Our Flag Means Death Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips on Picking the Perfect Song

Our Flag Means Death Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips on Picking the Perfect Song
Photo: Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Even if you don’t recognise Maggie Phillips by name, chances are you’ve heard her work. If you’ve watched Moonlight, Legion, The Umbrella Academy, or even Our Flag Means Death, and you remember thinking, damn, that’s a hell of a song choice, you might have Phillips to thank for that truly epic needle drop.

Phillips is a music supervisor. She chooses the extant soundtrack for movies, television, and short films. “I didn’t really search this line of work out,” Phillips said in an interview with Gizmodo. “I’ve been doing it for over 15 years… but for a long time I was just helping out friends.”

Some of those friends were Mark and Jay Duplass. She got her start in the indie film scene, and while Phillips said she was always the person who would make mix CDs for her friends or introduce them to new music, picking songs for films back in the early 2000s was more like a favour. A side hustle, I suggest. She laughed at this. “I mean, sure, say side hustle, but the pay was not great.”

She describes it like this; she did about 30 to 40 films, but got paid “close to nothing.” Phillips had gotten attention from major films and studios, but no bites. They said she was too indie and that she didn’t know how to work with a budget. In 2014 she was close to quitting after eight years because she thought that she was “just getting too old to be this broke.”

But then Noah Hawley gave her a call, and asked Phillips to work on season two of Fargo. “The rest,” she said, smiling, “is history.” While I specifically wanted to talk to Phillips in order to sate my obsessive need to gush over Our Flag Means Death at every moment because I am suffering from what the youth have diagnosed to be “gay pirate brain rot,” I found myself doing a deep dive into her work before this interview. Fargo really was a turning point for her, and in the years since the season two finale opened with “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, Phillips has been attached to some truly wonderful musical moments in film. Remember that scene in episode one, season one of The Umbrella Academy when Five gets into a fight with a dozen baddies in a doughnut shop?

“That’s one of my favourite placements I’ve ever done,” Phillips said. “It’s so funny–that’s a song I kind of hated in high school. It’s weird, it’s annoying, and it’s super fucking catchy.” Which makes it, ultimately, kind of perfect for Five. It’s offbeat, distanced enough from what’s happening that it’s not obviously glorifying violence, but twee enough to feel young. “We’ve got this character who has so much sophistication and knowledge, but is still just a kid who’s in quite a brutal fight sequence. This song was an opportunity to inject innocence and fun into the moment.”

And it worked, to great effect. Maybe, Phillips says, a little too well. “Everyone loved that sequence so much that Netflix kept asking for that over and over and over again. When you repeat something like that, you’re killing it. You need this kind of moment to be something that you wait for so that when it’s delivered it’s actually gratifying. When you do it every episode, it becomes, you know…” she trailed off. It becomes tired. Exhausted.

This is kind of what it’s like, working with studios. Phillips assured me that working with Netflix was great, but sometimes they can get too obsessed with recreating something wonderful. “When something is successful, they want to keep doing it,” she said, shrugging. “But then you’re tying people’s hands when it comes to creativity. You ask them to check boxes. When something like [Five’s sequence] happens, it’s happening because we kind of made accidental magic.”

One of the reasons that scene worked so well is because it happened at the end of an episode: “We had a little time to get to know him.” She said that if that fight sequence had been his introduction, it would have been slick, but ultimately not as memorable. It’s not just where you use the songs, but when.

Which finally leads me to Our Flag Means Death. Phillips gushed, “I was so anxious about this series, but not just about the music. We got no marketing, and very little lead up.” When she mentions that nobody’s asked her about the music yet, I’m shocked. There’s one scene in episode eight that has been across my twitter dash in .gif form every day for almost a month. “Everyone’s asking about The Dropout,” Phillips admitted. Oh, yeah. The early 2000s indie soundtrack to The Dropout? The 36-track deep soundtrack that everyone from Nylon to Refinery29 has been talking about? Phillips did that too.

But as for Our Flag Means Death? “Nobody’s asked about the music yet. It’s such a weird tone, dramatic and a little understated.” Phillips isn’t wrong. The first episode ends with a track that most people have never heard before, “High on a Rocky Ledge” by Moondog. At least, I’d never heard it before. But I was immediately taken in. “I was thrilled to place Moondog in the first episode,” Phillips said. “We went for a subtlety for a lot of these songs. That’s the thing about David [Jenkins, the director], he’s so collaborative and he really trusted me with the music. He really let me do what I wanted, and he pushed me to go weird.”

I asked about Jenkins, and Phillips had a hard time nailing down exactly what made working with him so special. “He knew what he wanted to do and exactly how he wanted to do it,” she started, smiling a little. “And it wasn’t that he didn’t care about what other people thought, but he had this kind of fearlessness. He had no fear at all.”

When you’re making a workplace comedy-turned historical romance show about a boatful of queer pirates set in Caribbean in the 1700s, I feel like you have to have that kind of balls-to-the-wall attitude with your work. When you have a premise like this, you have to make sure everything works, that every part of the show is tightly stitched at every seam. Character arcs, casting, stories, jokes, and swashbuckling, all have to exist alongside emotional catharsis. And, of course, the music.

