Q&A: Songwriter Warren taps into '70s soul for 'Gangster'
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Among the many awards and honors she's received, songwriter Diane Warren has six best-song Oscar nominations to her credit. Her composition "Do You Feel Me" was the only original song featured in Universal's "American Gangster" and was performed by Anthony Hamilton.
Q: How does a girl from the San Fernando Valley get herself in the frame of mind to write a soul-drenched '70s-style ballad like "Do You Feel Me" for "American Gangster?"
Diane Warren: "I grew up with the music. I'm lucky -- I'm a sponge. I was alive and was listening to the radio during that whole Otis Redding, Al Green period. I grew up loving that kind of soul music, that pure soul music, so I tapped into that."
Q: Did you meet with director Ridley Scott to discuss what he wanted?
Warren: "I never met Ridley. I kind of knew what the movie was about, and (Universal president of film music) Kathy (Nelson) and I have worked on so many movies together -- we've done so many huge movie songs -- she just tells me what she wants. We have a kind of shorthand together."
Q: You've been nominated six times for an Oscar and had countless other songs used in films. How do you deal with movie politics?
Warren: "It's not my favorite thing to do. That's why I like to work with Kathy. She makes it easy. She deals with all the politics; she knows how to navigate all those rough seas. It's hard for me to do because there are so many opinions: the studio, the producer, the director, the marketing (executives), the gardener, who knows? I just don't like that; it's not worth it to me. I try to do stuff that I think is going to be as painless as possible that I really want to do. Without a Kathy Nelson in there to protect me, I have to really love it. I have so many nightmares, c'mon."
Q: What was your worst nightmare?
Warren: "They're all nightmares, even ones that turn out good. 'Pearl Harbor' (2001) was a nightmare until it worked out. I had to jump through so many hoops. ... (There's other cases) when you think they're going to only you for a song, but they're going to 10 others. I don't like stuff like that. Not only does that hurt my feelings, but it pisses me off. I'm like, 'Don't waste my time."'
Q: Your first big hit that you wrote by yourself was "Rhythm of the Night" more than 20 years ago. Are you a better songwriter now than you were then?
Warren: "Yeah. I hope so. Nothing's changed in what I do: I just show up and work. I hope I'll be better this time next year than I am now. It's just time and experience and learning better what you do."
Q: You've said you rarely spend more than a week on a song. How do you know when a song is finished?
Warren: "I don't go back and rewrite stuff; I'm rewriting as I'm writing. When it's done, it's done. The song tells you. Then I have to come up with something else. Knock on wood -- I always come up with something else."
Q: Another one of your Oscar-nominated songs, "Because You Loved Me," is considered one of your most romantic songs, but it's actually about your dad and his support. Same with "How Do I Live" from 1997's "Con Air." People think it's a love song, but it's about how you'd feel if you couldn't write another song.
Warren: "It's about how I feel about music. But the best songs can be about anything. I could write these loving things to my dad, but people get married to it, they dedicate it to their kids. Those are the best songs in the world because they have lives of their own. They become whatever they're supposed to become to people. People make their own story."
Q: There's the famous story that you had to beg Cher to record "If I Could Turn Back Time," which turned into one of her biggest hits. When else has that happened?
Warren: "I think Kathy had to beg Aerosmith to do (Oscar-nominated) 'I Don't Want to Miss a Thing'; the band didn't want to do it. Steven (Tyler) was into it because his daughter (Liv) was in the movie (1998's 'Armageddon'). It's just weird. I don't think Toni Braxton liked 'Un-break My Heart.' You just kind of go, 'Huh?"'
Q: When you were on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" a few months ago, she said you're the top female songwriter, with more than 90 Top 10 hits. Do you wonder why people have to qualify it as "female?"
Warren: "I could never get mad at Oprah, but I think, 'Don't ghettoize me.' Yeah, I think that to myself a lot. How many guys have done what I've done? Not to be meant in an egotistical way. How many people? Why not just say 'songwriter'? But I can't get mad at Oprah. She didn't mean it in a bad way."
Q: You own your music catalog. Because of recent changes in tax laws, a lot of songwriters have found it advantageous to sell their catalogs.
Warren: "I'm not. I can't do it. I have enough money. I hear the numbers people say to me (that her catalog is worth more than $200 million). Who would have thought? This girl from Van Nuys." (laughs)
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