Minutes before The Hollywood Reporter‘s Songwriters Roundtable was scheduled to begin in late November, we were informed that hitmaker Ryan Tedder, who co-wrote original song “Not Alone” with fellow Roundtable participant Joe Jonas for the film Devotion (as well as Top Gun: Maverick‘s “I Ain’t Worried” by his band One Republic), was too sick to make the virtual conversation. And Jonas, the boy bander turned actor-songwriter, would be joining late as he was stuck on a flight. So went the chaotic kickoff of a Roundtable comprising musicians who wrote original song Oscar contenders. But the thoughtful answers of the artists who were hale and healthy enough to weigh in on music, movies and TikTok were anything but chaotic, ranging from well-balanced approaches for taking notes to the triumph of hearing one’s song in a theater. The participants this year were: Oscar winner David Byrne (for scoring 1987’s The Last Emperor), who wrote, along with Son Lux and Mitski, “This Is a Life” for A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once; singer-songwriter Ruth B., who delivered “Paper Airplanes” to Tyler Perry for his A Jazzman’s Blues; Finneas, who penned “Nobody Like U” with sister Billie Eilish (and fellow Oscar winner this year for “No Time to Die”) for Pixar’s Turning Red; and 13-times-nominated Diane Warren, who finally won an honorary Oscar on Nov. 19 and composed “Applause” for Tell It Like a Woman. During 90 minutes of a freewheeling exchange, Finneas invoked the Spice Girls, Warren recounted who made her rewrite a song 50 times and Byrne broke down the meticulous workflow of solving the puzzle that is a collaborative theme song.
What was the one thing that made you say, “I’ve got to be a part of this project”?
FINNEAS I think the obvious thing here is just being a fan of the pantheon of great Pixar films. Billie and I are obviously not senior citizens, but we’re not 5 years old, and we have nieces and nephews in our lives and friends who have young kids. [We’re] watching them love these Pixar movies the way that we did when we were 5, 6, in that kind of insatiable, watching the movie twice a week for a year, singing every song from Moana, from The Lion King. Getting to be a part of something that was going to be that significant in the life of somebody that we loved who is really young was a thrill. Then Domee [Shi], who wrote and directed the film, was just really awesome. Nothing is better as an artist to me than working with somebody who has a really clear idea of what they want. You’re only really in trouble if you’re working with somebody and they’re like, “I don’t know, I can’t really put my finger on it.” That to me is usually much scarier than somebody who’s like, “I want it to be like this.”
DAVID BYRNE How did she tell you what she wanted?
FINNEAS Good question. She explained the world of this film. She grew up in the period of time that the movie is set in, she was the age of these characters in 2001, 2002 in Toronto, which is where it takes place. And for her as a middle schooler, nothing was more important to her than NSYNC and Backstreet Boys and this boy-band world. We’re a little younger than she is, but those bands were still deeply pervasive and identifiable to us. It became this kind of Socratic discussion about what is so powerful about a boy band. You obviously have the charisma of the people in a boy band, you have the great outfits, choreo, they have nice voices, and then there are these songs that are sort of sleeper cell great songs in disguise as pop songs with kind of trivial lyrics that maybe don’t seem to have a deeper meaning, but they’re so catchy and they’re such earworms. It was just a really fun process. And I think there’s a lot of humor in boy bands. I don’t know if maybe NSYNC or Backstreet Boys at the time would’ve agreed with me, but Billie and I had a blast making the songs for this movie. That was also really important, that it would be a joyous experience.
I’ve got to ask, are you Team NSYNC or Team Backstreet?
FINNEAS I feel like I might have to plead Switzerland on this. They both were inspiring to us on this project and we listened to both in fairly equal measure. And I’m an appreciator of the later era. I feel like every eight years there’s a slew of girl groups and boy bands. I’m a huge, huge Spice Girls fan.
David, let’s talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s such a trippy film, it’s just a range of emotions. Tell me how you came into that.
BYRNE I knew the folks from [experimental band] Son Lux. So they approached me and said, “Hey, we’re doing a score for this movie by the Daniels.” And I’d seen Swiss Army Man and thought it was hilarious and actually had a surprising amount of heart in it. So I said, “This sounds great. Whatever it is, it sounds great.” But the Daniels insisted that I see the rough cut. It didn’t have all the effects, didn’t have the score in it, but it of course just blew me away. I just said, “Yes, of course I’m down to do this.”
