Featured Creator: Matt Sullivan
Rolling Up His Sleeves to Supervise the New Movie Musicals
The biggest movie musicals of the last decade—Chicago, Rent, Dreamgirls, Hairspray—all have one element in common: Matt Sullivan. As a kid the Grammy nominee served as music supervisor in his mother’s station wagon, and is now one of the most sought-after music supervisors in Hollywood. He has not only assembled the perfect grooves for almost 20 major motion pictures, he’s also brought some of Broadway’s biggest hits to the silver screen.
Only a year after his first film credit, 2001’s Heartbreakers, Sullivan landed a job with Rob Marshall on the director’s acclaimed movie adaptation of Chicago, drawing bravura vocal performances from Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. He followed that by working with Taye Diggs and Rosario Dawson on Chris Columbus’s adaptation of Rent. He teamed with Outkast to create a virtuoso sound for Idlewild before tackling two more Broadway classics: the Oscar-winning Dreamgirls and Golden Globe-nominated Hairspray.
He contributed to the complex musical mixture of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, adapting some of the traditional tunes worked into the score, then tackled the 2011 remake of Footloose, bringing an authentic, contemporary country vibe with songs by Blake Shelton, Zac Brown, Whitney Duncan, and CeeLo Green. He helped turn Tom Cruise into an ‘80s rock icon for Rock of Ages, and supervised the Steven Spielberg-produced pilot for Smash. Up next is Can a Song Save Your Life?, a music-centric film from Once director John Carney starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. It’s plain to see that Sullivan is the common ingredient in a lengthening list of smash successes. Up next is Can a Song Save Your Life?, a music-centric film from Once director John Carney starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo and SAVING MR. BANKS, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Emma Thompson as the author of the MARY POPPINS stories and Jason Schwartzman as songwriter Richard Sherman. . It’s plain to see that Sullivan is the common ingredient in a lengthening list of smash successes.
JB: What began your journey as a music supervisor for film?
MS: I have a crazy Hollywood story. I was working in New York City through my 20s, a suit and tie job, and I always knew I wanted to be more creative with my life. So I packed up in 1999 and travelled to Los Angeles, and just kept my eyes and ears open. I started taking acting classes and auditioning. I worked on a couple small projects as an actor and did some extra stuff, and that really helped me know I wanted to be on set. If I was an extra I just wanted to find out how films were made and who everyone was. A relative of mine is a music supervisor who I really hadn’t met that many times. By coincidence my landlord was a music executive for a film company. He and I became friends, and I introduced him to who I was to go work for and she said, “Do you need a job?” I started organizing and alphabetizing CDs, and answering phones, and about a year later she and I were working on Chicago. I got lucky.
JB: What got you interested in music in the first place?
MS: I think like most people it’s something you’re born with. My earliest recollection of knowing I liked music was when I was probably 6 or 7, back when you were allowed as a small kid to sit in the front seat of a car. I remember always flipping through radio stations—the old push buttons to tune the stations. I remember singing along to songs and my mother was mystified. She was like, “How do you know these songs?” I didn’t know how I knew them, I just always gravitated toward music.
JB: It’s amazing Chicago would be your first big job—that’s a really amazing way to start out. It had some really huge actors, but none of them were known for singing.
MS: The way I always approach a job, ever since Chicago, is very much one-on-one with the actors in the booth and the rehearsal space. When Renée Zellweger came in she had a smaller voice but a lot of character, a lot of raw emotion. She had the most dramatic songs in the movie, but she really sells them through emotion and character. When Catherine Zeta-Jones started singing she was a powerhouse, and that’s who she is in the movie, so that was perfect. She blew us away, and then you find out she grew up singing and dancing in Wales so she had some previous talent. I’m lucky I worked with her again on Rock of Ages, and she’s still got it.
JB: What was it like coming into your first big job and working with such huge stars?
MS: I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a part of the job, and I’m not really star-struck. When you’re dealing with actors you’re just trying to help them look and sound the best possible, and you just stay on that task.
JB: Say I got cast in one of these movies and you didn’t know what my experience was. How would you start working with me and getting me ready?
