants in terms of music and the collaboration between music and film. When I worked with him for a while, I realized that our music tastes are so similar and we bounce off each other really well. We’re in the same pocket. He’ll pull up potential song selections and I’ll be like, No, we can’t use that, I put that in American Hustle and I put this in Silver Linings Playbook.
He goes in knowing that he doesn’t want a composer. He likes working with me in that way — throw me a bunch of this and I’ll throw you a bunch of that. He also knows when he needs an edge or something romantic, because he’s telling his story through music and controls it that way. It’s an incredible ton of work to work with him, but I love it and I feel really passionate supporting this vision. Just like how Jackson Pollock uses paint, Jean-Marc uses music. Before he starts shooting, he thinks which characters are going to be the device for the score. In Big Little Lies, which wasn’t in the book, that young girl always has an iPod. So that’s an example of how you’ll see that in a lot of his work. That’s what he uses, that’s his device for the score. It’s very unnerving for people. Some executives are like, You gotta get a composer. But he likes working this way and I love working this way, too.
Wow. To say you two have a great working relationship is a understatement.
We really have a good time. I learned when I started working with him that you’re always working with budgets and realities. For example, halfway through production I realized, Oh my God, he’s got the intro to this really expensive Elvis Presley song, but we never actually get to the Elvis part. Whaaaat? But then you learn it’s deeper than that. Jean-Marc started as a DJ, and I think you’re seeing an artist that combines these sensibilities. He always knew going into Big Little Lies that he didn’t want a composer. It’s funny — we’re going into this new series and all of these producers are having heart attacks. It’s like, Just go look at his other work, it’s going to be fine, we’ll get there.
How would you define the show’s musical identity, and how did you two work together to create it?
It’s all about tension, the whole push and pull of all of the music as a counterpoint. Big Little Lies is dark and has a very dark story at its core. Yet on the surface, it all looks so beautiful. The way that Jean-Marc moves the camera and the way that the music gets painted around is so much about using songs as a story. That’s why Chloe [the young girl] is always carrying an iPod. Jean-Marc knows from the script, This is what I’m going to do. Then it’s about supporting the cuts and supporting the story. It’s really using source as a score in a way that most people don’t do, and I think that’s why people are getting so excited by the music. We even got an offer for a soundtrack album, which you never get with a series. I’m the facilitator to somebody that is really masterful with how he uses the music, and that’s why people I believe are curious about it.
Why else do you think the music resonates with viewers?
It’s because they’re really connecting and feeling the songs so much more emotionally. They’re feeling it through the characters — in one of the scenes, Reese Witherspoon’s character flat-out says, “This is a such a beautiful song.” Suddenly, people hear these songs so differently. It’s rough! People are experiencing these songs through the characters. That’s what I think is going on. It’s that internal voice, right?
I was impressed with the children’s sophisticated music tastes. How was it decided that they’d be into David Bowie, Leon Bridges, and Alabama Shakes?
These characters are in there as a device, because that music isn’t in the book. That’s where you really have to think like, Here’s a director that doesn’t want to use a composer. He wants to score all of his films with preexisting music. So he creates all of these situations so he can score it. I think the only “baby” thing in there is the Otter Bay School song. Jean-Marc and I wrote the lyrics to that! It was the hardest thing ever. [Laughs.] We sat there toying around and realizing that children’s songs are hard. It took us about four or five days to come up with those lyrics. That’s the only kids’ song in the whole series. Everything else is really there as this device; Jean-Marc has already built in some way to get the score that he needs. He creates it so we can use these characters to score the show.
I noticed a few musical motifs that specifically coincide with each woman. Did you always want to create an instrumental identity for each of the main characters?
In a sense, yes. The character that Jean-Marc is clearest with is Jane. She has all of the trauma, and we really feel her trauma through the music that she listens to. We use Agnes Obel’s “September Song” several times throughout the series, that piano medley. That’s very much Reese’s heartbreak. We see that right at the beginning when she’s sitting at the piano and has a terrible fight with her older daughter, and then Chloe comes in and they start to play. Overall, it’s really about loss.
I think Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” is such a beautiful song for the opening title sequence. How did you pick it, and how does it set the tone for the series?
That was a tough one, to be honest, because it was initially used in all of the marketing. So you think, Do we want to use it again? It was a song that Jean-Marc really related to. We looked at a lot of other ones and that one just jumped out: St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Leon Bridges. All of those colors are all very much the same. They thread throughout the whole series. We have these new soul singers that have incredibly beautiful voices, and they offer diversity. There are songs here that no one had ever heard of before, and then mixed together with Neil Young. You can’t beat it.