Before production even began on Dan in Real Life -- the funny, heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking tale of a lonely widower named Dan (Steve Carell) who falls in love with his brother's girlfriend Marie (Juliette Binoche) -- writer-director Peter Hedges set an ambitious goal: to have Dan's soundtrack do for the film what Cat Stevens' music did for Harold and Maude and Simon & Garfunkel's classic tuneage did for The Graduate. In other words, Hedges wanted to find one artist to lend a unique musical voice to Dan; he wanted the songs to be unforgettable and inextricably linked to the heartbeat of the film; AND he wanted the soundtrack to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the most revered soundtracks of all time. Sounds like a job for a seasoned, world-wise-yet-hopeful music legend -- perhaps a Springsteen or a Bono ... or a 25-year-old Norwegian singer-songwriter named Sondre Lerche. Though Lerche's brand of whimsical, romantic indie-rock has been quietly dazzling music diehards for years, he has yet to hit the mainstream -- but that could all change with this film. We talked with Lerche about playing guitar with Steve Carell, soothing Hedges on the film's set and making his big Hollywood debut.
Cinematical: How did you get involved with Dan in Real Life?
Sondre Lerche: Well, Peter [Hedges] had heard a couple of my songs and thought that my music had the right kind of sound and feel for the movie, and so he came to my apartment in New York and we talked about what he was trying to do. He wanted one musician to do all the music, and he wanted it to have a unique feel, like Harold and Maude. Then I played him a song that I had written a couple days before, and he loved it. So I read the script that Peter was in the process of rewriting and started attending auditions and rehearsals for the movie so I could get the mood right.
Cinematical: You were also on the set of the movie during filming. How was that? Care to share any anecdotes?
SL: Oh yeah, I was there as much as I could be -- whenever I was in town. I was there for the scene where the whole family puts on a talent show, and Steve Carell plays the guitar and sings 'Let My Love Open the Door.' I gave him some tips, showed him the best way to hold the guitar and stuff. That was very cool. And Peter also wanted me on the set in case things started going badly so that I could play some songs and calm him down [laughs].
Cinematical: Ha. And did you write the songs as the different scenes were being filmed, or did you wait until the end so you could see a finished product?
SL: I started working on them immediately. I actually wrote the first song a couple of days after I met with Peter. That was about a year and a half ago now.
Cinematical: Do you have a favorite scene from Dan in Real Life? For instance, after seeing the finished film was there a scene where you really liked the way the music meshed with what was happening on-screen?
SL: There's a scene early in the film where a song that I wrote called 'I'll Be OK' is playing. You hear that and Dan is basically ordered to get lost by his mother. And he drives off to get the newspaper in this little town. And the song is 'I'll Be OK,' which I really, really tailor-made for that scene. I had that specific moment in mind -- which is tricky. I'm not used to being that specific. But I thought I'd give it a try. I think that whole moment worked really well, mostly of course because it leads to Dan meeting Marie, and there you have the whole plot of the film. I'm really happy with that whole moment.
Cinematical: You actually appear in the movie at the very end doing a duet of one of my favorite songs by you, 'Modern Nature.'
SL: Oh, thank you!
Cinematical: You bet. It's a great song. Was it cool to see yourself in a movie performing that song?
SL: Oh yeah, it was great. That part, of course, is very observed to me. It's great to not only have made all the music for the film but also to be featured in the background at the end. That was my big Hollywood moment [laughs].
Cinematical: That song wasn't written specifically for the film, but it pretty much encapsulates the entire mood of the movie. What was the inspiration for it?
SL: Oh, that song is a song I wrote when I was 16 or 17, so it's a puppy love song [laughs]. But it's definitely a puppy love song trying to be something more. It's a song that I've played -- I don't know how many times I've played it. And of course I've had to learn how to play it by myself even if it is a duet because most of the time I don't have someone to sing it with when I play it live. But it's still a song that works even when I play it by myself as a lonely solo [laughs]. I'm very proud of the song. I think that was the song that Peter heard, and it sort of stood out and it was a match: It aligned with the thoughts he had for Dan in Real Life, so he always knew that he wanted that song to be a part of the soundtrack.
Cinematical: Having done a movie soundtrack yourself, do you have a favorite movie score or soundtrack that you maybe looked to for inspiration?
SL: I have a couple of favorites, but because I hadn't done this before I didn't think too much about how other soundtracks sound. Of course, when I go to movies I'm definitely very aware of the music and everything. But in terms of this process, I knew that Peter wanted something different and something that was not typical of this type of film. So I didn't want to get too many references of how things have been done. I wanted to just make the most of what I can do. And Peter wanted it very organic, very simplistic, very handmade. And so a lot of these very simple acoustic-guitar themes that you hear, it's just recorded in my bedroom-slash-living room in New York. We wanted to keep it as simple as possible. But in terms of favorite soundtracks, I'm a big fan of Bernard Hermmann [the composer of the Citizen Kane score], which of course is a far cry from what I did for Dan in Real Life. But it would be fun maybe somewhere down the road to do a soundtrack that is of a completely different sound or instrumentation or mood than the Dan in Real Life soundtrack. I'd love to. I've done a lot of different things on my records through the years, so I'd love to do different kinds of films also.
Cinematical: What's your favorite movie of all time?
SL: That's always a tricky question. It always sort of varies. When I was a kid, I saw the film Ed Wood by Tim Burton, and it made a huge impression on me. And there's a couple of Hitchcock films I'm very fond of. Then again, it could be Airplane! [Laughs.]
Cinematical: Which bands or artists are you into right now?
SL: I just heard a fantastic singer-songwriter called Sylvie Lewis, who I don't get the impression a lot of people know. I asked for her record all over New York, but I got it from iTunes and Amazon now. Her album "Translations" is the most wonderful thing I've heard for a long time. It's really fantastic, so I hope more people check out her music and get an interest in her songs.
Cinematical: Are you going to try to catch a screening of Dan in Real Life in your homeland of Norway?
SL: Yeah, that would be fun. I have to make sure that people don't get up and leave when the credits come because then they'll miss me!