By: James Bartlett
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we interviewed two brothers – John and Patrick Houlihan – who not only both live in Southern California and both have the same job as a music supervisor, but they also both work at 20th Century Fox film studios.
As the oldest of the two, we chose John to go first. Like Patrick, he is Senior Vice President of Music at Fox, and his credits include John Wick 1 and 2, the Deadpool and Austin Powers movies, Atomic Blonde, The Shape of Water and many more movies and television shows. He’s also the co-founder and past president of the Guild of Music Supervisors.
He was born in upstate New York, “just a couple miles away from where my great-great grandfather lived when he arrived from Ireland in 1867.” In the 1970s, the family relocated to New Jersey, where John mainly grew up and ultimately graduated high school. “It was a rowdy upbringing, being one of five siblings with awesome parents,” he remembers.
He now lives in Studio City, Calif., with Julie, his wife of 20 years, and three teenage sons. “Daily life is like a sitcom without cameras,” he said, then admits that his official press-release age will stay “mid- to-late 40s” for as long as he can manage it.
John noted that the Houlihans “are a part of the great Irish diaspora: out of sight but not out of mind,” and that everything has changed in recent years.
“I’ve become obsessed with trying to confirm the Irish towns, churches and neighborhoods where my ancestors once dwelled – it seems around Tipperary. Fortunately for me and my brothers, I’ve hit a research wall, so it seems like we need to travel over for a pub crawl across Ireland in order to find the original parish records that hold our family origin story. We’ll bring my 13-year-old son to be our designated driver,” he laughed.
Both brothers have visited Ireland before, with John’s first trip part of his honeymoon. “We both fell in love with the people and the land,” he says.
In 2004, John returned to Ireland – this time thanks to his career. He was working with legendary Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan on the biopic ’, which was partially edited in Dublin after shooting in Toronto.
But what does a music supervisor do? In brief, they get a script and asses the music needs for the story; what the composer might produce, what songs should be used in the background, or in montages, or even sung by characters.
“There is no such thing as a typical day,” said John, “and that’s why it is a dream job for us.”
Explaining further, he said that they “do the craziest things behind the scenes to help the vision of filmmakers and musicians come true. We jump into the fray and help a dozen different creative people agree on the best music approach for a film when everyone has their own highly subjective take.”
A large amount of time is spent on the business side of things too. Permission and (sometimes large) payments are necessary to use any song that’s still in copyright, but countless other factors can come into play and change everything. As a rule, the more famous the song, the more expensive it will be to use.
“We can’t just think of music ideas; we need to deliver those ideas by creating new recordings that make movie magic, oversee the formal copyright clearance deals and manage limited budgets.”
John remembered helping a director get $2,000,0000 worth of licensed music choices into their final film on a music budget of $500,000, and said that there have been some strange moments too.
“I was tip-toeing down a recording studio hallway past two snoozing, 300-pound, 6-foot- 6-inch-tall bodyguards so I could crash a recording session and close a song deal with a famous rapper,” he remembered, adding that he even once meditated himself into a deep trance to send a beam of energy across America to Aretha Franklin so she would approve use of one her songs.
“And it worked too!” he chuckled.
John – or his brother – can be working on up to a dozen movies simultaneously. He indicated that sometimes the are juggling 101 problems simultaneously. “We try to flow with it all, and be like improvisational jazz musicians. Coming from a big family was good practice,” he pointed out.
Though the world of the movies might be a secret to many, there is one thing professionals and public alike can relate to: how music has changed from being a physical form (vinyl, cassettes, CDs) to online streaming and computer files.
“I’ve received well over 100,000 CDs over the years from companies and artists pitching their music for use in film and TV,” says John, admitting that he occasionally had joyful clear-outs, junking countless silver discs.
Nevertheless, he’s been unable to go entirely cold-turkey. He tries to be as online and digital as possible in his day-to-day listening, but he and Julie (who, unbelievably, is also a music supervisor) still have some 40,000 CDs in their garage.
He half-jokingly said he expected to end up on a “Hoarders” reality television show one day, “clutching a David Bowie CD set as their psychologist tries to talk me into finally throwing everything away.”
More seriously, John noted that while a large majority of the history of popular music is available online, around 15% or so has not yet – and may never – make the migration to digital, so having as much available as possible gives him every opportunity to find that “homerun” song.
Talking further about work, it was impossible not to ask John about the pros and cons of working with his brother Patrick every day.
John wonders if their boss was “out of her mind to hire two Houlihans,” but then admitted that it’s “definitely is fun to see my brother every day, and get the chance to collaborate with him on major film projects.”
Then came the inevitable sibling joshing.
“Patrick himself will tell you that I’m absolutely the smarter, funnier and clearly more handsome of the two of us - not to mention my athletic superiority!” boasted John.
John worked in the industry from his early days – booking bands for school festivals and working as a college radio DJ – and then, after graduating college, he started an artist management company and independent record label in New Jersey.
The two brothers have also worked together for many years; John was manager of Patrick’s indie rock band “Daisyhaze” in Washington, DC, though in 1992 John was the first to move to Los Angeles with to get into music supervision.
He had just $200 in his pocket then, but eventually he hired Patrick at a small company he co-founded, and the story continued with Julie and yet another of their brothers, Kevin, joining them (his expertise being in music licensing).
As John says, “there must be a music secret sauce recipe in the Houlihans!”
It could have been very different, though. John said that when he was in college, he started a house-painting company during summer vacation and found he had a real knack for it.