My thought to them was, “This movie has a lot more heart than people are maybe going to realize at first. You’re going to think it’s just a lot of weirdness and it certainly has a lot of that, but you want to put a little pin in the part that, no, there’s a lot of heart in this story and that’s what you want to leave people with if they manage to stay through some of the credits.” So that’s where we started from.
What about you, Diane?
DIANE WARREN Tell It Like a Woman is the movie that my song “Applause” is in. And it’s seven various women’s stories, [told by] women directors from all over the world. And I just loved [the] project that I had to do it, and I wanted one song that could tie it in, which was, “Give yourself some applause, you deserve it.” Women go through a lot. We don’t give ourselves enough love, enough respect, you know what I mean? The beautiful thing is, it fit one of the stories, which is one of my favorites in the movie, a love story with a trans character and a woman plastic surgeon. It’s this beautiful story, and it turned out to be the perfect song for that, and also the end song for the movie. Then I reached out to Sofia Carson, who’s an amazing singer. It’s an amazing project — I’m proud to be a part of that.
And Ruth, let’s talk about how you got involved with A Jazzman’s Blues.
RUTH B. I think for me, I really love the story. Obviously, it’s Tyler Perry’s movie and it’s the first script he’d ever written, 27 years ago or something. When they approached us, I’d never written for a movie, so the fact that they even considered me was insane. It’s a beautiful love story. It touches on elements that I think are important, with race and colorism and all that. I just was excited to have any part in it.
I know Tyler Perry is very precious about this movie, because it is the first movie that he ever wrote. I’m wondering what the notes were that he gave you — and, for everyone, how do you deal with receiving notes and how do you give notes back to the filmmaker?
RUTH B. So in the movie, there’s this theme of paper airplanes they’re throwing back and forth to each other. He had said that he really wanted that to be incorporated in the song. I wrote around the words “paper airplanes,” which I used to do, just pick a word and write around it. So that was the catalyst. But yeah, his main thing was, “I want a love song that has paper airplanes in it.”
How hard is it, or maybe it’s easy, when you get those type of notes from the creators of a film? Do you appreciate hearing exactly what they want?
WARREN I can say that of course you want to know the director, what they have in mind and stuff, but it’s like when I do a song for a movie, I think they trust me at this point. Although I did get a bunch of notes recently. I was like, “Wow. Notes. Kind of weird notes. I don’t really agree with that.” I think I know what I’m doing. But again, it’s your movie, but usually at this point, people trust me.
BYRNE Like Finneas said, I love getting as specific as possible a description of what they need.
WARREN But then you like them to get out of your way, though, probably. Right?
BYRNE Exactly. Say, “Now, let me do this. Maybe you’ll give me some notes after I’ve done a draft of it and you’ll hear a rough draft of it.” Which they did. But by then, they were kind of already on board.
FINNEAS I would say the film side of things has been far and away the most note-heavy of anything I’ve ever done. The James Bond theme we did [2021’s “No Time to Die”] was a copious amount of back-and-forth, which was great, but it was a process. Just by happenstance, Turning Red specifically had no notes, but I think that was a testament to how good Domee was at articulating what she needed in the first place. She painted such a vivid picture, so I really give her props for that.
What’s the most frustrating note that you have gotten back?
BYRNE It was a theme for a TV show, and I was told that they wanted the ending to be more lemony. So I thought, “Oh, sour, you want it to sound sour, so I’m going to give you some dissonance at the end.” And that was not what they wanted.
WARREN I have one. Jerry Bruckheimer having me rewrite “There You’ll Be” [for Pearl Harbor] 50 times.
WARREN I mean, maybe it was 48 times. That was the craziest experience I’ve ever had to deal with.
Was there ever a point where you’re just like, “OK, the 30th time, enough”?
WARREN Well, I played him the final version, I was with Hans Zimmer and Michael Bay, who directed Pearl Harbor, and I know he had stuff to say, but he was outnumbered in the room. But if Hans or Michael Bay weren’t in the room, I think he’d probably have me write it 51 times. It was worth it — it’s one of my favorite songs.
David, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about “This Is a Life,” the way you worked with Mitski and Son Lux, where they already had the shell of the song and you contributed from that. Tell me about that collaboration process.
