“We still haven’t scratched the tip of the iceberg”: Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips Talks About Our Flag Means Death

Our Flag Means Death is special. From creating a surrealist version of the Golden Age of Piracy, to centering a later-in-life coming-out story, to including people or many races, gender identities, abilities, and cool freaking hairstyles, to moving production for season two from LA to New Zealand in order to highlight the beauty of the land, Lord of the Rings-Style, and build a majority Kiwi crew. It’s makes our pop cultural heart swell to see a production being so intentional with its decisions.

But nowhere is that intentionality more apparent than in OFMD’s music. More than just fun, jokey needledrops, each song in Season One acts as a counterpoint to the action, adding emotion and depth to what becomes a surprising queer love story. A lot of the credit for the show’s unique tone can go to Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips and her team. Leah Schnelbach recently got to speak with Maggie about baroque pop, “The Beautiful Ones”, making “the non-obvious choice”, and—the long-awaited SEASON TWO.

Season two debuts on Max in the U.S. on October 5, and Neon on October 6 and is coming soon to Sky Open in New Zealand.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)


How do you start? Do you get the script and let you mind wander, or do you pick a period and do a deep dive on songs from a period?

Maggie Phillips: It depends on the project. For [OFMD] I got the scripts—at least the first four or five—so I had enough to have a sense of the love story, and the themes. I made thematic playlists. Sometimes I do character driven playlists. But across the board it starts with scripts and playlists. Then I send the playlist to the director or showrunner and we start a back and forth. And this one, same, except that I’d worked with David Jenkins before on People of Earth, so I knew his taste already, and it’s very similar to mine, which is very melodic, we both like baroque pop, we both like a lot of classical elements in our music and in our pop.

And he’s very encouraging of me to—I realized when we worked on People of Earth—he pushed me to go weird. Some people have me rein it back, but he pushed me to go even further. So, I just start a general playlist, thematically driven, mostly romantic. We wanted to play up the romance in the first season, so a lot of romantic music and songs, pop songs about unrequited love, pining, heartbreak, heart-loss, it’s been a long time since I started these – longing, leaving behind a part of your life and moving on to another part, transition…and then another part was just like, ocean life! And the sea! I made a lot of playlists and sent them over to David, and what actually happens—sometimes we’ll pull from the general playlist. I work closely with the editors on specific scenes and send over specific playlists for each scene that we were listening for. I’d make playlists of 500 songs, and then listen to that for each moment—mostly end credits in Season One—and then send playlists over for spots. But that’s how it starts, and that’s the fun part.

That’s about twenty-five percent of my job. The rest is clearing songs and tracking rights and dealing with budgets, and blah blah blah. (laughs)


One of my favorites is Moondog. How did Moondog… happen?

MP: That’s a song that I’ve had, I love that song. His music is very avant garde, there’s only a handful of his songs that I thought could be synch-able. Even that one, I had saved on a playlist years ago, and hadn’t pitched it to anyone. It hadn’t worked in any moment, this I did not put on the general playlist, i tried specifically for the end of the pilot, and I almost didn’t send it because I thought, there’s no way they’ll go for this. And luckily the editor, the editor is sometimes the middleman, they’ll try out the stuff and show it to David. They’re in the rooms with David more than I am. So like sometimes I’ll send my stuff out to editors and not know which one they’re going to show. I’ll send them 15-20 songs, and they’ll show the director or showrunner three to five choices. But Hilda [Rasula], the editor of the pilot was very collaborative and communicative, and she responded and said which ones she liked and would try, and I knew this was one of them, so I was excited. There was a handful of songs that I loved for that pilot, but this one was one of my top favorites, and she said she was going to show it, but I still didn’t think this was going to be the one they’d pick.

Sometimes I’ll get an email saying we’re putting on [one of the choices], but I didn’t get it for this one, so I got to watch the pilot like an audience member not knowing which song they selected—I immediately knew it from the first note, and was like, “Oh they went with Moondog!” And then I got to watch and see how it works.


It worked beautifully.

MP: That was a really hard spot to nail, and that song is perfect because it’s melancholy and wistful, but there’s also hope. It hits both notes, and he just left his—you have to gloss over that so you can still love Stede, but he left his fuckin’ family. He’s having this intense mid-life crisis and he does what some people dream of, which is starting over, but most people don’t do, you know? I think we hit both notes with that song. And we wanted to hit the humanity on all those characters, we see Jim, we see a few characters in that montage. And the humanity of all of them being in the boat at sea all alone…


Heading out!

