Probably never before in history did as much time transpire between the release of a film’s theme song and the actual release of the movie as in the case of “No Time to Die.” Billie Eilish’s title song, written with her producer and brother, Finneas, came out 20 months before the James Bond film it was written for, due to a series of pandemic-related delays that kept pushing back the movie. Since it was written so specifically to echo thematic and narrative elements of the film that were being kept under wraps, that meant 20 months of Eilish and Finneas talking about the tune but not being at liberty to talk freely about the actual meaning and intent of the lyrics.
Now that the film has been widely seen, they’re unleashed, at last, to discuss every aspect of what went into their song. The sibling collaborators are being honored at this weekend’s Variety Hitmakers event for having the Film Song of the Year, and they spoke with us in advance of being honored about some of the subtleties that went into their composition, which we recently named as one of the 10 best Bond songs of all time.
VARIETY: What’s it been like for you to have people sort of marinating in your theme for 20 months while they waited for the film? Fortunately, since it turned out that people did like the song, that gave them time to bask in its mood and sort of further imagine what the film might be like, during all that time. So how did it feel to finally have it come out?
EILISH: Exciting. I mean, we all feel it’s been a very loooong year and a half, or two years. [The film was originally supposed to come out in fall 2019, before it had its first, pre-pandemic bump.] And I was nervous because I was like: Are people going to be tired of me by the time this movie is out? And who knows if that might even be the case, but I don’t feel that it is. It was really cool, because it made it so much more impactful even when it came out than it was before, just because it was this insane anticipation that had all of our skin… what’s the word? Not crawling, but the opposite – like, excited and on the edge of our seats. And it’s funny, because it was so long ago that I was 17 recording it, and I’m about to turn 20, and that’s such a large difference in your life and who you are and the things around you.
In a conversation we had about the song about a year ago, you said it was written very specifically to dovetail with the plot of the film, but that you couldn’t really discuss exactly how it was supposed to fit in. [“There’s definitely a lot in the song that will make more sense when you do see the movie,” Eilish said then, and Finneas added: “If we spoil anything, each of us have a red dot from a scope outside of the window that’ll stick a hypodermic needle in our necks.”] Now that everyone’s seen it: What kind of instruction were you given about writing the song, as far as coming out of that 25-minute pre-credit sequence, but also, perhaps, “The ending of this movie is kind of somber, so we don’t want too excitable of a song”?
FINNEAS: You want me to take this, Bill? … We were given the opening; up until where the song comes in in the movie, we were given that much of the script. We read that and we knew the title of the film, obviously, and that was really it, in terms of writing it. All of the other parameters of writing the song were things that Billie and I felt passionate about. We definitely thought the name of the movie should be the hook of the song. It definitely had to have that signature 007 feel, musically and melodically. Billie and I often write lyrics and melody at the same time; sometimes we write lyrics before we write melody. But in this song’s case, we wrote all of the melody before we wrote the lyrics, just because I had this feeling that the lyrics could be perfect, but if the melody isn’t also perfect, then it’s not going to land.
Once we had written the song, we were invited to London by Hans (Zimmer, the score composer) and Barbara (Broccoli, the producer) to see the movie before we orchestrated the song. So that was when we learned how the film ended. But otherwise we were kept totally in the dark — which was really cool. I think it’s such a cool way to write that song, to be given only the piece of the movie that has preceded it. I just loved that. I feel like I wouldn’t have wanted to know every in and out of the movie.
Oh, you know what? The only thing Barbara said that wasn’t in the script? She said, “He ends up having been wrong.” That was the thing that she told us: Bond thinks that he’s been betrayed, and he hasn’t. So that was really important for us to know, too.
That’s interesting, because it is a song about feeling betrayed, and then you find out he wasn’t. And so when you come back with a reprise at the very end of the final credits, you’re just humming it, because the words might not be appropriate anymore at that point.
FINNEAS: Well, it’s funny that you say that. Because we knew that he had thought he was wrong, but I wanted to make the words have enough of a double meaning that they would still be relevant. So all that stuff — “I had fallen for a lie”… He’s been lied to, and he thinks the lie was (from) his love interest. But the lie was, in fact, Blofeld. So I thought like if we could land that, it would also add a good layer to it.
EILISH: It had like a double meaning: “fallen for a lie” as in what he thinks is the lie, but then he believes his own lie. It’s like he fell for his own not-trusting-people lie.
The melody is very clear and emphatic — so much so that Hans keeps repeating it instrumentally throughout his score — but your reading of it is subtle, as Bond themes go. Although it includes some big moments, it’s hard to think of another Bond theme that takes that big of a chance on being hushed for a lot of the song. Did you think of it as taking a chance, in that way?
