Movie Songs

‘Saltburn’ Music Supervisor Talks How The Movie Made Songs Into Hits And The Scene That’s ‘A Bit Cheeky’

March 1, 202416 Mins Read

The movie Saltburn was welcomed into the world with plenty of hype, which is incredibly important for any new production. The project was helmed by recent Academy Award winner Emerald Fennell, perhaps best known for writing and directing Promising Young Woman. It was produced by Margot Robbie, who spent much of 2023 busy with her even bigger picture, Barbie. It starred Oscar nominee Barry Keoghan and current Hollywood heartthrob Jacob Elordi.

But aside from its award-winning team and the superstars who starred in the movie, Saltburn ended up succeeding in another, more surprising way. The film ended up turning several songs into charting hits—but none of them were new. Instead, director Fennell carefully chose certain tracks she loves, and with the help of music supervisor Kirsten Lane, the public caught on and fell in love with those cuts again—or perhaps for the first time, when it comes to some younger viewers.

It’s not uncommon for songs used in high-profile films to gain in consumption, or even to reach charts around the world—but Saltburn was different. The movie sent several tracks to the Billboard charts, and in the U.K., where the project is set and where it found an even greater audience, the wins were truly impressive.

The most notable example of how Saltburn turned a song into a hit is “Murder on the Dancefloor” by Sophie Ellis Bextor. The tune was originally released in 2001, at which time it was a commercial success throughout Europe, though it barely reached listeners in America. After (spoiler alert!) Keoghan dances around a mansion in the buff to the track at the end of the movie, it surged in popularity once more.

Following the release of Saltburn, “Murder on the Dancefloor” returned to No. 2 in the U.K., finding its way back to its peak position. The single also gave Bextor her first placement on the Hot 100 in the U.S., and even reached No. 1 on a handful of genre-specific Billboard charts.

Other tunes, like MGMT’s “Kids” and Mason and Princess Superstar’s “Exceeder” also landed on various music charts around the globe. One hit is a success, but several musical wins from one film is rare, and it speaks to both how the tunes were used on screen as well as the genius behind placing them in the title in the first place.

I recently spoke with Lane, the music supervisor behind Saltburn about how the movie came together, her nomination at the upcoming Guild of Music Supervisors Awards, and her young children discovering singles she’s been playing them for years thanks to this movie.

Hugh McIntyre: Is this the biggest reaction you’ve seen to something you’ve worked on?

Kirsten Lane: Yeah definitely. I had similar reactions when I worked on Baby Driver with Edgar Wright a few years ago. That caused a lot of stir because the way he uses music in film is very iconic. Baby Driver was almost like an operetta all the way through. When I read the script initially, every single page there was a new track. We had to clear everything before a single frame was shot so that that would work. That was quite novel, the way that he’d done that. And obviously the music was a driving force and it was a character in itself. The film wouldn’t have worked at all in the same way without it. So that had a similar reaction.

But the fact that it’s got Sophie Ellis Bextor back on the charts… Lots of people are talking about “Loneliness” [by Tomcraft] although that doesn’t seem to have had the same effect on that one. It’s kind of weird. I don’t really understand. If I could have predicted what was going to happen, I thought people would pick on that one as well, because that’s another great track that’s in there, as well as MGMT. But obviously for Sophie, it’s been probably the best sync she’s signed up to. She’s also celebrating for sure. Particularly the fact that it’s now been recognized over in the States, which she hasn’t been up till now. I just love the fact that everyone I talked to in America is dancing around thinking that they’ve suddenly discovered Sophie Ellis Bextor. We’ve known about her for years!

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McIntyre: How does it feel knowing that your work caused this resurgence in her career? The song went back to No. 2 in the U.K. and she got her first actual hit in the U.S., what, 20 years after the song came out?

Lane: It’s great to be a small part of it. I’m a very tiny cog in a huge process. To put a film together takes a massive amount of people, and I’m just one of those people. As a music supervisor, it’s my role, really, to be the communicator between the filmmaker whose vision it is. With this track, it was something that Emerald very much had in the script right from day one. She wanted it to be there. It was very important to her that this one was over that scene. There was no question in her mind of replacing it with anything else. So my role at that point was to make sure that that happened.

