Apple TV+ is bringing charm back to the holiday season with their newest musical, Spirited. The film offers a fresh perspective on the classic Christmas Carol story by Charles Dickens, with stars Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell teaming with writer/director Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris.
The story follows the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) as he selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from three spirits on Christmas Eve. But this season, he picked the wrong Scrooge. Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds) turns the tables on his ghostly host until the Ghost finds himself reexamining his own past, present, and future.
Very early in the process, Anders recruited the talents of Oscar-winning duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman). “We love to be super involved super early, from the first zoom chats with Will (Ferrell), Ryan (Reynolds), Sean (Anders), and John (Morris),” Said Benj Pasek. “For us to be able to do our jobs, it’s identifying what could be song moments, and if it is a song moment, how does dialogue get out and in of it?”
The duo took their talents to zoom for songwriting during the lockdown, which involved a TV writer’s room approach. Pasek and Paul recruited several friends to join them in this musical endeavor. Co-songwriters Khiyon Hursey, Sukari Jones, and Mark Sonnenblick work in a very collaborative Google Doc.
The biggest song to come from this collaboration was “Good Afternoon,” which is up for FYC consideration this awards season, along with the Pasek and Paul original, “Do A Little Good.”
The talented songwriting team spoke with Byron Burton from Awards Focus about their work process the film and how the process worked on zoom behind the scenes.
Awards Focus: How early do you like to get started in the process of making a film? Your songs are really advancing plot and changing the perspectives of characters in this film.
Benj Pasek: We love to be super involved super early, from the first zoom chats with Will (Ferrell), Ryan (Reynolds), Sean (Anders) and John (Morris)… there’s a difference in having a song in a movie and finding a way to integrate a song that is used for plot. For us to be able to do our jobs, it’s identifying what could be song moments and if it is a song moment, how does dialogue get out and in of it?
Getting to be in the conversation about how music is used effectively to be an extension of character and narrative feels really important to us. It’s a very different beast than writing an end titles song where you’re trying to amplify an emotion.
Justin Paul: We’ve come onto projects before where they offer to send the script and say, “You can see where all the songs go.” When you’re making a musical, everybody has to be speaking the same language at the same time — choreography, lighting, music and lyrics — it all wants to work together to tell one story.
With a song like “Good Afternoon,” it’s a lot of fun and play, but it starts with the narrative impulse that Ryan Reynold’s character has to try and cheer Will Ferrell’s character up… and he’s using this tactic… getting him to say “Good Afternoon” that explodes into hot air balloons and men on fire and Judi Dench.
AF: How did this collaborative process work over zoom?
Khiyon Hursey: It was a lot of very early morning zoom sessions and late night zoom sessions with us basically going at this like a songwriter’s writers’ room… like television writing. We’d work over google docs writing these verses and brainstorm on song titles. There were so many lines we didn’t use, it was a forty-page google doc.
Making each other’s ideas better and figuring out internal rhymes, normally it’s one or two people working on musicals, but this was five people which challenged us, and we challenged each other to get the best line… that’s how we got to Sukari’s Judi Dench line.
Sukari Jones: It just ended up there somehow… it was a really great line and glad we all agreed to keep it.
Benj Pasek: What Sukari is not saying is that this process was among the most collaborative I’ve ever had… describing it is almost like we were all elves working on a Christmas present. Sukari really defended Judi Dench, and we wondered if it was ridiculous or a crazy thing to propose. We wrote a lot of this very late at night because certain people had day jobs, so they would work an entire day and jump on zoom. It was an incredibly fun and joyful process.
Sukari Jones: The reason we were scheduling terrible times is because I’m the one with the terrible day job… kind of like Kimberly’s character (Octavia Spencer) in the movie. I was really not in a place where I thought I deserved or could seek joy. I kept getting bumped by collaborators or agents and I kept thinking that the universe wanted me to stay in my little spot.
Getting to work on the song, it was fun but it was sending me towards joy and continuing to hope… it’s where my life affirming came from basically.
AF: Mark, what was the most rewarding moment working on this for you?
Mark Sonnenblick: There were so many amazing parts to it, but one was finally meeting each other on set for the first time collectively as a group. It was a night shoot and the reprise of “The View From Here (Riverwalk),” and it’s a moment we’re very proud of, but to be on set and meet Will and Octavia… watching this moment come to life and the amount of care everyone put into it, it was very moving. It was also 3 am, and we were were a little delirious and inclined to be a little sappy, but I’m never going to forget that moment.
AF: With the sound presentation at Sony over the weekend, it was a great conversation between songwriters, the sound designers, and the film’s composer. Can you talk about that experience from your perspective and delve into adding bars to “Do A Little Good” to make room for the tap dancing?
Benj Pasek: Yeah, our job is to serve the whole, we’re not just creating an auditory experience. This is something that you’re watching visually and there are so many different elements that come into play. It’s our collective responsibility to know who’s carrying the story and when we need to get out of the way.
Are we trying to get the audience to laugh? Do we need to clear space because the choreography is taking center stage? If it is, then we either need to write repetitive lyrics that aren’t in competition with the tap (dancing), or let’s get rid of the lyrics and create four bars where there’s a tap break.
We so appreciate (choreographer) Chloe Arnold, and particularly the sound department who made this a unified thing.
Khiyon Hursey: For me, incredible to see how detailed they got with the tap (dance) and recreating that, seeing the layers that went into that to not sound like a typical song but a real theatrical moment.
Justin Paul: Most people wouldn’t think of the fact that they do tap (dance) tests… how does this sound on wood? Let’s do it with rubber souls on wood, let’s do it with metal souls on wood. We all get stuck in our own world and we don’t think of every department going though such a rigorous process to bring this to life.
Everyone was very generous and very deferential in a healthy way, saying, “How do we create the greatest moment together?” We were grateful and lucky to work with this group and the larger group.