The Letterboxd Show 2.22: Carin Besser and Bryce Dessner

Episode notes

[clip of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind plays]

CLEMENTINE I tell you things, Joel. I'm an open book. I tell you everything. Every damn embarrassing thing. You don't trust me.

JOEL Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating.

[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]

SLIM Hello and welcome to The Letterboxd Show, a podcast about the movies people love watching from Letterboxd: the social network for people who love watching movies. Each episode your hosts Slim—that’s me—and Gemma are joined by a Letterboxd friend for a chat about their four favorite films. As you listen along, we have links in the episode notes, so there’s no excuse not to add these films to your watchlist. Today, our guests are lyricist Carin Besser, and musician Bryce Dessner, from one of the best bands ever invented by Ohio—that’s right—I’m talking about The National!

GEMMA Bryce Dessner is a film composer as well as a National member. His credits include The Two Popes, The Kitchen and The Professor and three new films all landing this holiday season with his musical stamp on them. Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon. Clint Bentley’s Jockey, and Joe Wright’s take on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. The lyrics for Cyrano are co-written by Carin Besser and her husband Matt, the lead singer from The National. Carin’s been writing with The National for a while now as we all discovered, to our great joy on many of the albums, but specifically when they made their I Am Easy to Find album, and its accompanying short film with Mike Mills. Carin’s favorites for today, for this episode, are Le rayon vert (The Green Ray) and Singin’ in the Rain. Bryce’s faves are Harold and Maude and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Bryce joins us from France and Carin is in Los Angeles.

SLIM Bryce, I read that Elton John passed on during the music for one of your faves, Harold and Maude. But what if instead of suggesting Cat Stevens, what if your phone rang that morning? What would the vibe be for that movie if you were handpicked to do the music for Harold and Maude?

BRYCE I didn’t actually know that. That’s amazing. I never would associate Elton John and Cat Stevens. [Slim & Gemma laugh] But I guess, I don’t know, I wonder if Elton John suggested Cat Stevens. You know, that was one of the first films I saw actually, it was a favorite film of my dad’s and so we used to watch it over and over again. And even really, before we were musicians. And I think for my brother and I was like our childhood film. And it's just so weird and beautiful and funny. And in a way, Cat Stevens has this sort of lightness about him even when he’s singing ‘Trouble’ or ‘If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out’. They’re almost like children’s songs in a way. So it would be much darker probably if we’d have done it. I think the whole thing—maybe he would really would have committed suicide. [Slim & Gemma laugh] I don’t know, you know. But I’m happy that we didn’t do it. Because some of my favorite songs are in that film. And it was kind of, you know, for me, I think it’s always been this what music could do in a film that we really never got to do until now actually. We’ve had songs and there was a period of time where every other TV show had a National song in it. I think that’s gone away, but that maybe people get too depressed from that and Covid or whatever, but for a while that was the case. But to actually have a film where music played such an important role. I mean, I think in a way the other film that I saw a lot was The Graduate and the Simon and Garfunkel songs in that have a similar kind of presence but you know, the fact that a character actually sings one of the Cat Stevens songs, that Maude sings the song, I think as a kid it was just like, incredible to watch.

[clip of Harold and Maude plays, Maude singing If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out]

GEMMA Question for both of you, Carin and Bryce, I’m always so deeply fascinated by films that have one overarching songwriter—and I don’t mean score. I do mean songs, you know, songs with lyrics. I’m thinking about Magnolia and Jon Brion, Aimee Mann woven all the way through. We’re not just talking about the big guns from the ’70s, but the work that you are also doing today. What do you think that that very tight collaboration adds into the work of art that is a film?

CARIN I mean, I love the question about sort of the other consciousness that goes through a movie, right? If it all is, you know, Aimee Mann, why wouldn’t you always want Aimee Mann all through your—y’know or Simon and Garfunkel. I mean, I love all this sort of jukebox movies we’re talking about. And I think, for me, what’s sort of fun about it is the way we all really interact with songs isn’t like, I’m walking down a street, and then I’m going to sing, it’s like, there’s a song on the car, but I’m thinking about groceries, then I sing the song, maybe I hum it or I sing. There’s so much to do with the character and why music suddenly folds in. So I think that’s a lot of the fun of it. And if I guess if you’re working with one team for all the song-type moments, then you can all sort of play around with that together. And it’s true. I mean, it’s a good question, because it really was—at least in the moments that Matt and I were involved with the team—that was really a big part of what was animating all the work everybody was doing, was like, why are they singing? And what are they saying? And why now? And when should it be? We sort of were like, ‘Okay, here we’re gonna go from here to here.’ Right? But in this case, each and every line was a part of a conversation we were having either with an actor, with Erica writing the screenplay, or directing the play. And with Joe Wright, from the very early stage. So I think that maybe that’s the answer. It’s just like, if you’re going to use the sort of musical thinking of a set of songwriters, then you’re going to have another consciousness kind of working all the way through the story. And chewing on things.

