Thomas Golubic is the two-time Emmy-nominated Music Supervisor of Better Call Saul. We talk about his experience clearing songs and placing them in Saul and on Breaking Bad as well. Thomas discusses the role of the Music Supervisor in storytelling, the challenges of getting the songs you want for the show, and the Television Academy’s recent embrace of the role of the Music Supervisor as it relates to Emmy nominations. We also get into the time when Steve Perry of Journey freed up a song for Todd and Lydia on Breaking Bad.
Awards Daily: You worked on Breaking Bad before coming to Better Call Saul, how did you come to the prequel?
Thomas Golubic: I came to Better Call Saul when Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were talking about doing a spin-off project. I think if they wanted to continue the relationships with a lot of the people that they worked with before. Because they knew they were focusing on Saul, I think the idea was to figure out how some of the same folks that they’d spent the last several years working together very successfully with would be able to do a very different project. In many ways, it was us tackling a show in a completely different way than we had Breaking Bad, but having a lot of the familiarity, as well as the trust, respect and the kind of shorthand communication that we had in developing Breaking Bad. It was a great opportunity for us to extend the experience but to do it differently. Almost like a band that starting out playing rock and roll and now suddenly became a jazz band.
AD: The shows do have different basic tones, but they clearly exist in the same universe. How did you manage that balance?
TG: We started completely from scratch. We knew, number one, that we were doing a prequel. We knew we were going to end up in the Breaking Bad time period, but we also knew that we were not meeting Saul Goodman, we were meeting Jimmy McGill. The entire creative approach to the project was how do we tell the story of how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman. That is a very interesting creative dilemma. That really applies to everyone. That applies to know what Bob Odenkirk has to do, what the writers have to do, and what the cinematographer has to do. It’s a very different way of approaching things. The way we began was that we knew we were starting with the character of Gene Takovic in the prequel story. Which is actually a current time period basically after Breaking Bad. Saul has disappeared and he’s now become Gene Takovic, working at a Cinnabon. So, we had the future time period and then we knew we were going back into the past.
There was a lot of strategic calibration about how the story would evolve. Because we knew that when we meet Saul Goodman in his first episode of Breaking Bad, he suggests that Walt and Jesse should just have Badger killed to get rid of the problem of him potentially ratting them out. them out. Which is a horrifying thing for someone to say. You think to yourself how does someone become that? Someone capable of casually suggesting that you just kill somebody because they could be a liability. That was sort of the template. That was the flag in the ground. We had to establish how we get to that. So, we knew when we met Jimmy McGill, he was a very different person. He was actually quite innocent, sweet, good-natured, and well-meaning. Ambitious, but in a way of a sort of former slacker is. Trying to get ahead, but also looking to do short cuts. So, the music was very different for him than it would have been for Saul. We didn’t really use music to tell Saul Goodman’s story (on Breaking Bad). The only music we have for Saul is the patriotic them playing in the waiting room. We were not trapped by a specific aesthetic. We were now approaching how do we tell Jimmy McGill’s story, and how do we endear him to the audience. How do we feel the growing tragedy of him becoming Saul Goodman and invest the audience in that emotional journey? That was really the biggest challenge in telling the story.
AD: One thing that I think ties the shows together is both characters (Walt and Jimmy) are on a gradual descent into darkness. Both shows start out somewhat lighter in tone, but slowly turn grimmer. How did that affect your choices for Better Call Saul?
TG: I would love to say that we were able to plan this all out ahead of time, but the truth is we really approached it like a jazz band. We were very improvisational in how we approached it. We tried a lot of different ideas out. The other difficulty was that for Breaking Bad we had a pilot. That meant we were able to really figure out what the tone of the show was, how we would use music, the role of the score, the role of songs in the pilot. We were able to use that template as we moved forward. With Better Call Saul, it was greenlit for the first season. Which meant that it was like trying to paint a train while it’s moving down the tracks. You never quite get a chance to make a plan and put into motion. So, we really experimented in the first season and certainly on the first few episodes. What we found is that the sound of Jimmy is the sound of what Jimmy would like to be. The sound is who he thinks he could be, and that was leaning towards more sophisticated jazz.