BYRNE I don’t know if they were at all influenced by me saying that I thought the song should express the emotional heart of the film, as opposed to the many levels of weirdness, but that’s what they did. So they came with a sketch like that, and they said, “Mitski’s going to sing the melody and then you have to work around it.” Which I was totally fine with — it made it a kind of puzzle to solve. So I had to come up with some new melodies and new words to weave around the melodic phrases that she was singing. I didn’t want to duplicate that. I mean, there were times when I sang a harmony to hers, but I thought, “Oh, I can add another side of this. I can write a bridge to this. There are parts where there are musical phrases, vocal things that don’t have words, and I can put words to those.” So it was a real puzzle-solving thing.
I felt like because it was closing credits … you were basically summing up what the film was about or what it felt like. So you’re dealing with the whole thing as opposed to a specific moment in a character or a story, which makes it a little bit easier.
I would think that summing up a whole movie might be more challenging than explaining one part where a character is going to do something.
BYRNE Well, I’ve done a little bit of both. I’ve done some musical things where you’re writing from a character’s point of view, and it’s a lot of fun. The more you know about exactly what that character is going through at that moment and what kind of transformation the song has to express, the better you’re going to be. But it’s still really down to the writer, director or producer, who’s going to go, “No, we want the character to feel a bit more optimistic at the end here,” or, “This is a song where they’re expressing their frustrations and despair,” or whatever it might be. It’s a lot more pegged to a particular moment and it has to really be keyed to that, so I find that a little bit more challenging in that way. I don’t know, maybe others find it the reverse.
FINNEAS I just think there are different limitations on each. If you’re writing the summation of the thing in one song, your limitation is a lot of material to try to fit in and articulate in 3 minutes, 30 seconds, so to speak. And then I think the limitation of writing the song that comes 15 minutes in and only expresses this one thing, which I’ve done a fair amount of, sometimes in your head you have the entire plot of the whole thing and you’re like, “Well, but I really have to write from this character right now and it’s got to hit A, B and C, and we can’t mention X, Y and Z because that comes later.”
So I think it’s just different limitations. They’re both fun.
Joe, you wrote “Not Alone” with Ryan Tedder for Devotion (along with Khalid and Bernard Harvey), and you also star in this movie. Tell me how you came to the point where you were also going to write the song for it, and was that a hard decision, given that you were already in the movie?
JOE JONAS So the song came much later, with a conversation with the director [J.D. Dillard]; he asked me in postproduction if I’d take a stab at writing the credit song. I never expected to blend the two passions together, but I was really thrilled. I think actually being on the ground with these actors and producers and writers, and being able to spend that time in and out was really helpful, to be able to be a part of a project like this and have a better understanding of what some of the real people that were affected by this story went through. We got to meet family members, loved ones of these two incredible men, Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner, who had this unimaginable kinship. It was tricky to decide to write one song that’s going to sum it all up. But I think that’s part of the fun as songwriters, is to be able to say, “OK, how do we draw people in even when the credits are rolling? How do you put this beautiful story into this one tune?” It’s virtually impossible, but I feel like I had good partners on the project.
Sometimes people who act and are musicians want those to be kept separate. Did you think about that at all: “Well, I want this to be my acting film, and not bring in music on this one”?
JONAS I definitely think that there are those thoughts that you go through. Luckily for myself, I wasn’t much of a lead in this movie, definitely supporting. So that had maybe a different approach, why I would say, “Yes, let me give it a try.” And also [there was] the relationship I had with the director and the writer of the film, feeling really close to this, like I was going to go write music anyway, based off of what I experienced and the stories that I got to hear. I like the idea that you separate them, but for this one, it did feel like it’s a good fit.
Diane, I was lucky enough to be in the audience when you received your honorary Oscar. When you accepted, one of the things you said is that you’re always writing a song at every moment. And I’m curious, when projects come to you, do you sort of say, “Oh, I have something I’m already working on,” and try and make it fit?
WARREN It has to be written for the movie specifically. Because first and foremost it has to fit that movie, but if it’s done right, it goes outside the movie. It’s the soundtrack for the movie, and then outside of the soundtrack, it can become your soundtrack for whatever you want it to be.
You brought up an interesting point about wanting the music to obviously be connected to the movie, but also to live outside the movie. How do all of you create art for something that will also transcend the movie?
RUTH B. For me, I had to write the song so that it worked where Bayou, the lead character, sings it. He’s a jazz singer from the 1940s. And then the end credit is where I sing it. So I remember Tyler Perry was saying it has to work both ways. That was freaky to me, because I don’t really know music from that era. Thankfully, I got to work with Terence Blanchard — that’s totally his era of jazz and all that. So he sent me references and made me a playlist. But I didn’t want to try too hard to write it one way, because then I don’t think it would’ve sounded great. I tried to write it the way I would write it, and then hopefully it worked. And I think it did.
