Thomas Golubic: The Master of the Scene

[13 August 2013]

By Josh Antonuccio

Thomas Golubic got an unlikely start in the world of entertainment. It started with an idea for a book.

Not just any book, it would be a novel to explore the notion of the rise and fall of the American Empire, and what better place to write it than Los Angeles. Leaving his hometown of Boston, Golubic set out for L.A., armed with a great notion and a passion to tell his story. Little did he know that his ventures into literature would end abruptly, yielding no great American story. “In the course of time, I realized that other people had already written much smarter books about this subject and I didn’t really believe in the premise anymore.” However, it would be this failure that would ultimately pave the road to his role as one of today’s most high-profile music supervisors. “I’m a big fan of failure,” he notes. “It helps prepare you and to give you stamina for things that will come later.”

The end of a dream became only the beginning of a strange and meandering journey through a plethora of industry jobs which began with an early internet magazine start-up (“too far ahead of it’s time”), which got him to volunteering in radio (“my introduction to so much great music”), a position that would ultimately take him through the corridors of A&R and label work towards music supervision.

Five of Thomas Golubic’s Top Breaking Bad Moments:

a.i. Season 1 : Episode 7 “A No Rough Stuff Type Deal”

“Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”—Gnarls Barkley

a.ii. Season Two: Episode 10 “Over”

“Wolf at the Door”—TV on the Radio

a.iii. Season Three: Episode 13 “Full Measure”

“Crapa Pelada”—Quartetto Cetro

a.iv. Season Four: Episode 13 “Face Off”

“Black [ft. Norah Jones]”—Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi

a.v. Season Five: Episode 8 “Gliding Over All”

“Pick Yourself Up”—Nat King Cole


That’s not to say that his creative passion for melding music and moving image hadn’t been stoked at an early age. It actually began much earlier, through experiences of seeing movies with his father in Boston. “It was 1978, I was 10 years old and my dad took me to the Nickelodeon Theater at Boston University to see the 10th anniversary screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey,” he explains. “I was mesmerized by it. At the end of the film, you were still, like you were caught in this dream. I remember being very powerfully moved by that film and it still is one of my favorite films. I feel like it’s the high point of using music and film to create a dream state that’s far beyond any literal interpretation. And that’s what I love about it and why it connected to me, the way music and the images work together to put me in a transformative state that I wanted to be in forever. It’s a very powerful combination. That was an early point.”

It’s that sense of marrying music and images that has made Golubic (pronounced Ga-lub-itch) a creative tour-de force on so many notable projects, including being his current role as music supervisor for two of TV’s most popular shows: Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (the final episode of Dead‘s Season Three just smashed records again with a viewership of 12.4 million viewers). As Golubic explains, his role as a supervisor is all about one thing: telling the story. “My job is to tell stories with music; to understand music, different songs, different composers, all forms of music, understand the power it has and recognize when that power is well-used in helping to tell a story in the context of a film or TV project.”

Golbuic’s aim is to work alongside of the show’s creators and writers to effectively build the world of the story through strategic choices of music. “The job is to give creatively interesting options. If I’m working on a scene for Breaking Bad, my job is to look at that scene and understand it. I’ve read the script, I’ve looked at the scene over and over again, I have a sense of where the story is headed and where it came from and I try to figure out what music is going to help tell the scene and give it an interesting interpretation or energy or bring things out of the performances that otherwise would be missed or highlight things. It’s a pretty abstract process and I try to find elements that make something magical happen. I think it’s that chemistry between the picture and the music that you build a sensitivity towards and recognize when something is really great.”

The process of song selection can be painstaking and time-consuming. Golubic works with a small staff (Yvette Montoyer and Michelle Johnson are his only assistants at their home office in Silver Lake). Very often they are scouring the Internet, absorbing digital files and looking for any new and appropriate musical ideas that will be able to effectively translate the stories and scenes they are working on. Golubic notes that it’s always a collaborative process for his team, and one that welcomes ideas equally from all involved. However, the starting point can be very elusive.

“It’s a lot of trial and error and sometimes it’s random,” he explains. “Sometimes I’ll go into my iTunes database ... and see where it lands. It rarely lands on exactly the right choice, but it can lead me to an idea that leads to the next idea, which leads me to the right idea. That gets me to the point where I find the song that’s going to make the scene really sing and help to tell the story in a really dynamic and memorable way, where it has just the right emotional angle or support.” Once potential songs for a sequence have been “found,” the idea then goes to the production team for consideration and further dialogue.

Golubic’s pursuit of new music comes at a time when many artists in the music industry are searching for a new audience and more powerful outlets for exposure. Golubic believes that as a music supervisor, he is in a unique position to offer a place for artists’ music to resonate in space that permeates the oversaturated music market. “I don’t sugar coat it. When a band is starting out you can go to them with a relatively low budget and say, “we don’t always have a lot of money, but we have something else that is an exciting creative avenue that will give you benefits down the road.” In many ways, the job is easier and more difficult now. Because of technology we have so many more options. I can go online, head to Hype Machine and sometimes, I’ll just listen to music on blogs out of curiosity and help expand my knowledge.”

