One Day Music Supervisor Karen Elliott

Making Each Year Sound Right

By Scott Macaulay | August 11, 2011
Karen Elliott Karen Elliott, Music Supervisor for One Day

For music supervisor Karen Elliott, getting the right songs for One Day was no easy task. Not only did each song have to be historically correct, but the music needed to sound right without taking the viewer out of the story. How did she do that?

For music supervisor Karen Elliott, Lone Scherfig’s romantic drama One Day posed a couple of interesting challenges. The first was the obvious one. A story of a couple’s long journey from friendship to love, the film consists of a series of scenes taking place the same day – July 15 — in years spanning the ‘80s through the aughts. In an era when spotting film bloopers is an internet sport, these very specific dates demanded a heightened sense of accuracy from Elliott, whose job included finding and licensing the “source cues” — the background songs that play throughout the movie. “That was something Lone felt very strongly about,” remembers Elliott. “She wanted music that was year-specific, and she also didn’t want people writing in later, ‘You used this song but it wasn’t released until October!’”

Avoiding the IMDb “goofs” chart turned out to be the easy part of Elliott’s job. Her real work consisted of finding songs that evoked the film’s changing times while not distracting by leading audiences down their own personal memory lanes. “Dialogue is very important in One Day,” says Elliott, “and Lone didn’t want really famous songs. They’d make the viewer go, ‘Oh, I remember this piece,” and then start singing along.”

Anne Hathawy and Jim Sturgess in <i>One Day</i>

Photo by Giles Keyte

Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess
in One Day

To use music to suggest the past but not produce nostalgia, Elliott began the process of working on One Day by learning about Scherfig’s vision for music in the film. “As I do with most films, I sat down with Lone and watched the scenes — the acting and the dialogue — and worked out what was important to her about each one,” she says. “Then I’d find half a dozen choices that I felt would work for each scene — songs that were well known enough to most people. The music had to make you think you were in 2001, or 2004, because even though you get the [year] subtitles [on screen], you can sometimes forget them as a viewer.”

As they worked, Scherfig and Elliott went for songs that weren’t too lyrically “in your face,” again not wanting to distract from Anne Hathaway’s and Jim Sturgess’ performances. Indeed, while a lot of the music heard in One Day plays in restaurants, bars and clubs, much thought was given to making these songs subtly play off the characters. Specifically, while Hathaway’s initially awkward and self-defeating Emma struggles to find herself while working as a teacher, Sturgess’ rakish Dexter achieves early fame as a VJ, the host of a televised pop music show. “There were hundreds of discussions about Dexter and his music,” says Elliott. “It was always felt that he would be more into dance and indie music because of his job, whereas Emma would be a bit more girly about the whole thing.”

The result of Scherfig and Elliott’s work is an engaging, fresh, and – with two exceptions – subtle soundtrack, a collection of songs that evokes the past not through obvious Top 40 references but, rather, changes in mood, mic’ing and vibe. Indeed, a trip hop cue like “Aftermath,” rooted by Tricky’s hushed, narcoleptic drawl, immediately throws you back to the mid-’90s, while the jaunty Tears for Fears track “Sowing the Seeds of Love” evokes the synthpop nightlife of just a few years earlier. “Working on films set in the past does wonders for making you feel old,” laughs Elliott. “You rediscover just how long ago these tracks actually came out. That Tears for Fears song really did come out in 1989!” Other songs on the soundtrack include titles by James, Corona, Primal Scream, Black Grape, Fatboy Slim and Way Out West.

And what about those two exceptions cited above? The first comes at the beginning of the movie, a source cue played when, circa 1988, awkward college student Emma invites Dexter back to her apartment for the first time. Not the smoothest seductress, she slips on a 45 of that classic liberal arts make-out track, Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” prompting a double take from Sturgess and a laugh from the audience. The second comes at the movie’s conclusion, when a beautiful original track from Elvis Costello, “Sparkling Day,” plays out the end credits. With his band the Attractions, Costello is featured earlier in the movie, and his distinctive voice appearing again at the end with a new song is its own wise comment on the passage of time. Indeed, Costello winds up an inspired choice, as his is a voice that cuts across generations. “There were a few names bandied around, as there always are, but Lone wanted to work with someone who was musically mature, who was an excellent lyricist, and who she personally admired. And Elvis was at the top of her list.”

Elliott says approaching Costello and then working with him on the track was a serendipitous pleasure. “When you approach artists [to do songs for films], sometimes you wonder if they actually watch the movies,” she remarks. “Well, he watched it the same day and wrote something the next day because he enjoyed the movie and was inspired by it. And what you hear is pretty much what he originally wrote and delivered – him and a guitar. And then he worked really well with Lone, and Rachel Portman, who did the string arrangement. It was a really pleasing experience.”

Working with Portman, the film’s composer, was another part of Elliott’s job. “She’s a really delightful, lovely woman,” says Elliott, “and I love her even more because she’s really organized! She knows exactly what she’s doing and is pretty self-contained. At one point she wanted help with choices for [the score’s] boys choir and soloists, so I assisted her there.”

Elliott entered the craft of film music when working as an assistant to composer Anne Dudley in the mid-‘90s. Dudley was asked to write a score for a soccer drama starring Sean Bean, When Saturday Comes, “and they had no money whatsoever for source songs,” she remembers. “Anne volunteered me to help them, and I found that I enjoyed it. I got people to write original material — people like Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet and Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 — and then things kind of grew from there. I started doing score coordination, I did a small stint in the music publishing world for Hans Zimmer, and then I started [the music agenting and supervision firm] Hothouse with Becky Benson.”

In the world of music supervision, Elliott’s background in music coordination gives her an added layer of expertise. As she explains, music coordination involves everything from “finding apartments, hiring arrangers, and putting them together with conductors, orchestrators, copyists, and programmers. I handle the score budget, make sure things are delivered on time, and do everything down to finding chefs and drivers [for the composers and musicians].”

One Day Soundtrack playlist

It’s a lot of work — and, indeed, work that many music supervisors don’t do. “A lot of people band around the term ‘music supervisor’ but all they do is clear songs and negotiate the license fees,” Elliott remarks. “I think music supervision involves a lot more than that. It includes those things, of course, but a proper music supervisor does anything having to do with music for a film, whether that’s helping the composer, finding songs for the director, or overseeing music deliverables. You can stop offering creative ideas, but that’s not the end of your work on the film. I’m still doing things for One Day!”

As her music supervision career evolves, Elliott likes to return from time to time to the left brain work of music coordination. “I seem to do two or three movies in a row that are all song-based, and I can get very tired of clearing songs or getting directors to accept they’ll never get a Black Eyed Peas track for £3,000. Then I’ll do score coordination.” As she surveys her career, Elliott cites both music supervision work — return engagements with top directors like Stephen Frears (Tamara Drewe, Dirty Pretty Things) and David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) — and coordination jobs as high points. Asked her most challenging job, she is quick to cite, with pride, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for which she was the music coordinator. “It was just so challenging because of its sheer scale,” she says. “There was the secrecy surrounding the films, all the security, and the number of people involved. You’re dealing with things like installing massive safes in people’s houses so they could keep reels of film. It was a long, wild ride.”

And what about her own music listening habits? I mention to Elliott that several music supervisors I know don’t seem to listen to a lot of music in their off hours. She laughs. “I don’t listen to anything when I get home. I mean, I’ll listen to bits and pieces in my car, and on my iPod. But when I get home, I like silence.”

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