BRYCE I mean, in my point of view, the film is the great collaborative art form, really, and that’s what draws me to it. There’s no other place. I mean, maybe opera in the nineteenth century was that also. But especially, you know, film—if you’ve ever been on a film set, it’s the most interesting people are rarely the actors and the director. I mean, it’s these vast, creative teams of exceptionally talented people who’ve dedicated their lives to learning these crafts. And that’s what’s so exciting about ’em. And we by nature, because we have a band, and we’re used to kind of beating each other up for twenty years, you know, and Carin has been part of that collaboration for a long time. We’re well suited to it, I think, in a way because we don’t have the kind of giant ego written on our forehead, where you come in with an agenda, and you have to have your way. And that, unless you’re the director, that rarely works. In fact, it definitely doesn’t work. So that said, the case of Magnolia is also just an incredible film. And when songs take on the importance of actually being in the script, or in this case—I mean, actually, the songs, the lyrics to the songs for Cyrano are in the script, which apparently is not common. But they’re actually written into the screenplay, which shows how important they are, you know. And so, in this case, just even, normally I’ve scored quite a few films now. And normally you get called when the film is edited. Sometimes if you know a director well, you might see the script or be able to go on set, but very often you get something that basically looks what people are going to see. And it often even has a temp score in it. So the experience of being, in this case, part of the whole genesis of the project we were involved in it even before Joe Wright was, to have had extensive relationships with the cinematographer, the editor, the producers, all of that through the process was just an incredible—just to be kind of part of the magic of it. And for music to take a primary role and not a secondary or tertiary, you know, depending on the project it can be. I find that my experience of directors is when a really confident, mature director in a way will take that—like Paul Thomas Anderson or something—will take that risk to put music. You know, music can be really powerful. It can also get really buried in movies and be just sort of wasted or easy or you know. Basically being part of a big club collaboration like that has really been incredible for us.

GEMMA So we asked you each for two favorite films. And, Carin, you were very diligent when you gave us yours. The Green Ray (Le rayon vert) and Singin’ in the Rain. Bryce, you came through with a longer list and so Slim and I have picked two from the list based on the fact that one, neither of us had seen Harold and Maude, so why not? But here’s your your list. I’ll just give the list. City of God, Harold and Maude, Belle de Jour. Favorite for the music, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. Recent favorite, The Hand of God by Paolo Sorrentino. And the favorite movie you were involved with, The Revenant. And then there was one more and that’s the one we chose as your second and the one we’re going to kick off with for reasons. We have Jack in our team who provides facts for this podcast and he wrote about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Where to begin… imagine if Letterboxd was around when this movie came out. It’s in our Top 250 of all time. It’s the third-highest-rate of 2004. It’s Michel Gondry’s highest-rated and most-popular film. It’s also the highest-rated and most-popular film for Charlie Kaufman, Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst. It hits all of our Most Fans lists. It has been in the Top 10 of the favorite movie poll every single year. It is simply one of the most-loved films amongst five million Letterboxd members. And they’re not all here. But you are. So tell us why.

[music from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind plays]

BRYCE I mean, I mentioned Contempt or Le Mépris which is in French, the Godard for the music, is that I think every film composer dreams of writing that theme, the Georges Delerue. In fact, often filmmakers will cite it—which is actually kind of adapted from Bach, I think, then it’s just this one giant theme that happens over and over again. And I think that Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], the score, also the Jon Brion score is so cinematic, and so sort of effortlessly whimsical. That again, it’s kind of, was probably a film that I saw even before I thought about, long before I thought about writing music for movies, but thought this music is just incredible on any metric, as far as music that’s memorable. You sometimes feel music gets slotted in a not-so-nice category, as music that’s where the primary thing going on isn’t necessarily the music, it’s in service of the narrative, or the cinema or whatever. But in that case, again, that movie just sort of—I mean, reminds me—it’s like a perfect kind of combination of—you mentioned, I didn’t know any of that, what just said about so many of these actors being noted for that performance. And it does feel like that it was a sort of—it reminds me sometimes we think about the fact that The Pixies can make an album in four days or something and it would be the most amazing thing and that film has that the quality of like a Pixies record where it’s timeless, forever. It’ll always be that. It also feels like the kind of—for independent cinema or something—this golden, you know, you see films that come out year to year that maybe are in that—people being like, “Oh, we’re doing an Eternal Sunshine thing” or something. It’s sort of whimsical type of film. But yeah, I mean, again, I love the movie, and the music really marked me.

SLIM I’d never seen this before this week.

GEMMA Wait, what?

SLIM Shocking. Shockingly. [Slim laughs] I’d seen this poster for so many years. And I just thought it was like maybe that Jim Carrey weird Charlie Kaufman movie. That’s like all I knew about it. So I’ve just kind of sort of avoided it. But, man, it’s really good. [Gemma & Slim laugh] Everyone’s right, obviously. Carin, do you have a background with this movie, too? Did you remember the first time you saw it?

CARIN You know, I didn’t know that this was gonna be on Bryce’s list. And the second you guys said it I was like, ‘Oh, yeah! Wow!’ Yeah, I would have put that on mine too. I love this movie. I remember seeing it in the movie theater. And I am kind of a big Charlie Kaufman fan too. I just love anyone willing to kind of do all that playing around with structure like that and the storytelling. You always feel like he’s working something out on so many levels and just having so much fun trying to surprise us as he goes. So I think that’s such a big part of that movie for me.

GEMMA I think for me, a massive part of it is the fact that it’s Kaufman and Michel Gondry who is one of my favorite directors of all time. I adore his music videos. I think he’s made some of the best music videos of all time. Love, love, love that. But I also just want to get really shallow for a second and say, every time I think about this film—so I watched it this week, it was the first time I’d seen it since it came out in cinemas in 2004. When I think about it, I think about Kate Winslet’s different hair colors and how you can track the different parts of the relationship through her hair. I think about Jim Carrey at his possibly most handsome, but I’d completely forgotten to think about, and will forever be thinking about now, Mark Ruffalo and his tighty whities jumping up and down on the bed. [Slim & Carin laugh] With Kirsten Dunst! Oh my god! How has that escaped—

