In the field of songwriters, Diane Warren is a legend. Starting in the mid-1980s, her songs have shaped some of the biggest soundtracks of any given year. It’s a body of work that includes hundreds of songwriting credits, and even 10 Oscar nominations for best original song, including her 10th nomination for last year’s documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG.
Warren’s previous nominated songs include Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now from the 1987 movie Mannequin, How Do I Live from 1997’s Con Air, I Don't Want To Miss A Thing from 1999’s Armageddon, and Grateful from the 2015 movie, Beyond the Lights. It’s a busy streak that keeps going and going, including her shift to writing songs for documentaries like RBG and The Hunting Ground, which she wrote for another of this year’s Oscar nominees, Lady Gaga.
Here’s what Diane Warren had to say about her illustrious career, her Oscar hopes, and how she stays busy year-after-year.
No Film School: What was your reaction to your 10th Oscar nomination?
Diane Warren: I was up all night with my friends. I called it a “sleepless sleepover.” A bunch of my friends stayed over, we got pizza and stayed up. I love when people go, “Oh yeah, I slept through it [the nominations]. Someone woke me up.” Are you kidding me?! I wasn’t going to go to sleep! Even the night before that, I didn’t hardly go to sleep.
I got on the shortlist, which was good, you know. I knew it was down to the 15 songs, so that makes it a little easier to know you’re not up against hundreds of songs. 10 of those songs aren’t going to make it.
NFS: After so much anticipation, what was it like to find out you were nominated?
Warren: I think it was shock at first. I was so excited, but I sat there in shock for about a minute. Especially since when they announce all the nominations, there’s a first group of five categories, and in that first group, there were some strange omissions. Justin Hurwitz, who won the Golden Globe, didn’t get nominated for Score. The Mister Rogers doc didn’t get nominated. It was like, oof. You just never know where it’s going to go. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been nominated four out of the last five years, and I’m proud of those songs whether they win or not.
A nomination really is a win in it of itself. When you think of how many songs are out there. You think of something like the Grammys, where there are ten song categories at least. That’s a lot of chances, but in the Academy Awards, there are only five slots. To be among that is a huge win.
NFS: How did you first get involved with the RBG production?
Warren: My friend, Bonnie Greenberg, brought me in. We worked together for The Hunting Ground, on a song I wrote for Lady Gaga. She told me about this, and I said, “I’m there.”
NFS: Were you a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg before working on the project?
Warren: Oh yeah, but there were things I didn’t know, like her love story between her and her husband that’s in the documentary. It’s a beautiful love story with her and her husband, Marty, that was so ahead of its time. He was so supportive, and he didn’t mind. He was ahead of his time. He wanted to succeed, and he loved her so much. It’s hard now, you still don’t see that kind of love and support.
NFS: Was it intimidating to write a song about someone you so admired?
Warren: No, I don’t get intimidated by stuff like that. I just wanted something that captured her fighting spirit. She’s a fighter, even though she speaks softly. What she said is powerful, and it carries. I wanted Jennifer Hudson to be her vocal avatar, her diva voice. When you see the movie, you see how much she loves the opera. I can’t wait to see Jennifer Hudson perform it at the Oscars.
Speaking of my category, I’m so glad they decided to do all the songs. It’s been kind of crazy. I don’t know why it has to be three hours, let it be three hours. How long were the Grammys, three-and-a-half hours? It’s must-see TV, everybody wants to see the Oscars. It’s something you wait all year to see. You know, I grew up wanting to see the Oscars, and I wanted to see everybody.
"The cool thing about so many of the songs I’ve written is that they’re perfect for the movie they’re in, but then they get a life of their own because you can relate them to anything."
NFS: I want to jump back to your song, I’ll Fight. So, Jennifer Hudson was your first choice and you wrote it for her?
Warren: Yes, I’ve worked with Jennifer before. I called her and told her about it. I sent her the song, and she loved it. I think she related to it too. The cool thing about so many of the songs I’ve written is that they’re perfect for the movie they’re in, but then they get a life of their own because you can relate them to anything. I remember Jennifer saying she was going through some stuff at the time, and the song gave her strength. I got a letter from a woman in the Justice Department, and when she has really hard cases in the special victims unit, that’s what she cranks up to get inspired to fight for them. It’s cool that these songs can take on other lives.
NFS: What’s your process like to working with filmmakers?
Warren: It’s always different. Some will always ask me to do a song, and if it’s something I can connect with, I’ll do it.
NFS: Do you ever give them different songs to choose from?
Warren: No, I don’t give them options. I just do one and hope they like it, hope the artist likes it, and people will like it.
NFS: Do you ever go back and edit your songs as you’re working on them, like tweaking lyrics?
Warren: Oh yeah, I change things around. It can be before, it can be after. It’s always dependent.
NFS: You’ve stayed busy for a number of years in this tough industry. What’s your work ethic like?
Warren: I don’t sit back. I’ve just always had it [a work ethic]. I hated school, and I used to forge my parents’ signature and would cut class all the time. I couldn’t see anything in going to school, there was never about learning. But when I realized that this was what I wanted to do at a really early age, I haven’t stopped doing it. The key is always showing up. I get here every morning almost everyday and just get to work. That hasn’t changed since I was 15.
I knew I wanted to be a songwriter since I was eight. It was all I cared about. It’s still all that consumes me. My dad was very supportive, my mom wasn’t. She saw me on the street with a guitar and a tin cup, which could have happened. We’re all one lucky break from something happening or not, when you think of it.
NFS: Did you have a style of music you liked writing for the most?
Warren: I like to write all kinds of songs. Last year, I wrote this song, I wrote Why’d You Do That? for A Star is Born, and then I did a song for Willie Nelson in Burt Reynolds’ last movie. How cool is that? Lady Gaga to Willie Nelson to Jennifer Hudson. All totally different songs.
I love writing songs that have impact, songs that can emotionally move people. I like writing fun songs too, but the last bunch of nominated songs, I’m really proud of. They have something to say, and they inspire people. Even the song Grateful from a really great movie that not a lot of people saw called Beyond the Lights, that’s a really great song too. Be grateful for all the bad shit, because it makes you who you are.
I love I’ll Fight because you can be fighting for your friends or for something you believe in. Stand up for something. It all means nothing if you don’t stand up for something. What do you have if you don’t have your convictions? You have to fight for them.
NFS: Have you had the chance to meet RBG since the movie’s release?
Warren: No, I’m dying to meet her! I was supposed to meet her at a screening Gloria Steinem did in New York a couple months back, but she didn’t attend. I know I’m going to meet her. I’m going to send her a note and write out the lyrics for her.