Times Will Tell

Podcast: ‘Stranger Things’ music editor discusses journey to Hollywood from Russia

From arranging ‘Running Up That Hill’ for Season 4 to her Hebrew lessons, Lena Glikson talks about her hometown near Ukraine, her Jewish roots and the politics of sound editing

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

This week’s Times Will Tell introduces Lena Glikson, the Russian-born, Jewish music editor who was part of the 2022 Emmy-winning editing team for Netflix’s hit series, “Stranger Things,” created by the renowned Duffer Brothers.

Lena speaks about her work in the most recent Season 4, the politics of music editing and the wonders of the “Stranger Things” team.

She also explains the logistics and technical aspects of her work, which included the adjustment of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” editing the music to picture and helping slingshot the 80s song into a viral hit.

Glikson, trained in piano and voice, made the decision to leave Russia 10 years ago, enrolling in Berklee College of Music in Boston. She talks about the distance from her family and friends, and experiencing the onset of Putin’s war against Ukraine from afar, beginning last February.

She also examines the development of her own Jewish identity as a teenager, discovering and exploring her Jewish roots and facing a turning tide of antisemitism in her native land as she left for the US.

Glikson talks about Israel, her hopes to work on Israeli films and productions, and her efforts to study Hebrew as part of her own personal journey.

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Lena, welcome. We’re so happy to have you here with us.

Lena Glikson: Thank you, Jessica, for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be a part of your podcast.

I think we’re going to have to start with Stranger Things. Tell us when and how you joined the Stranger Things music crew and a little about the development of the music for this show.

Season four of Stranger Things is my first season on the show. I’d been working as a music editor in Hollywood for the past six years at this point. Receiving this email from David Claude, the music editor for all the seasons of the show, was kind of surprising. And I couldn’t even believe it because I actually was a big fan of the show and I watched all these seasons and I was one of the people googling the release date for season four. I literally saw that and thought it was a junk email.

That’s funny.

And, yeah, it was real. And apparently the Duffer brothers were looking for a second music editor because the episodes in season four are so long, many different processes were happening in parallel. So while one episode was dubbed, meaning the sound for the episode was mixed, the Duffer brothers were already cutting and working on the following episode. So poor David, the music editor, would have to be in two places simultaneously. And the Duffer Brothers needed someone who would be actually working with them in the cutting room every single day. And that person was me. And it was just an amazing experience. I was spending a lot of time with the Duffer Brothers and we were working very closely on the music, both the score and the source pieces. And of course, “Running Up That Hill” was one of the songs that we worked closely on and it was just amazing. And they gave me so much creative freedom and just things to experiment with. And they trust me to a point where they can just bring up a few pieces from the previous seasons and tell me, can you cut this one over here or is that one over there?

I kind of had to take a pre-existing piece of music and then place it in a new scene and actually make it work in that context, which is always a very, very fun thing to do. And the entire crew is just so lovely and amazing. And the vibes you’re getting from the show, it’s so interesting because these positive, friendly vibes, they actually live in the cutting room, which is a very unique thing, I think, even from my experience.

Talk to us a little bit about how the music gets chosen. What is it like to work as part of the music editing team and to make decisions about various songs?

Many of the songs are already scripted. At some point it becomes about licensing. How much money do we have to spend on the music and where can we save a bit if we can pick certain alternatives for some of the songs? But when it comes to big songs, I think most of them are kind of predetermined and it’s a combination of the director’s work and the showrunner’s work. And we also have our amazing music supervisor, Nora Felder, who helps us provide alternatives for certain songs. And also she does all the licensing for the show. And in terms of picking and choosing songs, basically if we need some options, then Nora would come up with a number of different songs and I would be the person cutting them into the scene and basically showing them to the Duffer Brothers because obviously all the songs are different tempos, different lengths. And my job, as a music editor in general, is to make a particular piece of music work syncwise and dramatically within a certain scene and make it all very musical so that it develops beautifully and works with a picture. And then sometimes we’re just narrowing down the choice to two or three different pieces and then going from there.

I’d like to dig a little bit into Running Up That Hill from Kate Bush. We’re going to listen for a moment to a snapshot of the scene in season four in which Max, played by Sadie Sink, is able to overcome the powerful curse, spoiler alert for those who have not gotten to season four yet. And she’s able to overcome the curse by hearing her favorite song.