SLIM His hair is electric in this movie too. He’s like a mad scientist. It’s pretty crazy to look at Jim Carrey’s run from ten years, from 1994 to 2004. 2004 is when this came out. He was like the biggest star on the planet. Right? He had so many insane movies for that period of ten years. And I just kind of forgot. I was watching this and I was like, ‘Man, Jim Carrey is a pretty good actor.’ And it’s just a thought that I haven’t had in like fifteen years. [Slim laughs]

GEMMA One of the reasons that keeps hitting, obviously, is the notion that heartbreak is so, so vast, and so deep and so hurty that we’re drawn to this idea that there could be an easy way out. There could be a silver bullet. And that comes up again and again and again in Letterboxd reviews. Katie writes “I pray people get broken up with so I can recommend this movie.” Juulin writes, “ah yes, my favorite genre of film: pain” And it just shows up again and again on lists like movies where the Romantic Moment™ features profound chasteness instead of making out. And Typically comedic actors play dramatic roles and smash the fucking shit out of them. But no, it’s more about, I guess the inherent romance of heartbreak. Heartbreak being heartbreak, because there was love. And I’m really interested if we can go, jump back to Cyrano for a moment about the role of romance because the early reviews that are coming through are just deeply, deeply in praise of how romantic you’ve managed to make this film, Carin. Letterboxd members who have seen it so far are describing it as “unabashedly romantic” or as David Ehrlich writes “Intoxicated with demented bravado”. And I think that that’s why we want movies to do these things. Isn’t it?

[I Need More from the Cyrano soundtrack plays]

GEMMA How did you as part of the collaborative team, just go all in on the romance?

CARIN Ah, wow. Well, I think so much of it was a trusting of the—initially, the script that Erica Schmidt was writing, I really liked her kind of very minimalist version. And I found the actors all incredibly—sort of—they’re compelling and in a very grown-up feeling way. It’s a role that is a man who has already accepted all this loss and all this lack of romance for himself. Having a chance. So I think it was all there. We just really tried to stay out of the way lyrically and to have the lyrics feel like they could be spontaneous speech when that was possible. I mean, I think we were helped by the fact that the characters are supposed to be enamored of language and poetry. So it gave us a lot of room to play because you could go anywhere from sort of a straight momentary description of something into a more fully formed image and still sort of buy that the character might have just said they thought of it. That was really fun to play around with for the most part. But we had to—honestly, we just really had to trust our singers to let us know when something was uncomfortable. And I think because Erica Schmidt’s an incredible theater director, and then Joe Wright obviously has made a couple of great movies.

GEMMA Oh my god. I know Slim got to see the movie, and I’m quite jealous. I’m still on lockdown, so it hasn’t happened yet. But I know I’m going to have to suspend a lot of disbelief about the fact that Peter Dinklage has been unlucky in love and that no one would immediately jump his bones, frankly. So I just want to throw that out there. Just a little moment of Peter Dinklage thirst.

BRYCE He is unbelievably handsome in the film. I mean, even if you’re a fan, there’s these incredible moments where he’s just—it’s kind of never ending how he surprises me with his—because we had the experience of seeing him in the theater, as well. And he really is like a classic stage actor with so much talent. Where it’s not, it’s not dressed up. I mean, he’s actually doing this. And it’s like seeing this person go to work. I mean, there’s a new song that we wrote for the film, which is the second song that you hear is ‘When You’re Born’, which is a duel. And Peter was like, in a hip-hop band when he was a teenager, like early in college, and he can rap. And so it has this sort of really fast kind of spoken word feeling about it, and then a big chorus. But he’s in a sword fight, and he’s acting, and then he’s actually doing this live. And so seeing that whole experience was kind of mind-blowing to watch him.

[clip of When You’re Born from Cyrano plays]

BRYCE Carin’s being modest, when I’ve noticed that the tagline they’re putting on the poster for the film is from the lyrics. It’s ‘Have you ever loved someone madly?’ And I think that for years, I mean, Matt, Carin’s husband has been writing basically love songs to you forever. And you guys are such incredible poets. But the experience of writing for Cyrano kind of took it to this whole different level where we always say that the songs—Erica Schmidt’s great idea about this adaptation was basically what would have been these long, poetic, monologues in verse basically, some of which are letters and others of which are dialogue, but became songs. Which for a modern audience makes a lot of sense. And I think talking about love is very different from singing about love. And you can kind of be direct and wear your— the poetic devices you can use and in this case, for the words that Matt and Carin developed the language. Again, you know, it sits within the kind of the place that The National comes from, but then there’s this whole other thing going on that for us was really beautiful and surprising and a new kind of poetry and also kind of a directness that we weren’t used to. Some of these songs have this sort of really, really big heart. Very generous, as Joe Wright, the director, would be the first to say, this is not an ironic film. This is—you have to kind of leave all your sarcasm and modern irony at the door where you come in. As he said, he calls it a love letter to love.

GEMMA Oh my god. And this is the man behind the hand flex. Are you aware of the phenomenon that is the hand flex? [Slim laughs]

BRYCE I’m actually not. Now I need to go and look, where are they? So tell us what it is. What is it?

GEMMA All you need to do is jump on Letterboxd, look up Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice and just scroll the reviews. It is review after review after review of just paragraphs of the hand flex, the hand flex, the hand flex. And it’s the moment in the film when they first touch. She’s going to get into the carriage. He offers his hand to help her up. You don’t see it. But afterwards, as Matthew Macfadyen walks away, there’s a close up on his hand and he just has this kind of flex. And this is a man who’s holding all of his feelings inside and not wanting to let anything show on his face. But there’s just this moment. I’m just—I’m so desperate to talk to Joe Wright about it. I love how Joe Wright captures, manages to capture what that moment meant to that very sort of stoic and proud man.

