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BWW Interview: Music Supervisor Alexandra Eckhardt Talks Tessa Thompson & Alexander Skarsgard Sundance Drama PASSING

Prior to Passing, Eckhardt collaborated with Sara Bareilles and Alex Lacamoire as an electric and acoustic bassist, played in numerous Broadway pit orchestras and more!

BWW Interview: Music Supervisor Alexandra Eckhardt Talks Tessa Thompson & Alexander Skarsgard Sundance Drama PASSING

Alexandra Eckhardt is an accomplished Music Supervisor and bassist, having worked on shows such as The Band's Visit on Broadway and The Book of Mormon at The Kennedy Center; with artists including Sara Bareilles, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire' as well as working feature films. Eckhardt most recently supervised the music for the film, Passing, which premiered on January 30th at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Written and directed by Rebecca Hall, starring Tessa Thompson, Alexander Skarsgard, Ruth Negga and André Holland, Passing -based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen- tells the story of two high school friends, Clare and Irene, who become obsessed with one another's lives.

We spoke with Alexandra Eckhardt about how her experience as a musician helped her bring the music to life on screen in Passing, the process of researching the music of the era, and much more!

You have an incredible background in music, having worked on Broadway as a bassist and playing with some of the biggest Broadway stars of our time. How did your experience as a musician help you bring the story of Passing to life through music?

As a musician, I feel like as the bass player, my job is to listen for the band and be the glue that brings all the elements together. So, when I approached the music supervision role, I thought of it in similar terms, bringing the storytelling to life by implementing the director's vision and being one cog in the machine, bringing everything together to fit the story and bring out enhanced emotion.

Having a background as a musician brings a distinctive set of tools to the gig. Being able to bounce between production and business lingo with producers and rights holders to articulating in musical terms to the composer and music editor. More specifically in the big band dance scene in this film, I advised on period appropriate instruments and gave each background actor a mini lesson in how to 'play' their instrument. I had such a great time teaching them how to correctly hold a trombone and mime playing an acoustic bass convincingly.

Interestingly, the stages of development on the film lined up with three different Broadway shows I held the chairs for - during pre-production I was playing in Jim Steinman's Bat Out of Hell at City Center, during production/filming I was playing in The Wrong Man at MTC working with Ross Golan and Alex Lacamoire, and I had just started working on The Visitor at The Public when we were in post-production and unfortunately this is also when the pandemic started and everything got shut down. All of this on top of other freelance work and subbing at Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked, and more.

Music has such an enormous influence on how people perceive a film. Can you walk me through what the process is like of overseeing the music for a film? Where do you even begin?

I was so intrigued by the position, which is why I wanted to be a part of that world for so long. In this particular film, Rebecca [Hall] and I had our initial talks about her vision for the movie and bringing the story to life, because it was a novel from the Harlem Renaissance, it was a pivotal 1929 story about these two women who are facing issues of race and identity and the class system, and obviously those issues still pervade today. But, I was introduced to the story, and I read through it and I read through the script, and it was really important for us to have it feel like it was the Harlem Renaissance and create a diegetic soundscape and a score that enhanced that, because it was such a specific time and in Harlem, very notable people and musicians and culture.

So, after we talked through that, I did a lot of research like combing through old Billboard charts and periodicals and copyright, film public domain, everything. I was hungry to know the entire decade leading up to it in music and culture, and brought that into what I thought these characters would be feeling or listening to in regards to the plot and went from there. Musically, especially, it was such an interesting transition period, moving out of Chicago-style Blues and New Orleans Brass into big Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson-style big bands, and not quite swing, but everything was evolving and becoming way more intricate. So, naturally, as a jazz performance major, I tried to stay true to those characteristic of the era in music.

Let's talk more about your research, did you have a lot of prior knowledge about these types of music? Where did you start on that research process?

As a jazz musician, I went to school for jazz, I always loved jazz and loved the historical aspect to it. As a musician, you like to know the musicology of where it came from and how that evolved to the next era of genres and styles. So, I was familiar with it, but I definitely took a thorough deep dive into all of the songs that are now public domain, and what was popular then, and different styles of soloing and female singers like Adelaide Hall or Ethel Waters. People who we don't really think about now, but they were really at the forefront of people like Ella Fitzgerald, they were before Billie Holiday. I was always fascinated by the progression of artists and just how music evolves. So, I really started from there and looked up Cotton Club concerts from then, I found posters to see who was playing, and I was very specific about years and what music came out in what year, and there's a lot of information, but I just loved getting into the depth with that.

