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How Jon Brion scored 'Lady Bird' to capture teenage angst

Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in
Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in "Lady Bird."
Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in
Composer and music producer Jon Brion has been an integral part of the L.A. music scene.
Fred Hayes/Getty Images
Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in
Jon Brion's recording studio includes a piano that is about 100 years old.
Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in
Jon Brion's recording studio resembles a museum for vintage instruments.
Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in
John Horn visits Jon Brion's recording studio.

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Jon Brion is known in the film and music industries as a jack of all trades — a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer who can write, perform and record his own scores.

Although he’s known for quirky films such as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love," he also has a regular gig performing at Largo at the Coronet theater in West Hollywood — shows that are often completely improvised. As a producer, he’s worked with artists such as singer-songwriter Elliott Smith and rapper Kanye West.

But his most recent challenge was writing the score to Greta Gerwig’s teenage tale, "Lady Bird." The Frame's John Horn recently visited Brion at his studio.

Interview Highlights:

On "Lady Bird" being set in 2002 and how it coincides with his work on a film from that same year, "Punch Drunk Love": 

I wasn't so much thinking about "Punch Drunk" as I was about what it felt to be alive at that time, what was popular. And all of that was secondary to what it felt like to be at that moment in your life, the moment that the character's in, that sort of aspirational feeling that you have when you're 17. Being sure you know everything about the world, and that everything about your current circumstance is wrong. And yet you have no other information. 

On collaborating with Greta Gerwig while envisioning the film's sound:

I thought she was very good at that. I mean, how good anybody actually is at that you never really know. I can't tell you how good I am at that. So, you know, we're all collaborators in life. Even the most shut-in, malcontent person is still making certain choices and being influenced. So what's interesting to me is the balance of those things. I think that ends up defining people. And especially if we are talking about the arts, it ends up defining their work. 

On the relationship between his score and songs in the movie like the Dave Matthews Band's "Crash into Me":

We all know that sometimes a record can make an incredible difference in the score. I think it's a case like in this movie — I love the way they used the Dave Matthews record. That's not only an absolutely appropriate thing for the time, but the context of it, the context of what it means. And the friendship — the context of the main character getting past peer pressure. It's quite beautiful. So to me, that counts. I'm really not a fan of the thing we have currently in movies — a school of filmmaking which, secondary to the movie itself is, Let me show you how good my taste in music is.

On how ideas for the score formed when watching "Lady Bird" for the first time:

It's different every time. It's like asking any songwriter: Do lyrics or music come first? For me, this job is a bit like the movie is the lyric. And I'm both writing music to it and making a recording of that music. I think what happens to me is, I get a sense of tonality — in every sense of that word. What is the feeling of this movie? I'll ask myself certain questions. Okay, this movie is going to get lumped into this category by other people. How can I subvert that? If I have another little personal coordinate when I start, what would make this different for me so that I'm starting from a place of finding new things? 

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