Billie Eilish and her producer/co-writer/brother Finneas gave themselves one rule, and one rule only, when a request came in for the duo to write and perform their Grammy-nominated theme song for the James Bond film “No Time to Die.”
“Finneas’ whole thing — that I agreed with — was that we have to have the title of the song be the title of the movie,” said Eilish. “And we have to say it, or it doesn’t hit as hard — it doesn’t do what it needs to do.”
Finneas added that this vow was not meant to cast judgment on any past Bond lyricists who did not commit to the same standard. “We were lucky,” he admits, “because the title was ‘No Time to Die,’ and that is a good lyric. I don’t fault Jack White and Alicia Keys for not writing a song called ‘Quantum of Solace.’”
How Eilish and Finneas arrived at the remaining 30 lines of the song — and the music and arrangements to go with them — was the subject of a Music for Screens panel, “The Making of ‘No Time to Die’,” seen Thursday as part of Variety’s three-day virtual Variety FYC Fest panel. Joining the sibling sensations in conversation were infamous good guys Hans Zimmer and Johnny Marr, who collaborated on the score for the yet-unseen Bond project but also were heavily involved in bringing Eilish’s and Finneas’ Grammy-nominated number to completion. (See the complete panel, above.)
The four had a lot of catching up to do during the half-hour-plus panel, not having been together collectively since the song was recorded almost exactly a year prior at this time, when, in classic hurry-up-and-wait fashion, bringing it to fruition was a matter of warlike urgency before the pandemic pushed the film’s release back by about a year.
What immediately became apparent was that, if there was an official Eilish fan club, Zimmer might put in a bid to become its president.
“You were on it before Johnny and I were, in a way, because you already written the song,” Zimmer reminded Eilish and Finneas. Zimmer came onto the project late last year, as it neared the finish line after another composer had come and gone. Upon coming into the Bond camp last December, Zimmer said, “the first thing that happened when I got to London was, they (the Bond camp) didn’t know which song to pick. And of course, there are a thousand songs that are being written. You know, a Bond song is an important thing. It carries a lot of weight with it. It’s like somehow lives depend on that you pick the right one! I pretty quickly heard Billie and Finneas’ song” — which had been turned in shortly before he came aboard — “and it was quite obvious that there was only one song that they could possibly pick that had class, charm, integrity, musicality and beauty, and was different and didn’t try to do the old thing. Would you like me to carry on about why I loved the song?” he laughed. “I was very bullish.”
Marr went so far as to call enlisting Eilish “a brave move. I suppose you could look at it from a certain point of view and go, it’s kind of unexpected, because Billie and Finneas’ sound is so distinctive and not bombastic. The tension in their slow songs comes from what isn’t in there, along with the performance. And then it was just all a matter of keeping the integrity of the sound, really, and not losing your nerve — making it radical, I’d say.” But even he was imagining a bigger-sounding track than it turned out to be. “I remember sitting behind Hans thinking, ‘Wow, Hans is going to put some French horns on it’… the stuff that I love hearing him do.” But it didn’t turn out to be that brassy, or that (Shirley) Bassey. “As soon as it started getting loud, it’s not as cool,” said Marr, who was a proponent of: “Let’s find the loud stuff that we can drop in.”
“There were three orchestral arrangements,” said Zimmer. “There’s a Matt Dunkley, there’s Hans, and then there is the merging of Matt and Hans — and then there is really Finneas going, ‘Okay. This bit goes here. Chuck this bit.’ You know, he really ended up being the producer of it, and what that means is ultimately it became his. So much of it was about his taste and him taking on that responsibility.”
Finneas acted as de facto editor on the orchestration provided by Zimmer and co-arranger Matt Dunkley. “Billie and I got given all the raw WAV files of everything, and every note of your arrangements was so good. But we found our favorite parts, then took out a lot and kept it very low in the mix,” said Finneas, adding to Zimmer: “I remember sending you back a version where probably a third of it remained, and thinking, ‘Well, this might really piss Hans off.’ And you were like, ‘Sounds great!’ I was so surprised and excited that you felt that way.”