MS: First I’d do a little research. Some people surprise you. Like Paul Giamatti in Rock of Ages, you’d think, “Oh, he’s not a singer.” But then you start researching and find he did a movie called Duets. And Alec Baldwin, again you think, “He’s not a singer.” And then you start googling and YouTube-ing, and find that he sings on Saturday Night Live all the time. So I do my own research, and then I get in conversations with the actors pretty quickly and find out their comfort level: did they grow up playing instruments, were they around music, do they like music? That’s a big thing. Some actors just don’t sit around and listen to music. They don’t have anything on their iPod, and knowing that is important. It’s an interesting job because I grew up playing guitar and piano and I fool around with a lot of different instruments, and in the last six months I’m giving Keira Knightley guitar lessons and Jason Schwartzman piano lessons, and on this new movie I’m doing Colin Farrell is playing the tin whistle, so I’m researching and finding out how that’s played and getting him prepared to play it.
JB: What do you do when someone has no experience and doesn’t like music?
MS: As soon as they’re hired you start getting them with professional vocal coaches, guitar coaches, piano coaches, anything. You get to a point where a lot of actors aren’t going to play their own instruments on camera, that’s just a fact. You have to make them extremely comfortable with the instrument. For me if someone is going to be a guitarist in the film, they practically need to be sleeping with their guitar. When you see someone hold a guitar, there’s something you can’t express in words, but there’s a comfort level with an instrument that comes with experience and building muscle memory and just having a feel for the instrument. So you get them working as soon as possible.
JB: How has your acting experience and acting classes helped in your work?
MS: I don’t think I’d be as good a music supervisor doing musical films if I wasn’t at one point trying to be in front of the camera. It helps me know how to talk to an actor on the set, because most directors give me the latitude to give the actor music direction on their singing and performance in between takes. There are certain ways to approach an actor. Being on the other side of the camera helped me know how I would want to be spoken to, and also the pressure they’re under. A lot of people that know how to play an instrument have a tough time getting in front of people and start playing. Now they have to pick it up and try to play with something they didn’t grow up playing, and they have to act, sing, and play all at the same time. That’s a tough feat.
JB: What are your responsibilities on a movie set?
MS: Sometimes people are surprised at the things I do. I’ll be right with a grip who’s pushing in on a camera movement and I’m tapping her back and pushing the grip in just to hit a dramatic music crescendo. I know exactly what the director wants. If the director says, “I want the big push in right at this note of the song,” I’m right there next to the grips and the cameramen and telling them to rack focus on certain lines of songs. I do a lot of that, as well as coordinating with the sound department for live recording.
JB: What about post-production?
MS: I’m pretty technical, so I grasp onto concepts quickly. Through a lot of my on-the-job experience, going from Chicago to Rock of Ages, I know a lot more about mixing a movie. I knew kind of what I would want on Chicago, but now I know how to give direction and technically get us there, how to mix a movie the way I think it should sound.
JB: Before Chicago were you familiar with all these Broadway musicals?
MS: When I was growing up my mother and I would go into New York and see shows. We had six kids in our family, so it was kind of tough to do, but since I was one of the younger kids I was always brought along. If there was a ballet she wanted to see, I would go. I saw a couple of Broadway shows, and always enjoyed them. I wouldn’t say I’m a follower of Broadway, but I enjoy it. They want guys like me to come see these musicals, but I’m not the target audience, so if I can make these musicals into something I enjoy and that I would want to go see, that really helps the film and the filmmakers.
JB: Looking at the list of movies you’ve done—Chicago, Rent, Hairspray, Dreamgirls—those are all the biggest Broadway musicals of the last few decades and you’re the common ingredient in all of them. Those movies all had different directors and actors. You’re the one name on all of them. That’s really impressive.
MS: Thank you. People just like to work with me and I know the job. I know how to do it and do it well. If you have people who just want to recreate a Broadway show, you might as well put cameras into the Broadway theatre. I want to make a movie I want to go see, and if I want to see it I know the younger girls, the women, the people drawn to these movies normally will want to see it anyway, and they’ll love the movie. But hopefully I’ll get some guys like me in too.