As Jimmy began to realize that the true version of himself is this guy who does cut corners – who revels in destroying things – we go much more towards funk. We were sort of celebrating his self-destruction, in a sense. One of the moments that was really key in his development was a sequence where Jimmy is putting on the flashy suits for the first time. He’s trying to get himself fired from Davis & Main. We had a really fun song called Scorpio by Dennis Coffee, which was one of the more gritty sounds. We realized that was the sound of Saul Goodman, or someone turning into Saul Goodman. So, we’ve moved much more towards a mix of funk and disco as we’ve gotten further along in Jimmy’s story and left a lot of the sort of more elegant jazz behind. The classical and jazz is the more sophisticated version of Jimmy he presented to the world – what he thought he could be. As he began to realize who he really is, it got grittier, it got funkier, it got darker.
AD: When the show brought Giancarlo Esposito back as Gus, that’s an explicit connection to Breaking Bad. Did that impact the music you chose?
TG: That’s a very interesting element. Giancarlo’s performance is such a master class on subtlety. What’s exciting about what the writers are doing and what Giancarlo is going with the performance of Gustavo is presenting somebody who hasn’t quite figured it all out yet. He is a super-criminal on the Breaking Bad time period. He is an astonishing antagonist. Somebody way ahead of Walter White. But on Better Call Saul, he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. He’s still struggling to figure out how we can deal with his cartel rivals
We got a chance to get to know a little bit of his back history in Breaking Bad. We knew he was from Chile. We knew that he was sophisticated. He is someone who’s cultured. He may be gay – it’s really hard to say. He certainly hasn’t presented himself as a family man of any sort. He is somebody who’s been working in rather mysterious ways. He hides in plain sight. He presents himself as a consummate professional. I think with music for him, it was really the opportunity give it a little bit less of refined quality. It isn’t totally mastered yet. In some respects, that’s really having less music for him. For instance, when he invites Jesse over or when he invites Walt over for dinner on Breaking Bad, he is giving a performance. He is trying to figure out whether these are worthy partners. He’s not a guy who makes friends. He’s figuring out if you are an ally or not. He does a similar thing where he makes his specialty paella with the doctor he brings in to get updates on Hector during the Better Call Saul time period. In that one, we didn’t use music. I think part of the reason we didn’t use music there was that we just felt that he hadn’t quite mastered that part of it yet. Not using music is as powerful as using music. It can be as strategic. I think restraint has been a guiding principle in both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad as to how we use music.
AD: The absence of the use of music represents Gustavo not being fully formed.
TG: Or not having presented his agenda with a spiel attached to it. He’s still figuring it out.
AD: Music can cue you emotionally and lead you in a certain direction. Not using music for Gus doesn’t allow you to be clear on what comes next.
TG: Absolutely. It makes you lean in a little bit more. This is one of the things I think (composer) Dave Porter does really beautifully in both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. He finds the right moments to let you lean in. I think one of the problems that a lot of television shows and films have with the score is they tend to tell the audience too much. They tend to reflect what you’re already looking at. That means the audience has to almost lean back, because they don’t have to do any work. By giving you little mysteries, by giving you space, you allow the audience to lean forward. I think we both try in source and in score to find way to constantly have the audience lean forward and find new things in the sequence.
In that scene with the doctor, we’re not saying Gus has an agenda. We’re saying he’s trying to figure out some important information about Hector. This isn’t really about the doctor, this is about him figuring out what is going on with Hector. Is Hector alive in there, or has the stroke taken away his faculties? Because his plan for revenge is very much dependent upon whether Hector is able to feel the revenge. If he’s not able to feel the revenge because his faculties are too diminished it steals revenge away from him. There’s a slight smile on him. We realized that by having music in that scene it becomes about his relationship with the doctor as an ally – which is not. It is about him getting information about how Hector is doing. Each scene that we deal with there is an enormous amount of thought and care that goes into it – trying to figure out how we want to approach it and what is the music saying to the audience. How is it forming the narrative?
AD: In looking at the song choices on both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, there are a lot of relatively obscure songs. How much of that is you wanting to dig for things people haven’t heard and how much of that is the budgetary constraints around getting clearances for the songs you might want?
TG: There’s three major factors and you already hit on two of them. One is simply by putting in music that is already in the popular imagination, you are drawing attention to people’s individual experiences with that song. If you put in a song that thirty people in the audience heard at a wedding last weekend you’re going to take them to the experience of being at that wedding, or what the song meant to them, or what it means in the public landscape of communication about pop music. By having pop songs play sort of randomly on a TV show, what you’re doing is you’re drawing in everybody else’s experience with those songs. Number two finances. Both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are very modestly budgeted shows. We are always struggling to be able to afford everything each season. We’ve never had a lot of money to play with. The original aesthetic of Breaking Bad was to a large degree informed because we had so little money. We’re not able to afford using much.
