Gabe Hilfer interview: ‘Ozark’ music supervisor
[WARNING: The above interview and following story contain spoilers about Season 4 of “Ozark.” Watch and read at your own risk.]
From the very inception, music was indispensable to setting the tone on “Ozark” and making its crime-ridden world and morally complex characters come alive. So, for music supervisor Gabe Hilfer, there was absolutely an impetus to add a musical exclamation point as he and showrunner Chris Mundy were working on the Netflix drama’s fourth and final season. “It was a big focus,” exclaims Hilfer in a new webchat with Gold Derby. “[The show]’s not a musical, we don’t use hundreds of songs… but when we do, they’re very specific, deliberate and intentional, and they’re talked about and discussed behind the scenes.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
If you’ve ever asked yourself how the music of English rock band Radiohead found its way into the soundtrack of the gritty drama, Hilfer has an answer for you as he takes us back to the very beginning to kickstart our chat. “I will be honest with you, [star, executive producer and director] Jason Bateman called me and said, ‘I’m going to throw a name out to you, and I want you to tell me if this is impossible,'” he teases. “He said, ‘Radiohead,’ and I was like, ‘Not impossible!'” The music supervisor highlights that the band’s “heavy and dense” music helped not only conceive one of two establishing musical tones but also punctuate the show’s serious mood — and that straight away in the pilot episode, in which their song “Decks Dark” creeps in during the closing sequence.
SEE our interview with ‘Ozark’ showrunner Chris Mundy
The second establishing musical tone is connected to Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), whose love of hip hop became one of the “breakout musical stars of the show,” so Hilfer. He describes the search for the fan-favorite character’s taste in music as being a process of “trial and error” that ended with him settling on early-mid ’90s hip hop as a staple for her playlist. “Even though she’s too young to have grown up with [that music], it worked really well… and then became the recurring theme [for her character].”
In no episode did this recurring theme play a bigger role than in the eighth episode of Season 4, titled “The Cousin of Death.” This installment chronicles the aftermath of Darlene’s (Lisa Emery) and Wyatt’s (Charlie Tahan) tragic deaths and follows a grief-stricken, vengeful Ruth as she travels to Chicago to hunt down and eventually murders their killer, Javier “Javi” Elizonndro (Alfonso Herrera). The entire episode is a nod to American rapper and songwriter Nas and the first in the show’s history to be soundtracked by a single album — namely, Nas’ debut album, titled Illmatic. “[Mundy] pitched the concept to me that Ruth would be driving, and he wanted one album for her to be driving to,” explains Hilfer regarding this creative decision. So, as she’s on the road and on her mission to track down Javi, she pops in Illmatic, which is styled as a hardcore hip hop album. “She puts it in, and it becomes her entire mindset for the [episode],” concludes the music supervisor.
SEE our interview with ‘Ozark’ star Alfonso Herrera
In our chat, Hilfer also discusses the song that succeeds the show’s much-talked about final scene, which sees the Byrdes return home from their fundraiser to find that Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg) has broken into their house and recovered the cookie jar containing Wendy’s late brother’s ashes. After he vows to bring them to justice, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) comes outside with a shotgun. But instead of showing whom he shoots, the screen cuts to black as a shot is heard and “Love and Happiness” by soul artist Al Green then starts playing. “We knew we wanted the action to play out,” expounds Hilfer about the decision to play the song over the end credits. “When you do a song that’s over black like that, you’re not beholden to any specific tempo, you’re not beholden to any specific tone.”
Though most viewers probably wouldn’t associate love and happiness with the show’s arguably dark denouement, the music supervisor actually characterizes the conclusion as somewhat of a happy ending. “[The Byrdes] came into the Ozarks, they f***ed it all up: dozens of people died, money has been laundered, people have been assassinated… And then, ultimately, their family unit was not necessarily impacted by it,” he elaborates. “[‘Love and Happiness’] is a chef’s kiss, a gentle reminder that this [has always been] about the Byrdes. And after it’s all said and done, they kind of came out unscathed.” Ultimately, it was important to Hilfer that whichever song was chosen to play over the end credits would be the “exclamation point that the entire series is wrapped up on.”