It becomes such an indelible moment in the season.

I know that that was supposed to be a very, very big moment. And when I saw the song for the very first time, I was instructed and told that, okay, so this is the scene, this is our feature song. Please be super careful about cutting it. Make sure that it all works.

And the way it works, really, in the movie world, is that the songs and the music is being cut to picture, and very rarely it works vice versa. So the song always has to be adjusted in one way or the other. And to be honest, there are so many different stories about how the song was picked for the series.

One of them is that it was scripted. The other one is that the director of that particular episode, Sean Levy, brought it in.

But the way it was originally cut, it was cut by Dean Zimmerman, our picture editor. And it was just a very kind of rough shape of the song. And my job was basically just making it work within the scene and making it develop in a certain way. And we actually even had to adjust the picture a little bit to kind of make the song shine, which happens very, very rarely. It just tells you about how important this song was for the episode and for the season.

And for me personally, the other interesting experience was cutting the same song in episode nine during this big epic montage where it’s not just the main version of the song, but it’s the remix by the artist Totem. And that one was fun because originally in that scene, we were supposed to have the score and then the Duffer brothers just brought it in and said, oh, we have this cool version of the Kate Bush song and it’s a remix and let’s try cutting it in. And basically, I had all the separate instruments and elements for the remix. So just assembling such an epic version of that song for that scene was amazing. And when the Duffer brothers saw it, they really loved it and it was just such a happy moment for me when they actually fell in love with something that I did and I was the first person who kind of tried doing it. So it was very, very cool. And that sequence actually also lives on YouTube, I believe, as a separate video, because, again, it’s a very rare thing, I think, when a song and the sequence, the video sequence, they live together and you can actually watch them separately from the episode, which kind of shows that people also like that one and were interested and it was cool reading the comments on YouTube.

Let’s turn to you now. You trained in piano and voice and did a lot of classical music training, and then made your way to sound editing. Was that always your goal?

Well, as a child, my dream was actually to become a professional singer. And I think I started playing piano mostly because I wanted to be a singer and there was no official way of studying voice back in Russia. And I was always doing the two things in parallel and also because there was nowhere to study jazz vocals or pop vocals when it came to choosing a career path when I was still living back in Russia. It’s surprising and it’s a bit weird, but out of all the options that I had, I picked classical music theory. And I think partially it’s because my parents are programmers. And there was something about that, just like the specific way my brain works and kind of the logical component to the artistic component. And just that particular major appealed to me simply because it was a combination of both. But my goal was still to become a singer. So that’s how I discovered Berklee College of Music in Boston.

How many years ago did you come from Russia to the US?

Ten years ago.

Ten years ago? So not that long.

Yeah, but that’s still the third of my life.

Okay, so most of your education was in Russia, and where in Russia did you live?

Voronezh. It’s a city really, really close to Ukraine. It’s pretty much on the border with Ukraine. I was also considering the Rimon School of Music in Israel and kind of choosing between the two in a way, but also kind of thinking that maybe after a couple of years at Rimon, I would probably be able to go to Berklee. But the thing was that I didn’t speak Hebrew, and I thought that that was kind of a bigger issue. I spoke English, so that was one of the main reasons why I actually went to Berklee, just to be able to absorb as much knowledge as I could.

Well, what I realized at Berklee was that my dream of becoming a singer was a lovely dream, but I just had way too much classical background to kind of forget about that and only concentrate on performance. And because Berklee has to offer a number of very unique majors, and one of those was film scoring, I felt like that would be an amazing way of combining my more technical and logical side with a very, very creative, orchestral writing and just kind of using all my knowledge, basically. And that’s why I came to Los Angeles, because with such a degree, this is kind of the number one place.

And because music editing was one of the classes that we had to take as film scoring students, I considered it as one of the options for myself. And the first internship that I found was with the music editor, Nick South. And I already had kind of all the knowledge about creating a score for movies and how it all works and who is involved and had the basic technical skills. But I needed those specific skills for music editing. And my mentor, Nick, taught me pretty much everything he knew and he was just amazing in terms of explaining not only the technicalities but also the political side of the job because that’s another very, very important side of it.

