The Notorious Diane Warren
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • January 9, 2019
Need a killer song to tie your movie together? You couldn’t do any better than hiring Diane Warren, the Grammy and Emmy-winning, nine-time Oscar-nominated, ASCAP Founders Award-earning, Songwriters Hall of Fame-inducted songwriting superhero whose songs have heightened pivotal scenes in over 100 films.
While Warren has penned massive songs for superstars from Aerosmith (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”) to Beyoncé (“I Was Here”) and LeAnn Rimes (“How Do I Live”) to Lady Gaga (“‘Til It Happens to You”), her most recent anthem “I’ll Fight” was written for a very different kind of celebrity: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Or more specifically, for RBG, the acclaimed documentary about Ginsburg’s incredible life and work.
We rang up Warren at her publishing company Realsongs (the most successful female-owned and operated business in the biz) to chat about the genesis of “I’ll Fight.”
What do you love about Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
God, I love everything about her. I love the fact that she is 85 years old, and she is still going strong. This woman has had pancreatic cancer, colon cancer. She continues to kick f**king ass, man! Let’s pray that she’s okay, but there’s no reason to think she’s not going to beat [lung cancer], too. She’s a tough-ass bitch, man! I mean that in a great way. Did you ever see her workout routine?
I saw a little bit of her planking in the documentary.
I can’t do that! It’s insane. So she’s amazing. And she needs to be at least over 100.
You could have gone so many directions with a song for an RBG documentary. How did you decide on the lyrical theme of “I’ll Fight”?
I wanted it to be strong. I wanted it to show that she is a fighter, and this is what she’d been doing for years, even before she was on the Supreme Court bench. I loved the dichotomy of getting Jennifer Hudson to sing it, because [RBG] speaks so softly, but so powerfully. It’s almost like Jennifer Hudson’s voice became her avatar - because that’s what she really sounds like to us. She’s a diva! She’s a notorious RBG. So I didn’t want it to be soft. I wanted it to have power.
You really get that spirit when you’re listening to Jennifer Hudson.
Yeah! The fighting spirit. She’s still a fighter. She’s voting from her home - the last couple days she hasn’t been able to come in. But she’s recovering, and she’s still voting, from what I’ve heard.
The song never mentions RBG directly. Did you imagine her as the person singing?
Yeah, I did. The thing is, when I do songs for movies, I don’t want to be so specific. I want it to be about what it’s about, you know? I imagine the song being about her, like it’s coming from her. I want the songs to be open, as well - that’s Ruth saying that, but you could also take the song and make it about anything you want it to be about, too. You could be saying it to your friends, and your kids, and your people that are going through a lot of pain. You could be saying it to a lot of people who are downtrodden, or just to your friend that’s going through something. You’ll fight for them.
The same with "Stand Up for Something." It’s funny, I wrote “Stand Up for Something” for Marshall, about another Supreme Court judge [Thurgood Marshall], with Common. Andra Day sang it, and Common did the rap. And here I am with another Supreme Court judge song!
Could you see the song having a life beyond the documentary?
I do! I totally see it having a life beyond the documentary. I think most of my songs do tend to have lives beyond the movie. Last year, with “Stand Up for Something,” it became the theme song to [the non-profit] Stand Up to Cancer. What an honor that was. And this song is already being used for a lot of different things. In fact I met this woman who works for the Justice Department, and she wrote me a note and said every time she’s thinking of fighting for victims, she blares the song full blast, and it inspires her. Isn’t that cool? That’s what it’s all about.
You’ve written so many great songs over the last few years that are dedicated to causes, or feature empowering messages - like “‘Til It Happens to You,” “Stand Up for Something,” “This Is for My Girls” and now “I’ll Fight.” Do you feel like writing music with a message has become more important to you?
You know, I write everything. I did “Why Did You Do That?” - the “ass song” from A Star Is Born. I love writing all kinds of songs. But definitely, something’s changed in my writing with some of these movie songs. It’s almost like those three songs are a trilogy - “‘Til It Happens to You,” that was a really important catalyst for the #MeToo movement. Look what that song did. That song had a life way outside of that movie. So “‘Til It Happens to You,” you’re talking about what happened to you. Then “Stand Up for Something,” it’s like it all means nothing if you don’t stand up for something. Which could be yourself. And then you have the next level of that, “I’ll Fight.” I’m taking an active role now.
It’s almost like a narrative of how you respond to trauma.
It is. If you could put those three together, it’s pretty cool.
There’s also original score and a lot of opera in RBG. Did you have to consider how the song would fit in with the rest of the music in the film?
I knew it was going to be the end song, which is fine. It’s after you hear her whole story, you see what a fighter she is. Then you actually hear her saying that with her Jennifer Hudson avatar voice. In full diva mode!
There’s a whole mythology about how you write songs - that you always work in the same dusty office where nothing has been moved in years. Is that true of how you wrote “I’ll Fight?”
Yeah, I have two rooms in my building that I’ve been at forever. “I’ll Fight” wasn’t in the dustier room. This one is still pretty dusty and dirty, but the other one I’ve been in for over 30 years, so that’s dustier and dirtier. This one has about 20 years of dust and dirt in it. The irony is, I bought a really cool building with studios, and I work there too, but I’m not giving [my old offices] up. I’ve been here so long, and I really like it here.
Did you get any say about who you wanted to produce the song?
I could suggest. Every time you do something with a movie, I always have ideas about which artists should do it, and who should produce the artist, but ultimately it’s not my choice. It’s the film’s choice.
Did it end up sounding how you envisioned it?
Yeah. It sounds great. And hearing Jennifer on it, of course - she’s awesome.
This isn’t the first time you’ve written a song for Jennifer Hudson. What do you love about working with her?
She’s just one of the best singers on the planet. She’s also a friend of mine. I just love her. She’s badass.
What’s the secret to writing a song with a message that doesn’t overdo it for the listener?
It’s a fine line. I never want to be preachy at all - it’s not my thing to do that. That’s the key: keep it universal, make it emotional, where you really feel it. Don’t hit anyone over the head with it. No one wants that.
I was so delighted to see your cameo at the end of the video! How’d that come about?
It was so funny - me and Jennifer were doing it for fun. When I saw the video and I was in it, I was like “That’s so funny that the director put me in there.” But I love it! We were having fun.
I’m so glad we got the video done. We literally had three days to pull it together, because that’s the only time [Jennifer] had. I had to find a director, and find a place to shoot, so we ended up shooting it in my building. So this amazing director, Tabitha Denholm, who’s a really badass chick, directed it and we got it done.
I actually think having her being a diva in that slightly dark, enclosed space, is a lovely metaphor for what RBG is doing.
I didn’t think about that before. But yeah, that’s really cool!
You’re been a prolific songwriter for film and TV for a long time, and this year is no exception. Is there anything different about writing a song you know will end up in a film, vs. writing a single for pop radio?
I want them all to sound like hits, to be honest. It’s the same process, it’s just getting inspired in a different way. You want them all to be successful. One, you get inspired by a film or a script, seeing something or reading something, but the process is the same. It’s sitting down, trying to write a great song.
I’ve been nominated [for an Oscar] nine times, and my first nomination was in 1988 with “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” [from Mannequin]. My latest was last year, for “Stand Up for Something.” That’s 30 years of nominations. And hopefully “I’ll Fight” will be number 10.
Visit Diane Warren and Realsongs on the web: www.realsongs.com
RBG is out now. Find out how to watch it at www.rbgmovie.com