Interviewed by Michael Laskow
Mary Ramos is an award-winning music supervisor who has helped create the musical identity for over 100 films in nearly 30 years. She’s helped to shape the music for blockbuster features, award-winning independents, passionate documentaries, episodic TV, commercials, and video games as well. She’s worked on Grammy-nominated soundtracks and won two Guild of Music Supervisors’ awards for Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. And while she might be best known for her work with Quentin Tarantino, what makes Mary fascinating to us is the wide range of projects that she’s worked on, including one of my all-time favorites, Happy Gilmore, Bride of Chucky, South Park, Chef, Kill Bill: Volumes One and Two, Mrs. America, which had an Emmy-nominated score, Little Fires Everywhere, which also had an Emmy-nominated score, Wu-Tang: American Saga Season 2, Wasteland 3, which is a video game, and Stillwater, which was just out a month or two ago.
Continuing from where we left off in Part 2:
Yeah, you’re right. It’s visceral. You may not make an out-loud mental note or verbal note like, “Oh, the music made that seem better,” but if the music weren’t that good or that right, you would feel it.
For instance, there’s a scene in Little Fires Everywhere where… It was a long dinner scene, set in the ’90s, with a tough topic, so there were a lot of pauses—uncomfortable pauses. And then it just needed to take the melodrama out of the scene, because there were a lot of pauses and a lot of intense stuff they talked about. I thought it needed to be a dinner party; they were having dinner together. I felt like it needed some music in the background, not even blaring up in your face, but something in the background from the time period that like just a little underneath that took air out of the dialog. And I feel like it really helped that moment.
I know how many crazy hours that you work. I remember seeing on IMDB that one year you did seven projects in a year. That’s a lot. Most supervisors will have one or two or three, you had seven. And you had years in front of that and behind it that were also really, really busy. I hear from frustrated TAXI members—musicians in general—that they’re so heartbroken that when we forward their music to a supervisor in response to a brief or even a production-music library for addition to their catalog, and they don’t hear anything back. In their mind’s eye that song, that instrumental, was the most important thing in the world to them right now. And now it’s on Mary’s desk and they sit there, and they stare at the phone, and they check their email every three minutes, and then they get so heartbroken when they don’t hear back. Can you explain why the industry doesn’t pick up the phone or send an email saying, “Gee, John, it’s a really cool song, but I can’t use it, and here are the reasons why”?
Yes, and I’m sorry that it is that way. It is rude and it’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the way things are. We’re not the final say, and so what we can do is be the cheerleaders about a track, and we can send it off to the director and the director can take a month or however long to process it, and then never tell us whether they liked it or not. You know, it’s a chain of events. But I will say this: Nothing that comes across my desk, if it’s good, goes into the [trash] bin. I’m a hoarder of good music, obviously. I save really good tracks. As a matter of fact, on something I’m working on now, I found something that was a pitch—because I hoard emails as well—so I found something with a pitch from like 2016 and I put it against a picture, and it worked fantastically. So, I reached out to the person who pitched me, forwarding the 2016 email that they sent, and they were like, “Oh, my God! So glad you kept this. We no longer control this 100%.” So if it’s something good that we come across, it’s not going to go to waste. We work on so many things that we keep you in mind.
We had one TAXI member who heard back seven years after we forwarded it. Seven years later they got the call. So, I imagine that it’s a truism, that all supervisors keep huge stashes of music—some probably better organized than others—and they do have a bit of a photographic memory, at least as far as music goes. And it might be a year or two or three, or even 20 years later where they go, “I remember getting a song with a really cool samba, with unusual instrumentation,” and they might look in their Latin music folder and go find it. So, what didn’t get used next week, could get used in 2026.
And it’s not just one song. If you send something that’s good, keep sending good music, and then it’s going in the good music bin.
I guess the message is don’t give up hope, but don’t sit there staring at your phone either.
Absolutely. Keep sending good music; keep making good music, and home in on what you want to be submitted for. Home in on the kinds of shows you want to be submitted for—as long as it’s not a period piece, you know.