Intuitively, many would think that popular shows would prefer well-known songs for their narrative, however Golubic approaches his supervision work much differently. For him, using an unknown song gives the production team the ability to transform the song into the space of the story and to allow the scene to “own” the song, without many pre-conceived emotional ties. “When you hear a song that you know really well, that you’ve heard on the radio all summer, you’re bring a lot of your associative experiences to that experience when you hear that song. Which means if you’re watching a film, especially narrative, and you hear a song that you recognize, it’s not keeping you in the scene, it’s pulling you out, it breaks the spell and dismantles the storytelling process,” he points out. “The benefit of working with something that’s brand new is that it will give you a strong connection to the scene, the song is a part of that experience and if you do it right and the timing is right, you will never think of that scene without hearing that song, you will never hear that song and not think of that scene. That marriage is a very powerful one if it’s done right.”

One of the most notable examples of this in Golubic’s work is the emotionally gripping final sequence to HBO’s popular series Six Feet Under. Although the music for this ending was decided early on, the combination of a relatively unknown song (“Breathe Me” by Sia), coupled with the montage of how each of the shows’ characters eventually dies resonated powerfully with the fans of the show. “People weren’t overly familiar with the song and because they were hearing it in that context and it was a very emotional and poignant sequence in the series, people really connected to it, the song spoke to the scene, the scene spoke to the song and they both felt like a really lovely marriage.”

As fans of Breaking Bad can attest, the marriage between the mechanics of the story and the music of the show are undeniably powerful. Whether it is a menacing Walter White declaring “stay out of my territory” to the sounds of TV on the Radio or a narcorrido song in ode to the mighty “Heisenberg”, Golubic and show creator Vince Gilligan have crafted an engaging and dangerous world through their marriage of an impeccable script and the accompanying music.

“One of the things I love most about Vince Gilligan is he’s so brave and I think one of the reasons that the music is such a distinctive and exciting part about Breaking Bad is that he’s somebody who is willing to take risks, to look at things that are counter-intuitive and see some potential magic in there. It lets me be really free in the ideas that I present. I put a lot of time into those ideas, me and my team spend a lot of time and work very hard to make sure that everything we deliver is really well thought through and feels exciting and dynamic to us, so when he looks at it and his team looks at it, the right answer sometimes becomes really clear.”

Golubic maintains a manic schedule, juggling multiple shows, films, as well as other creative outlets including his work as a DJ. This summer has already found him in the throes of a few films, at least one new series (Showtime’s Ray Donovan), Season Four of The Walking Dead, as well as various other projects including setting up live jazz combos for the Turner Classic Cruise series. If that wasn’t enough for him, in June he found time to head to Bonnaroo where he did a live DJ re-score in the cinema tent. Along with all of this, he is of course hard at work with the production team of Breaking Bad, preparing the second half of the most anticipated season finale of the year.

“The trick with Breaking Bad is telling the story of Walter White in a compelling way and letting the editorial personality of the show shine in the music moments,” he tells us. “[Composer] Dave Porter in many ways draws you deeper and deeper in to the trauma and difficulties that Walter White and some of the other characters we are dealing with. With a show like Breaking Bad it’s incredibly exciting because you know you have the opportunity to do something really incredible. In writing the end of the series, Vince and his crew are so thoughtful about every bit of plotting, it even surprises them. I think that their process has a lot of maneuvering and changing and that’s part of the excitement, that they don’t know what the answers are until they arrive at it. The same applies for everybody in that process, including the actors. The actors have to read scripts, but they don’t want to prep it too much. They want to read it, get a real sense of the character and then go and perform while it’s really fresh. So I think that freshness is really helpful.”

Golubic explains the origin of that now-icnoic use of "Crystal Blue Persuasion" ...

Already in the first half of Season Five of Breaking Bad, there have been some of the most visceral and enthralling scenes of the entire series, including the meth-production montage found alongside of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” performed by Tommy James and the Shondells. Golubic’s process for music placement is as methodical as Vince Gilligan’s commitment to story. “With Breaking Bad, I work on it episode by episode. We will get a breakdown of the overall storyline, an outline of it and then we’ll get the script, then a first cut and work with the editors to help them place music into the episodes and cover territory as we go.”

“With scenes there’s a certain point where a song just causes a spark, something comes when a song hits that scene that it feels like it was meant to there forever. So, it’s a weird mixture of being a matchmaker and a chemist and recognizing when there is a chemical reaction happening. That requires both being excited about the music yourself and having a sense that there is something unique going on with it and then knowing that when you’re looking at the scene, that it’s a good place to have that kind of energy there and it creates something new and it speaks the scene in a way that’s surprising.”

