How composer Jon Brion found the emotional core of Oscar favourite Lady Bird
Lady Bird – the Oscar-tipped directorial debut from Greta Gerwig – tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. She’s about to graduate from her Catholic high school and is desperate to be liberated of her hometown of Sacramento and pursue a life of creativity and cultural enrichment in New York City.
Part love-letter to home, part coming-of-age saga and part understated family drama, the film is underpinned by a charmingly ambling orchestral soundtrack composed by Jon Brion. His previous work includes scores for Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, more recently, a handful of producer credits on Frank Ocean’s Blonde.
Through all his work, Brion breathes a sense of humanity and warmth into what he’s creating. It’s a formula perfectly suited to the relatable story of Lady Bird. We spoke to Jon about the film and found a composer unafraid of instilling emotion into music.
How did your work on Lady Bird come about?
It was fairly simple actually. I got a text from my agent saying ‘Greta Gerwig just directed her first movie, are you interested in seeing it?’ I said yes! I saw it, I liked it. We talked on the phone and then we spent a day working and liked each other. I’d love to tell you some colourful circuitous story but it’s not there.
What were your first impressions of the film?
It was an emotional impression. Like a lot of people who see it, I remembered that era of my life and those feeling resonated. Especially having been a teenager who wants to be an adult and do creative stuff, but didn’t know quite how to articulate it.
Despite how lost Lady Bird feels as a character, there’s a definite feeling of optimism in your score. Was that intentional?
Yeah, I think there’s something bittersweet about the whole affair. Things are clearly not going well but there are certain aspirational aspects to a lot of the characters. The central character believes there’s more life out there than what she’s getting. I think that’s a forward-leaning emotion, even if you’re dissatisfied with what’s around you. That sense that life is out there. She’s not certain about it – it’s not that kind of optimism. But there’s some sort of hope built in while everything around her is not at all as she’d like.
Could you talk a little bit about the role wind instruments played in the score?
Sure. I’d always wanted to not have just strings on a film score. The woodwind section is my favourite part of the orchestra and usually it’s just buried inside some strings. Once in a while, someone who plays oboe is allowed to play the melody, that’s how it gets used most of the time! And the sound of a wind ensemble is something really beautiful I think.
Do you think there’s something about the story of Lady Bird that made a particularly good home for that sound?
I wanted something that was very humane feeling. We associate small films with a certain kind of sound and we associate big movies with big orchestras and a string section. I still wanted this to have a sense of orchestration and elegance. It’s not the kind of thing you’d normally see in what people think of as ‘small films’. But it can still be very personal, that was the reason for the choice.
How much did you know about Sacramento before working on this score, did that location inform the score?
Subconsciously, I’m sure it did. As a touring musician, I’ve been through Sacramento a few times so I’m sure it played into it a little bit. But more than anything I felt that this movie was about a particular moment in someone’s life. It’s a moment which any of us can relate to regardless of situation – things not feeling right yet.
And how did the recording process for the score work?
Almost all of the writing was done at my place with Greta and I just watching the movie together. Where possible, I like to play in real time with the director there. Then there was a process right towards the end of the movie where we spent ten days straight recording what we’d written and playing on top of little bits I’d made at my studio. It’s quite typical for making a movie score, a lot of back-and-forth with writing then one intense flurry of work right towards the end.
How was it working with Greta Gerwig on her directorial debut?
It was great. We spent most of our time talking and laughing at the beginning of each session. At some point, one of us would remember that we should probably finish some work! So at some point we would. Most of the time it was pretty easy to tell when something was working. For the lion’s share of it we actually agreed when it emotionally felt right. That doesn’t always happen.
It’s a very emotionally-driven movie…
For her, I think there’s a lot of self-consciousness involved because, while the movie isn’t exactly autographical, she knows it will be looked at that way. I think some of that is in there, on top of her actual life experiences and ideas about what she wanted this to be. I thought she was extremely together on what she wanted and why. I personally think she’s a really good director and it’s what she’s supposed to be doing with her time.
There’s a nice warmth and familiarity to the score. It’s reflective of the hometown themes I think.
I’m glad you say that. That’s definitely the intention – the feeling that it’s always been there without specifically sounding like something else.
How did you find that warm, nostalgic feeling?
I’ll be honest with you, it’s really down to how much emotion the director will allow. That might sound like a weird thing to say but some people get very edgy if there’s emotion there because they are worried they’ll get judged harshly. Thankfully, Greta wanted something that would feel emotional. She wasn’t playing that game which other people play – when they’re afraid of other people saying they are leading the audience [using the score]. It’s a particular pretension of our time which I have no time for. I wanted something that felt modern and old-fashioned at the same time – it sounds like the damn thing was hovering there all along.
Do you think some people turn their noses up at scores which carry strands of more traditional, narrative-led cinema?
Absolutely. The pretension to me is the fear of what other people will say about the work in hand as opposed to whether the emotion is actually right. There are all these concerns associated with movie-making – ‘Oh, I don’t want to spoonfeed them’, ‘Oh, I don’t want it to be too on the nose’.
My feeling is, fuck that. I’m an audience member and that’s what I go for. I go to put myself in somebody else’s hands and I want a god damn feeling out of it. I don’t go to movies to have somebody prove to me that they know what it means to be self-aware. Make something I can fucking enjoy! That’s my feeling.
It’s interesting how diverse the films you’ve worked on are, films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche New York have quite an abstract element. Then there’s films like Lady Bird which are really rich in human, real-life content. Do you try and work on a range of projects to keep your technique fresh or is that just the way it’s happened to pan out?
The piece at hand makes half the decisions for me. I kind of consider myself the first audience member. Everybody’s been working on it for a year before I got there, the director and editor spent months in a room by themselves and maybe a couple of assistants got to see it. But really I’m the first audience member who gets to see the finished film. I just sit there and watch it a bunch of times without music and allow the thing to happen to me.
It’s not that I don’t make any personal choices along the way – sometimes I’ll feel that the film could use more left-turns, sometimes it’s quite the contrary. Sometimes if a film comes off as over-intellectual I’ll want to add some emotion so people in the audience are willing to follow along with the more demanding stuff. The films dictate the choices.
For those who haven’t seen it yet, what can people expect from the story of Lady Bird?
I think it’s a good slice of life – the difficulty of everyone around you being at different states of development at the same moment. There are people who have it all together and people who don’t. That’s what’s nice and interesting about this film. Greta did a brilliant job of capturing that – it’s one the films finer qualities. It’s not merely about a dissatisfied kid with her own pretensions.
I think I’m probably still in that place myself…
Oh, it never stops.
Lady Bird is released in the UK on 16 February