Music supervisor Alexandra Patavas was particularly inspired by the 1980s teen angst films of John Hughes.
Alexandra Patsavas has a good eye for music.
The Chicago native and founder of Los Angeles-based Chop Shop Music Supervision has earned her chops in Hollywood by finding just the right song to place in TV shows and films to make the story — and the music — resonate with viewers.
Sometimes the artist Patsavas selects comes out of nowhere, or somewhere pretty close.
Patsavas, 48, has worked on more than 60 TV shows and films during her two-decade career, setting the mood for key scenes in “The Twilight Saga” movies, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The O.C.” and “The Hunger Games,” among others. An indie music fan, she has used the platform to help launch such artists as Death Cab for Cutie, Snow Patrol, The Killers and Ingrid Michaelson.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, Patsavas was a music fan and movie lover who was particularly inspired by the 1980s teen angst films of fellow Chicago suburbanite John Hughes, whose alternative soundtracks were integral to his movies.
She began to realize that her passions could pay off while attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after joining the organization that brought bands to campus.
“It was at that point that I discovered music was a business,” Patsavas said.
Patsavas left college in 1990 and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in the mailroom of Triad Artists. She then landed a job with BMI, the music licensing company, which introduced her to the role of music supervisor, and a career was born.
Her first music supervision gig was for legendary B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman’s 1995 cult classic “Caged Heat 3000.” She started Chop Shop in a small Los Angeles apartment in 1998.
Patsavas, who was in Chicago last month to address an indie music conference, continues to mine her hometown for new artists. Among her local discoveries is Sleeping At Last, aka singer-songwriter Ryan O’Neal, whose music has become a staple on “Grey’s Anatomy” and other shows.
She sat down with the Chicago Tribune before taking the conference stage. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What exactly is a music supervisor?
A: A music supervisor is somebody who is hired to create a signature sound for television, a film or an ad project, and that can include anything from a main title to an instrument that a character would play on camera to any source music that you might hear in the body of the project. So a song you would hear in the background, a poster in a character’s room. Music supervisors deal with all aspects of music.
Q: How big of an influence was John Hughes on your career?
A: I am obviously of the age where I was very inspired by the John Hughes movies. So many of them were shot and released when I was in high school. I think “Pretty in Pink” came out in ‘86. So I definitely was inspired by the alternative music that John Hughes chose to score his movies.
Q: Do you come into a project after the film/TV show is shot, or is it collaborative throughout the whole process?
A: Oftentimes I get involved really early. I’ve worked on many pilots during my career, so I might get an outline and then a script way before the project shoots. But at the same time, sometimes you can’t tell what kind of music would be perfect until you see shot and edited footage.
Q: Is it scientific — do you do testing — or do you use your gut to pick the music?
A: I think it’s more of an art. I think we’re looking for magic mostly. I certainly don’t test songs or go to focus groups. I’m really a creative alongside all of the other creatives that the producers select. The art director, the editor, music supervisor, composer — we’re all creatives in charge of our own departments.
Q: Why use indie music?
A: It’s always really important to me to include indie musicians in the mix. Because I think there’s something incredibly compelling about artists writing and performing their own music … doing what’s really from the heart. I think it connects with producers and creators of programming, and I think it works beautifully.
Q: Does new music work better?
A: I think there’s nothing more compelling than an audience or a viewer hearing a song for the first time while watching a show that’s very dear to them. It is indelibly linked in their mind every time they think of this character, this movie, this TV show and the song plays, the voice, those things, are linked.
Back to that John Hughes conversation, there are certain songs that I still — and they’ve been used in a million contexts since, and they’ve been played on radio and used in many other shows — and I still am reminded of a scene.
Q: How did you choose Sleeping At Last for “Grey’s Anatomy?”
A: Originally, I selected his music to send down to (show creator) Shonda Rhimes. I do these compilations every couple of weeks on a show like “Grey’s Anatomy,” and include really big bands, covers and new bands. Sleeping At Last was on an early compilation many seasons ago, and she really loved his voice and what he brought to “Grey’s.” Since then, she’s decided to use him many times.