“I am at inner peace when I’m painting a house, especially the windows and trim,” he said, adding that his work once moved a watching woman to tears. “I’ll admit she possibly had a drinking problem, but it was still a nice compliment!”
It seems that ultimately then he took the right path, but as for the future, he has an Irish dream that’s not related to music:
“To buy a home on the water in Kinsale. So, if in 20 years you see an old guy in a beat-up fishing boat puttering around the River Bandon before heading to the pub, that will be me.”
Next, we talk to John’s younger brother Patrick to learn his story.
Patrick was born just outside Chicago in Waukegan, Ill., with the family moving to the East Coast when he was a youngster. Like John, Patrick was largely bought up in New Jersey, and he also agreed that “rowdy” was a “very accurate description of our childhood. I am still not sure how our parents survived the chaos,” he laughed.
Today, Patrick lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two teenage daughters, but he remembers growing up hearing some legendary stories about the Houlihan Irish ancestry.
“As far I am aware, we are direct descendants of Finn McCool himself,” he said, adding that his brother John has been investigating their lineage. “He keeps promising that we will need to go scour every pub in Ireland to verify his findings, so I keep a bag packed, my passport close to hand, and I patiently await his call to action.”
Patrick has visited Ireland before, spending a summer taking courses at University of Galway during his college years.
“While pretending to study, I spent most of my time trying to see and experience as much of the country as I could. Some memorable moments took place at the Cliffs of Moher, the Guinness factory and the Dingle Peninsula, but most of all I enjoyed spending time at local pubs meeting the incredible folks of Ireland – friendliest people on the planet. All in all, it was an incredible experience.”
Asked about his job as a music supervisor, Patrick said that “most days I’m on urgent conference calls from the moment I pull out of my driveway. Then I may go to a “spotting session” with a composer and set of filmmakers to figure out the best way to use songs and score throughout each scene of their film.”
There could be many other tasks, including going to vocal sessions to work with an actor who must pre-record their singing for an upcoming music scene, “grinding” on song deal negotiations to lower prices or simply convincing the owners of a song to approve a clearance request.
There are of course lots of meetings – “sometimes I even have meetings about meetings!” – and every couple of weeks there is usually a test screening “where 400 people from the real world watch a rough cut of a film and rate all of the elements including the music.”
No two days are the same it seems, but Patrick reckoned he was fortunate to have a job that provides him with so many varied experiences. John and Patrick work together regularly, and Patrick says that “while we don’t know absolutely everything about all music, we do know how to discover it all and how to apply it to a film.”
Aside from the huge moments like the Disney takeover, the music business has changed a great deal over the last few decades too, going from vinyl to online streaming.
No matter what the format is, however, Patrick said he “still enjoys looking for the needle in the haystack. I think that the digital age and streaming has really opened up a ton of incredible access to music and artists that 15-20 years ago I might not have ever been privy to. They’re very powerful tools.”
He admitted that he missed holding CD artwork and thumbing through liner notes, but streaming and the internet is “such a deeper and quicker dive into a new artist. With just a few clicks you get videos, live performances, additional photos, interviews and more. Honestly, I find it pretty mind blowing.”
Unusually, Patrick and John work in the same job and at the same place – but both have different stories of how they ended up where they are today.
“Out of the Blue” by Electric Light Orchestra was the first album I ever bought,” said Patrick. “I was 10-years-old, and my brother “co-financed” the deal with me – I guess you could say that is when our collaborative spirit began.”
He pointed out that the pair have always loved discovering, creating and exploiting music. “It has always come naturally to us. One of us is always spouting out song ideas or suggesting composers for the other’s latest film project,” he said.
Patrick said, “I do credit John with giving me my start and mentoring me through the dark art of music supervision when old dinosaurs like him roamed the earth. And it is a blast to be able to work closely with him every day.”
“However,” he adds ominously, “in regards to some of John’s “superiority” claims in his interview… well, that is just the drink talking!”
Both brothers have had some memorable moments, and while John told us about using psychic powers on Aretha Franklin and tip-toeing past bodyguards to see a famous rap artist, Patrick says that has to pinch himself all the time on what he calls a “rollercoaster ride.”
He did mention a couple of times though.
“I have had the privilege to score Ridley Scott films at Abbey Road Studios, shoot music videos with Celine Dion and Ryan Reynolds in Las Vegas (the famous “Ashes” song from Deadpool 2, which went viral and has close to 60 million views on YouTube), and I taught Emma Stone how to play bass. It’s all a dream!”
Outside of work, Patrick is soccer-obsessed. “Whether it is watching Liverpool inch closer to the European Premier League title, coaching my girls’ teams, playing pick-up games, or googling “best goals ever scored.” He admitted he loves everything to do with the sport, which fills most of his time away from film music.
As for his favorite project, Patrick said generously that his best moments come “when an original song and original score intertwine,” singling out one especially: the collaboration between film composer Teddy Shapiro and singer/song writer Jose Gonzalez on their score to the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which included the “stunning” original song called “Stay Alive.”
As far as the worst one project he had even worked on, he was more discreet: “My mother taught us that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!”
As far his most unusual interest, brother John mentioned his love of painting houses, a habit he had picked up working for a company during college breaks and Patrick had a similar outdoorsy hobby.
“I have a great affection for landscaping – specifically lawn mowing. As a kid, I monopolized the market in our neighborhood, and professional landscapers despised me because I undercut their fees and would end up doing a better job than they could. I find it to be incredibly soothing and get such instant gratification from the end result. In fact, the high art that I bring to lawn mowing is often compared to Michelangelo!”