Hell on Wheels Q&A — Rick Clark (Music Supervisor)

Rick Clark, the music supervisor on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about finding the right music for the completion of the railroad, character deaths and love scenes.

Q: Talk a little bit about your process... 

A: From day one, my only goal has been to serve the story and to serve what makes the characters of the show come alive through the lens of music. It’s always a team effort, and I wear a unique set of hats. Music supervision has its own set of challenges in finding the appropriate source music for a show... but I also create and produce music appropriate to the show that amplifies the dramatic moment. As a result, I became much more integrated in creating a distinctive sound for the show. Kevin Kiner’s masterful composing for the show set a clear emotional musical tone and made it easier job for me to bring the correct focus. I should add that Kevin’s generosity of spirit was unique. Some composers would’ve been very territorial. He wasn’t. We were a team. Also much credit goes to post-production producer Peter Chomsky, who made all the pieces work.

Q: How would you describe the overall tone of these final episodes? Did you sit down with showrunner John Wirth to discuss where the story was going?

A: John and I were in very regular conversations about where the story was going and what was needed. My music editor's (Chris Tergesen) patience and understanding of my process and how it interfaced with John Wirth’s vision made things a lot easier. Obviously, the stakes get higher as the show builds to its conclusion and we wanted the music to support that. We’ve watched Cullen make very difficult decisions in his life’s journey. I think people really care about the character. He’s very dimensional. He’s not just this brooding guy who’s carrying the weight of the world. He’s passionate, conflicted and funny. Anson [Mount] does a beautiful job as Cullen. I would love to see the show just go on and on so I could follow Cullen’s story. [Laughs]

Q: Talk about your song selection of “Waiting Around to Die” by Townes Van Zandt for Episode 11, where we see the aftermath of Durant staging his own kidnapping and a flash-forward of his death.

A: “Waiting Around To Die” captured a spirit of all these people who have gone through this long, tumultuous journey together, and you get a sense that they’re tenaciously plowing through to the next challenge. It’s a very weighty song. John and I are Townes fans and felt it was very appropriate.

Q: How do you decide when to source a song and when to use score? Cullen and Mei's first love scene in Episode 9, for example, features a simple melody instead of a song with lyrics.

A: Words exist in songs to be listened to and if there are some words that are pulling you out of the dramatic moment, then it doesn’t work. Sometimes, no music is the right way. I remember we had a song or two that we put up against that scene where there were lyrics. It just felt, to me, all wrong and like putting a bold underline under something that was already obvious. I’m not a fan of just jamming music into a show or a movie. If the dialogue and the acting are working as they should, the viewers should be in the moment so much that music isn’t needed to carry the scene.

Q: In addition to supervising the music process, you also served as composer this season. Which songs did you compose?

A: Throughout the entire show, I’ve had to create everything from Mormon hymns to mariachi or Irish music to Cantonese laments. The scene where Mei and Cullen are by the river [Episode 6] and Mei sings a song – I wrote that. I also wrote the song that Wai-Ling sings to Mei [Episode 9] when Mei thinks Cullen is gone and is smoking opium as she’s comforted by Wei-Ling. I had to write it in English, translate it to Cantonese and have it work with the music in such a way that honored the moment. The moon is significant in Chinese culture. If you were far away from your loved ones and you looked up at the moon, it was the same moon that they looked at. It was a consoling act. Both Mei and Wei-Ling were there in America not because it was their dream, but they were both strong and resilient women who weren’t victims... I wanted to write a song that was coming from Wei-Ling that felt like she might have been singing to Mei, but she was also projecting some of her own sadness and reassurance. There are no subtitles when that scene happens, but the words in English are:

Days of the past, times in the garden.

A sky full of kites, while children play by the riverbank.

I lift my head up towards Baiyun Mountain,

Gazing over a sea of peach blossoms.

I wander in a dream forest of bamboo

The laughter of the wind spirit, echoes the shortness of life

I look up to ask the moon, how my family is doing?

It sympathizes with me, and kisses my eyes.

Softly says: 'Waiting for your return.'

- Courtesy of Rick Clark Music (ASCAP)

Q: Are there any other songs you’re particularly proud of this season?

A: In Episode 13, when both sides of the railroad are coming together in a big scene, there’s an old work song called “Hammer, Ring.” I went in with a group of really great singers and created this work crew to sing this chant. There’s a moment where the camera looks at Durant, Huntington and Cullen. I had the sound of the chanting get lower in the mix and I had the singers do almost a prayerful hum as the last spike is being hit. The effect of that makes this gargantuan endeavor suddenly become very personal. I’m real pleased with that. Again, credit to John Wirth and the producers and writers for supporting me in this.

Q: What will you take away from your experience working on the show?

A: Hell on Wheels has been one of the most deeply satisfying things I’ve done to date. Everyone that I worked with was so passionate and committed to creating excellence. You don’t always get to work with a family of people that care about the storyline and the lives of these characters. Once they realized what I did, they cut me loose to bring my best to the table, and I’m eternally grateful. They're all artists, in my book.

Read an interview with showrunner John Wirth.