MP: Yeah! For the adventure of their lifetimes! (laughs)


It was perfect, I thought. I know from other interviews with you that you had a 300-song playlist for season one, were you able to use any for this season?

MP: For season two? Yes. I definitely we still… we still haven’t scratched the tip of the iceberg like there’s so many songs I have for this show… and there’s only so many songs in the show. There are fifteen in season one and even fewer in season two, and we only have eight episodes to work with. We use one in Episode 1: “Strawberry Letter 23”, the Shuggie Otis. We used one in the trailer, “The Beautiful Ones” by Prince…


That was uhhh pretty great!

MP: That was one of the first songs—I think the first song that David and I spoke about for the show?


Oh! Like, before season one started?

MP: Yeah, even before we spoke about “The Chain”—I can’t remember if “Beautiful Ones” came from David or me? But we talked about Prince and we both bonded on the fact that we loved that song specifically. That literally was the first song I had in my head for the whole show. I think in season one the estate was off-limits because it was soon after his passing, but then by season two his music was licensable again. I’ve been doing this for almost 18 years, and it’s the first time [I’ve licensed his music]. And he’s one of my top ten artists of all time.


When we posted the trailer, I’m pretty sure the tweet I wrote was just screaming about “Beautiful Ones”, I was so excited.

MP: My Instagram post I did like a purple heart, I made my own Prince purple heart background, and put the trailer on top of a ton of purple hearts, and I put a crown on top of one of them. Just the teenage glee of ohmygod, we got a Prince song!


Were there any songs that were absolute no, whether because they were overused, or they just didn’t fit?

MP: There’s one from season one and one from season two, and the one from season one is “Perfect Day”, for the reason you just said. I think it’s been overused, that was one I didn’t pitch, but I kept trying to beat it—it’s an amazing song. There’s a reason it’s been used a bazillion times, cause it’s a perfect song, right? I tried so hard to beat it, and I think I did, to be honest, but there’s an inherent familiarity and comfort when you hear a song you know, and I think that helps that scene. And David was just in love with it, and I understand why, and I’m sure it was very satisfying for the audience.

The one from season two—it’s a Kate Bush. I had advised against it, but, this one I don’t think we could beat it. I had used it myself, “This Woman’s Work”, in Handmaid’s Tale. It wasn’t a song I pitched. I pitched “Running Up that Hill”—which then was in Stranger Things—I pitched that for an end of an episode in Handmaid’s Tale, and the showrunner didn’t want to use that one, but it made him remember “This Woman’s Work”, and he put it into a very controversial scene, for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale—some people hate it, and some people loved it. So, I of course read all the backlash online about using song, and people have strong opinions about it. [OFMD] was right after the Stranger Things TikTok phenomenon, and I thought “We’re gonna look like we’re copycats”, but David was like… “I don’t care.” (laughs) he said, “People have a short attention span when it comes to music and TV”, and he’s right. And it was a Taika [Waititi, OFMD’s Blackbeard/executive producer/sometimes director) song, Taika really wanted that song, he’d wanted to use that song for many years. Then I saw it cut into the episode, and I think they transformed the song. They re-contextualized it and made it their own, even so the lyrics have different meaning than I’ve ever heard listening to it previously. They clearly had a vision, and it gave me chills to watch it.


I’m excited to see how it’s used in this context.

MP: And that’s what I love about my job, you put song and image together and they both change, and in this instance it was really powerful. But I mean, I always, unless it’s a show that doesn’t care about overusing, I always tell David if I have a reaction or an opinion, and one of the things I’ll react to is if a song’s been overused, or feels uninspired—but this one felt inspired once it was cut in.


I feel like this show is so off-kilter, and it’s always surprising. So the other one that I absolutely love was the use of the Beach Boys for the Blackbeard reveal. How did you jump to that? To me that’s their meet-cute, but it’s not actually cute.