What I love about music supervision is that everybody that works in this area is so passionate about film and music. All of the people at the record labels, all the people at the publishers, they like to claim a little bit of it themselves as well. They feel like, oh, that’s my film. It’s not their film. They like to feel that they played a small part in it too. And you know, no one’s got a big ego about it, but everybody plays a small part and collaboratively, weird unicorn moments like this can happen, which is just fantastic. It’s just brilliant. Sophie must be beside herself. Who could have predicted that?

McIntyre: When you approach a moment like this, and the director wants something very specific, is that intimidating? Because it’s like, I have to make this work? Or is it a bit almost comforting, because you have a direct path and you know what you have to go do?

Lane: To be honest, on most films that I work on, I would say that the writer/director does have a clear vision of what they’re looking for. Most of the time, things are scripted. You’ve got to remember, a writer/director, they’re not working on lots of projects all at once. They’re really focused on the one thing that they’re working on, and they’ve been working on it for years. They spend a lot of time thinking about how this works. While they were writing it, more often than not, they’ve had that soundtrack in their head from the beginning.

My role as a music supervisor is to try and help them to realize that vision. It’s the same with all the different departments in the film, whether that’s the costumes, the visual effects…there’s lots of different elements to it. Where my role becomes more creative is where we come up against problems, because sometimes we can’t get the rights or samples aren’t cleared or it’s too expensive because there’s budgetary restraints. There’s never enough money in the music budget–never. So that’s when it starts getting tricky.As a music supervisor, it’s my job to make sure that we get the best mix of music and as much of whatever was written initially. I’ve not come across a writer/director who doesn’t have quite strong views about what music they’re looking for. They’re creative people. It’s their baby and it’s their vision and it’s my job to make sure that that happens–as much as can be.

McIntyre: What would happen though, if you went to Sophie’s team, and they either said no, or they demanded too much money? Did you have a plan B, or a path to something else?

Lane: Obviously that does happen. It does happen quite frequently that it’s too expensive or they’re just not interested. They don’t like it. It’s offensive. Thankfully, Sophie has a light sense of humor and she was up for it. She thought it sounded like a really interesting use and she thought, yeah, let’s go for it, which is great. But yeah, if we hadn’t got the rights, obviously we would have found something else.

McIntyre: Did you have a list in the back of your mind, if you had to go to Emerald and say, “I can’t make this work, here are some ideas?”

Lane: Yes, of course.

McIntyre: But you don’t want to share them.

Lane: No, I’d have to keep that under my hat.

McIntyre: As I was watching Saltburn, I thought about Promising Young Woman. That also has at least one real big standout music moment that’s not an uncovered gem. It used a hit. So she was really banking on making these work.

Lane: Yes, definitely. The way she used music in Promising Young Woman… I loved the way that Anthony [Willis], the score composer, did that wonderful version of “Toxic.” It was just brilliant, and it really speaks of a very creative way of using something that was incredibly recognisable, but so different and very unique to the film. I can’t imagine doing that would have been easy, because that was such an iconic track. But it works brilliantly and I think if you can do something in a creative way as well, that definitely helps with artists.

I think with “Murder on the Dancefloor,” it’s a bit cheeky. It’s a bit on the nose, I suppose. I’ve read some reviews where people have been hating it and saying, “Oh, it’s just too on the nose, it’s too obvious,” which, I don’t know. I think quite a few of the articles that I’ve read have kind of missed… Some of them criticizing her music choices as too on the nose, but the thing is, when you watch the film for the first time, as the viewer, you don’t know what’s coming. I think what she’s tried to create and she has managed brilliantly is that it’s all there right in front of you, but hiding in plain sight. I know that’s something that she said.

For instance, when Oliver first turns up at Oxford and we’re playing “Zadok the Priest.” They just changed the first two words. Instead of being “Zadok the priest” to “Oliver Quick” because he’s the god that’s arrived now at Oxford. But unless you were listening for that, you would never have noticed it. So she’s been really quite clever. The lyrics are telling the story all the way through, but the viewer is blissfully unaware really that that’s what’s going on until you watch the film a second time or a third time. Then you’re like, Oh my God! The first time you’re just along for the ride.

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McIntyre: When you first went to whoever you had to go to–a publisher or a label–was it hard to say, “We really want this song. It’s going to be in Emerald’s new movie, but the scene is pretty explicit.” Was that an awkward conversation?