For the rest of you, do you feel like the testament of a great song is that it can live apart from the movie? Or do you feel it needs to be so intertwined and identified with it?
WARREN The best songs are both. First and foremost, it’s the movie, always.
For Turning Red, Finneas, I felt like these songs could have been on the radio in the ’90s. It could have been a parody, but it wasn’t. What were your thoughts going in, especially given it is an animated movie as well?
FINNEAS The preamble was that the working titles of the songs were what the songs needed to accomplish in relationship to the character. So Domee would be like, “This song specifically, ‘Nobody Like U,’ is called The Confidence Booster.” That was what it needed to accomplish. It was fun to have the characters internalizing the lyrics during these moments in this narrative. But yeah, I mean, we did want them to have a three-dimensionality.
It’s funny to me, as somebody who lived through it, that making something in the early 2000s is now a period piece. It’s long enough ago that it’s a time period with recognizable, tangible tropes. It was much easier to write songs that took place in 2001 than it would be if we were tasked with writing songs by a boy band in 2023. There are lines in “Nobody Like U”: “I’ve got a big boom box and a new CD.” Just trying to make it really obvious that it was of its time.
Joe, as someone from a boy band, what are your thoughts as far as how Finneas and Billie accomplished that?
FINNEAS Not to interrupt Joe, but Jonas Brothers wrote all of those great songs, which are great.
JONAS I was about to say, “Damn, Finneas, I didn’t get that call. … Throw us a bone here.”
FINNEAS Jonas Brothers are songwriters, man. I think that separates him from a traditional boy band, but I can’t wait to hear this answer.
JONAS Well, I love the film. And I was just sitting here thinking, because there have been opportunities in the past where I’ve written or might be a part of the writing [of a song] for animation — it’s always interesting, the places that you’re put in. And obviously, it’s a slow process. It’s much slower than a traditional film. So I’m curious what that was like for you, Finneas, just watching your characters, your songs develop into animation. Just probably so trippy and inspiring in some ways. But to answer the question, yeah, I think he crushed it. And I’m a fan. I’m a big fan of Finneas, and the sister and what they’ve been able to accomplish. And naturally, that the soundtrack is great. And yeah, it definitely brought me back.
FINNEAS Camp Rock made me want to learn how to play guitar, Joe.
JONAS It made me want to learn how to play guitar, too, and I still am trying. (Laughs.)
Diane, in your speech at the Governors Awards, you talked about how you have never really lost, because you’ve been nominated 13 times, and that was amazing. Then I saw the photo shoot where you were lying with your honorary Oscar in bed and cuddling it.
WARREN We did a funny photo shoot [commenting on me being] always the bridesmaid. I was wearing a wedding dress, and then, of course, [we also depicted] the night of, the morning after. So yeah, he was in bed with me.
So now that he’s with you, do you still feel the same desire to win the competitive Oscar?
WARREN He was telling me he wants a friend. He goes, “I’m lonely. I want an Oscar friend.” Yeah, of course. I would love to win a competitive Oscar. So here I am. But I do mean it when I said that I didn’t [think of it as] 13 times losing, because there’s only five songs chosen. It’s hard to get nominated, ask anybody who hasn’t been. So any time the greatest songwriters and composers choose your song to be one of only five — the Academy Awards has one song category, as opposed to the Grammys, where there are 5,000 song categories — and if you’re lucky enough to be in that category, it is a huge win every time.
How do you all feel about the change in theatrical, with some movies debuting day of, later or only on streaming platforms — has that changed the importance of music for films?
WARREN It doesn’t change what we do. We still have to write a great song.
JONAS I agree with Diane. I mean, obviously you want to write the best song for the project itself, but naturally, I think all of us, we’re movie lovers. We like seeing our work on a big screen, there’s nothing like it. And to hear it in that loud THX sound is pretty nice. But I think that we live in a world where it’s streaming and TikTok and Reels are king and queen and it is a bit of adaptation that just has to take place. But at the same time, to its core, the kid in me hearing your song on a screen, just like you’d want as a director, I imagine, to see it on a big screen, that’s part of it.
WARREN I feel bad for the directors, but, like Joe said, it is a new world and stuff. But what I really hate: The credits are so little and all these people that work on a movie, not just us, the music people, but when it’s streaming, it’s little and it goes really fast. Even I feel bad, you want to see everybody’s name who put all their time and energy and love in it, whether it’s music or anything. That’s a bum ride.
