It’s blissfully romantic, undeniably eccentric, the easy go-to-answer for the best Adam Sandler movie ever made, a modernist gem, a valentine to old musicals and the only film to feature both Philip Seymour Hoffman and an abandoned harmonium in key supporting roles. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love remains an outlier in the filmmaker’s career and one of the more oddball movies to come out of a studio in the past two decades – an ode to true love involving phone sex scams, pudding, wrecked public restrooms and proof that even cracked pots have lids that complement them. It’s a gloriously weird love story, one that would require a singularly offbeat soundtrack … which is where Jon Brion comes in.
An multi-instrumentalist and record producer-cum-musical genius, Brion had worked on several of Anderson’s previous movies before being asked to score the writer-director’s story of a gentleman with anger issues (Sandler) who falls head over heels for a young woman (Emily Watson). The result is a distinctive blend of noise experimentation, a borrowed Harry Nilsson song from Popeye (“He Needs Me”), some primitive and atonal percussive interludes and several orchestral works that evoke the swooning symphonies of old Hollywood movies from the 1950s. The fact that all of these elements not only seem to work together but also mirror Punch-Drunk‘s pendulum-swings between TCM binge-watching and avant-garde art (those Jeremy Blake color-smeared transition scenes!) attest to Brion’s talent as a collaborator. The film wouldn’t be as great as it is without his musical contributions, full stop.
In honor of Criterion releasing a DVD and Blu-ray edition of the 2002 movie earlier this month, the L.A.-based Brion jumped on the phone to give a first-hand account of working with Anderson, composing the various pieces of Punch-Drunk Love‘s bric-a-brac musical accompaniment, how they got that old-fashioned string-section sound and why his performance of the soundtrack with the movie last spring was a real eye-opener.
When Jon Met Paul
I met Paul on his very first film, Hard Eight – it was still called Sydney at that point. He’d been listening to Michael Penn’s first record and tried to get in touch with him about doing music for the movie. Michael told Paul, “Well, I wasn’t planning on working on any films, but there’s a guy I’ve wanted to work with, and he knows a bunch of musicians and stuff. Between the two of us, we could probably cover anything that comes up.” That’s essentially how we all met; that would have been the mid-Nineties.
After Magnolia, Paul talked about wanting to make something that had “more sweetness” to it. I remember hearing him in an interview once talk about how he’ll have small scraps of paper that he collects, all filled with random ideas: “Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened in a film?” You know, like the pudding-coupon idea. Or he may have something specifically stylistic in mind. But eventually, he’ll gather all this stuff and go on a writing jag. Then it all comes together.
He has an obsessive, high-quality way of paying attention to small details that, when you add them up, turn movies into a multimedia event. Which film is, you know. Most people take that for granted. He doesn’t.
We talked about the music before he even officially had a script. There were discussions about different subject matter, or he’d give me a piece of music to listen to and go, okay, now, tell me why does this has the feeling it does? He might play some old film music and go, why does this work over this kind of scene? Even after the script was more or less finished, we’d discuss things like films that had music we both liked, or stories we’d heard about people working on films for hours. We each had own ideas in our heads months before he started shooting anything.
One day, he came up to me and told me, I often listen to music in my headphones as I’m setting up tracking shots – because even if you’re not conscious of it, you can sense there’s a rhythm behind it. You can sense the scene has it own pulse. It comes through. And I thought, man, that’s genius. Then he said, I’m afraid that if I use a really well-known piece or something that’s overwhelming , it’ll start influencing me too much. So can you make me a few instrumental piece that I can use? It’s the rhythm that’s important.
