Sunday, May 26, 2024

Interview With “Spirited” Songwriters Pasek & Paul, Mark Sonnenblick, Sukari Jones & Khiyon Hursey

There’s no shortage of adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” but “Spirited” brings a new twist, complete with fantastical songs and hilarious performances from Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, and Octavia Spencer. Working with these comedy legends was enough to get Oscar, Grammy, and Tony-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (professionally known as Pasek & Paul) on board to pen the music.

“It was just very clear that these guys were so excited to get to work together,” Paul says of their first Zoom call with Ferrell and Reynolds. “Sort of figuring out how to create something like that for these guys that felt real. But also, it’s a fantasy. It just was enough factors that made us say, this is exciting.” The duo wrote a number of songs for the musical that span genres, but one jaunty, over-the-top showstopper stands out: “Good Afternoon.” And they enlisted the help of talented friends to write it.

Paul recalls thinking, “Why don’t we bring along some of our friends?” From across the musical theater world, Pasek & Paul brought along Mark Sonnenblick, Sukari Jones, and Khiyon Hursey to co-write “Good Afternoon,” along with two other tracks in the film. “Getting to collaborate with folks that we love, whose work we love, and getting to expand and create a writers’ room of sorts was a dream come true,” says Pasek.

The five writers piled on a Google Doc, often late at night, pitching rhymes and one-liners to help the hilarious song come to life. “We had read in the script how in the Dickensian days, ‘good afternoon’ was a very vulgar insult. That was one of the things that sold us on it, honestly. That sounds fantastic,” Pasek describes. From there, the writers built out the entire song full of insults and jabs, crafting some of the funniest moments in all of “Spirited.”

In a recent conversation with Next Best Picture, the songwriters behind “Good Afternoon” discussed their process and what inspired the most absurd lines in the song, including a cameo from a legendary actress.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

I would love to know for each of you how you came to “Spirited.” What brought you to this project?

Justin Paul: So the first time that we ever heard about it, a script came along. Okay, so it’s A Christmas Carol, sort of, but kind of new and kind of fresh. And I’m like, That’s actually pretty interesting. Does the world need another Christmas Carol? I know we make a reference to it in the movie, like all the adaptations no one ever needs.

But when we read this, we were like, “this is actually kind of interesting. And it was Will (Ferrell), and Ryan (Reynolds) attached. It was just very clear that these guys were so excited to get to work together. They had never worked together. They were sort of just like, “we want to get together and have a ball and tell this story. And it’s got a lot of heart. We want the songs to have a lot of heart, but also be funny, but also have a lot of heart, but also be funny.” Sort of figuring out how to create something like that for these guys that felt real. But also, it’s a fantasy. It just was enough factors that made us say, this is exciting. We’ll bite for sure. And even in that initial Zoom, Ryan actually said, “By the way, we had this whole ‘Good Afternoon’ concept.” We had read in the script how in the Dickensian days, “good afternoon” was a very vulgar insult. And he, on the Zoom, was like, “I think that has to be an entire song called “Good Afternoon,” where everyone’s just going around throwing good afternoon bombs at each other.” That was one of the things that sold us on it, honestly. That sounds fantastic. So that was how we came upon it.

We then said, “Hey, this would be a really fun project to get to sort of expand our team a little bit and to work with some of our other favorite writers who are all sort of have backgrounds in musical theater and Broadway-style songwriting for this big musical, capital M.” Why don’t we bring along some of our friends?

Benj Pasek: It was just very much like, let’s just have fun and see what happens. So for us, we got to work with some of our favorite writers from the musical theater world, getting to collaborate with folks that we love, whose work we love, and getting to expand and create a writers’ room of sorts was a dream come true. And it allowed I think, for really, really interesting and different kinds of writing to take place and ideas and songs and jokes that we would have never come up with ourselves. It was a dream collaboration, and it made it so, so, so fun too.

Sukari, Mark, and Khiyon, how did you land on this project?

Sukari Jones: Days after assuming that there was no room for this black girl in musical theater, I had just been released by a collaborator and agent, and they were like, “I guess you’re just not doing musical stuff anymore.” And I was almost like, “I guess, Universe, I’m not.”