It wasn’t as if Zimmer didn’t get to keep playing with the song even after Eilish’s recording was complete, as he incorporated it into the still publicly unheard score. “The song isn’t just tagged onto the beginning,” the composer said. “It runs throughout the movie. as part of the storytelling — the way it’s supposed to be. I hate it when they just tag a song on and then it just feels redundant.”
When Eilish first performed the song live, at this year’s Brit Awards, she admitted she worried about how the song requires her to get just a little belty at the end after a nearly sotto voce buildup, something the four also discussed in their online reunion.
“There’s a moment in it,” said Zimmer, “where you just sort of unleash that other Billie in there…”
“That didn’t happen until we had your arrangement, Hans and Johnny,” Finneas said. “That was sort of after we had that kind of crescendo…”
“We didn’t give her a choice,” laughed Zimmer, referring to the moments when the song does finally find its grandness.
Added Eilish, “We knew that we wanted to do something big, though, because I didn’t want to just have a quiet song that went nowhere. Because it’s Bond! It’s a big deal. And I was like, I’ve got to give something that I, one, haven’t done ever, and two, even if I’ve done it on my own, nobody’s ever heard it before.”
Stephen Lipson was Finneas’ official co-producer on the track, as well as the tune’s co-mixer, and Zimmer gave him credit for a moment in the studio when he established whose voice should really be heard in the studio, and not just on-mic. “Steve said, ‘Everybody just shut up, and everybody just listen to Billie,’ which I loved. Because she knew what the song was. And we and our 100-person toy box (of the orchestra), it’s easy to lose sight. So it was just great hearing the artist come in and go, ‘Okay, that’s good. That’s not good. That’s good. That’s not good.’ And I think that Johnny, Finneas and Billie have a very similar aesthetic, and I’m not even sure how aware of it you three are: that each note needs to have commitment, and it should only be that note and no other notes — and don’t ruin it by putting a lot of other crap around it.”
Zimmer could not contain himself in extolling the core song. “Let me ask this, because I never asked the two of you. So who wrote… who came up with the very first chord?”
Eilish, after pointing out that they had a lot of writer’s block in their first attempts at coming up with a song, said the initial chord progression — which Zimmer called “instantly haunting” — was something Finneas came up with on tour, after their earlier tries in a studio had come to naught. And then the floodgates opened. “I was like doing a meet and greet before a show” when Finneas whispered to her that they needed to retreat to their green room, where he played her the initial keyboard riff. “So that was all Finneas. And when you get that first thing that gets you, it’s so much easier to go on. The hard part is the beginning… and then it writes itself.”
“We had all of the melodies of this song before we had any lyric, I think,” Finneas added, “which is very atypical for us. We usually write melody and lyric in tandem. And I think because of the nature of the sort of Bond-ness of the song, or what we wanted the song to have, we knew that the melodies had to be very precise, very exact, very evocative. And so we came up with the melodies together and then wrote every lyric together, to fit the melody.”
“There’s a really clever major/minor sort of bit in there as well,” praised Zimmer. “All that duality… it’s great craftsmanship.”
Zimmer took issue with a moderator’s description of the song as foreboding. “I don’t agree with you that it’s ‘dark,’” he said, preferring the terms “incredibly poetic and elegant” and “mysterious… like this beautiful perfume in a beautiful night that sort of goes past you.”
What mystery does the song foretell? Eilish and Finneas wrote very much based on the script, so Bond enthusiasts have actually studied the betrayal-themed lyrics for clues about the storyline.. (The duo had been given the script for the opening pre-credits scene and an overall synopsis ahead of time, to form their musical response from, and then saw the completed film upon being called to London, after they’d written it but before recording it.)
“There’s definitely a lot in the song that will make more sense when you do see the movie,” said Eilish. “It’ll definitely sink in a little more when you see it.” Added her brother, “It’s a very bespoke piece. I mean, there is no thing that we wrote with ambiguous intent — nothing sort of like, ‘Oh, this could come out separately from this film.’ It was totally intertwined in our minds with this film.”
Can they hint at tonal instructions they were given? “If we spoil anything,” warned Finneas, “each of us have a red dot from a scope outside of the window that’ll stick a hypodermic needle in our necks. I’m not comfortable answering that question directly. But the thing I can answer, because it’s public knowledge, is this is Daniel Craig’s last film as Bond. And that sense of finality, of knowing an actor is doing their last film as a character, was heavy to us and had real weight.”