I used to keep one of those microcassette recorders around with me at all times. So I grabbed my recorder, which had a tape in it all ready to go, and said, what sort of rhythms are we talking about here? Can you sing a few for me? Just make sounds like this [makes noise that resembles a cross between a chugging train and the Psycho shower scene]. And he goes, oh yeah, got it. He sang me three different rhythms, each about 10 seconds, into this recorder. Then I made loops out of them, each about 10 minutes or so, all on one track. Then I started running around the studio, improvising to that. So suddenly, I had three pieces that were like percussion ensembles, studio experiments, treated piano, all that. Paul used them on the set constantly. Long before there was melodic writing involved , long before I was standing before an orchestra and we’re scoring to the picture, we had these long rhythmic tracks.
I’d also give him sound bites that would work with the musical pieces – think of them as sound effects that were in time with the beat, or that consciously worked with the orchestra pieces. Once we knew what the theme of the film was, we not only wanted to go in between music and different instruments, we wanted the sound effects themselves to imply the melody. There’s a truck passing by in a scene at one point, and I think we harmonized the score with a single creak from that truck. It’s subtle [laughs] but it’s in there.
There’s some interaction between him and I there in terms of the ambient sound you’re hearing in this movie – and there’s a lot of ambient sound – but he would just keep asking for different things and I would keep giving him piles of stuff which, in any other film, this would fall under “sound effects.” On Punch-Drunk, we tried to use as much natural sound as possible. For viewers, the really noticeable scene is when Adam Sandler is at the French restaurant, and he goes to the bathroom and trashes it. He just goes into a rage attack. The actual recording was distorted; they had everything set to record vocalss. So when he just starts smashing things, the levels are going everywhere.
But because he’s doing this and it’s being recorded this way, it has a much more visceral effect. And instead of going back and getting a clean recording of it, or going “Hmm, when he hits the sink, maybe it should have more low end…” Paul went with the recording that was noisy and echo-y. A personal battleground sound – the sound of someone completely losing it. I love that; it inspired me to go even more out there. It’s just the most obvious example in the movie; there were a number of times when Paul went with the version that most film professionals would have deemed problematic. And it’s another aspect of the film that I find beautiful and unique.
Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark
We did something that seems fairly luxurious now – something you’d normally never dare do on a movie. Paul knew he wanted music to be really integrated into the film, so instead of finishing the movie, and then you go do a day or two of orchestrations at the end, we did our first session really early on, when they were still editing. We watched it, and while the theme was right, it needed a lot of tailoring to the contours that Paul wanted. So we did another orchestra session after we’d seen a rough cut; we were able to make decisions after seeing the actual thing, as opposed to making a lot of guesses: “Oh, well, when you hear the orchestra come in on this little piece, it will hopefully be nice!” [Laughs]
We needed a good room to record in, so we looked around for a while. When we finally found it, I was happy, Paul was happy, everything is great. Then, at one point, we’re sitting on one side of the glass, with all the musicians on the other, and he just goes [loud sigh] “What is it about those older movies, because they all have that certain thing to them, that magic?” That was the key phrase to me. I looked out at the modern microphones, and then I turned to the engineer and asked “I know older mics are finicky, but do you have any around this studio? Something that might have been used for recording songs in the Forties and Fifties?” We were on the old Warner Brothers lot, and sure enough, we found two or three older ones. So we put them up next to what I term the “usual suspects” of today’s recording gear. That is not a compliment, by the way. As soon as we put them up and start playing the music, Paul was beyond-Christmas excited! The engineer was actually perplexed that they sounded as good as they did.
Me, I was laughing hysterically because, okay, we have a 55-piece orchestra, this stuff was written to evoke a creative time that’s decades old, you throw a few old microphones up … and voila. You have a time machine. We were jumping up and down, screaming with excitement, because that thing you know – that immediately strikes a chord of familiarity with anyone who grew up watching old movies on TV – we’d found it. It was never just about making something old-fashioned. It was about finding a hybrid. That soundtrack is full of modernist rhythmic experiments on one side and something out of an old MGM musical on the other. And then there’s a Harry Nilsson song tucked in the middle. Which is not a horrible thing to have, ever! [Laughs]
Using “He Needs Me” from Popeye, by the way – that’s all Paul. Absolutely all him. We got the old masters of that song, then overdubbed the orchestra playing that melody in a variety of different styles, so if at any given moment, he had it at his fingertips. Okay, we need something for a long 10-minute sequence; we can use it. We want a version to play over the credits that’s recognizable enough for folks to realize it’s an extension of what we’re doing. We may have even used new orchestration and the original recording by Stan Wilson and Van Dyke Parks over the end titles. What a quality problem!