CARIN I love that.

GEMMA Now you know about the hand flex. [Gemma & Carin laugh]

BRYCE I mean, there’s some nice hand moments in Cyrano for sure. There’s a hilarious scene where Christian finally has to speak to Roxanne. And he’s, you know, notoriously kind of tongue tied when he’s with a woman and he can’t express himself away that the letters do—well because Cyrano’s writing them but also like this Christian is not—he’s intelligent, and he has incredible qualities and it’s really the love affair is between the three. Almost between the three of them, they’re falling in love with each other. But this scene, there’s this awkward hand moment. So we’ll see if that qualifies as hand—

SLIM You’ll see the Twitter memes right after it’s official release. I saw it last night. And for other National fans like myself, I saw it and the songs in the music playing during the scenes have big time National vibes and I mean that in the highest regard. And Peter Dinklage, when he started singing, he sounds like Matt with his low voice.

[clip of Madly from the Cyrano soundtrack plays]

SLIM Carin, what did you think when you first heard him singing some of your writing in his voice?

GEMMA See you later, Matt! [Gemma & Slim laugh]

CARIN Yeah, exactly. How did you know? Peter—I remember the first time we were all together, working on the songs. And Peter— I was sitting next to Peter at lunch or something. And I looked at him and he was just kind of getting ready to go in and sing. And I thought, I suddenly realized ‘Oh yeah, he’s really stepping out of a comfort zone to do this.’ And he was like, “Yeah, but like, why do anything else?” And he sounded really—I think he has a very musical past. I didn’t know that he had been a rapper. But that’s great. I also think we are really interested just in sort of the natural things people do with their voice. And while that may well make it a lot harder on Aaron and Bryce sometimes. But it’s like, an actor, you feel like they aren’t probably going to be good as a singer. But yeah, I love how he sounds.

SLIM It had that quality of like being recorded on set, which I feel like is rare in most times any actors in movies sing. It’s like, oh, this is ADR, they did this later in the studio. But you could hear the set, you could hear the wood under Peter’s boots as he’s singing, and I just appreciate that in movies, it’s really hard to do, to get that to sound good with the actor and everyone working at the same time. It just makes the finished product that much better, in my opinion.

BRYCE Yeah, that was definitely a big conversation about—we’ve spent our lives playing on TV and a lot of our concerts are recorded live and you know, they’re not that flattering, to be honest. Even Matt who can kind of read the phonebook and make it sound beautiful. [Gemma & Carin laugh] And y’know actually Peter, Peter was quite intimidated at first because they, you know, basically Erica Schmidt and Peter Dinklage, who are married, are the biggest National fans basically. And they love the band. They love what Matt does. And so Peter, he does have a similar range. But it took him a long time to kind of recover from—all the songs originally were demos that Matt sang. And they do sound beautiful that way. You can kind of hear at the end of the film, we wrote a song called ‘Somebody Desperate’. That was originally, we were thinking about as potentially for Christian but it ended up being kind of this perfect song that basically sums up the whole movie. “I’m somebody desperate, I’m somebody just like you.” It has this—kind of in a way, it brings everything together and to have Matt’s voice at the end there felt really important. But eventually, what happened, Peter is a great stage actor and he has a lot more volume actually than Matt does. Matt hates to sing at parties. Because he’s like, “Nobody’s gonna hear me.” He needs a mic. I mean, he can shout at you. [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA Scream in my face.

BRYCE Yeah. Peter has a lot of actual volume and he has this kind of stage actor—like he can really, you know. And what was interesting about the film is basically he’d been through, we did this sort of proof of concept, off-Broadway version of this piece where it was done in kind of early form and the songs were kind of raw, and we were still figuring it out. But basically, he was singing up here in terms of dynamics. You know, in classical speak, like, from mezzo forte to fortissimo or something, you really hear, so he’s projecting to the back of the room. And basically, what we figured out with—Joe Wright was really, really adamant that we record everyone live, and we were like, this is gonna be terrible. [Slim laughs] But actually, they did three weeks of rehearsal. I was there in Sicily with them. And they all work so hard. And Kelvin Harrison Jr. who plays Christian and Haley Bennett who plays Roxanne and Peter Dinklage. Peter, by the end of it, by the end of rehearsal was like nailing it easily. And the thing we’ve figured out is basically with the way they were mic’ing things—and in film, you can control. They’re doing it live, but still, you have so much control of sound after. And so essentially getting him to sing in quieter registers, he has all these really interesting things of his voice that we hadn’t heard, basically, until we made the film. And I don’t know that he had heard, actually. Which are things that come easily to Matt, because he’s spent the last 20 years, basically, a non-singer really at first, but figuring out how to do things with his voice. And so he’s kind of a master of mic. You know, “I sound good on this mic here, because this is like a fancy thing.” But Matt really knows how to do that. And then Peter kind of got used to it. And again, the reason the songs—sometimes we get criticized a little bit about—the songs aren’t there to kind of impress you about being a great pop song. They’re there in service of the narrative of the poetry, of the relationship with the characters. And so, sometimes they’re really quiet and soft. The song ‘Your Name’, which he sings as he’s writing the first letter to Roxanne and kind of finding his words. It’s just a sort of running poetry. It’s almost a stream of consciousness kind of feeling. And so the fact that he’s going from up here to then a much bigger dynamic range was the thing he figured out in the last week going up to shooting and that really made all those performances work.

GEMMA Incredible. I could talk about Peter Dinklage all day long. But I’m actually distracted, Bryce, by the beautiful background you’ve got going on, which looks to be some kind of gorgeous French farmhouse, which takes us to France.

