It wasn’t exactly typecasting when the makers of the new Zach Galifianakis comedy “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” signed up singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers and the National’s Matt Berninger to play the resident band of a generic drinking hole. But the movie makes the most of this duet between two indie heroes in a “nameless bar in the middle of America” — and Variety has the exclusive video premiere of the new song they perform together, “Walking on a String.”
The cameos in the Netflix comedy arrive so fast and frequently that it can be difficult to catch them all in one viewing. The film expands on the Funny or Die series first created by Galifianakis and writer/director Scott Aukerman in 2008, following the fictional “Between Two Ferns” crew as they travel the country in search of celebrities to interview. As a result, the movie is packed with hilariously uncomfortable encounters with a cavalcade of stars that includes Paul Rudd, David Letterman, Tessa Thompson, Jon Hamm … and two acclaimed musicians who’d never collaborated before in song, let alone in comedy.
According to Berninger, it was last September when Aukerman (also known for his long-running role as the host of the “Comedy Bang Bang” podcast) sent him an email to see if he’d be interested in putting something together for the film.
“I think I pitched Scott three ideas,” Berninger recalls. “I didn’t have it written yet, but my wife [Carin Besser] and I fleshed out the lyrics. It was a really simple, rudimentary little guitar sketch that I knew we’d be able to pull off in a bar.”
That’s when Aukerman asked if it might be possible to do two versions of the song: one for the scene in question and another, more cinematic rendition that could run later on. Immediately, Berninger realized he was going to need some help. His first call was to producer Tony Berg, who told him that he was working at the legendary Sound City Studios in Van Nuys with Bridgers.
Having first gained acclaim for her 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps,” Bridgers has already enjoyed two other successful collaborations within the last year. Last fall, she teamed with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as the band Boygenius. This winter, she partnered with Conor Oberst on the project Better Oblivion Community Center. As far as potential collaborators go, Bridgers is making a case as the industry’s gold standard.
“That’s when lightning struck,” Berninger explains. “I was like, ‘Holy s—! Maybe I can turn this into a duet with Phoebe.’ She graciously let us come in and crash her recording sessions with Tony. She produced it with Tony and Ethan [Gruska]. It was super fun.”
When it came time to perform the song in the film, Bridgers concedes she was wary of how much everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. “It just seemed like everybody was having a lot of fun,” she says. “I was skeptical about how much fun was really being had in comedy, but it was actually just super pleasant. Everyone was super nice. It was a blast.”
As part of her role, Bridgers was given a number of options in terms of what outfit she’d wear, a task she greatly enjoyed. “I tried on a bunch of different s—,” she laughs. “At first, I had like a Canadian tuxedo that was a skirt with tassels and cowboy boots, which made me look like a bartender.”
“She was like an 11-year-old bartender,” Berninger interjects.
“Exactly,” Bridgers continues. “I’ve always romanticized the idea of a character who overdresses for things, so I immediately gravitated towards an actually nude Nudie’s suit. I love the idea that it’s a f—ing dive bar and you’re really dressed up. My hair was in curls. I never wear makeup but I had purple makeup on. It was very, very up my alley.”
Lyrically, “Walking on a String” embraces the absurdity of the “Between Two Ferns” brand but manages to retain a certain sincerity as well. That challenge can be difficult enough on its own, but for Berninger, the song had to work not only for the scene, but also as a more exuberant callback later in the movie.
While Berninger credits Aukerman for giving to him and his collaborators tons of freedom to “just let us do whatever” in terms of creating the song, he explains that he still felt it was inherently important to make sure that “Walking on a String” was not devoid of substance.
“The song has a bunch of metaphors in it,” he notes. “Some are darker than others. I think that’s why Phoebe slid right into this. It was this idea to make a beautiful thing out of very painful feelings. Zach’s movie is ridiculous but it is also about a man who is lost and maybe depressed. He has a lot of insecurity and self-loathing and pain. Zach, Scott and I all wanted the song to have heart.”
They didn’t just leave it at that. Following this release of the track’s official music video, Bridgers and Berninger will pick up where they left off on-set and join forces again in the spring of 2020, when she and the National will tour select cities in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The two confess the idea of doing “Walking on a String” on tour had not yet occurred to them, but both express excitement at the prospect of recreating their onscreen performance live.
“Either her guys or the National will have to learn it,” Berninger muses, “but that’s a good idea.”
“Totally!” Bridgers agrees. “It will make people see my set, too!”