“And he was very conscious of it too,” said Zimmer of Craig. “He was involved. He wanted to know that we weren’t going to go and take this lightly… Steve Lipson played it for him when it was finished — made Daniel come to his studio in a really dodgy part of London — dodgy is the only word that will describe it correctly, by the way — at eight o’clock in the morning, when it was weather pelting down with rain, and made him listen to the song. Daniel just went, ‘Play it again. Play it again. Play it again.’ And he fell in love.”
A discussion of favorite Bonds was the only time Eilish, 18, and Finneas, 22, betrayed their age. “Billie and I, although we’ve seen Connery and Brosnan Bonds, grew up with Daniel Craig,” Finneas said. Added his sister: “I think that was where the most pressure came from, just in our own goals, because we wanted to honor his 15, 16 years of being James Bond. That’s a long time and a lot of work for a dude,” she chuckled, adding: “He is Bond to us.”
With the song having become a favorite among Eilish fans and series enthusiasts alike, the world has largely agreed: She was the ideal serenader to see this Bond out. But Eilish’s youth did not go unnoticed or uncommented upon when she was first announced as the heir to Adele and Sam Smith, among other recent Bond singers.
“It was announced that Billie was singing it before people heard the song,” Finneas said, “which I think is sort of double-risky, because then they’re only judging their preconceptions about an artist as opposed to actually judging the work at hand. So…”
“That was the rough period,” Eilish admitted. “That was the rough period.” She won’t hold it against anyone who balked at the news. “I wasn’t mad about it because I understand. Why wouldn’t people have wants for the song that’s the theme to their favorite franchise? That’s totally understandable. But my favorite thing is an open mind, especially when it was closed before. I love when people aren’t stuck to their pretenses, which I am totally guilty of all the time. I hear that something’s going to happen and I’m like, ‘That’s ridiculous. It should never be that way. It’s never going to be good.’ And it’s important to keep your mind open and just listen and be like, ‘You know what, actually? I was wrong. This is really good.'”
Said Zimmer, “I remember when Chris Nolan announced Heath Ledger as the Joker. And the world on the Internet went mad going, ‘What a terrible decision. This guy can’t act. The worst decision I’ve ever heard.’ And then, Heath blew them all away, of course. It’s the same thing. It’s like, look, we don’t make random decisions. I mean, there were couple of pretty smart people involved who not only have ears, but can feel something. For me, it was the simplest thing. I heard the song and I went, ‘Don’t want to hear anything else. That’s it.'”
Marr’s contributions to the song and score came up, with Zimmer first mentioning that he could think of no one else when it came to who should echo the familiar Monty Norman James Bond theme in Eilish’s song.
Recalled Zimmer, admitting a hesitation to accept when the score offer first came in, “I wasn’t sure I was going to do it. So I phoned Johnny and I said to him, ‘I have two questions for you. What’s the only worthwhile guitar riff to play in a movie?’ And he said, ‘Well, the Bond thing.’ And then, secondly, I said, ‘Should we do it?’ He said something like, ‘We’d be idiots not to have a go.'”
But Marr won’t just be playing guitar on the score. “There’s a lot of noises,” Marr teased. “Kind of like electronic noises. Sound design as well… And I won’t go into all the details, but there’s a thing that you can do with guitars that’s a thing you can’t do with synthesizers. So, I’m flying the flag for that… On this movie I got a chance to do quite a lot of bugged-out sound design as well, which has been really fun.”
When it comes to the Eilish song, though, said Zimmer, “Listen, Finneas, Billie, if there’s anybody who we should be pissed off at, it’s Johnny. Because, as always, he gets the last word. Like, we go through our whole chart, and then, what’s it end with?” The composer did his vocal approximation of the famous final chord of the Bond theme, which does close out Eilish’s “No Time to Die” theme, too. “Brrrrring. The last word.”
If there’s any silver lining at all to the theme song having been released a year ahead of the necessarily delayed movie, it’s in how the song might have felt overexposed if it’d come up over the opening credits last spring, and the time in-between may allow a chance to better assess how it fits the film, apart from its hit single status. “It’ll be a whole new song,” joked Zimmer.