That lead us also toward using less recognizable artists. Additionally, with every handicap you have there is also an opportunity. What was really great about that opportunity is it meant that we were able to accomplish a few things. Number one, we were able to stay on budget. Which was absolutely vital for me keeping my job and for us being able to get to keep telling the story. We were also able to introduce music to people for the first time. That meant that the music was coming out of the fabric of the show in a way that it was not associated with other projects. It allowed us to make sure that it was absolutely definitively speaking to our story. That meant it wasn’t like people were influenced by how much they liked that song or that artist. It really is about story. Does it impact our story in a positive way to tell us something about the characters?
If we had music for Kim Wexler playing in her car, I want to feel like that music is part of her collection. I believe she has Stereolab in her collection. I believe she has The Breeders in her collection. When we have a song pop up, even for just a moment, it’s saying something about her, and it’s probably saying something about the fact that she of this generation and of this time period. Everything that is in there is factually correct. We don’t put in music that’s contemporary in a show that takes place several years ago. We’re very specific about the year. Everything that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould do is absolutely precise. That is something that applies to every department – including ours. So, we try to always make sure that everything is factual, and realistic, and tells the story in the most effective way possible.
AD: When you do choose a song that is more obvious to the masses – I’m thinking of the Air Supply song, Even The Nights Are Better, what’s the decision-making process behind that choice.
TG: Some of it is probably going to be budgetary. In the sense that we’re able to afford at that moment. Or, if it helps to have something that’s recognizable. Going back to the Breaking Bad time period, we have a scene where Walter white is trying to cover up for the fact that he’s been kidnapped by Tuco. He’s trying to figure out how best to do it, and he acts as if he’s had an illness and he’s lost his mind. The best way of showing that you’ve lost your mind is walking around naked inside a grocery store. We wanted a muzak piece of music there, but we also wanted to have something that allows the irony of the moment to kind of click. Having a famous cover of a song (Bob James – Feel Like Making Love) in there was really kind of the key ingredient for it. There are other moments when you can utilize a song that is part of the popular imagination to really help tell the story. Going back to Breaking Bad, the character of Todd was this is absolutely cold-blooded killer whose uncle is a neo-Nazi. He’s a terrible human being, but he has wonderfully bland taste in pop music. One of the great joys of having that character is that a lot of times the people that you think are dangerous are not dangerous in the way that you think.
Music can sometimes be a wonderful way of allowing you to get comfortable with a character or feel a sense of empathy for them. At the same time that’s a dangerous thing. That’s exactly what they use in order to be able to get ahead. Or, their ruthlessness is covered up by the fact that their taste in music might be more conventional. You can’t necessarily show that without having a recognizable song. So, it helps a lot to have something that people know. It’s like it’s “yacht rock,” how could this guy possibly be a murderer?
AD: It’s like Christian Bale in American Psycho playing Phil Collins. I thought Todd was the scariest character on Breaking Bad because you can’t see him coming.
TG: Jesse Plemons is so subtle and nuanced. If you think about how great Jonathan banks performance as Mike Ehrmantraut is, you can look at it and Jesse Plemons’ performance as Todd, and it is literally master classes in subtlety. There’s so much going on behind the eyes and that is something which very few actors are able to really deliver – constant roving intelligence that is honest to those characters and honest to their experience. That’s why it’s really important with music that we’re always finding ways of being truthful to those characters. They’re performing with such precision and such clarity, but if you feel there’s a wrong music choice it really takes away from the credibility of that character. There’s a lot of importance to getting it right.
AD: Being a music person yourself, how much music do you pull from your own collection? Like if you’re thinking to yourself, I love this Stevie Ray Vaughan song that’s outside the budget, but I have an idea of a great replacement from my own personal collection.
TG: It’s tricky on one level. We had CC Mobile, the cell phone store in season four. We had that venue a number of times. We would never have been able to afford to put recognizable songs in there, so we ended up using these library pieces, but we used them a lot. We ended up spending a ton of money just because we were doing so many job cuts. We would have one second or two seconds – just long enough for you to notice that he’s in the cell phone store listening to this god awful muzak. Even when you’re being inexpensive you end up sometimes spending quite a bit of money, simply because of the number of uses that are going through. As far as the telling of the story goes, luckily, I have a wonderful team. It’s myself and my three colleagues and we all dig in on those key moments in the show. It’s really important for all of us to try different ideas. We talk everything through. Plenty of ideas come from their collections, or maybe not even pitched to the scene, but pitched to the show at some point. We really discuss whether we think it’s the strongest idea and whether it’s something that really is going to work. That’s kind of the joy of it. But it’s not all just coming from my imagination or my collection.