I always recommend that people who want to license music should watch TV with a legal pad on their lap. They should Google who is the music supervisor on the series. They should make notes about, “Oh, look at that—almost every episode has three bar scenes.” And the music they use in those bar scenes is X, Y, Z, because it’s this kind of bar or that kind of bar. And I really feel like it’s staring them right in the face. That’s their homework. Don’t just create music; understand why certain music works better than others. They would make your job easier.
Absolutely. That’s really good advice. That’s really good advice, because you want to target, you want to hit the target. You want to be submitted for the right thing, and you want to target your energies and your efforts towards what you think is good and think you belong in. So that’s really good advice. What’s that website that lists all the music that’s used?
Tunefind. We always recommend that to our members, even though I can never remember the name.
Here’s a resource for if you dig a TV show—or a film, even—you go in there and usually they will have the songs listed for each episode and you can make note of the style and the vibe that they use.
“Don’t wait for somebody to give you a job—keep making art, keep putting it out there, we will find you. If it’s good, we’ll find you.”
Years ago, I heard a TAXI member who blew me away. He played me a scored piece, and I thought, “This is the best score I’ve ever heard from anybody who isn’t famous already.” And I called up my friend Harry Garfield at Universal Pictures, who was the Senior VP of Music at the time, I believe, and I asked him if I could introduce the two of them. And Harry, being a nice, very sweet guy, said to me, “Yeah, you can bring him by. But you know what? Have him score a couple of scenes from movies I’ve worked on in the last couple of years, and let’s see how he does.” So he did, and we went into Harry’s office—I can’t believe Harry took the time to do this—and he watched the two scenes with my friend’s new scores. And he turned to him and he said, “Wow, that’s as good as what Hans Zimmer did in that scene.” And in the second one he said, “That might even be a little better than what Alexander Desplat did, but I can’t use you, and here’s why. When studios are spending 100 million bucks on a film, they need experienced people with a brand name. You’re really talented, but now you need to go work on smaller films. Build your brand and gain experience needed to work at the Hans Zimmer level.” Assuming that Harry was right, how can a talented composer break into the indie film scene? You’re a great person to ask, because you do quite a few of them. Where do aspiring composers knock on doors for that?
It's a really hard area to break into—scoring. It’s hard to be unknown and break into it. I will say this again: If you fill out an EP of the music of your most dynamic pieces, and include a cover. I mean, it’s an instrumental cover, but do a cover. That’s a good way to catch attention. We need to know what you can do, we want to hear the most dynamic pieces and it will help you get attention. I think that’s good advice, because regardless of whether or not you end up scoring something, you have a cool piece of art that you can actually license. If somebody finds it and they need it for something, they will reach out to you and license it, so it’s always forward-moving. Don’t let somebody tell you… I just hate the fact that it’s in a situation where you are waiting for someone to give you the job. Don’t wait for somebody to give you a job—keep making art, keep putting it out there, we will find you. If it’s good, we’ll find you.
Speaking of being found, how did you get the gig working with Quentin Tarantino? Did you respond to a classified ad?
[She laughs] I actually went to school for acting in New York, and I came out to L.A. I wanted to be an actor or a director. I was friends with a group of actors and one of them was a British actor (Tim Roth) who had just come over to L.A. and he was just starting to work on a film with this young unknown director, and I met Quentin at a party at Tim Roth’s. So, we talked, and we ended up talking about soundtracks, and we talked about music, we just kind of hit it off. Then Tim and Quentin introduced me to Karyn Rachtman, who was the music supervisor on Reservoir Dogs, and she needed an assistant, so I started working with her. I worked with her for almost four years, and it was a wonderful experience.
Yeah, she’s pretty legendary in the industry, and a great teacher, I’m sure. Wow, some people might say you stumbled into it, but you stumbled into an opportunity, recognized it and went for it. There is a big chasm between those two things.
I grew where I planted. And the thing that’s important is that I’ve been taking everything I learned from my schooling—I mean, I wanted to be an actress—so I’m taking all of what I learned about direction and storytelling from the acting perspective and bringing it to my job. I think that’s one of the things, too, that makes me unique in my position. I use everything I know from that experience and bring it to this experience. So, it’s just being ready to use everything you know and bringing it to what you do.