What is the political side?

A music editor is a person who lives between all the parties involved in creating the music. And we act as some sort of a bridge between the director and the composer and the studio. Our job is to save the composer from being fired or save the movie from all the music being thrown away. And it has a lot to do with just understanding people, feeling the room, making sure you are protecting everyone that needs to be protected, making sure that we stay on schedule, communicating with a movie studio, and communicating with the director. And sometimes the composer, let’s say, sends me a piece of score. And I know that the director is in a really, really bad mood and I know that I can show that piece of score to the director at the moment. So I need to figure out a way to find the best time to do that. And it’s a lot of figuring out what you can say, what you cannot say, how to save this person, how to protect that person, and problem-solving, troubleshooting and just resolving conflicts.

I imagine there is a sense of satisfaction from what you do now, even though it is a long road from where you began. Is there?

For sure. Of course. I kind of miss the performance element a bit because I just don’t have the time to do that anymore. But I feel like there are no skills that are completely abandoned and unused because in one way or the other, even my singing skills, because I often work in musicals and, for instance, now I work on a remake of The Color Purple and there are many, many songs in that movie. So just having that background, knowing about vocal position, knowing about just how to use your voice helps me a lot as a music editor when I’m working on musicals, and of course, all my classical background helps me with the editing bit of it. And yes, it’s been a very interesting journey, and I probably could never imagine working in Hollywood and doing what I do when I was little and when I was dreaming of being on stage and performing, but it’s still very exciting.

There’s been a lot of upheaval in the last months, with the war in Ukraine. Where has that put you in terms of your own personal life and what you’re thinking about both in terms of career and home?

For me, what happened on February 24 when Russia attacked Ukraine was a personal tragedy in a way. I do not have family in Ukraine, but just the fact that the city where I was born is so close to the border with Ukraine and you know, especially in my town, it’s actually very hard to say, oh, this person is 100% Russian and that person is 27% Ukrainian. It’s all very, very mixed. And I have many friends from Ukraine, and I thought, okay, so now the Russians are going to actually see what happened and what our government is like. But that did not happen. And that made me feel devastated, to be honest. Like the whole world started crashing and burning. And when I was living in Russia, I was kind of suffering a bit with my identity because I was born with my Dad’s Jewish last name, which is Glikson. But when I turned three years old, my mom changed her last name and my last name to her maiden name, which sounds way more Slavic. And that’s actually still the last name that I have on my passport. Mostly because swastikas were all over the city and antisemitism was kind of flourishing.

So I was growing up with this idea that I was Jewish, but I kind of had to hide that from everyone, living in a pretty conservative society where the Russian Orthodox Church is still kind of a big thing, and all the kids in my class were wearing crosses, and kids would ask me, so have you ever been baptized? And I’ve never been baptized. And it just felt very uncomfortable. And I had this feeling that, okay, I need to hide my identity. And when I became a teenager, that was already in the late 2000s, the climate in society started changing a bit, and the Jewish community in my hometown started having different activities and celebrating high holidays. So it started to feel like it was not as dangerous as it used to be, to be Jewish and to be kind of open about it, but it was still very difficult because we had so many decades of that part of who we are kind of being hidden. And the generation of my grandparents was the first generation who started experiencing that and started hiding their Jewish identity because they couldn’t really celebrate any high holidays.

That’s why the generation of my parents grew up completely Soviet as opposed to having their ethnicities kind of cherished and respected. And when I started feeling more Jewish, that’s when I started discovering more things about my Jewish heritage and learning more about the Holocaust, because that’s an important part of my family history. My grandfather left Poland in 1939, and his family was exterminated in one of the first extermination camps in Poland. So for me, that was this generational trauma that was living very, very deep inside. And for many years, I was reading a lot about it, was reading a lot about the Holocaust, trying to understand that.

Circling back to February 24, just from my personal experience, knowing so much about the war, knowing so much about what happened with the Jews and even living in Russia. It’s not just me. I have my personal story with my Jewish heritage in the background. But going through the Second World War for all the Russian families was also devastating. And everyone has ancestors who died in the Second World War and served in the army.

