Jenny Lewis is an award-winning singer-songwriter, music supervisor, and film composer. After an early career as a child actress, Lewis became known for fronting indie-rock outfits Rilo Kiley and Jenny & Johnny. This year, she took on her first role as music composer for Naomi Foner’s directorial debut, Very Good Girls, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen as two girls searching through love and lust in a New York summer. In addition to contributing several original songs, Lewis served as the film’s music supervisor. Ms. Lewis spoke to Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary to discuss her relationship to Ms. Foner, her role in the film’s development, and her intent for future projects in film. This review has been edited, compressed, and transcribed from
audio for publication.
Sean Malin: I seriously doubt that Naomi Foner is the first person to offer you the role of composer on a film —
Jenny Lewis: No, she’s the absolute first.
SM: Really, ever? Even though you’ve been asked to contribute songs to other films?
JL: Ever. And yes, I’ve written for Disney, I wrote a song for Bolt (2008, “Barking At The Moon”), which was a great experience, actually one of the great experiences of my life. They asked me to do that after I submitted it, and I wanted to get my [Screen Actors Guild] day rate for insurance *laughs*. They brought me in to the lot and they took me into a room which had life-sized sketches of all the characters and three dimensional models of all the characters. And they told me the basic plot and about the specific scene for my song, I went home and wrote the song in like an hour or two.
SM: I remember your name came up for Oscar consideration for that song.
JL: I still cannot believe I was in an ad in Variety that said, “Consider this!” It seemed crazy.
SM: I remember seeing those pages and saying to my father how insane it was that your name was bandied around for an Academy Award. When I saw that first ad, I had seen you a play a couple weeks before.
JL: Considering where I’ve come from in my life to get to that point is really incredible. Starting as an actor, a poor kid from the San Fernando Valley with my mom on welfare…It’s crazy. My parents were like these working-class musicians. They both worked the lounges in Las Vegas and never got any opportunities like these, so I feel really fortunate and that this sort of work, when I get to do it, is a kind of nod to them.
SM: You have also contributed music to Jennifer Westfeldt’s films [2006’s Ira & Abby, 2011’s Friends With Kids]; she’s a significant female force as a writer-director. Is this streak – from Westfeldt over to Foner – important for you to keep going?
JL: It is important. It doesn’t necessarily matter that it’s a female director because a good story is a good story. But as a first-time female composer, working with a first-time female director on a film about young women coming into their own, that [combination] definitely appealed to me. I think the songs and the lyrics I’ve written over the years have made it so that a bunch of women have grown up with me and my music as I’ve grown up. I think Very Good Girls is kind of an extension of that relationship.
SM: The idea of growing older in time with your music is a significant them in the film, represented best by the character [actress Elizabeth] Olsen plays. You were also saying earlier that you have a strong personal relationship to [director] Naomi. Did you or your score have any impact on the development of that character?
JL: It definitely shifted at a certain point – I was talking to Naomi all the time about this. She said, ‘We definitely want Lizzie’s character to be a burgeoning singer-songwriter.’ [Olsen’s character] is just starting out and really within the first ten or fifteen songs that she’s ever written, though she’s actually quite good. So I had to put myself into her mindset to write music for a younger person. I would not write that way any more, my lyrics have evolved and changed as I’ve grown older, as they should. So Naomi and I kept talking and kept coming back to this old Rilo Kiley song called “Go Ahead,” which, ten years ago when Naomi and I became friends, was the song that sparked our creative dialogue. Of all the Rilo Kiley songs, that was the one that she really heard – so we eventually ended up using it in the film as one of Lizzie’s character’s original songs. That was written when I was the character’s age, and so now, she plays it.
SM: When you’re writing music for general consumption, in your bands or solo, is that easier or more difficult than writing for film, especially one with a screenplay you’ve been reading for years?
JL: Well, it’s easier and it’s harder in different ways. When I do a solo record, I scrutinize every little piece, and I’m really hard on myself. And writing for a film or a specific character is liberating because it’s not my personal narrative, which can sometimes get a little dull.
