When Sondre Lerche wrote the song “To Be Surprised,” he was sitting on the set of “Dan in Real Life,” waiting to give guitar lessons to Steve Carell, the film’s star.
But the 25-year-old singer-songwriter wasn’t a musician moonlighting as an extra; Lerche was the film’s composer, responsible for creating all its music.
Not only was it unusual for a composer to be on the set, it was also unique that Lerche was hired to create original songs and the film’s score. He is part of a growing group of artists recruited to fashion a film’s singular musical vision to augment the storytelling.
Lerche says “Dan in Real Life” director and co-writer Peter Hedges knew when he was writing the script that he wanted the music to play a notable role in the film. After hearing the music of hundreds of artists, Hedges picked Lerche.
“Peter said he felt a quality in my music that resonated with the story he wanted to tell,” Lerche tells Variety. “I was puzzled. I had never done a film, and this was a big studio film. The common soundtrack treatment that Hollywood gives a lot of romantic comedies would’ve meant a lot of strings and a big sound. But Peter said he wanted to keep things very minimal and everything should have a handmade quality. He wanted the performance not to be too professional. So if he says I’m the guy to do that, how can I say no?”
Lerche felt fortunate to be drafted in the early stages.
“I was able to watch auditions, I could go on location,” he says. “I could see every step, and this helped the music pour out of me.”
Many of the songs were recorded in Lerche’s New York apartment.
“I could sit in my bedroom with one microphone, one computer and one guitar and experiment,” he explains. “Then I could run up the street two blocks to the studio where they were making the film and try different versions of these demos. But Peter was so attached to these demos that he didn’t want them re-recorded. So we had to take out a lot of the background noise, like the garbage truck or the radiator.”
Background noise wasn’t a factor for Glen Hansard, who along with Marketa Irglova wrote and performed the music in “Once.” Some of the performances of the John Carney-directed film were shot live on the streets of Dublin. The songs also are stripped-down odes that push a romantic story forward.
“If you don’t like these songs, you’re not going to like the film,” says Hansard, front man for the Irish group the Frames. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m over the moon about the success and recognition. But we wanted the music to be simple, clean. It’s nothing like the typical Hollywood film musical.”
Hansard said that if they weren’t sure what to do during filming, they would ask themselves, “What would Polanski do?” referring to the director Roman Polanski.
“Before we started, we watched the Polanski boxed set,” says Hansard. “So during filming we’d stop and say, ‘What would Polanski do right now? Would he have a kiss or a song here? Fuck no.’ ”
Hansard is no stranger to films with music-influenced storylines. He appeared as a guitarist in the 1991 film “The Commitments,” a warm and fuzzy tale about a Dublin-based soul band.
But with “Once” he says he’s finally out from the shadow of “The Commitments'” music-meets-artifice cover band.
The tunes from “Once” are also being showcased for folks who haven’t seen the film. Hansard has been touring the U.S. with his band, headlining many of the same 2,000-seat venues they played when they opened for Damien Rice less than a year ago.
“I’m glad I’m finally able to talk about and play our songs, and not hear someone in the audience yell, ‘Play “Mustang Sally,”‘ ” he says, referring to one of the songs in “The Commitments.” “I’m enjoying the recognition from ‘Once,’ and enjoyed doing it; don’t get me wrong. And the response has been very genuine. But I’m ready for a rest.”
Fox Music president Robert Kraft says films like “Dan in Real Life,” “Once” and “Into the Wild” reflect songwriters’ readiness to collaborate in the filmmaking process.
“It’s also a way they can get their work out to the marketplace without relying on a traditional CD release,” he adds.
For Eddie Vedder, creating the music for Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” was “an opportunity to get deeper into writing than maybe I had in a while. It was just the most welcomed set of demands I’ve come across in a long time.”
Vedder, who worked with Penn on “I Am Sam” and “Dead Man Walking” but not as deeply, says creating the nine original songs came quickly after seeing the rough cut of the film in his Seattle living room.
“The film was incredibly moving,” recalls Vedder. “I realized the songs could now become another tool in the storytelling.”
Vedder also helped score the film with Michael Brook.
“Michael made great choices with the way he orchestrated the score,” he says. “Our pieces of music meshed together pretty well for not having approached it in a way of making sure these puzzle pieces fit. They just did.”
Film music veterans note that the current crop of films with singer-songwriters at the musical helm may not signal a trend, but shows that more filmmakers are willing to take a creative risk.
“I think everybody talks about wanting to develop new talent and how there’s nothing more fulfilling than an underdog victory, but few act on it,” says Mitchell Leib, president of music and soundtracks for Disney. “I think more and more we’re seeing risk-taking, original, modern, adult art exerting itself.”