There’s a harmonium that plays a big part in the first half hour – and there’s not one harmonium on the soundtrack. Actually, there’s a bit of Adam occasionally playing a note or two on it that kind of made its way in. I’d go to the set and sort of see what he could do with it, which influenced certain bits of writing I did, and his playing would end up underneath it. Even if he’s playing something random, I’d drop bits in to later pieces … so in a way, the idea would be like he was slowly finding puzzle pieces of his future life when he noodled around.
It’s not in the soundtrack proper, however. When I first saw that Paul had one that was part of the story, I was like [shrill voice] “I get to make an all-harmonium soundtrack, yay!” I’d been obsessed with the instrument since I was a kid. I was waiting the whole time to be like, Okay, now here comes the big harmonium piece! This was going to be my big contribution: the most memorable use of the instrument in all of cinema! Nope. Any lofty aspirations on my most excitable day that I was going to get it in there – not going to happen.
There is a somewhat similar reed organ in the movie: Jim Keltner and I both share this obsession with kid’s toys that make sounds, and each have pretty huge collections. He brought over a dreidel that had air vents and two little chords that were slightly out of tune. And if I spun it, it created this Doppler effect that had a little vibrato. If I pointed it out in the soundtrack, you’d totally recognize it; it’s in the middle of a couple of the percussion pieces where there’s a breakdown and then you hear this wheezing, harmonica-with-asthma sound. Think of the world’s most anemic organ. It was part of our sound effects palette. It was slightly out of key with everything else, which Paul thought fit nicely with everything else. It made it beautiful, he said.
That was about as close as we got to getting something like a harmonium. It became a bit of a joke. We’re having all these discussions about integrating stuff into the soundtrack – and the the thing that’s actually a character on screen isn’t there. I really think it’s incredibly funny. Poor harmonium, still waiting for its moment in the sun!
I still have the damned thing; I toy around with it a lot, even though it’s beat to hell. And of course we had stunt harmoniums. Those got run over by trucks. [Laughs] But if you listen to the next two scores I did, for I Heart Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, those are filled with harmoniums. I was making up for lost time.
We did a live version of the score in Los Angeles last spring, for a screening. Paul and I had both forgotten what was actual music and what was sound effects. When we had to take the tracks apart, so the orchestra could play live. I was on the stage during the first rehearsal, with the movie running and the P.A. on, Paul was standing out in an empty hallway, and suddenly, all of this stuff coming out of the speakers that made me think, well, this wasn’t me playing, and it’s not the orchestra . But it definitely sounds musical. Then I remembered, I made versions of the melody for Paul to put where he wants … and that was where he had dropped one part in. I just started laughing.
I mean, you had music that was embedded inside sound effects, and you had sound effects that were being made by musical instruments but had no physical notation; it was only once we were doing this score live that he and I remembered exactly how we’d done all of this in bits and pieces. One tiny little noise would go by and I’d say, “Oh! This was when I hit that kid’s toy and it made this noise and you liked it, so I figured out a way to stretch it.” Or we’d listen to the musicians playing and he’d go, “Hey, isn’t there something missing in the soundtrack? No, wait, sorry, I did that later in the editing room, didn’t I…never mind.” [Laughs] “No, don’t you remember, you came into the room, and you said you hated the such-and-such, and then a month later this happened, and then we couldn’t find the thing?” “Ah, yes, I remember it well!” We couldn’t keep it all in our heads and our memories, and we’d made it. We had to essentially reverse-engineer things so the score could be played live. But my god, it sounded great.