“I had to learn everything on my own and be diligent and never give up.”
I would imagine that it’s invigorating and challenging to work on Quentin’s films, because they’re unusual. I mean, talk about art. Is there anything at the end of the day that you’ve learned as a supervisor from working on those challenging and invigorating films with him that carries over into something like Happy Gilmore or any of the other stuff you work on that is not a Tarantino film?
Everything! Everything I learned I’ve learned… I cut my teeth… I’m a music supervisor because I met Quentin Tarantino. I mean, I don’t even know what job you could have where two things that I love dearly—where film and music meet. But I learned everything through that, because it wasn’t really a studio head or a big boss that I could turn to and go, “Is this OK? How do we handle this? What’s the protocol for this?” There wasn’t anybody like that, so I had to learn everything on my own and be diligent and never give up, and make quick decisions, and make sound decisions for the betterment of the project, for the safety of the project.
It’s been a really incredible experience to work with him. He’s a passionate film director. He is passionate about music, passionate about the stories he tells. His imagination is crazy. And I’ve made it my mission to make sure he can tell the stories he wants to tell. I want to make sure that the story he sees in his head is able to be what the audience will see. So never have I wanted to tell him, “You can’t have that”; “…Red tape”; “Ah, it’s too expensive”; “No, I couldn’t find him”; “Couldn’t find the writer so, let’s find something else.” That’s never been something I’ve wanted to do for this artist. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, and I am happy to say that what you guys see is what he sees.
Now, that’s incredible, because pretty much everybody in any creative aspect of media knows that any project is a compromise by the time the public sees it. The fact that he doesn’t compromise is like, wow!
Some of my favorite uses in his films are Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name,” used when Django saddles up his horse and sets off to go find his wife, the “James Brown 2Pac Mashup” during the shootout at Candyland, Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On,” played while tripping Cliff, which is one of my favorite moments of any of the Quentin Tarantino films—tripping Cliff goes at it with the Manson family. By the way, my wife was the only person laughing in the movie theater when Cliff smashed that poor girl—she wasn’t a poor girl, she was evil—but he smashed her head into the fireplace mantel. My wife burst out laughing, and the other hundred heads in the theater all turned around. I just slumped down in my seat. It was a moment. And of course, the iconic scene with Uma Thurman dancing to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Oh my God, that’s right up there in the top five most iconic music scenes in history. Do you have a favorite song in any of the films or any of the scenes? And if so, why do you like it so much?
Man, there are so many, and it’s like asking me which is my favorite Quentin film. They are all my favorites for different reasons. They are just all so… And because I’ve been working with him for 27 years, so there’s so much of my life… I was super-pregnant with my daughter when I was working on Kill Bill 1, and Jackie Brown with my son, so there are all these memories that have intertwined with working on these things. Kill Bill I will say was a real incredible lesson, because it was international, and unfortunately, I don’t speak French, and I don’t speak Japanese. There were a lot of things I needed to reach across the globe to get. As a matter of fact, one morning—and I had very little time to do something—my neighbor was from Montreal, and I saw her out in the front yard in a bathrobe. It was seven in the morning, and I only had so many hours before Paris was going to close down. You know, France takes off for unbelievable amounts of time [for vacations]. They were gonna close down, so I ran out and grabbed her and begged her to do me a favor. I brought her into my office, I wrote down what I wanted her to say, I made the phone call and she, of course, negotiated something for me in French.
That’s cool. I hope she got a credit, or at least a thank you in the credits.
She’s credited in the Special Thanks on the Kill Bill Vol 1 soundtrack.
By the way, go look at the music credits for Kill Bill Vol 1, and your mind will be blown. The range of stuff, how far back it goes, where it came from. If you want to understand Mary’s life in the context of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Google “Music Credits for Kill Bill Vol 1” and you’ll sit there and stare at them for an hour and go, “Holy crap. That lady works her butt off.” That she does!
Don’t miss the final part of this interview next month!