Some of it is coming from my colleagues. Some of it is coming from something that may have been itched and it’s become a “one-stop” – meaning it’s affordable. Or, it’s something where we have only one company to go to. So, we can go to them and say, listen there are no other parties to negotiate with here. We don’t have much money for this, but we’d really love to be able to use it. Are you open to that? That could be a great luxury for us. It means that sometimes a more popular song, or something that might be more expensive otherwise, we’re able to navigate into the budget. The difficult thing about music supervision that many people don’t understand is how much of the challenges of our job are dependent upon the restrictions of the budget. Most shows are not properly budgeted. Which means you’re almost always starting from a deficit. Many showrunners like to use ideas that they recognize, and almost anything that you recognize it’s going to be expensive by its very nature. It’s a constant struggle for the supervisor to find affordable ways to be able to give the showrunners some of the music that they would like to hear, but at the same time be able to affordably get everything else in there, and get the job done effectively. Luckily, with Better Call Saul that’s very rarely the problem. Generally speaking, everybody is very reasonable about it. Nobody was throwing The Rolling Stones at us and saying I really want you to clear this song.
AD: Are you helped in getting affordable clearances because you are asking on behalf of such a prestigious show?
TG: No. It doesn’t. (Laughs). That’s the easy answer. The people who are most excited about our placement of their music in our show are almost always the smaller independent artists that we would probably be able to afford anyway. I’m always shocked to the degree most of the bigger artists with major publishers on major labels never seem to care. They just want to know how much is it, can you meet our fee? It’s one of the unfortunate aspects of the business. That said we have wonderful colleagues at this company and they sometimes will pitch wonderful ideas to us. But I would say that very rarely are we able to say we’d really love to put in a Rod Stewart song, could you please clear it to us for a fraction of what you normally would because it’s a special show. it’s almost always that you find out after the fact that people are big fans.
I think one of the most lovely examples of that actually does tie back to Todd. We got a call from the attorney to Steve Perry from Journey. I thought to myself, oh my god, we got a copyright violation. It turned out he was a big fan of the show because his girlfriend was in the hospital and very ill. They basically spent a lot of time watching the show together. It was a huge bonding experience for him. and he was very sweet. He basically just said that he really appreciated the fact that the show had such a healing power for him and his girlfriend while she was going through her illness – unfortunately she did pass away – and he just said listen if you ever find a space for one of my songs, I would love that. We did not have a space for a Journey song, but we did find a space for Oh Sherrie, which we included for Todd. It was perfectly in line, because Todd would really like Oh Sherrie. It’s a song that would speak to him. He has a sort of funny romantic quality to him. It was the time that he was sort of infatuated with Lydia, and what better way to be able to kind of bring all these elements together than to find music that really speaks to his sort of warped sense of romance? Things do really happen on occasion, but a lot of times it’s after the fact. Unfortunately, I don’t get a lot of emails from major artists thanking us for placing their song. It’s the smaller independent artists that express appreciation.
AD: This is your second Emmy nomination associated with Better Call Saul for music supervision. This is a fairly new category. I imagine it feels really good to be personally recognized, but it must also feel really good to have the scope of job be recognized after many years where it wasn’t.
TG: I will forever be grateful to the academy for recognizing supervision’s contribution. Music supervisors are hugely important to narrative storytelling. It’s been a profession that has been overlooked for a very long time. In my mind the TV academy really showed insight, and bravery, and thoughtfulness. The problem you have with any award category is that you have a lot of people who are trying to protect what they have. A lot of professions feel that they don’t want to see anybody else being able to have their work recognized. The fact the TV academy dealt with whatever push back they got and really were able to say we believe in this, we believe this is the right thing to do for this profession, and that the highest levels of music supervision should be awarded the same way the composers should be, the same with the costume designers should be the same the casting people should be. We’re all contributors to storytelling.
So, I’m very thankful that the profession is receiving the attention that it deserves. We are very important to the music storytelling process and I’m very proud of the contribution myself and my team have done for Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. I think the TV academy should really be applauded for looking ahead and recognizing it. I hope that the film academy does at some point. It shows a lack of insight on their part, not recognizing music supervisors. I think they will look back on it and find that they were slow. That they ultimately were behind the times. I think the TV academy is catching up with the times.