- Jonathan Prime/Focus Features
Sitting alone in a screening room, finishing up the director’s cut of “Atomic Blonde,” the movie’s music supervisor John Houlihan couldn’t move from his seat. The lights went on and director David Leitch entered the room to see Houlihan sitting there, white as a sheet.
Bracing himself for the criticism to come, Leitch reluctantly asked, “What did you think?”
“I couldn’t talk,” Houlihan told Business Insider, thinking back on the moment. “I was so overwhelmed by the business challenge of how do I get all of these iconic songs cleared and paid for on an indie budget.”
Doing some quick math, Houlihan figured there was around $3 million worth of music in the cut he just saw, and he didn’t even have a fraction of that in the budget to pay for it.
“I called David back two hours later driving home,” Houlihan said. “I said, ‘I love the movie, it’s amazing,’ but I’m thinking I just paid a huge six-figure license for George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper‘ in ‘Deadpool,’ now I have to go clear another George Michael song for a fraction of that!”
Set days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cold War-era “Atomic Blonde” stars Charlize Theron as a lethal MI6 agent who travels to Berlin to investigate the death of a fellow agent. The intense action sequences are the movie’s standout, but what makes it unique from others in the genre is the inclusion of 1980s-era classic songs throughout.
From David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” to The Clash’s “London Calling” to the song that gave Houlihan instant cold sweats, George Michael’s “Father Figure,” the music doesn’t just suck the audience into the era the story is set in, but also heightens everything that happens on screen.
But these songs don’t come cheap. With a music license budget that started in the ballpark of around $200,000 – or as Houlihan put it, smaller than a one-month catering budget on ‘Deadpool 2’ – Leitch was counting on the talents of Houlihan to pull off a great soundtrack.
A veteran music supervisor, having worked on movies ranging from the 1990s “Austin Powers” movies to Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made in America” and “Deadpool,” Houlihan had to basically call in every favor to pull off the “Atomic Blonde” soundtrack. And he said he’s still mending a few relationships in the aftermath of tough negotiations.
After having a great experience working with Leitch on “John Wick,” Houlihan was brought onto “Atomic Blonde” at the script stage, which he prefers (the total budget of the movie is around $30 million). Leitch, Houlihan, and Theron, who is also a producer on the movie, collectively came up with the chart-topping songs they wanted to try to get. But originally, the group wanted to not use the original tracks of the songs, but license covers of them instead. That idea eventually went away when the original songs were implemented into the scenes.
“It just felt great,” Houlihan said of how the music worked with the footage. “We rediscovered the genius of the original recordings and just that perfect time capsule nature: the experience of listening to ’80s songs.” (Three cover songs ended up in the movie – HEALTH did New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Kaleida did Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” and Marilyn Manson did Ministry’s “Stigmata.”)
After the shock of the rough cut screening, Houlihan and his team began working the phones.
- Rachel Murray/Getty
Generally, well-known songs will run a movie around $30,000. That price will double though if the song is featured in the opening or end credits. But it’s never cut and dry. Every song has multiple ownership parties – one song could have four publishers and a record label attached to it. And all those parties have to agree on the negotiated figure for it to be licensed in a movie. In the case of one lesser-known song in “Atomic Blonde” (which Houlihan wouldn’t reveal), getting the song took months to clear because one of the publishers wouldn’t agree on the license rights price.
There were also the songs that took a while to find a home. One example was Bowie’s “Cat People,” which was on Leitch’s mind all the way back in the pitch stage, when he featured it in a reel he put together to show off the themes he was going for in the movie. It was even written into the script. But the song didn’t find its permanent home – playing over the introduction of the Theron character in the beginning of the movie – until a few songs from The Cure didn’t work in the scene.
Then there’s dealing with artist estates, which happened when Houlihan tried to get the Queen/David Bowie classic “Under Pressure” (it plays going into the movie’s end credits). The song was the biggest challenge for Houlihan because name dropping doesn’t help.
“Artists can go, ‘Oh my gosh, my song in a scene with Charlize Theron in this cool movie, that’s amazing, I don’t care if they don’t have the money we normally get,’ you don’t get that,” Houlihan said. “You’re dealing with a lawyer and they don’t get emotional.”
Then there’s the one that got away. Originally, Houlihan and company wanted the Berlin hit “Take My Breath Away” to play over one of the movie’s major fight scenes (the one in which Theron smacks a freezer door on one of the bad guys’ faces and jumps out the window).
“We loved it, it became ‘temp love,'” Houlihan said, referring to when a filmmaker falls in love with the temporary score or song put into the movie while in production. “But it had this legal problem clearing it.”
That led to Houlihan going with a song that wasn’t even on their radar, George Michael’s “Father Figure.” The song fits perfectly in the scene, giving it the right sense of moodiness and twisted comedic tone.
“We’re much happier with ‘Father Figure,'” Houlihan said. “I always believe as much as you think a song is the only song in the world that can be in a scene, there’s always another option out there that’s just as compelling, if not more.”
Despite some moments of panic, looking back on the “Atomic Blonde” experience, Houlihan only has fond memories.
“It’s a movie that’s infectious and pulls you in, so it’s very easy for me as a music supervisor to get passionate about a movie like this,” he said. “We went the extra mile on everything.”
And it shows.
“Atomic Blonde” is currently playing in theaters.