Catching Up With Karyn Rachtman, the Woman Behind the Best Soundtracks of the '90s
Tarantino and Rachtman
Courtesy Karyn Rachtman
SoCal native Karyn Rachtman is one of the most influential music supervisors of all time. Her brother Riki was well known as a rock-centric MTV personality, but Karyn was queen of the big screen in the Rachtman family. Quite simply, she owned the ’90s and is responsible for the music in classic films including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Clueless, Reality Bites and Boogie Nights — which, incidentally, turns 20 this year. Her soundtracks were often so good that they were better than the movies themselves (I’m looking at you, Bulworth, Judgment Night and Good Burger).
I met with Rachtman at her home in the Hollywood Hills, which is on the market as she’s planning to split her time between Los Angeles and New Zealand. We spoke about her wild career and all the people she’s worked with and for over the years, from P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino to Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Jimmy Iovine.
So ... tell me about music supervision.
Well, [laughs] I don't do it much anymore. But I look at it like really what your job is to get the director, what he wants and make it fit the picture, but also it's a lot of like negotiating. It's a lot of digging. It's a lot of really making it happen for the budget.
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How did you get your first job?
I first learned all about music supervision because there was a film studio back in the day called Cannon Films. I'm a high school dropout, but I was working in a clothing store in New York. And Paula Erickson — now the head of film and TV licensing at Sony Music — came to a friend of mine and said, “I'm looking for an assistant.” And I was like, “Oh my God.”
So you worked for the head of the music department?
She was running the music department, had 16 projects at a time. I also had to clear a lot of music, so I really got my negotiating skills up, but the movies that I got really involved in were Rappin' and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
The one with Dennis Hopper?
Yeah. So, you know, I didn’t do much on them but I got to really work with her and the director and see it all. I left Cannon Films and went to work for Island Music, placing and submitting music. And then I decided I'm going to move to New Zealand. I saved my money and sold my car and moved to New Zealand and thought, “I am going to become a writer.” And I got there and rented this house on the beach on this little island, Waiheke. And I didn't even write a letter to my mother. I didn't write. I don't know how to write. You know, everybody thinks they have such a good story and have great stories. I had to move from the island of Waiheke because I was broke.
Then things took off?
I then did really low-budget movies called Warm Summer Rain and Cool Blue. I did those movies, then I got Texasville, which was the sequel to The Last Picture Show.
I was in labor giving birth and Peter Bogdanovich was calling me about wanting to change a recording of a marching band for “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and I'm like, really? Like now? I told him, “It’s a temp track. I promise you I’ll get on it right away [when I’m back].” You're always on call, you know.
So then I became really good friends with Stacey Sher, who's a fantastic producer and is really who made my career. One day she said, “Karyn, I need you to do me a favor. My friend Quentin — you're not going to believe this script; he’s the best,” and just went on and on. She said he needed this song, “Stuck in the Middle With You.” It’s in a scene, and his music supervisor told him he can't have it. And so I read the script [for Reservoir Dogs] and thought this script is fucking unreal. I met with Quentin and said I read the script, and I told him, “You're going to get a record deal, and it will pay for the music and I'll get you ‘Stuck in the Middle.'"
So I got the song, and he was like, “Oh my God. Thank you so much. What can I do for you?” I told him to fire his music supervisor and hire me. He said, “OK,” and I got paid $1,000 on the film. But I had 20 percent on the advance and points on the soundtrack.
Oh wow. “Always take the points,” right?
Then Stacey Sher hired me [when] she was producing Reality Bites and hired me on that movie. I was doing Pulp Fiction and Reality Bites at the same time. The funny story there is that they both wanted the Knack song “My Sharona.” And I had to explain what scene it was going to be used in Pulp Fiction to the Knack.
It was something really graphic?
Yeah, but in Reality Bites they go to a gas station. The characters sing because it comes on the radio. The Knack said OK to Reality Bites [and said no to Pulp Fiction]. My points started to go down with Quentin at that point, I believe. Then Stacey introduced me to Paul Thomas Anderson, and I did a couple of films like Basketball Diaries and Clueless.
The deal was if I music supervise a film, [the soundtrack] had to be released at Capitol, you know, I couldn’t music supervise outside pictures but I could music supervise pictures that were done at Capitol. So I believe at the time I was talking to Paul Thomas Anderson, and my ex-husband also produced Boogie Nights. When I was at Capitol I did Boogie Nights, I did Romeo + Juliet, picked up the rights to Trainspotting.
How was working with P.T. Anderson?
First of all, he knows exactly what he wants, so in a way I'm the luckiest music supervisor really. He had most of his music figured out, but I remember the song I put in was Melanie’s “Brand New Key” [in the Roller Girl scene].
What about Bulworth? How did that all go down?
So Warren Beatty wanted me to do his movie and it was about rap music and that was all I heard. I met with him at [Interscope records founder] Jimmy Iovine’s office. Warren said something like, “Jimmy, leave the room,” and is like, “Karyn, what will it take to get you out of your contract?” And I said, “Well, Gary Gersh is the president at Capitol and he used to work for David Geffen." He idolized Geffen. Supposedly Warren Beatty called Geffen and said, “Help me get this girl out of her contract," and Jimmy Iovine gave me an incredible contract at Interscope.
How is it working with Iovine?