SLIM Beautiful work.

GEMMA To Éric Rohmer’s highest-rated and most-popular film among the Letterboxd community, The Green Ray (or Le rayon vert), which is one of your favorites, Carin. And every week, there’s a movie that one of our guests introduces us to that I have to thank them for. And this week, it’s this one. Oh my god.

CARIN It’s so good.

GEMMA I’ve been that girl in summer, single, just kind of ping-ponging around wherever my friends are, looking for love in all the wrong places or actively trying to avoid creepy men in Paris. And I just love this so much! Delphine is a lonely, Parisian woman who comes to terms with her isolation and anxieties during a long summer vacation. As the film built on conversations over meals over one French summer, and I just, I love it. Tell us about this 1986 beauty and how it came into your life.

CARIN Well, I’m so glad that you liked it. I wasn’t sure what to pick when you guys asked me for my favorite movies. And so I just went with the two that were top of mind because I didn’t want to overthink it, right. But this one—so I had only fallen in love with this one maybe two years ago, I might have seen it in its film class and just not really understood. I wonder if you felt—I feel like I would not have appreciated this movie as much when I was in that phase of life. But I watched it when I was really missing solitude. So I really enjoy her long trips by herself. But I, at the same time, think it’s just such a good movie about sadness and about what then reconnects you to people.

GEMMA Her friends are really hard on her in that—

CARIN They’re also so funny.

GEMMA Yeah, they’re hilarious. But wow, there’s this one thing early on when she meets up with her girlfriends for lunch in a courtyard and they go at her! It’s wild. They’re like, “You just need to put yourself out there, you need to cheer up, you need to, yeah, express yourself.” And she’s just like, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m sad. I’m single. But I’m fine.” Like really, actually quite holding to who she is in that moment. But you can see them undermining her. And that starts to play out over the rest of the film.

CARIN What I think is also kind of cool about the movie is, you can tell—I mean, the way that he made it is so fun, right? Because he casts these actors. And then he I’m sure has a pretty clear outline of what he wants the scenes to do. But he lets them speak for themselves. So the way the conversations go is so daffy, and so only the way actual conversations go. And so he captures all this sort of lateral thinking, and every time she tries to convince people that vegetarianism is good, she just talks about lettuce being a friend. I mean, I love that moment. And yet, you can’t—and she’s also a little bit annoying. And so I have this theory—I rewatched it too. And I’m like, oh, I always fall in love with—there’s a way, I don’t know quite how to describe it. But there’s a way you can sort of feel that you’re being told two stories at the same time. That’s when I think you really drop into things. And I watched it again, and I thought, ‘Oh, right. She’s very much telling in this movie about that she is writing and speaking about, it’s okay to say no, and be a woman and be who you are, and know yourself in every moment and still not be getting what you want.’ And just sort of sitting in that sadness. I love that about it. And I think he’s making a movie about what movies can do, which is like, you are going to care about this character. She’s going to annoy you. She’s not going to do anything you expect. I’m not going to do anything you expect. And I’m not going to give you exactly what you want. I love it. Yeah, I love it.

GEMMA I love it. And I love how—I don’t know how this was for you Slim and Bryce, have you seen this film?

BRYCE I have not, no, but I’ve written it down. I’m gonna watch it.

GEMMA You have to watch it. I’m so curious about how it feels for men—or a straight men—to watch this and recognize the difference between the glad eye that one kind of guy gives you and the glad eye that another kind of guy gives you. Because in the moment in the station near the end when that one guy gives you the glad eye and she gives it back, you just know, right? You’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, he’s okay.’ And how is it that we know? Anyway, how was that for you Slim?

SLIM I love this movie. I gave it five stars on Letterboxd. I was so smitten with the filmmaking. Because just like you said, there’s maybe like seven scenes in this movie. And they’re all pretty much just like—it looks like they’re recorded once with a conversation between actors and non-actors. And that could either be really bad, depending on how the conversations go. Or it could be amazing. And I felt like they were all amazing. A couple times I just looked at the movie, I was like, are these just people talking? And they recorded it? Did they just give them like one script suggestion, like at the end of the conversation, you need to talk about how she’s not finding a boyfriend. So just get there in fifteen minutes. [Gemma laughs] And that’s just how it felt. And you’re right about how she wasn’t this ideal lead. She was kind of annoying at times. She went her own way. But I was just so drawn to it. My son was coming in, I kept pausing it when he was coming in. I was like “James, I need to focus on this movie right now. Something’s cooking here on screen.” And I was just so smitten by it. I don’t remember seeing a recent film like this. Now Gemma, is this considered French New Wave in that it kind of turns up the conventional filmmaking style? I’m not really sure.

GEMMA Don’t ask me about film history. [Gemma & Slim laugh]

SLIM I’m not obviously a film scholar. But this felt like such a strangely made movie that it almost could be considered like the French New Wave. I don’t know. But after the movie, I was like, I need to watch more French movies. That’s what I said to myself. So thank you Carin, for picking this movie, ’cause it was amazing.

CARIN So glad you liked it. I’m so glad. I will say his other movies are satisfying in a very similar way. So if you did like it, it does lead you down a nice little series.

GEMMA I also found that it was a curious pick amongst these four in that there is virtually no soundtrack right until the end. And then there’s that one beautiful piece which just pays off. And my other note was when the bearded man says to the four women on the foreshore, “Would you like me to explain about the green ray?” And then gets their consent before he starts explaining refraction and prisms and so on. That’s how you mansplain, fellas. You get consent first. [Slim laughs]

CARIN I love that moment. I love that moment. I noticed that too. Isn’t that funny? [Gemma laughs]

SLIM Also it’s an amazing story! It’s like five minutes. He’s telling this one-take story about light refraction and prisms to this, like, book club group of people. And I’m just so drawn to the whole thing. It’s just so bizarre.