And then Benj and Justin were like, “Why don’t we work on this fun thing?” And I was like, “Whatever it is, if it’s getting a grilled cheese sandwich, I’m in.” But it wasn’t lunch; it was this show. And before I could say, “But it has to star at least one person of color in a central role in a three-dimensional part, without any tropes attached,” they were like, “Octavia Spencer’s doing it.” And I was like, “Great! I’m in!” And it’s just uphill from there.

Mark Sonnenblick: In the musical theater world, it’s not a huge world, so you cross paths. I was a huge, huge fan of Benj and Justin. You know, some of the few people who cross both the film and theater world and do it equally incredibly. So I’ve known their work for a long time and then got to know them personally. And right when the pandemic hit, Benj and I worked on this “Saturday Night Seder” special, which was sort of like a fundraiser for the CDC. That was kind of the first time I really worked with either of them. And when the opportunity comes up to, first of all, work with Benj and Justin, but on top of that, Will, Octavia, and Ryan on a movie like this, it was very easy to clear the schedule to make it happen. Not that there’s anything to clear. This is the start of 2021. I was in a room by myself in the middle of winter. But you don’t have to tell them that. Make it seem like I’m very important and had a lot of other things going on. (Laughs)

Khiyon Hursey: So I met Benj and Justin seven years ago, working on Dear Evan Hansen. And I just remember last January, Benj, you called me, and you’re like, “Do you want to work on this thing?” And I literally was like, “Are you sure you called the right person?” Cause I was in shock and disbelief. And just from there, we started working on it. I want to say, like, three days later. It all came together really quickly. 

Well, we are definitely here to talk specifically about one song, “Good Afternoon.” You said this was part of the pitch that brought you to the project. Where did you begin on this song? Did you know what style you wanted to use? Because you do jump around genres here.

Pasek: We were really inspired by the fact that we were going to be in Dickensian England. Kind of “evil Mary Poppins” vibes was what we were sort of going for here. And, like, what if “Mary Poppins” had been turned upside down a little bit? And instead of getting everybody to sweep their chimneys appropriately, just really causing chaos in Dickensian England felt like a really, really fun prompt, all through the lens of trying to cheer up his buddy, who was a little bit down in the dumps.

It had an escapist element, but also it had a purpose within the narrative for Will’s character as well. And it could be a big song and dance that was in a totally different style of song. What would it look like to write a song like that? And who would you be telling good afternoon to? And how could we be creating, honestly, as much controversy and chaos in the late 1800s as possible? And it sort of just began from there.

From a process standpoint, the way that all of us worked together, this was still during the pandemic times. We would just all get on a Google Doc. There were some folks who had full-day jobs, which meant that they couldn’t get on to the calls until, like, 9 p.m. It was sort of a Zoom slumber party, and we all got matching Comfys. We would be like writing on Google Docs and really just coming up with this entire song together in real time over the course of several weeks. And all of the songs, several months. And it was honestly some of the most fun I’ve ever had working in my entire life, not just because the material was fun, but because these people were so smart and so fun and so collaborative.

Jones: This is the song/film project that freed me from a life of indentured servitude. Because much like Octavia’s character, I was trapped in a terrible clear window pane cage of an office for years on years. Not to go too deep, but it showed me that I could actually achieve my greatest success by chasing my greatest joy.

Sonnenblick: We wrote a heartfelt ballad in the movie as well, but something that was really fun with this particular song was its jokes. Line by line, we’re trying to hit punch lines. We’re trying to make them rhyme. We’re trying to think, what are the things we can make fun of in Dickensian England? And working on Google Docs, I think it ran to like 45 pages or something of just pitches and lines.

But it works really well in that kind of writer’s room way because we pitch a line, and someone says, “That’s terrible,” or they love it, and then, okay, great, we have a rhyme. “How are we going to land that?” “We’ve got to reverse-engineer.” “We know it’s got to be this. That could be that.” Is there an internal rhyme? What’s going to happen at the chorus?

You make lists, you make lists, you make lists. It was a particularly fun collaboration and took a long time.

Hursey: That’s also how we landed on the Judi Dench line. All of us were just throwing ideas. And then Sukari eventually landed on Judi Dench because we were trying to find a rhyme for Wench. And now Judi Dench is actually singing the line in the movie. So it all really just came from, like, everyone throwing ideas.