I’ll tell you something. I don't want to say he hates me; I gave him a hard time. He told me to only bring records to him that are going to sell a million copies. "If it’s not going to sell a million copies, I'm not interested." And he would be like, you can do whatever you want, so I brought Baz Luhrmann over with me to do Moulin Rouge, and I brought Nickelodeon with me so I did Rugrats at Interscope. But back to Bulworth, I had Warren Beatty hook up with DJ Muggs to rap. He’s a brilliant man.
So did DJ Muggs write Beatty’s raps?
Warren wrote his rap completely. It was my first all-rap soundtrack, and I love rap. Warren told me, “I want the best rappers with the most hardcore, real rap. I want the 'bust a cap up your ass.' I want, you know, pussies, hoes. I want it all.” I was like, well, let's go to New York.
So we fly private in his little tiny plane, and we get there for the screening and nobody shows up. And he’s like yelling at me. So finally, at 4 in the morning, we’re having tea with KRS-One at some fancy hotel. Then slowly but surely by the next night everybody showed up: RZA, Method Man, John Forte, Wyclef, Prodigy, Canibus.
We got everybody we wanted. But when I finished getting everybody hardcore, Warren was like, “Great but where's the song for my people?" Meaning, like, the older generation. He thought all this street rap is cool, but he really wanted a pop song. And he was right, so I went to Pras, who I felt like really needed to do something on his own. So I told him what Warren wanted. We knew it was gonna be “ghetto supastar” as the hook, and it had the sample from The Bee Gees. But the original lyric was “ghetto supastar, that is what I am,” which doesn't even rhyme.
Courtesy Karyn Rachtman
I told Pras we're going to call Warren, but you're going to read him the lyrics over the phone but just change the lyric to “ghetto supastar, that is what you are” and tell him he’s the ghetto supastar. And Warren loved it. We used Mya. And RZA told me that we had to get Ol’ Dirty Bastard. We do the deal, record the song, but the day of the music video Ol' Dirty Bastard won't get out of his room. At the last minute [he was like], "I need 10,000 more dollars to shoot this video and you've got to get somebody to pick me up in a BMW 740iL." I was so livid and then I went and told Jimmy, and Jimmy was like, “Just give it to him!” I go to show up at The Sinbad Show, and he wouldn’t come down unless I called him Big Baby Jesus. I was like, “OK, Big Baby Jesus, please come down.” That was the start of his Big Baby Jesus thing.
What about the time you met Harry Nilsson?
When I got pregnant with my oldest son, my boyfriend broke up with me. I went and saw a therapist, and he asked me to think of something you really want to do in your life. And I thought, “I really want to meet Harry Nilsson," which gave me something to live for besides, you know, my son or whatever. And then I got Reservoir Dogs, and we didn't have a song for the end credits. I said “What about ‘Lime in the Coconut’ by Harry Nilsson?” And Quentin said, “I love that song.” So we had to screen the film for Harry Nilsson.
After the screening, Nilsson got up and said, “Crime doesn't pay." And so I was meeting my hero and I went into his car afterward. I would sit in the back of his car and listen to demos. He’d lost his voice by that time, but he’s still Harry Nilsson. He’s still great, the only thing is that he’d always call me after that but he thought I was a different Karyn, like he must have had that written down, Karyn. Somebody who was trying to produce The Point as a musical was named Karyn, but I was so happy, like Harry Nilsson is calling. I'm like, “Hey Harry,” and he’d say, “Oh, I'm sorry. Wrong Karyn.”
But your working relationship with Quentin eventually ended?
When I went to Capitol, Quentin said he wasn't going to work with me again because he didn't want to be forced into doing soundtracks at Capitol. And I very much had my blinders on and took this vice president gig, and so he hired my assistant, who was a coordinator, and she still works with him. Then I went to Interscope with Paul Thomas Anderson after doing Boogie Nights, he went with me to Interscope and was doing Magnolia. And Aimee Mann was signed to Interscope, and she was doing the soundtrack — with a Harry Nilsson cover and everything. I loved it. I was very excited about it, [but] Interscope was dropping Aimee Mann, and they made me drop that soundtrack. That ruined my relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson. It was unfortunate that that happened with Paul Thomas Anderson because ...
That was out of your control though?
Yeah it was out of my control, and I don't think Paul ever knew it. I saw him on a plane when I was dropping my son off at college once. I know he speaks to my ex-husband. But, anyway, it was a bummer to lose these people.
What ended up happening with me was, when you're young, some people like me do a lot of drugs and alcohol, then you get pregnant, you have babies. And, you know, I was nursing and didn't party. Then all of a sudden, when I was at Interscope, I fell right back into it. Everything came back and I became really fucked up, and Jimmy let me go.
And it was not in a nice way. I remember when he was talking to me, there was another guy there that he sent to rehab. At that time I remember thinking, “Why didn’t he send me to rehab?” But he didn’t. I know what Jimmy was about and didn’t have time for the bullshit. Moulin Rouge came out and did very well. Then I went on for a while and then, because of drugs and alcohol, I didn’t do anything for a very long time. And then I got sober in 2012.
And you've been clean since then?
Rachtman recently partnered with Gillian Wynn in Mind Your Music. Together they supervise and consult for film, TV and brands. Additionally Rachtman is pursuing her passion producing documentaries. Her first one, Sweet Micky for President, won several awards and is currently on Showtime.
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