Mary is a killer. But it’s not what you think.
In this Canadian dramedy, Mary Harris is an ER doc who moonlights as a secret angel of death, assisting terminally ill patients seeking to die on their own terms. Think Dexter meets physician assisted suicide.
Premiering to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year and currently airing on Lifetime in the US, Mary Kills People stars Hannibal alum Caroline Dhavernas as Mary, Richard Short (Vinyl) as her death angel partner Des, Jay Ryan (Beauty and the Beast) and Lyriq Bent (Rookie Blue).
The series artfully balances dark philosophical issues around life and death with nuanced characters and pitch-perfect humor, all underscored by a thoughtful soundtrack. We sat down with music supervisor Mikaila Simmons (The Handmaid’s Tale, Vikings, Penny Dreadful) of instinct, a Canadian music supervision company, to get the scoop on the music of Mary Kills People.
Mikaila shares some of her favorite music moments from the show, how she got her dream job, and some bands you should check out now.
Hi Mikaila. Thanks for chatting with us. Before we dive into talking about the soundtrack of Mary Kills People, can you tell us how you got into music supervision, and connected up with the instinct team?
I’ve been obsessed with the connection between music and film for as long as I can remember. I found so much of the music I love from the shows and movies I love: everything from Reservoir Dogs to Gilmore Girls has inspired (and continues to inspire) me on a personal and professional level. When I learned that I could make a living marrying songs to picture, I jumped at the opportunity to source music that would influence the next generation of “mediaphiles.”
I studied Radio and Television at Ryerson University in Toronto, and I was a licensing intern at Sony Music through school. I met the instinct team when they stopped by the Sony office to sing the licensing department a Christmas carol. I knew that I wanted to work with Michael [Perlmutter, instinct founder] and Dondrea [Erauw, music supervisor] from the moment I met them, and five years later, I have absolutely no idea what I saw in them. (Just kidding. They’re rad.)
What’s your favorite part of the gig?
There are so many wonderful aspects of my job. I love the moment when you find the right song and you give yourself goosebumps after laying it up to picture. I love learning that a sync has made a positive impact on the career of a talented artist. While it can be incredibly challenging, I love acting as an interpreter for a showrunner or filmmaker as they piece together their project’s sonic palette. Creators sometimes have great musical instincts but lack the language to communicate what they want, so it feels like cracking a code as we work together to create a badass soundtrack.
As far as challenges go, it unsurprisingly always comes back to budget and time. A content creator wants an excellent soundtrack for their project, whether they have 50k or 50 dollars to spend on music (and rightfully so!). The hardest part of the gig is managing expectations while still delivering exciting, high-quality, artistically compelling options, often within a few hours of receiving a request. All while keeping up with a mountain of paperwork.
Let’s switch gears and talk Mary Kills People. It must have been an interesting creative brief. How did you get started and approach the music for the show? What themes/genres did you explore at the outset?
The first step on any project is to learn what the production team connects with, musically—and how they feel music factors into the story they’re telling. The Mary Kills People writers strike a delicate balance between anguish, hope, drama, dark comedy, romance and resolve in the scripts; similarly, the music needed to hit a sweet spot between edge and accessibility, contemporary sound and timelessness, vulnerability and toughness. These characters are multifaceted, and the music needed to reflect that. Many of my favorite songs are “ballads with balls.” Lyrically, they feel intimate and earnest, but sonically they’re a little rougher and pack more of a punch.
Can you describe your process for selecting the music?
We were brought into the fold a little later on Mary Kills, so we definitely owe a debt to composer / music supervisor John Rowley in setting a musical tone for the series. On many of our projects, we identify potential music moments in the script, and we’ll send the picture editors options to use as they assemble their cuts. Since they’d locked picture on many of the Mary Kills episodes before we started, our process was a little different: we would watch the cuts, look at the music that was temped in and determine what we thought worked, and how or where we should make adjustments. We’ll probably start with the scripts for S2 (*knocks on wood*).
What were your favorite syncs from S1?
I love “Like It Doesn’t Hurt” in in episode 3. Charlotte Cardin’s voice is like melted butter; I love how the beat hits you like a ton of bricks just as things heat up between Mary and Ben.
I also love the way that “Cave” by Matt Millz supported the vulnerability of Richard Short’s incredible performance in episode 5.
Anything that almost didn’t make it in?
The editor had temped in a very Nine Inch Nails-esque track for that scene in 105 where Des relapses. The use was only about a minute long, and while it was cool, as I watched I felt that it failed to highlight the heartbreak of the moment.
I was listening to “Cave” by Matt Millz right before I watched the cut, and I had this super wacky idea to start the song in the previous scene, as Mary prepares to administer Matt’s Pento (and the moment actually played dry in the original edit). The scenes were connected by interlocking cuts between Des’s heroin needle and Mary’s needle full of Pento, and thematically both scenes were about loss and spiralling out of control—Mary with the law, and Des with his addiction. “Cave” seemed to be the perfect choice for both scenes. There was also a beautiful tonal shift near the end of the song that lined up perfectly with the scene change (with the tiniest of edits).
It was a MOTHER of a sync – almost 3:30 minutes longer than the temp song – and it took a little coaxing to get the producers on board. But now we all agree that it’s one of our favorite syncs of Season 1!
Band you’re most excited to feature?
We tapped a Montreal band called Lakes of Canada to create a custom recording of “In My Time Of Dying” for the final spot in 106. They are absolutely wonderful musicians and people, and they did a terrific job with the song. They’re definitely up there on the list to showcase!
I also really love Cross Record, and their song “Something Unseen Touches A Flower To My Forehead” is awesome. I think we’ll hear a lot more of these guys soon.
While we’re on the topic, let’s get some of your recommendations for new music. What song or album do you have on repeat right now?
Oh goodness. This is a toughie! I can’t seem to stop listening to a track called “Explode ft. Beau Nox” by an artist named yurrit. There’s a new musician from Tel Aviv named Noga Erez that I’m obsessed with. But I’ll often go back to the classics: lately I’ve been listening to an Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie collab album when I get home from work, and it soothes my hyperactive brain. I’m also seriously digging Thundercat, and I’ve been listening to a ton of A Tribe Called Red for a project I’m working on (their work never ceases to amaze me). I bounce around a ton.
What’s the last concert you attended?
This is a fringe benefit of the job: I get to go to shows weekly. The last show I went to was actually one of my good friends: she’s an electronic producer and drummer / DJ called hey! dw. Watching her perform is a lot like watching the energizer bunny doing acid. She’s insane.
Favorite TV show right now (not one of your projects)?
Please Like Me. You MUST watch Please Like Me, if you haven’t already. Do it! Do it now!
Nice! Please Like Me is an Aussie show that we recently added to Tunefind due to popular demand (streaming on Hulu now). Any other projects you have coming up?
I’m working on a new show called Condor (starring Max Irons & Mira Sorvino), as well as a feature film called The Grizzlies (directed by Miranda de Pencier, starring Ben Schnetzer). I’m incredibly excited about both projects! So nice to genuinely enjoy the content you’re working on.
We’ll be looking for those. Thanks so much, Mikaila!
〉Check out the soundtrack for Mary Kills People on Tunefind.
〉Follow @mikailasimmons on Twitter