MP: No, it’s demonic/angelic, weird vocals…I had tried to use that song in a different tv show, and we got denied actually, because it was a violent scene, so I had that song on a bunch of playlists. I love that song. I think that was one that was on my general playlist. And when I’m trying out music what I do for these scenes is I’ll do a brainstorm playlist where I’ll throw on a whole bunch of songs without knowing what’s going to work and without thinking about it, just like “That’s worth trying, that’s worth trying”—I call it my kitchen sink approach—I try not to overthink what I throw onto that playlist and then I just play those songs against picture, because you never know what’s gonna click, and that’s where you get the non-obvious choices, or like, the counterpoint choices, because you don’t know until you put them together how they’re going to play off each other. And so that was one that when I tested I was like, “Oh fuck, this is beautiful.” Then I sent it to the editor, and fingers crossed that they’ll have the same reaction. I try not to color…like I don’t say in my emails which ones are my favorite, because I want them to have an unbiased reaction. But that one worked, and everyone fell in love with it.


That one, well, they’re all my favorite, but that one might be my favorite favorite. It’s such a good contrast! Stede’s almost dead, Blackbeard’s covered in gore, and then there’s these angelic voices.

MP: Right? They’re saving each other. The relationship is that they’re each others’ saviors, right? I feel like that moment, that song sort of captures that.


But without being too sappy, it’s not a song I ever hear anywhere, so it’s startling. Bigger question: I know for The Dropout you did mid-‘00s indie, because it’s a period piece, horrifyingly, that’s becoming a period piece.

MP: I know right? That made me feel old, those were songs that felt like just the other day?


Yeah (laughter) but for this, obviously it’s the Golden Age of Piracy, but it’s also kind of a surrealist fantasy did you have in mind an era, like “Oh I’m going to use a lot of ‘60s pop to create a thematic contrast”? Or more hodge-podge?

MP: It was more hodgepodge-y, and then David and I both like baroque pop, we both love a harpsichord, and that style’s heyday was ‘60s and ‘70s, and that’s where my sensibility—I love music from that time period. There’s psychedelic rock, and there’s just so much cool stuff that happened back then. It has a timeless classic feel, and then there’s yacht rock happening.


I’m a sucker for yacht rock.

MP: I am too! And it fits the whole fantastical/dude/extreme-mid-life crisis. I hate to call it Dad Music, but there’s an element of that. And not that I think this is a male-driven show, but there is a lot of male energy, and it’s these two dudes’ love story, mostly. But the whole fantasy of escaping your normal existence and going off to live as a pirate has that whole dude-dad-driven energy. So that music works. But I think it if I look at my playlist, it was maybe half ‘60s-‘70s, and half more modern stuff, and that’s just the stuff that was working. For me, the way I listen for music is very emotional and gutteral it’s not as much thinking and making it logical and setting rules, it’s more just what feels right, and the we just kind of ran with it. With The Dropout we wanted a hard timestamp. I was given rules from the outset, and with Dropout, I loved working on it, but it was one of the easier shows I’ve worked on because we had those clear delineations. This song needs to be from these couple years, and it needs to have been a radio hit, there’s only so many songs you can choose from, but when you’re doing a show like Our Flag and there’s no rules at all…


Did you set any boundaries for yourself?

MP: The only boundaries I set was… stuff I hadn’t heard before. I wanted to honor the off-beat weird tone. This is something I’ve never seen before. There’s almost no comparable show. I wanted to honor that with music that was new and different.


The only show that feels similar to me is People of Earth.

MP: I loved that show so much. Not enough people watched that show.


It was so clearly ahead of its time.

MP: There’s been enough TV shows that are weird, people have… it lives in some sort of niche. But when People of Earth came out there hadn’t been enough of those kinds of shows.


Did you come into season two with a different approach at all, or was it more of a flow from Season One?

MP: The only thing that was different is that we get to dive into more of the characters, and we wanted to flesh them out a little bit. We picked a lane that was successful, and we want to stay in it. There’s so much I haven’t done yet [from the first playlist] I hope we get a third season.


Do you have a moment from a movie or TV show that is the perfect music cue for you?

MP: I like really understated music supervisions, like Succession or Roma—it’s such a beautiful movie, very understated, and there’s no score actually. The sound design is so beautiful. You don’t need music, they played up all the soundscape to score it. And there are songs, but they’re very diegetic, just like, on the radio, very elegant and quiet. I like a reserved, economical hand. Or if they make me laugh with their musical choices, like a bold unexpected choice that makes me giggle.


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