GEMMA And then so when you get to the end of the film, and the moment happens, it’s that gorgeous thing which films themselves are, right, which has that perfect meeting of art and science. Where you’ve got his story in your head, but you’re also invested in the magic of the moment. I love, love, love, love it. We’ve talked about Harold and Maude a little bit, but I feel like we haven’t had the full deep dive into Hal Ashby’s 1971 unlikely romance between young Harold, Bud Court, who was variously—and a small trigger warning, even though it’s sort of played for comedy—variously attempting all sorts of ways of ending his life, to get his mother’s attention. And then an 80 year old woman named Maude who also lives in her own cookie world, but as having the time of her life, and how their lives change as a result of meeting each other. So this was your dad’s fave. You and your brother watched a lot. Cat Stevens.

BRYCE Yeah, my dad is a kind of interesting and flawed character, but I think he had good taste in films. So yeah, we watched this movie. And we watched The Graduate kind of over and over again, basically as kids. And it is a weird choice that the suicide detail is not small. It is a major plot device. I think we were really young. I mean, it’s whimsical and surprising in the ways we’ve been talking about. I haven’t seen The Green Ray but certainly in terms of Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], it has this very surprising relationship between—I don’t know how old Harold is but he’s definitely 20 years younger and then Maude who’s 80 and the surprising love that kindles between them, in a way that this these characters who are trying to reach one another and this theme of love maybe that resonates with Cyrano, I think. It’s kind of awkward pairings or something?

SLIM Yeah, Harold is twenty going on 55 I feel like in this movie, he could be any age and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Whatever they tell me, it’s probably true. This is another movie I was smitten with. Another one I hadn’t seen yet. 4.0 average on Letterboxd. Almost 3,000 other people have this in their faves. And Maude—is Maude my hero after seeing this movie? I love Maude. Corin, have you seen Harold and Maude before?

CARIN Yes, ithas been a while but I absolutely love it. I feel like—and Bryce is so good at talking about the music and the tone of it. I feel like that’s what really I remember more than anything is just like I hadn’t ever seen a movie with this tone before when I saw it.

BRYCE I think the song ‘Sorrow’, the National song could be in Harold and Maude.

CARIN Yes! [Gemma laughs] Yes! Exactly!

BRYCE Sung by someone else.

GEMMA Every time I’m just blown away by how badass she is in that scene with the tree in the back of the pickup and the motorcycle car.

SLIM Oh yeah.

GEMMA I mean, if you want to see an action scene in a movie that just completely speaks to character and changes up the vibe of the story, I think that’s the moment that Harold fell in love, right?

SLIM When she rides off on that motorcycle, and he’s on the back, that is one of the best shots I’ve seen all year, I feel like. And when she’s also—I think she was getting a piggyback ride from him when the sunset was coming down, that beautiful shot. Just so many great moments between the two characters.

BRYCE And it’s not even Hal Ashby’s most well-known film. I think it’s a lesser—like Being There would probably be much more known as a movie that people has more widely seen.

GEMMA Being There is I think one of my favorite films of all time.

CARIN Oh really?

GEMMA Chauncey Gardiner is—I just adore it. Do you love it, Bryce?

BRYCE Yeah, I mean, another crazy classic. There’s also a scene in that movie that relates to my childhood, which is the yoga scene in the movie. [Gemma laughs] The yoga instructor was like a family friend, she’s—Lilias Folan was this kind of yoga star in the ’70s. And we grew up, we called her Aunt Lilias.


BRYCE So it was like again, as a kid, I knew about that movie for similar reason.

GEMMA That’s wild. I grew up listening to The Goon Show, just over and over and over. You know, in New Zealand we had one radio station, one TV station. Anyway. And The Goons, we got a lot of British comedy. And so, it was the Pink Panther movies as well were really, really big. Those are the films that our dad made us watch over and over again. And so seeing Peter Sellers in this completely dramatic role. I mean, there is comedy at the heart of being there. But it’s it’s it’s really muted and unusual comedy. And I love that film for the ways in which it tells her a story about the absurdity of American politics. But through this vessel of the very, very, very complicated but very funny, Peter Sellers. So, so great. We need to move on to the last favorite. I mean, saved the best for last. Singin’ in the Rain. We’ve talked about it already this season. We can’t talk about it enough. It is simply one of the most-popular and most-loved films of all time among film lovers everywhere and especially on Letterboxd. It sits on a very popular list, feel-good films to watch when you’re depressed, lonely, or have a general feeling of worthlessness. Have to say, I never watch Singin’ in the Rain when I’m feeling like that. I watch it when I’m feeling extraordinarily happy. This is yours, Carin. When was the first time you saw Singin’ in the Rain?

CARIN I think probably—it was probably on TV a lot when I was a kid and so I probably thought of it as individual numbers. And then the first time I really saw it from beginning to end, probably in college, so I was probably depressed. [Carin & Gemma laugh] I’m like, ‘Hmmm, yeah, probably.’ But what I’ve noticed about it is it’s definitely—I mean, there’s a few movies in this category—but it’s one of those movies that if it’s on and I start watching it, I just have to keep watching it. So I thought—that came to mind in this moment too of often needing movies to lift you out of a mood.

