By Steve Pond
(TheWrap) — On Thursday, members of the Academy’s music branch will meet to view clips of the 39 eligible songs in this year’s Oscar race, and to score those songs to determine this year’s nominees. In anticipation of that event, TheWrap is devoting a series of stories to the Best Original Song category.
Writing a song for a Disney animated film puts a songwriter into a long and legendary line that has produced 30 nominations and 10 wins going back to “When You Wish Upon a Star” in 1940. And writing a song for a “Winnie the Pooh” movie is just as daunting a task, because it requires a songwriter to follow in the footsteps of Richard and Robert Sherman, who penned the well-known “Pooh” theme song and also wrote “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “It’s a Small World” and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” among many others.
“The tradition of music in Disney animated films is pretty spectacular. But I tried not to think about it, because I might be overwhelmed if I did,” said actress and singer-songwriter Zooey Deschanel, who couldn’t exactly ignore that history when she was drafted to contribute to this year’s Disney version of the A.A. Milne stories.
Her initial task, after all, was to record a new version of the Sherman brothers’ theme song. When that went well, she was asked to write and record an end-credits song, which turned out to be “So Long,” one of the film’s two Oscar entries. And after that, she was asked to contribute vocals to other songs in the film … all while finishing a tour with her band She and Him and getting ready to begin filming her new TV series, “The New Girl.”
“It kind of happened in little bits and pieces over the course of the year,” Deschanel told TheWrap.
“That’s the thing with music for me. Songwriting was always something that I did in my private time as a release, very much on my own. It didn’t come out into the world until later in my life. But now, as my schedule has gotten so weird and so busy, I feel like I need to keep going back to it.”
Deschanel first got involved with “Winnie the Pooh” when music supervisor Tom McDougall showed her a 10-minute segment that had been cut to a She and Him song, and asked if she’d record the title song. She enlisted bandmate Matt Ward (who goes by M. Ward) to produce, and settled on an approach to a song whose original version was recorded by a large chorus of anonymous singers.
“I think there was something that Matt and I saw in that song that we could pull out, that wasn’t really focused on in the original recording,” she said. “That was the warmth and the intimacy of the song. We wanted it to feel very warm and sweet. I felt like it should welcome people into the story.”
Her Oscar entry “So Long,” though, ushers viewers out of the story through its placement in the final credits. “They showed me a rough cut of the movie, so I knew what was leading up to that song,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to write a love song, but about friendship love.”
Her models, she said, came from albums she loved both as a kid and as an adult: Harry Nilsson’s “The Point,” Carole King’s “Really Rosie” and the compilation “Free to Be … You and Me.”
“I listened to all of those again,” she said. “They all had classic chord progressions and catchy melodies with good lyrical hooks and very strong choruses. I wanted a song that was upbeat and made you feel happy walking out of the theater, and also one that kids would enjoy.”
The discipline, she added, was dramatically different from writing for her own band, in which she’s free to tackle any subject and take any approach.
“There’s something overwhelming about being able to write about anything, which I can do in She and Him,” she said. “This was like cracking a code. I had to think, How do I accomplish all these things for the movie, how do I tell the story without getting too literal or writing something totally off-topic?
“But once I did crack the code, it was inspiring. And the movie people pretty much let me do my thing. They were extremely cool about letting me have my creative moment with the song.”
So far, she adds, there’s just one additional thing she’d like out of the experience – and it’s not an Oscar nomination, but a face-to-face with her predecessors in the “Winnie the Pooh” songwriting gig.
“I haven’t met the Sherman brothers yet,” she says. “I would love to, I’m such a fan.”