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THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Interview with David Byrne
On writing the music for the film

I was on tour in Europe and Paolo came to Turin. His fantastic Il Divo had recently played in New York and had gotten great reviews, so I was really happy to meet with him. He and his producers said they were working on another movie and told me some of what it is about. They didn't explain the whole story just that it was based on this retired rock star, and they wanted me to do some music for it. I thought that it was an ambitious jump to go from a beautiful and incredible but not widely seen Italian movie to what seemed to me a pretty large scale English language movie. So I told them that I was around and on tour and that they should get back in touch when they had the money and things were in place. Lo and behold a year later they were ready and had a date when they were going to start shooting and wanted to talk about the music again. I was surprised but really pleased. So I read the script and there were three things Paolo was looking for. Firstly he wanted me and my band to perform a Talking Heads song live in one scene, which was not very complicated. The second thing was that as part of the story, the main character is handed a CD of song demos by a young singer/songwriter and they needed those songs because Sean Penn's character listens to this CD song by song during the course of his travels. The difficulty of that was that I could write them but it couldn't be me singing on it because people would recognise my voice and it obviously wouldn't be that kid, it had to be believably the voice of that kid. The third part was the score. Paolo had examples of instrumental pieces, the style of contemporary classical pieces that he had in mind for the score. But I kind of backed away from the score part because I thought I was going to have my hands full with the demos that this kid wrote and recorded. They couldn't sound too slick or well produced, they needed to sound a little unfinished.

In the script Paolo mentions Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie Prince Billy, as kind of a musical touchstone, and in fact this kid performs in a shopping mall and sings one of Will's songs. So I said to Paolo, "Why don't you ask Will to do the songs then, as there is a resonance for you in what he does?" He wasn't sure, but I had met Will earlier on in my tour, so I suggested I get in touch with him and see if he wanted to do the songs together. Paolo agreed and surprisingly Will said he'd give it a try. I thought before we went too far down the road of writing songs and words, let's throw down some really rough versions and vocals, and send that to Paolo to see if we were on the right lines. I thought that might be easier than Paolo trying to describe the music he wants which is really hard to do. Some of them worked, so Will and I continued to work on those, sent more to Paolo in this very rough form and he again accepted a couple more and the rest went back on my shelf. So that became the process by which we finished everything, except for one song for which Will wrote all the words, which was interesting because the lyrics were unlike anything I would have written. That's the reason to work on something together, to produce something that you wouldn't have done by yourself.

Then, because the young actor from Dublin who plays the kid with the demos wasn't such a great singer, we needed someone else's voice on there that would be believable as this kid's voice. So I found an Irish singer here in New York whose speaking voice was kind of a high tenor voice and who has just the tiniest hint of an Irish accent. We found him through MySpace, he came in and sang the songs and did a great job.

The name of the band in the movie is 'Pieces of Shit' which makes you think it's going to be a punk band, and the music we came up with didn't really fit that. Paolo did give some direction, that we should pull one song in a more melancholy direction and make another one more upbeat. The main character is modelled on Robert Smith, the singer from The Cure, and I told Paolo that if he wanted it to sound more like The Cure, I probably wasn't the best person for the job. But he said he didn't want that, he thought Cheyenne would be more moved by music that sounded different to his past work, it was more about him hearing something that pushed him into another place.

On the song 'This Must Be the Place'

It was a little bit of a shock that Paolo had used the Talking Heads song I had written 'This Must Be the Place' as the title. It gets referenced a couple of times and gets performed once and I think heard a few times, so it's very flattering. The song, for me is a pretty straightforward love song. It's about as straightforward a love song as I could write. It has a sincerity, but doesn't say things in a way you have heard a million times before, so I think that people have found it touching and moving because it seems truer than a song which is maybe a little bit slicker or has more clichés in it.

On playing David Byrne

Paolo asked me to be in a couple of small scenes and play myself which of course raises the question - how do I do that? I told Paolo that I have no ambitions to be an actor, and he said 'No, I don't want you to be yourself, I want you to play David Byrne,' which seemed even more convoluted! But I thought Sean Penn is going to be so much in character, so if I just react to what his character says as I would in real life, then that could work. We make a pretty weird couple, this Cheyenne character and I, though the idea of our being friends isn't so farfetched.

On Cheyenne and Sean Penn

When Paolo described the story to me and I read the script, I realised Sean Penn was going to have to be in this Robert Smith / Goth make up for pretty much the whole film. He has to make you feel for this character and not just that you're watching Sean Penn in some Goth makeup, you have to get beyond that and start to feel for this person underneath the lipstick and the hair and all the other stuff. You find out incrementally why the Cheyenne character is doing what he is doing. You are given some reasons in the beginning but some things you don't find out until halfway through the movie and only then do you realise why he's acting this way or that's why he stopped performing. You fill in those things as you go along and they get revealed almost as an aside which is very clever, I like that the audience have to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

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