SLIM Yeah, speaking of dad’s favorite movies. My dad watched pretty much all of Gene Kelly movies growing up. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was one of the movies that was on constantly and when I was growing up, I didn’t really connect with those movies. He put on black-and-white TCM VHS tapes, and I was out the door probably doing god-knows-what in another room. But you know, the last couple years, I’ve reconnected and rewatched those movies and Singin’ in the Rain is—everyone is correct. It’s an amazing movie. Like I can’t believe they made these movies! I remarked in a previous episode Gene Kelly looks like he’s not even heavy breathing in any of these dance numbers. I don’t know what he’s doing. It’s like he could do it in his sleep. It’s ridiculous.

CARIN No, I was just gonna say there’s something about the—I think maybe that’s why it does cheer you up is you can feel how hard they’re all working to make it look so effortless. And those big smiles on their faces. [Carin laughs] And you just are like, ‘Oh, I know why you’re making this movie.’ You feel in every frame. You understand why this should be a movie, why it is a movie. I think that’s just part of the fun of it, is it looks like it must have been so fun to be there.

GEMMA Yeah, and I love the fact that there are so many of the numbers in this film narratively, don’t need to be there. You know like—

CARIN Exactly! [Gemma laughs]

GEMMA One whole number is just they’re pitching an idea. And the pitch doesn’t land. But we get a bit of a musical number out of it. It’s beautiful. I love it. I love it. I will always hold—my heart belongs to Donald O’Connor in this but I also will never get tired of the stories that Debbie Reynolds told in her lifetime about how quickly she had to come up to speed to match Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor and how well she pulls off being their equal in that film. She’s extraordinary.

CARIN I mean, have you seen the movie with Carrie Fisher with her daughter? Have you seen the documentary with the two of them?

GEMMA Yeah, oh my god. Yes.

CARIN I think she’s just such a badass, right? I mean, Gene Kelly was a dance teacher and she was a gymnast. And he was 37 and Donald O’Connor was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. So you can watch that scene and be like, she was seventeen and she was a gymnast. Maybe she was the badass! [Gemma laughs] Maybe they were trying to keep up with her once she learned the choreography, right? I mean, not really. But that’s what I thought the last time I watched it. I was like, I don’t know!

GEMMA She could dance five nights in a row all through the night and they’d be done by night one.

SLIM Do you remember the last time you saw Singin’ in the Rain, Bryce?

BRYCE I don’t. I mean, I would have seen it many times. But I do know that it’s an MGM musical. So Cyrano, there’s another connection there. I don’t think we quite match the dance numbers. [Gemma & Slim laugh] But actually the dancing in Cyrano was really fun to work on, also. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the choreographer, has worked with Joe before. He did the choreography in Anna Karenina and he was there for a lot of the shooting as well with these gorgeous dancers. So that the sort of numbers that are in the film were really special to see kind of unfold.

SLIM It’s almost like a silent choreography. They’re taking place kind of almost hidden behind the scenes in a very methodical way and it’s not distracting you from the song or the moment in Cyrano. So I thought that was a pretty interesting choice.

BRYCE Yeah, I mean, the big one is the soldier, he has the garrison of 60 soldiers dancing. [Gemma & Slim laugh]

SLIM An amazing sentence to say out loud.

GEMMA I’m so jealous. I can’t wait to see this film. I was just having a little laugh to myself thinking about your opening question Slim and wanting to apply it to Singin’ in the Rain. So if Gene Kelly called you Bryce and said, we’re doing a musical—[Gemma laughs]—we want your music. One thing I love, love, love, love about you both and The National is the sense of humor you you have about the number of times that your music is called melancholic and depressing. Because having been—and I’m just going to have a fan moment here—having been in your audiences many, many times. I was at the glorious, joyous, Celebrate Brooklyn Prospect Park one a few years back. I was at Villa Maria here in Auckland. It is so extraordinary how the seemingly melancholic and depressing music is so uplifting, like deeply, deeply uplifting. And there’s an ephemerality to being in a live audience at live music that nevertheless stays with you for years afterwards. I just adore that about it. And you may go from show to show to show throughout a, I don’t know, 55-date tour, but I imagine that it carries with you as well, like you have good nights and bad nights. Good sound and shit sound, but—

BRYCE Yeah, I mean, we don’t take it for granted. And we, especially now I think that we’re—the world in the state that it’s in and what’s happened in the last two years with the pandemic, and so much. I mean, it was a miracle that Cyrano even happened. But certainly, there’s been no—it’s been two years, almost to the day that we’ve not played a show, which is the longest in the history of the band.

GEMMA So painful.

BRYCE And we’re not even sure if we’ll play another show at this point. We have plans to but it’s the opposite of taking it for granted. I think that now that it’s almost this sort of memories that—and certainly concerts in New Zealand are up there. Not just because it’s the most beautiful place in the world.

GEMMA Thank you. [Carin laughs]

BRYCE But the audience is insanely wonderful. There’s this thing that happens with live music, it’s a specific kind of—I think, whether you’re in the audience—I actually went to a show here the other day, a friend played. It was a first show I’d been to in two years, with more than—I’ve been to some classical concerts, but not like a proper rock show. And it was just having that—it was so joyful to be in the room with people listening. And certainly the experience of performing live music, there’s no other replacement for that in life, really. It’s very specific, this like incredible communion of the musicians on stage and with the audience. I mean, it beats you up a little bit—or a lot—the experience of being on the road, especially when you’ve been doing it a long time. But hopefully, yeah hopefully we’ll be back to it.