SM: People seem to attribute the intentional fallacy to your work all the time.
JL: That’s right! People think I’m bullshitting I write from my own experience, and every song I sing is from that experience. I mean, it’s hard to believe, but if they only knew the shit…Anyway, it’s a great opportunity to write from a different part of my brain. Initially, [in the film] we’re referencing Harold & Maude (1972), which I brought as – obviously – the best song-based score of all time.
SM: Arguably. Maybe that, but perhaps The Graduate (1964). Similar relationships to score.
JL: Exactly. Conceptually, that’s what we came up with. I had written five original songs and I had also said, ‘You have free reign to use anything from my back catalogue.’
SM: Considering all the projects you have been involved with, there weren’t any conflicts in getting any of the music from Rilo or Jenny and Johnny?
JL: No, I didn’t know anyone that was actually going to say “no.” [Music licensing] was not an issue at all. Which is interesting because, with Harold & Maude and The Graduate, I had always assumed those songs were all originals written for those films. But they weren’t; they were from previous records, and then there were songs that didn’t make the film cut that ended up on the soundtrack afterwards. Both films had rejected certain songs. So I had written all these songs, and then we shot Very Good Girls, got the very first cut, and started placing some of these originals I’d written. And a lot of them just did not work.
SM: Looking back, do you have some understanding about that issue? Why didn’t they work?
JL: I think I was writing from the perspective of – just for two or three of these songs – like I was the older woman, kind of giving advice to these young girls. I had a dinner with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, some very famous lyric writers, who are incredible. I was in the middle of this process where these songs had just been rejected. I had never done [film scoring] before, so it felt like I was learning. And Alan said to me, “You know, you have to just fly at a different altitude than the film.”
SM: I like that quote.
JL: Yeah, me too, and it helped me learn. We took out some of the lyrics, moved some around, kept some of them in. Now the instrumental work is more in the body of the film than the lyrical stuff had been.
SM: In the instrumental composition, who else besides the Bergmans were you looking to for inspiration? And what about for your choices as music supervisor, besides Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and Cat Stevens?
JL: I really wanted the sounds to sound like work that came from me. I wanted songs to sound like they could have come from any of my records. So there was no imitation; I only used instruments that I knew how to play, and had. I had to play most of everything because we had no budget. It’s [sic] all pretty organic sounds. Most of it is just me GarageBanding with some sort of guitar-y Chris Isaak sound
and then me on a Wurlitzer.
SM: Where was the budget for this sort of work? On an independent film, there’s not typically money for famous film composers.
JL: I will say this – this project was not about the salary. I took the film because I wanted to challenge myself. I knew I could do it. I was finally asked to do it. I was given the opportunity and I did it. I had never considered once being a film composer, never – it had never crossed my mind. But now, yeah, I’m a film composer.
SM: People will likely reach out to you now, considering you’ve not only had songs be given an Oscar push but are also a full-blown composer. If someone approached you with a project once Very Good Girls is over, what would it take in to get you involved?
JL: It’s crazy to think of that at all!
SM: It seems almost inevitable to me considering the profile of the film at Sundance.
JL: You have to like the music first! Hopefully you will. As I mentioned, like anyone else, I think a great story is all I really need to be interested. In terms of money, as long as I don’t need to go out of pocket to do it *laughs*, then I’m cool. And, you know, if someone with a project wants to take me out to dinner…really a great story is enough to get me interested.
SM: On certain independent films, when an artist gets attached to contribute music, it can really help raise the profile on that project. For example, James Murphy’s work on Greenberg (2010) was in every major trailer. Had you considered that attaching yourself to a project might help the film?
JL: Nope, not at all. I hadn’t even considered that. I honestly was just seeking to retain my vision and create something in total service to the film and the emotions in it. I was trying only to make me happy at the end of the day. And I think I look for that in every project.