Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under, The Killing, and now Showtime's Ray Donovan. What do they all have in common? All bear the creative mark of Thomas Golubic, the music supervisor who has been quietly and powerfully shaping the storytelling world of cable television for the past decade.
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.
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."