GEMMA I hope so too. It does beat you up but it’s all in service of that two hours of communion. So it is all worth it. Because I remember—the moment I spilled my wine—I remember who I was with. I remember the feeling of my feet on the ground in that grass at that show. It might be ephemeral, as I say, but it lasts. I guess, to just kind of do a cheesy segue. The great thing about writing music for movies is that we get to watch them again and again and again. And I said at the beginning, it’s a greedy Christmas for you. We’ve got three movies with Dessner brothers content, which is very nice. So Cyrano, and then we’ve got Mike Mills has C’mon C’mon and then you’ve got Jockey, which comes out at the end of December. What a windfall for fans of your music.

BRYCE I hope they won’t be sick of us. Or sick of me. They’re all really special. I would say that C’mon C’mon is a similar experience. And Mike Mills collaborated on the last National record. I am easy to find, he made a short film and then we kind of wrote an album inspired by his work on the film, and he was in the studio producing with us, actually. So we became very close to him. And on tour for when we were launching that record, we did this like ten date tour of just playing that album and showing the film and he was finishing his script. And it was during that time actually got the call where Joaquin Phoenix agreed to be in the movie, and it was like, things happened really quickly from that point. And so he asked Aaron and I to work on the score, kind of coming out of the experience we’d had working on the album. And he’s almost like a band member, I would say, working with him. He would get in the studio, and we were working over Zoom, but he would be kind of coaching us and improvising. And so what we made—Cyrano has 80 minutes of music, C’mon C’mon probably 35. It's much smaller and very specific. It’s a gorgeous movie, a very different movie. It’s just wonderful. And I think the sounds we’re very proud of. It’s kind of these subtle electronics and kind of electronic score with woodwinds, clarinet and flute, basically. And it’s a very—and then there’s some voice, Leslie Feist sings on it. It sends a really kind of special color to it that is something—it sounds unlike anything we’ve done before. So that was a really great experience. And then the other film is Jockey, which is a small film by a guy named Clint Bentley and his friend Greg Kwedar. They’d done another film called Transpecos. And they’re like these amazingly creative guys from Austin, Texas that we really love. And basically, we agreed to do this. And they were trying to get it done during Covid also, and it’s a tiny film.

GEMMA Oh it’s tiny but my team who saw it at one of the festivals it was at raved about it. We can’t wait for it to drop so we can shine some light on it.

BRYCE So it did really well at Sundance. And yeah it’s another that was just really fun to work on. I was sitting in this room basically. Aaron wasn’t here for that one. I was in here working on this beautiful movie about horses basically. [Gemma & Slim laugh]

SLIM Yeah, the C’mon C’mon score, I listened. That’s out now as of this episode being released. I think there’s just a single from Cyrano now that’s out. It’s vastly different, the two films. I was relating it to, it’s the music that I’d lay on the floor with my headphones on, staring at the ceiling, looking back at memories of my own life like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So I really love the soundtrack for that.

BRYCE Thank you. I like to say Cyrano is kind of like a river where it has this sort of—there’s the songs and there’s the score, and they fuse in with each other and the poetry of the script. And I think the baroque architecture of Noto had an influence on the orchestration. So there’s these elements of kind of, almost like fugue, where it’s sort of voices chasing each other. And there’s a lot of motion and kind of constant, these driving arpeggios throughout the whole score that feels more like a river. Where I think, C’mon C’mon is more like an ocean. It’s just sort of these layers of sort of still drone and just sitting there. It doesn’t have as much counterpoint, but it has these kind of many layers of color. And again, like I said, the collaborative experience of both movies was what was really great about them for us. And I would say, C’mon C’mon was only 30 minutes of music but it was actually in a way harder to make, I would say. It was really—where we would just be like, fussing over one detail for ten different versions or something.

GEMMA I was just thinking back to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and thinking, ‘Is there any more beautiful juxtaposition than snow on a beach?’ But final question to both of you on that note. Do you have a favorite holiday or Christmas film? One that you rewatch or one that’s become a family fave?

BRYCE Interesting question. I mean, I’m a sucker for Planes, Trains and Automobiles I have to say.

SLIM Ohhh yes.

BRYCE Which is the epic Thanksgiving—

SLIM Classic movie.

BRYCE Yep. Bringing it all back Steve Martin and Cyrano. [Slim laughs]

CARIN Exactly. I just watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles with my daughter like two nights ago. So yes, that one is a great one. It’s so funny.

SLIM How about when John Candy takes off his sock and starts rubbing his barefoot on that airplane next to Steve Martin? Did you ever want to vomit while watching a movie?

[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]

GEMMA Thanks so much for listening to The Letterboxd Show as always, and thanks to our guests Carin Besser and Bryce Dessner. C’mon C’mon is in US theaters now. Cyrano is set to open in select theaters in December and will expand nationwide and beyond in 2022. And Jockey is in US theaters from December 29.

SLIM You can follow Slim—that’s me—Gemma and our HQ page on Letterboxd using the links in our episode notes. Thanks to our crew, composing dynamos Moniker for the theme music ‘Vampiros Dancoteque’. Thanks to Jack for the facts, our booker Linda Moulton for looking after our guests and Sophie Shin for the episode transcript. And to you, for listening. The Letterboxd Show is a TAPEDECK production.

GEMMA We’ve got to go. It’s time to liberate the canaries.

[clip of Singin’ in the Rain plays]

DON What’s the matter with that girl? Can’t she take a gentle hint?

COSMO Well haven’t you heard? She’s irresistible! She told me so herself.

DON Can’t get her out of my hair. This cooked up romance just for publicity.

COSMO The price of fame. You’ve got the glory. You gotta take the little heartaches that go with it. Now look at me. I got no glory. I got no fame. I got no big mansions. I got no money! But I’ve got—what have I got?

DON I don’t know. What have you got?

COSMO I gotta get out of here.

[Tapedeck bumper plays] This is a Tapedeck podcast.