JB: How do you work on something like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is more of a scored film with not a lot of songs?
MS: Rob Marshall and I have been working together since Chicago and Nine, so he asked to me to come on board. In the movie there’s a character named Scrum who played the mandola. I taught him how to play because he’d never played an instrument in his life. I also helped them find some source music, some old Irish shanties that we turned into pirate songs. There’s a mermaid singing in the water, and I actually found an old Irish poem and put a melody to it, and Hans Zimmer took that melody, tweaked it to his liking, and that became part of the score for those mermaids.
JB: Where do you go to do research like that?
MS: It’s a lot of cruising around the Internet. I know more about Irish shanties than I ever should. You learn more about classical music, you learn more about all different types of music from all different periods. Actually, learning about Irish shanties helped me recently because Colin Farrell is playing this tin whistle in Saving Mr. Banks, and the director said, “I want an old Celtic tune and it has to be from the 1800s,” and I said, “Boom! I got my list right on my computer, here you go.”
JB: Tell me about Footloose, because that had to be invented in a way, but you’re working off the structure of an older movie.
MS: We sat around and had a lot of conversations with the director. Randy Spendlove at Paramount was heavily involved. We talked a lot about whether we’d be redoing the tunes from the original, reusing the originals, or recreating all new songs. We all decided there’s some stuff we can’t live without and some songs we can lose, so we wanted a hybrid of the new songs, original songs, and recreating the old songs. “Footloose” had to be in the movie, so we wanted to start with the original and end with the recreated version. Craig Brewer, the director, made a great movie. He was the driving force. He wanted to make it more multicultural, so we added some hip-hop tunes and just tried to make it more diverse than the original.
JB: There’s a bit of a country direction. Was that always part of the idea?
MS: Craig is from Memphis and he’s got a little country in him, and that’s the great thing about the movie. It’s got a little country, a little urban, it’s got the ‘80s, it’s got a whole mishmash of music and it all works in a cohesive way.
JB: Tell me about Idlewild. That seems like a really interesting project.
MS: It was a really great idea: hip-hop tunes taking place in speakeasies in the ’20s. The dancing and choreography are just fantastic. All the music was from Big Boy and André 3000, so when I came on board I sorted through a lot of stuff they have in their own library and looked for spots in the movie where we needed new songs, and figured out what kind of songs were needed. I went into the studio with André, and he and I were sitting at the board and recording himself and Paula Patton. That was a really fun project, one of my favorites.
JB: You sing in Rock of Ages. What was that like, and how was it working with Tom Cruise?
MS: The singing part was interesting because it all happened very last minute. The director was like, “Just go be the guy in the bus,” and I said, “No, I know you’re kidding but we have to find somebody.” But he said, “I want it to be you.” I’ve worked with hundreds of people asking them to lip-sync on camera and giving them notes. I fool around and sing along as I watch actors do it, so I’ve done it behind the camera, but it was my first time in front of the camera, so it was pretty cool and I learned a lot.
Tom Cruise is a hard worker. He’s really into the details and into his character. He didn’t want to sound like Tom Cruise, or like Axl Rose, or Bret Michaels, or Paul Stanley—he wanted to sound like Stacee Jaxx, his character. So we spent a couple months in his house just popping in and out listening to his progress with the vocal coach, to see him go through sounds and noises in his voice, telling him, “Okay, that’s a little too nasally. Bring it a little more down into your chest,” and, “Okay, put that a little bit more into your head voice,”—just messing around until we found what his character would sound like. He worked months and months and months, and he was with his vocal coaches about three hours a day. He knew every little bit of the song—he would stop himself and say, “I missed the note right there, I didn’t go up to the D.” And we’re saying, “Just keep going. Don’t worry about it. We’ll come back and get it.”
JB: What’s something people wouldn’t necessarily know or suspect about you?
MS: They would probably assume I was a music theatre geek, but I’m not. At heart I love new wave music. I love a lot of bands in rock n’ roll, but I have my feet in both sides of the world. I also love going to operas and ballet, but deep inside I’m a rock n’ roll guy. That was the fun of doing Rock of Ages, it was a musical with the music I grew up with, and I was able to sing on it.