And it’s this huge tragedy, and people all of a sudden were manipulating into saying that, okay, we have such a great past, and we won over the Nazis in 1945, and now we’re going to do the same thing again. And for me, the two dots, they don’t connect. The Nazis they were fighting against from 1941 to 1945 are not the same Nazis they’re fighting against today. And the fact that it was so easy for society to believe this huge, huge, huge lie just made me feel like I don’t feel connected to the place where I was born anymore.

Your parents are there?

Yes. My dad passed away a couple of years ago, but my mom still lives there. And for me, it’s very difficult because, you know, even during the pandemic, it was very, very hard for me to travel just because I’m not a US citizen. I’m here on a work visa. And Russia has a horrible relationship with the United States, so getting a visa in Russia is impossible. All the other countries in the world would only issue visas to their own citizens. And when my dad passed away, I wasn’t even able to go back home for his funeral. And just I always feel stuck between all these different factors. And again, like this war in Ukraine, there are so many things that I don’t support that have something to do with the politics, of course, and with the government and I can’t be associating myself with that place anymore. And because I have so many ties to my Jewish heritage and I’ve always been thinking about becoming a part of Israel because again, it’s a very important part of who I am and my identity. And only when I came to the United States, I felt like, okay, I can finally be more open about being Jewish.

When I was at Berklee, most of my recitals were actually me singing Jewish music and Ashkenazi music. Wow. And I would never be able to do that in Russia. And for me, this was an incredible opportunity, just exploring who I am, exploring the music, and I feel very, very connected with that music.

You’ve had a lot of different journeys, this professional journey and a very personal, familial and individual journey. Where does that put you personally and professionally?

Right now, I’m kind of at this place with my career where everything keeps changing and I keep seeing different opportunities and everything keeps developing so, so fast. Of course, long term, I would love to work on an Israeli movie as well. I think language is a very big thing, and I am learning Hebrew right now, even though I’m not in Israel. But I do feel like it’s a very important thing and it’s something that, again, brings me back to my roots and connects me to my ancestors, even though my grandparents spoke Yiddish. But still I feel like it’s just an important part of who I am. And as soon as my Hebrew basically turns into something that I can use professionally, then it would be much, much easier and more convenient for me and the filmmakers to work on, let’s say, an Israeli movie. And I know that there are many Israelis working in Hollywood, and I would love to get to know them and potentially collaborate on a project that would actually be amazing. Right now, the world is just changing so fast, and every day something new happens and I’m trying to kind of protect myself, protect my family where I can, and just basically watching the world change every single second.

So I hope that very, very soon we’ll come to a point where things will stabilize and hopefully the war in Ukraine will stop as soon as possible. And I will be able to kind of take a breather and just absorb everything that’s going on and plan accordingly. Right now, everything feels like chaos.

Yes. It’s hard to avoid that feeling these days. Let’s turn back to the beginning of the conversation a little bit and tell us a little bit about your musical dreams.

Finding that balance between work that’s very, very crazy and very intense and art. Before the war in Ukraine, I also used to write music for a local theater in my hometown, which was an amazing way of just self-expression and artistry. And I do miss that. I don’t think it’s possible to do the same thing, keep doing it. And especially, again, considering everything else that’s going on in the world at the moment, it’s just unsafe for both parties, me and the theater I used to work with, to collaborate. But doing something like that and finding the time for it is definitely an amazing thing. And I was also recording songs for those theater productions. And this is kind of the dream job in a way, where you don’t have to do it for the money. You can just do it for the sake of artistic pleasure, basically. And, you know, in terms of the movies, of course I can work even on bigger shows. And yes, I definitely have certain topics.

Like, for instance, Schindler’s List is one of my favorite movies and working with, let’s say, Steven Spielberg or working on a movie about the Holocaust. Because as I already mentioned, it’s a very, very, very important part of my identity. And it’s a very unique type of music and type of score that a movie like that requires. And maybe not necessarily even editing the music for a movie like that, maybe writing music for a movie like that, that would definitely be a big dream for me.

Lena Glikson, we hope that you get to fulfill these dreams. And final question, next season of Stranger Things, are you working on it yet?

Have my fingers crossed!
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