Pasek: Because we were on Google Docs, I felt like it was like Keebler elves. Everybody was in each individual line. While someone else was working on the end rhyme and someone else was working on what was going to set up that rhyme. Every line within this thing, somebody had their fingerprints on it at any given time. It was really just adding and building on each other, almost like a Lego set. What wins? What’s the best? And that’s how you get to 45 pages. But it was really, really, really fun and joyful.

I was definitely going to ask about the Judi Dench line, obviously. Thank you for letting me know how that happened. Incredible. Also, who wrote “Kiss my Dickens, son,” because I kind of have to know.

Pasek: But again, I don’t even know! Each line, like “deplore ’em with decorum like your Judi bloody Dench,” is everybody on this call. Do you know what I mean? And “kiss my Dickens, son” is everybody on this call. Like, there was a “suck my Dickens, son.”

Paul: (Laughs) I want to say I’m glad we’re outing this! It was, for the record, “suck my dickens,” and it was something like not MPAA acceptable. They were like, that’s going to get us an R.

Sonnenblick: You can hear it, too. At one point, it was “suck (or kiss) my Cockney, son.” And that’s why it says, “if you’re shocked, then you can suck my Cockney, son.” So it’s a collaboration with the filmmakers, slash the censors, slash society, as well. (Laughs)

But that’s what we’re saying. It’s like five different alternate lines for any one of these. Even what Khiyon’s saying, like “Dench,” came because we were trying to rhyme with “wench.” But “wench” isn’t even the line that made it in the movie. Now it’s “French.” That’s part of what’s fun about this, is we’re writing for these performers with this director on this set. And I think that’s part of what is hopefully fun about the songs.

Justin, Benj, and Mark, I have kids at home who would be very mad at me if I didn’t ask about “Lyle. Lyle Crocodile.” Our family has not stopped listening to the soundtrack, and our kids are just singing “Top of the World Tonight” on a loop. What was it like working on such a heartwarming family film like that?

Pasek: We loved working on “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” and getting to write stuff that’s more in line with the sort of stuff that Justin and I, in particular, have done of late, which is a little bit more pop-infused theatricality, like “The Greatest Showman” and all of that. “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” and Shawn Mendes and all that are very aligned with that kind of style. It was so fun to get to write both of these this year. 

And it made “Spirited” even that much sweeter getting to write songs that are completely aligned with the plot that you actually can’t take out of context and couldn’t ever be on pop radio. You can’t ever put “Good Afternoon” on some hit radio station. It’s really, really fun to get to sort of return to our theatrical roots and write things that are so wedded to characters. So like, while “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” was incredible, it also reinforced how incredible getting to write a “Spirited” is, where everything is so character and plot specific.

Sonnenblick: Also, shout out to Joriah (Kwamé). I didn’t write “Top of the World.” That was (Pasek & Paul) and this other amazing writer. But yeah, such a different process working with Shawn in the studio versus with Will and Ryan. You’re writing for Shawn’s voice, and you’re writing for Lyle, the Crocodile character. But with Will and Ryan, part of what’s exciting is they’re not known as singers. They bring a comedic sensibility. I was talking with someone yesterday who was like, “You know, love ‘Spirited,’ but I guess they had to dub Ryan and Will’s voices to get them to sing so well.” I was like, “Those are their voices!” And that’s a testament to them and how long and hard they work. And that’s a testament to Ian (Eisendrath), the executive music producer, the vocal coaches they had, and the number of people who work to bring something like this together.

Well, thank you all so much for your time. Thank you for “Spirited.” I had such a good time with the movie.

Pasek: Thank you. And Daniel, if your kids start saying, like my niece and nephew, “good afternoon” to you and each other, then we will consider this a success. (Laughs)

Paul: Yeah, I’m not showing it to my kids!

Pasek: My niece and nephew are now bombing me! They’re literally FaceTiming me just to yell, “good afternoon,” and then they hang up. It’s so mean. (Laughs)

Oh, I’ll see how my four-year-olds feel about that!

Pasek: Yeah. Good luck!

Spirited is now available to be streamed on Apple TV+ and is up for your consideration this awards season for Best Original Song for “Good Afternoon,” which can be listened to down below.

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howat
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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