That process can look quite different. For the two powerful montage sequences found in the first half of Season Five, each came about in very different ways. Golubic notes that with “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, they knew for awhile they wanted to use, but had to be patient. “It was one of those great songs that we had since the First Season, but we never found a moment for it. I never thought of it as something that we would turn into a montage. It was Vince who said I’d like to build something with the association, this ‘day in the life of a meth Lord’ montage. It was one of those ideas that I would have thought was too obvious. It turned out to be brilliant, because it was a much better idea of how to do it. One of the nice things about this whole process is that you throw all of the ideas forward and sometimes you feel like we’ll see if ever get to it, it’s a good idea, but maybe its too cutesy.  As it turned out, it was a very interesting and compelling piece, but it’s one of those things that you never quite know until the moment is right. Again, this goes back to the genius of Vince. He knows when the moment is right. That’s the magic of it. It’s a very collaborative thing.”

This was not the case with one of the other major montage sequences in Season Five, showing Walter’s “pest control” mobile meth lab idea. “We had a roller coaster ride with the sequence of that pest tent montage. You read it in the script and you thought, ‘It’s perfect! Hiding in plain sight, which is what Gustavo Fring always did.’ That scene was very difficult because we started out with a Django Django track that we thought was great. We sent it to editing and they cleared it and everybody was happy and excited because the band was new and it seemed like a perfect thing. Then at some point Vince looked at it and thought we could do better. So we started to do some digging, going through waves and waves of ideas. I threw in one set of ideas and someone else threw in other ideas, but Vince is a very sharp filter and I think he knows when something really resonates. He really responded to a Serge Gainsberg song that we pursued very aggressively, one of those fantastic songs, from a beautiful, kind of African influenced album that he did in the mid-‘60s. One of those songs that you don’t really know is his, but it’s really special and it works. And then we couldn’t clear it and it was a nightmare. Everyone was heartbroken about it.

“We then went through another set of waves of ideas. Finally we got to the song by The Peddlers called ‘On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’. It’s one of my favorite songs, one that I DJ out quite a bit. What I liked was the lyrical connection to it, we are in this tent, inside another tent, inside a house with these guys that are making this poison. But it’s a very positive scene for them because it’s the last time these guys are working well together, as far as we know. The lyrics are ‘On a clear day, rise look around you and you will see who you are / On a clear day you can see forever and ever.’ It’s this lovely, almost romantic song that has this sense of massive vistas, with the irony that we’re inside of this tiny little place. For them, they’re having this kind of beautiful moment. Somehow that song did everything we needed it to do and felt interesting and people didn’t know it and they responded to it. That was one of those situations where I thought we had a good idea but it kept changing and shifting after that.”

As the show draws to a close, Golubic laments the end a successful partnership with the Breaking Bad creative team and their faithful viewers. Not only has the show developed a rabid and cult fanbase, but thanks to Netflix, it has become one of the most “binge-worthy” shows, given its propensity for nail-biting cliffhangers, abrupt character detours, and truly terrifying plot twists.

Breaking Bad is the best show I’ve ever had. It’s with a group that I love more than any other group I’ve worked with before. It’s really hard [to say goodbye]. I also love the group I work with on The Walking Dead, thankfully I’m not just leaving one happy family into misery, but I’m leaving one happy family and continuing on with another. The closeness that we’ve built through these five years with Breaking Bad permeates everywhere. Brian Cranston’s energy and Vince Gilligan’s energy in particular, those two men have led us in such honorable and selfless way. No one works harder and no one delivers like those men do and I think that because of that everybody involved just wants to hit homeruns for him. I do really appreciate the fact that we’re leaving on a high note. I don’t know of any television series in history that’s gotten better with each season, as we have. That’s very rare. Ultimately, you just hope that the body of work really resonates with people, and luckily with “Breaking Bad” it really does.”

As for the ultimate fate of Walter White (based on the opening of Season Five, we know that some major showdown looms), Golubic is tight-lipped, but notably excited, repeatedly promising an ending that will startle and exceed everyone’s expectations. “This is a show that is at the very top of it’s form in my mind. We don’t have bad episodes. Everything that doesn’t work out as we liked is either going to fall out onto the editing room floor or will work out somehow. I have a feeling that this will end up being the best season that we’ve done. I think it’s going to be a breathtaking ending.”

Although his own attempt at writing his own story of the American Empire didn’t turn out early in his career, through his supervision role, Golubic has now come full circle, collaborating with the storytellers of our generation and telling one of the most powerful American stories in television history: the story of Walter White via Breaking Bad (Entertainment Weekly recently put the show in the top 20 TV series of all time). In Golubic’s estimation, this is where the great stories are being told and that’s where he wants to continue to work. “I think we live in a golden age for television.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/174323-thomas-golubic-the-master-of-the-scene/