“When I’m watching a show I like to stay within that specific emotional tension,” said Phillips. “I like to be with those characters. I don’t like to be pulled around and yanked out of a scene.” Some shows do it differently, trying to surprise or shock you. Like a reminder that you’re actually watching a show, rather than listening to the internal soundtrack of the character. “David wanted these songs to be special… We wanted the songs to be the heart of the show, to underscore the emotions in any particular scene and speak for the characters more than the score would.”

This was especially important in the beginning, she said. Phillips and Jenkins attempted to capture the inner emotions of these pirates who were having trouble expressing themselves. It’s easy to see where she succeeded. Take the context of that Moondog song. While the Gentleman Pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) has just survived an invasion from the British Navy, he’s laden with guilt and sadness. He should be celebrating, but right now, all he feels is sadness, like he’s still searching for something. And as he’s staring into the sunset, tears dripping down his face, we hear the melancholy lyrics to “High on a Rocky Ledge.” It’s fucking brilliant.

There’s another moment, as Blackbeard’s (Taika Waititi) flag is raised in episode four, where we get this magnificent requiem–Verdi’s “Dies Irae,” one of my personal favourite picks in the show. This song was supposed to be a placeholder, Phillips explained. She did a lot of work before Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer, was brought in. “But it was so perfect, having a requiem at this moment, at the end of this episode, that we just left it.” She mentioned that they didn’t want to make a pattern of ending on songs. “David wanted every track to be special. We didn’t want to have a pattern, so we pulled back… The score followed the narrative, the fantasy, the fun, the action. But, again, the tracks were always supposed to underscore the emotions of the characters.”

And “The Chain”? I ask, trying to gauge Phillips’ reaction. What about that one? “Oh, that was scripted!” She answered immediately. “From the start, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ in episode eight and Cat Stevens’ ‘Miles From Nowhere’ in the finale were written in.” Both of these songs, she said, David Jenkins had in from the beginning. She didn’t even try to change them. Both are perfect, so I’m not surprised. The moment in episode eight when Fleetwood Mac comes on is perfectly timed to the action within the show, engaging a diegetic fantasy where English soldiers beat out the drum line and the ship’s bard plucks out the classic guitar melody before getting thrown to the ground. “The way they filmed that was incredible,” Phillips said. “And pure David.”

The show is short–consisting of only 10, 30-minute episodes. Which means there’s not a lot of music. Phillips thinks that’s part of the charm. “It means each song we used had to be perfect, to add to the presence and importance in each episode… These songs just worked.” She mentioned that she listens to songs over and over again against picture, laying songs over the film to try to get everything just so. When I asked if she has a playlist of missing songs, she laughed.

“Oh yeah, There are so many songs I listen to for each spot. For this show, I probably have a playlist of about 300 songs.” I literally gasped. I wanted to hear them all, immediately. “I was so inspired by this show, and we could only put in very few. Every spot you hear in the show I probably went through 100 songs to get to that spot. I watch every scene at least 100 times, testing different songs. The moment at the end of the pilot in Our Flag Means Death? I’ve probably watched 50 to 100 times, just to get it perfect.”

But, she admitted, not every song that ends up in the final cut is what she would have wanted. “Sometimes,” she admitted, “you’re just not going to beat a spot that [the director] has picked out.” For Our Flag Means Death, this was Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in episode nine, when Blackbeard rows off into the sunset, alone, and Bonnet barges in on his wife’s widow support group. It’s an incredibly ironic song, a real tug on the heartstrings as we watch these two men, who are supposed to be together, goddammit, choose separate paths.

“I tried countless times to get ‘Perfect Day’ out of there,” Phillips said, still sounding a bit disappointed. “I love the song, but our personal edict during this series had been to be careful to use stuff people haven’t heard. We had this unique soundtrack up until that point, and frankly, that’s a song that has been placed a lot…” She trailed off and then shrugged. “It worked beautifully. I won’t argue with that, but I tried to beat it for like a month. I have 10 playlists for that spot.”

Here’s where I have to admit something. I’m a journalist and I wanted a scoop. So I asked what songs were on those playlists. The big, 300-song playlist. Phillips almost immediately offered to send me the whole thing… But only if I kept it a secret. I’ll admit I hesitated. “These are my back pocket playlist songs. If they’re revealed, I don’t know what other shows they’re going to end up in,” Phillips explained, too gracious by far. “These are my magic. And if I let them out… Then I’m robbing the audience! What if these songs are perfect for season two?”

She’s quick to admit that she only knows as much as the rest of us. While she’s unsure about the fate of Our Flag Means Death, she’s excited by the possibility that it could return. “It’s left so open-ended! I mean look, Stede is coming back for Blackbeard! He went through that elaborate fuckery to fake his death to finally get the freedom to come back. There has to be a season two.” But, it’s a television show. We’ll never really know whether or not it’s going to be renewed until it is. “However,” Phillips said, “if there’s no season two, come back to me and I’ll share the missing songs playlist with you.”

Both of us laughed. I told her I didn’t want that. I wanted season two. And three and four, even. We kept talking, but I realised afterwards that despite asking, I actually didn’t want to hear those songs. I wanted to wait for them, just like any other fan. And when they come on, in another episode, in the next season, when the needle finally drops, I want to feel that magic too.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.


Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.