FINNEAS One of the highlights of my life, certainly my career, was seeing the No Time to Die Bond film in a theater and hearing the title sequence song play. It was so moving and I felt so lucky. But I’m 50-50. Nine times out of 10, I’m so glad I saw the movie in a theater when I do. But I have been no less moved by a great movie at home in my living room. So I try to remember that. Yeah, I agree with Diane. It’s like the person I feel the most empathy for is usually the director. Like Turning Red, for example, didn’t end up having a theatrical release and it was really encouraging to see that the movie still meant so much to the people who watched it. They were not less engaged.
It’s also interesting these days how we listen to music, because a lot of times we get informed through TikTok or an Instagram Reel and the songs are even shorter. How do you think social media has impacted how your music is received?
JONAS It’s a learning curve. I think nobody really knows still how it works. It’s quite funny having conversations with executives or people in the industry and they’re like, “If you just do a dance, it’ll be a hit.” Nobody really knows the math behind how things go up on an algorithm and then become number one on Spotify. It’s exciting for some, but at the same time, and this might sound cliché or cheesy, but I am just hoping that people are listening and finding your work on different avenues, whether it’s from the fans that you’ve been able to build or that you’re able to be a part of beautiful film and TV, which is just so inspiring.
Sorry Diane, you were going to say something.
WARREN I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I’m sorry.
JONAS Never do that again, Diane Warren! She gets one Oscar and this is how she treats me. (Laughter.)
WARREN I think however the song gets heard, it has to be a great song. Right now, I have the biggest hit I ever had with a song called “Only Love Can Hurt Like This,” [by Paloma Faith] which, thank you, TikTok, but I have no idea how that happened. It’s only this little piece of the song, it’s so strange. But I think however anybody gets a song, something has to be compelling about it. You have to write a compelling song and somehow it’ll get through. But I have fucking no clue how TikTok works. How did that song I did seven years ago, random No. 1 U.K. song that no one else in the world heard, all of a sudden on TikTok become this thing? I mean, it’s so weird. No one can figure that out, can they?
BYRNE Yeah, I don’t think anyone here has an answer to that. What’s the formula? It is true that with your song, things get resurrected so that you may think that the life of that song has passed, but not necessarily.
WARREN That’s cool. They rise from the dead.
It must be a beautiful thing, though, to hear a song that maybe you hadn’t thought about for a while that, all of a sudden, a new generation is paying attention to.
JONAS Definitely, I mean, think about Stranger Things [which resurrected Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”]. It started there, which is exciting. A whole new generation is discovering music from the ’80s that I grew up listening to. And then finding out that my kid brother thinks he’s discovering all this music. It’s great because there’s a resurrection in the music.
FINNEAS It’s made me feel very optimistic, because I feel like we’re in such an aggressively truncated period of time, release-wise. I feel like you get about five days when you release a song these days as an artist, where it’s on a Billboard [chart] or it’s on a playlist. Literally five days. So if you don’t get good placement or you don’t get X amount of streams or sales during that five days, it can feel very defeating. I’ve had many examples of it, to be honest, where a song that I was a part of as a producer or a co-writer that I was so sure was good, didn’t have an immediate moment when it came out. And then a couple of years later had something like a great sync in a movie or just got shared the right way and re-brought to the fore. It’s really made me reevaluate; now I just worry if the song’s great, because the moment that it comes out might be the wrong moment, and that’s OK. There’s a song I love by Pomplamoose called “Bust Your Knee Caps” that’s incredible. It’s from 2010 or something. And it was suddenly enormous in 2021. Huge on today’s top hits. And nobody had ever heard of it for 10 years. And then when people did hear it, they liked it as much as I did. So it was very encouraging to me.
So what is success to you when you finish your song — hearing it finished, or hearing it in the theater during the movie, or after the movie? What is success to you after all that’s said and done?
WARREN That the song reaches people and touches people, that’s all you can really hope for. I love looking at comments on a video for the song, and you just see that these songs really touch people, help people, and maybe they’re going through a hard time.
Finally, I’ve got to ask, because everyone seems to be going crazy over Taylor Swift tickets right now, does anyone have a Taylor Swift ticket hookup that I should know about?
JONAS Unfortunately, no. But I think my wife’s [Sophie Turner] got her number, so she’s trying to get her on the phone. We’ll see. Get in those lines now.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.