KATHY NELSON: Channeling Music Into Film

When Gustavo Santaolalla accepted his Oscar for Best Score for his work on Brokeback Mountain, one of the people he thanked on stage was Kathy Nelson.

Videos by American Songwriter

It was Nelson, after all, who introduced Santaolalla to the film’s director, Ang Lee.

When Gustavo Santaolalla accepted his Oscar for Best Score for his work on Brokeback Mountain, one of the people he thanked on stage was Kathy Nelson.

It was Nelson, after all, who introduced Santaolalla to the film’s director, Ang Lee.

As President of Film Music for Universal Pictures, Nelson is responsible for the music in films made by the company. For those films, she is often credited as an executive-in-charge of music, as well as the music supervisor. Her position is unique for a major studio: she helps choose the music; she sets up collaborations between writers, musicians and filmmakers; and she makes sure the music chosen can fit into the film’s overall budget.

Most executives of major film studios don’t play a role in the artistic process. But when Nelson came aboard at Universal, she says she couldn’t bear the thought of relinquishing her role in the music selection process. “I started on the record side, and I didn’t want to give that up,” she says. “But I have to be selective, because I can’t do it all.”

It’s a complicated and tough job, to be sure, but not without its rewards. “The beauty is the way I get to be involved in music, as opposed to just working for a record company where an artist makes a record and then makes another record,” Nelson says. “The thing about what I do gives writers and artists the opportunity to go outside the box a little bit, because you’re doing it for a movie.”

Nelson – who comes from the famous line of Nelsons that includes Ozzie, Harriet and Ricky – began her career in the record industry, first working as a secretary for RCA Records, where she stayed for 11 years. She then moved to Disney to head their film music department, before landing the job at Universal.

During her career, she has worked with such heavyweights as Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. She says every film she works on is a different experience for her, as every director has different methods. “If you evaluate who’s making the movie, you can kind of tell where the focus is going to be,” she says.

When she worked on High Fidelity, a movie about a guy who runs an independent record store, she was heavily involved in choosing the music. Ironically, the film’s director, Stephen Frears, did not listen to pop music – even though it was the driving force of the film. But with a filmmaker like Tarantino, Nelson is less hands-on. “I don’t think Quentin Tarantino ever asked me once for a song idea,” she says. “Your job is getting them what they want.”

Before she goes shopping for the film’s music, Nelson must address budgetary concerns.  Nelson says low-budget films are a great way for independent or unsigned musicians to step up. She cites Red Garcia as a perfect example. “He’s not a known commodity,” she says. “He’s knocked out some songs to replace artists I couldn’t afford. It gives him an entry to the business. These days, it’s like, how do you get into the business if a label doesn’t find you?”

During her time at Universal, Nelson has arranged some brilliant collaborations between artists.  Having worked on the music for more than 80 films, Nelson knows more than a few people in the business. Sometimes, all she has to do is make a phone call.

In the case of Brokeback Mountain, Nelson knew Lee from their work together on The Hulk; she had worked with Santaolalla on The Motorcycle Diaries.

Santaolalla actually ended up auditioning for the Brokeback Mountain job, Nelson says, because Lee wanted to be absolutely sure he was the right man for the film.

“Let’s face it. Ang’s from Taiwan, Gustavo’s Argentinean, and they were making a movie about the west in the ’60s – and they didn’t even get to shoot it there,” says Nelson. “Gustavo wanted to be sure that what he imagined that sound to be was what Ang would like, and what he imagined it to be.”

So Gustavo threw out five or six ideas to Ang, all of which ended up being used in the film, she says.  “It was right off the bat a perfect collaboration.”

With Brokeback Mountain, Santaolalla’s work did not stop with the score. Santaolalla, who Nelson says knew the movie as well as anyone involved, is also an accomplished songwriter. Naturally, he wanted to write some songs for the film, but with English not being his first language, he felt he needed a lyricist. So Nelson contacted Bernie Taupin, who is best known as Elton John’s longtime songwriting partner. Together, Santaolalla and Taupin wrote, “A Love that Will Never Grow Old” (performed by Emmylou Harris) and “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye”  (performed by Teddy Thompson) for the film.

“Some people would think – Bernie Taupin, he’s too famous,” Nelson says. “But the truth is, artists love to work, and they like creative projects.”

Another notable song on the soundtrack is Willie Nelson’s version of “He Was a Friend of Mine,” a song that was written by Leadbelly in the ’30s and is now considered to be in the public domain. While the movie was being shot, a member of Brokeback‘s musical production team stumbled upon Bob Dylan’s version of the song, as it appears on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1.

Nelson loved the song, but she didn’t think Dylan’s vocal would fit well with the movie. So Nelson approached Willie, who was in L. A. at the time doing a benefit for John Kerry. “We wanted a vocal that was more sympathetic, that was more understated,” Nelson says. “And Bob Dylan’s voice is not that kind of voice; it’s much more piercing. Willie just has a softness about his voice.”

Nelson later sent him the script and samples of Santaolalla’s music. Willie said he’d love to be involved.

The Brokeback team also wanted to use some period country songs for the movie, but Nelson says it wasn’t easy working with the Nashville industry, given the film’s subject matter. “They didn’t welcome me with open arms when I described the movie,” she says.

So Nelson approached Steve Earle, an old friend of Nelson’s and no stranger to liberal politics.

She wanted to use Earle’s “Devil’s Right Hand,” which he had recorded for his third album, 1988’s Copperhead Road. But the film is set mostly in the ’60s and ’70s, and the Copperhead Road version was over-produced for that period. Nelson got Earle to re-record it the way he would have performed it back in the mid-’70s – when he wrote the song. The new version was rougher, faster and grittier.

Working on a film allows musicians to expand artistically, Nelson says. “You’re not who the public expects you to be every time you step on stage and put out a record,” she offers. “It’s as if you’re a character in the movie. It’s why I’ve been able to get some very interesting collaborations between producers and writers and artists. It’s a way to experiment working with somebody. To work on one song for a movie or a soundtrack is not a huge risk.”

Maybe Nelson could arrange a collaboration between Michael Moore and Toby Keith…


Leave a Reply
  1. Ms. Nelson

    My Name is Glenn Turner. I am seeking out Music Supervisiors such as yourself, in hopes to licence some original songs. I would very much like to send you some material. Would that be at all possible?

    I very much look foward to hearing back from you.


    Glenn Turner
    [email protected]

  2. Hello Ms. Nelson,
    I want to begin by saying i admire your work. Especially your latest with the film, “Its Complicated”. I’m a 39 year old divorced woman who is starting to rediscover myself… one of the things I always wanted to do was be a music supervisor. I understand you must be insanely busy and might not be able to talk to me, but if you could offer some helpful tidbits as to how to even get started in this field, I would appreciate it immensely. A friend of mine is working on a short, and because he kows i want to do this so badly, he is making me music supervisor! how exciting. If you are ever willing to talk to me, I would be so honored.

    Yours truly,
    Annemarie McCann

  3. Kathy:

    You were Executive in charge of Music For Universal Pictures for the release of movie “Pirate Radio” released Nov 2009. I interested in syn license authorization for composition “Tell It Like It Is’ that was used in the film as I own 50% Of the rights.

    M. Jones

  4. I am very interested in how Ms. Nelson became a music supervisor. What did she study in school? I am very interested in the field and would like to know more information if possible!

Leave a Reply

ROLE MODELS: Regina Spektor