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Interview: ‘Gunpowder Milkshake’ Director Navot Papushado on His “Genre Blender” of a Film and Its “Instinctive” Soundtrack

Think about a scene from one of your favorite movies with a song in it. If the scene was powerful enough, you’ll never be able to hear that song again without associating it with that scene in that movie. That’s the power music can have in film.

Navot Papushado’s latest film, Gunpowder Milkshake, premiered on Netflix today. With a star-studded cast featuring Karen Gllian, Chloe Coleman, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Paul Giamatti, three generations of women fight back against those who could take everything from them in the mother of all action movies.

Think about a scene from one of your favorite movies with a song in it. If the scene was powerful enough, you’ll never be able to hear that song again without associating it with that scene in that movie. That’s the power music can have in film.

When the music and the content of the scene are perfectly aligned, it can be magical for the audience and those involved behind the scenes alike. It isn’t as typical as you might think for a director to take such a hand-on approach to their films. Many directors leave that work to the music supervisors and coordinators, but it can be especially great when the director already has a unique vision associated with the project.

Gunpowder Milkshake director Navot Papushado described music as “a big inspiration in the writing process” for him. He even told me that “back in the day” he dreamed of being a musician himself:

“…I played guitars and keyboards. I even thought, ‘I’m gonna be a rockstar,’ before I should do the world a favor and focus on other stuff. Music was — still is — very much in my blood.”

To reinforce a consistency in the music throughout the movie, Papushado called on his music composer Frank Ilfman, who had worked with him on his past film Big Bad Wolves, “to create a theme for the McAlester family, for The Firm, for Emily’s arc…” Navot grew up in the eighties, so he came up “adoring” the works of Spielberg and Zemeckis with Indiana Jones and Back to the Future

In terms of the original music composed for the score, they “wanted the music to help glue this genre blender.” As well as the score soundtracking the action between the action scenes, there are also the needle drops with hit songs: “The songs that go from fifties and earlier.. The Pretenders, Matt Monroe… All the way to the sixties, Karen Dalton… A little bit of early nineties and late nineties and, in the middle of them all, we have Janis [Joplin], and we have The Animals covering Bob Dylan.”

It was somewhat of a risk taking so many different types of music from so many different eras and joining them across one film. Papushado acknowledged that risk saying, “…I think it also really works with the genre blender with the different eras that the movie was inspired from. It’s kind of sort of weird how it all fits together. I was hoping it would. Some of the songs were in my mind writing this. But actually until the end, it’s like, ‘Will this work?’, because it’s so different. I hope it did.”

“I think it also really works with the genre blender with the different eras that the movie was inspired from…” — Navot Papushado

Some of the songs on this soundtrack are very hard to get featured in movies. With all the legal clearance that publishers and labels have to give and the budgetary constraints put in place by production companies, some songs are just not realistic to get on a movie’s soundtrack. Papushado was reluctant to back down from his specific song choices he had in mind: “I was very very persuasive, and we ended up getting the more difficult songs. Obviously, having Janis… I don’t want to spoil to anyone exactly when in the movie, but when it comes in, I had chills.”

Janis Joplin has a song playing during one of the most pivotal scenes of the entire film, and she is also one of Navot’s favorite artists: “Those are songs that I listened to since my childhood; especially Janis Joplin. I grew up with two tape cassettes that I found in a shoebox; one was Ziggy Stardust, and the other was Janis Joplin’s best of her earliest hits collection. It goes all the way back to my childhood…”

Watching the film, you may come to realize that there isn’t an established time period or setting in place. You won’t see the latest iPhone or see a sign saying “Welcome to Chicago,” and that’s the point. The ambiguous setting and lack of a specific era were intentional efforts on Papushado’s part:

“One of the goals when we set out to do this movie was to make it a kind of nowhere-and-no-time kind of movie. Just to help people sit back and enjoy the ride without feeling obligated to tell them where it is happening and what year it is. The music is a huge contributor. The minute the movie starts, you have all these influences… You’re like, ‘Okay, this is different. This is something that is a little bit strange and weird.’”

“One of the goals when we set out to do this movie was to make it a kind of nowhere-and-no-time kind of movie. Just to help people sit back and enjoy the ride without feeling obligated to tell them where it is happening and what year it is.” — Navot Papushado

Music for Papushado “is first and foremost from the start.” He continued, saying, “It’s instinctive. You can have an idea, and it might be a smart idea, but if it doesn’t really provoke an emotion out of you, it stays as an intellectual idea sometimes. That’s the one thing I think music shouldn’t do, especially in movies. You can love a song, but when it hits a movie, it creates a bigger memory. Unless it does that, for me, it doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean that the music isn’t great. With movies, it just has to have this other layer, and it’s just instinctive.”

“…You can love a song, but when it hits a movie, it creates a bigger memory. Unless it does that, for me, it doesn’t work…” — Navot Papushado

I asked him if some of the songs that ended up making it in the final product of the film were in his mind during the writing process, and I was somewhat surprised that the answer was yes:

“The Mercury Rev [song playing near the end of the movie] was in the script. For some reason, that song played with me, and it felt right. Even on set, we were timing the camera movement to it. While editing, I kept an open mind (because again, intentions aside, I wanted to make sure that it works). We tried many different other tracks that worked— that were great. For me, they didn’t have that emotion in there. That was one idea that was a guide while shooting.”

Since music was such a major aspect as early on as the script, I figured they had to use music while on set shooting the action scenes. My hunch was correct, and Navot explained how he would use songs as examples of how he wanted the actors to go into their scenes:

“I have songs playing in my head almost through every action scene. Sometimes, we used to play those action scenes with those [songs] on the day. I would go to Adam Nagaitis, who plays Virgil, and say, ‘I hear Peter Gabriel’s cover of ‘My Body Is A Cage’ [by Arcade Fire], so I’m hearing him.’ I played that to him, like, ‘This is your state of mind.’”

“I have songs playing in my head almost through every action scene…” — Navot Papushado

“Never in a million years [did I think we could] have that library song,” he says making sure we did not to spoil the scene during which it plays. “…You pray, and you hold your fingers crossed, which is my kind of prayers, and then it happens. And it’s magical.”

Gunpowder Milkshake is now streaming on Netflix.

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