Lane: No, not at all. You have to be honest about how someone’s music’s going to be used. The artist always has rights to say yes or no. What I wasn’t able to tell was the plot twist and the entire storyline of what the film was about, because that was quite sensitive information. So the information I went to the label and the publishers with were that, yeah, Barry was going to be dancing around Saltburn, completely naked. She knew all of that, but she didn’t know the entire story of who he was.

Luckily she just liked the sound of the naked scene. I’ve read that she said herself, although she knew what the scene was, she wasn’t quite prepared for how it was going to turn out until she saw it herself. And then she was like, “Oh my God, that’s brilliant.” Because she could have gone, “Oh my god. That’s awful!”

McIntyre: That’s so interesting to hear, because if someone came to me and said “Here’s the scene, the actor is going to dance around naked to your song,” I would want to know the context. It works so well because we just went on this journey. We know what came before. Not knowing that, were you nervous that that would make them hesitant?

Lane: Obviously I was able to give some details. You’ve got to be upfront about how things are going to be used, because otherwise it could backfire on you. And that would be a problem, especially as we were shooting to it. With that being in the script, we had to have that cleared before they shot the scene. Because otherwise if we shot the scene and then it was a no, then we’d be in trouble and we’d have to reshoot. That wouldn’t be great.

There’s always a fine line between how much you can say and how much you need to. What does the artist actually really need to know is the most important thing. I’m a musician myself, so that’s where my heart lies–in allegiance with the musicians. I started out at a record label and then I worked for a publisher, so I’ve worked on that side of things too. I know exactly how that works in terms of them approaching management and what their priorities are and what their agendas are.

My role is to keep that communication going between all of the different parties because everybody’s got their own agenda, if you see what I mean. They all talk different languages as well. Having been on all sides of it and being a musician myself, I think that definitely helps.

McIntyre: Sophie’s song has been blowing up, but I saw on Billboard’s TikTok chart that MGMT’s song [“Time To Pretend”] is now on the rise. So this movie might have two songs that break out of it, but which we’ve already already known. Is it wild to watch different groups of people react to different songs in the same movie?

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Lane: Definitely. It’s really interesting because my kids are teenagers, and we actually saw Sophie play live last summer at one of the festivals in the U.K., and I loved it. It was brilliant because I knew all her songs. I was bopping away, singing along with all the lyrics, but they didn’t know any of her music. Now, my daughter particularly, is going around the house singing all the time. I’m like, “You saw her last summer!” and she’s like, “Did I?”It’s now engaged a whole new generation. Last summer, it didn’t mean anything to her. Sophie Ellis Bextor didn’t speak to her, but now it does. And she’s going around singing the “Perfect (Exceeder)” song the whole time as well. I hear her singing it under her breath. She’s like, “Is this one of the ones that you picked?” I say, “No, Emerald picked that one,” and she’s like, “Oh, typical.”

That’s another one. I don’t know if that’s happening stateside as well, but over here, that’s gone back to the charts. It’s the song that starts at the beginning of his Midsummer Night’s Dream party sequence, where you see that amazing back of that dress of the girl and then it goes into the party sequence. That one’s blown up over here in the U.K. She’s a U.S. rapper, Princess Superstar, and she’s so excited that she’s back on the charts over here. Whether that one will take off in the States too, I don’t know.

The MGMT track again is another really iconic track, and the fact that it’s used over a big montage… As people have said and commented, it’s almost like a music video itself, isn’t it, that scene?

McIntyre: How did you find out about your nomination?

Lane: Good question. I haven’t actually heard from the Guild about my nomination at all, which is really weird because I really want to go to the awards! The only way I can get to go to the awards is if I reply to the email that says, here’s your code to get in. So I’ve been trying to contact them saying I really want to come, so let me know how I sort this out!

I read about it online. And then I had lots of Saltburn love and congratulations from people all over, which has been great.

McIntyre: Is this your first?

Lane: It is. I know that it was talked about when I worked on Baby Driver that maybe that should have had some recognition as well, but because Edgar very much chose all of the music himself and I was just the deal maker, as it were, the way the Guild works is that they are championing creativity in music supervision.

To be honest, music supervision, I would say, and if you ask any music supervisor, really, it’s 90% admin. Negotiations, deal breaking, working on those relationships and having those contacts to be able to make things happen. Maybe 10% of the time you actually get to be a creative music supervisor and come up with all the ideas. Like I said, the filmmakers very much have their strong views as to what they want in their film. iIt’s not my job to overrule that, it’s their film.

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