What were your thoughts actually hearing the music in the film for the first time?

It's obviously really powerful to have been a part of something from pre-production to post when we're seeing it in this phase of the film. But this is definitely a long process. Rebecca and I were in conversations way before anything was filmed because there were live performances on screen, or meant to be live. So, there was a lot of separation for that, and there is a huge town hall dance scene kind of in the style of a Cotton Club dance night, and we had to prepare for that and pick out everything beforehand. So, for some of these we were prepared, and it was really exciting to see that in person. But then there were other songs where it was sourced, and [I was] giving Rebecca options and hearing what her take on it would be and getting in the characters' heads and trying out different options. That was really exciting too, seeing what she ultimately wanted to go with and how they conveyed the tone she wanted.

There's one particular moment, which is the final source cue, and basically the entire story is leading up to that moment, where these two main characters, Irene and Clare, they're living these different realities throughout the whole film, and you know that it can't be this tense, something has to happen. And in this moment, they're not speaking at all, they're just looking at each other and conveying through their eyes that they know that this is the moment... it's just a complex narrative moment. So, this was the only cue where we have lyrics, because I felt it was really important to have something in the background that could convey this while they weren't. Something very regretful and sorrowful and could show this unspoken understanding of each other, when throughout the film they're dancing around different elements of their chosen realities. So, we took the song 'Somebody's Sweetheart' which is an old 1919, turn of the century song that really had the lyrics and the tone that we wanted, and in a female voice, which really helped to evoke the character's voices.

I'm especially proud of my work on the on-camera performances in the speakeasy scene, which featured very tight shots of a small jazz combo. As we headed into post-production during quarantine with everyone working from home, we realized our pre-records needed some re-tooling, so I produced new re-record sessions from home. This was a true collaboration between myself and our fantastic music editor, Chad Birmingham; Chad created Quicktimes of the scene to send to the musicians along with my custom music arrangements, and we kind of reverse engineered the audio in the scene to match the picture edit. I'm lucky enough to call some of the most incredible jazz musicians in NYC my friends, and thankfully they were game to take on this super challenging task made extra complicated by having to record remotely. One of my biggest pet peeves is when audio and visual don't align, so Chad and I meticulously tag teamed comping each individual take in order to effectively sync up with the shots of the players' breathing and fingerings, while also making sure the tracks were musically kosher soloistically and worked together stylistically... we created a jazzy Frankenstein if you will. It was quite the undertaking, but a ton of fun and I'm thrilled with how it turned out!

It's interesting because I think when people think of a job like this, they think you just pick the music and send it to the person in charge. But, it's really a conversation, figuring out what works and how many options you present to be tried out before you pick!

Yeah! It's fun because Rebecca and I had a rapport about music prior to this. So I would give her not too many options, but enough, and then throw in a wildcard every now and then just to be like, "Maybe this could be interesting, this approach to the scene!" We would always figure it out and talk through it which is really fun.

Do you have any movies that really influenced you, either when you were younger, or even when you were a little bit older, when you really understood the influence that music could have on a film?

That's an awesome question! Yeah, I mean growing up I didn't realize the impact that some of these films had on me. Old MGM musical movies, I would always love those. But, when I was a kid, growing up and watching The Wedding Singer, that whole soundtrack, or Clueless. I have very specific memories of China Girl by David Bowie playing in The Wedding Singer and Drew Barrymore singing it. Or, The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorite films and sonic landscapes, T Bone Burnett, I really admire his work and the amount of authenticity and variety, so eclectic in those films. There are so many movies that have amazing music that definitely played a role in my wanting to eventually become a music supervisor. Other movies I love the music to are Animal House, Cold War, and Dazed and Confused.

How does it feel for you knowing that you contributed to a film that is being presented at Sundance?

I was ecstatic, this was my first film as a music supervisor. Working with these incredible veterans of the industry and learning from them and collaborating with them and just being a part of it was more than I could ever ask for from an experience like that. But then being in Sundance and being in the US Dramatic Competition, it's just the greatest feeling to have been involved, and I feel really appreciative to have been a part of it.

*This interview has been edited for clarity.

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