EILISH: You know, we kind of just let it flow how it flowed. Mainly the things we were focused on were having a very strong melody and incorporating what we knew of the movie and the plot and the title, and having it feel very Bond-y. We weren’t too focused on “What are the dynamics going to be?” But then it just needed a moment at the end to have a big belt. And at the time, I had never done anything like that. So for me, it was really out of my comfort zone, and I was nervous and very excited to try new things. But I was very, very worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it, or that I wasn’t good enough or people wouldn’t like it. But I feel like we got it to such a place of having it feel very soft and just melancholy, and then also very strong and harsh, almost — and then powerful. didn’t force it to be anything. It just became what it is.
Almost kind of contradictorily, the song feels like it was very individual to you guys, but at the same time, it felt like part of like a John Barry-like musical tradition. You could almost think of it either way. So how much did you think about that tradition?
FINNEAS: Oh, I think it was omnipresent on our minds — I think especially punctuated by the fact that, you’ve got to remember, we were really auditioning for this. They didn’t come to us and say, “The job is yours. Now go write a song.” They said to us, “We’d love to hear what you come up with.” And so we knew that they were inviting us into their world.
You know, to me, the agony of our song being out for 18 months before the film was that it really isn’t supposed to live on its own that way. It’s a little bit like if a film score came out 18 months before the movie. If you love the movie and then you want to put the song on that was in the movie, then great. I love that. But thIS song only exists because of the film “No Time to Die.” So I was so anxious for the film to come out, because I felt that it really was a marriage of music and film. To me it was always this feeling of, we really want to add our names to the ledger, and be respectful — and still be true to ourselves as artists. I didn’t want to make a song that didn’t feel like a Billie Eilish song with Billie. But it’s a Bond song.
You’ve talked about how Hans and some others worked on the orchestration independently for a while, and had come up with these really big arrangements for your song, and you wanted to strip a lot of that back, but you were nervous about letting them know that you’d taken out some of what they did with it. How did you arrive at that comfort level of: This is going to have some real orchestral flourishes, but that’s really not going to be what the song is about in the end?
EILISH: I was nervous because I’ve always loved orchestration, but I had never really dipped my foot in the pool of it. And I didn’t know how it would go. I wasn’t used to it at all, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I was worried that it would take over what the song felt like, and be too much over my voice. Because my voice is really small, and especially at the time, I didn’t have a very powerful voice when I was a teenager — which was when I was made all my music, except for the recent stuff. My voice was very soft and small and not very loud, and I didn’t know how it would work together.
And it was just so great to have Hans be the way he is, because he’s so easy to work with, and so collaborative, and really agrees with what you feel. He doesn’t ever give me the feeling that he thinks he knows best and “oh, you’re (new to this)” or whatever. He was also so self-deprecating in a very endearing way, which I always love in a person, especially somebody like him, who is unbelievably and incredibly accomplished and could literally be the most self-centered person on earth. He’s really not. He is open to ideas and open to changing things and having them not be the norm. And that was really, really helpful, especially for people like me and Finneas, who hadn’t really been in this world of orchestration or having our music be part of it. And it was a really good process.
Speaking to how the recording incorporates the original Monty Norman theme: I think you refer to it four times in the song, subtly or blatantly. You don’t want to make the song campy or diminish the emotion in any way, but at the same time, Bond fans really appreciate having the “spy chord” at the end. Was that a tough choice to make in any way?
FINNEAS: No, it wasn’t a tough choice. And especially once Johnny Marr was involved, obviously that amazing (final chord) — I think it’s a minor nine, or whatever that chord is at the very end of the song that Johnny plays on that kind of tremolo guitar — it’s just the coolest. And it’s like, if you have Johnny Marr at your disposal, let Johnny Marr do his thing. So that was our philosophy with that. The same with Hans: we have Hans Zimmer, let’s let Hans Zimmer do his thing.
Was there anything about “No Time to Die” that you can pinpoint as having influenced the “Happier Than Ever” album you recorded subsequently?
EILISH: I can’t say specifically that from the song “No Time to Die,” there was an exact inspiration for “Happier Than Ever.” But I do think that everything we do creatively and musically inspires everything else we do, good and bad, and especially the good things. I feel like this taught us so much about character writing. That for sure inspired a ton of my brain, and all of the music that we made after. I mean, it’s the butterfly effect — you think about what the hell would the album sound like if we never made “No Time to Die.” It would probably be super different. But I think everything is inspiring, in every aspect, weirdly.
FINNEAS: I think “No Time to Die” absolutely gave us confidence to go vocally in a place that we hadn’t yet.