A version of this story about Diane Warren first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Over the last six years, Diane Warren has been nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar five times, the most fruitful stretch in a career that has included 11 nominations dating back to 1988. She has yet to win, but she’s in the race almost every year — and she always eagerly campaigns and isn’t afraid to admit that she really wants an Oscar.
“Of course I want to win,” she said with a laugh. “I hate it when people say, ‘Oh, I don’t really care.’ If I have something I believe in, I love the whole process. It’s fun.”
She’s certainly in the thick of the process this year, with two different songs that are serious contenders in the Oscar race. The most unusual one for her is “Io sì (Seen)” from “The Life Ahead,” an Italian movie starring Sophia Loren as a former prostitute who takes in a young street kid.
“I read the script and I kept seeing this word seen,” she said. “That’s really what it’s about: The world doesn’t see either of them, really. She’s a former prostitute and he’s a street criminal — that’s how the world sees them, but there’s so much more than that.”
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As she sat at the piano to write, Warren said, she began with the chorus, which in English includes the lines, “‘Cause I see you/And I see too who you are/You can’t hide from me/I want you to know that you’re seen.” “I was crying when I wrote that,” she said. “That’s when I know it’s a good one.”
Initially, Warren added had no idea that the song would end up being translated into Italian by Laura Pausini, who sings it, and Niccolò Agliardi. “The movie was in Italian, but I wrote the song that I got inspired to write,” she said. “They put the demo of the song in the movie, and it didn’t work. It was jarring. And I thought, it probably needs to be in Italian – that’s why it’s not working, you know?” Pausini and Agliardi put their own spin on the lyrics, which aren’t a literal translation of Warren’s original.
“The thing about that song is that you don’t even need to know to know what I’m saying, you feel it,” she said. “I mean, I’ve had more than one person telling me, ‘I don’t know what it’s saying, but I’m sitting here sobbing.'”
She had another teary experience while writing “Free” from “The One and Only Ivan,” a Disney film starring Bryan Cranston as the keeper of a bargain-basement circus whose animals talk to each other when he’s not around. “They came to me because of my love for animals, and it’s a beautiful story,” she said. “I had to write my own ‘Born Free,’ because that’s my favorite movie and song. And when I came up with the chorus, I was crying all over my keyboard on that one, too.”
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Warren said she “got lucky” with “The Life Ahead” and “The One and Only Ivan,” and with the songs she wrote for them. “They are songs that can go beyond the movies,” she said. “They have a life outside of that. With ‘Free,’ none of us feel very free at this moment. We all want to feel free to see our friends and travel and go to screenings, and we can’t do that. And so I think there’s a longing to that song that’s even more compelling now.”
While Warren misses the personal contact that was lost during the pandemic, it didn’t slow down her work: She still goes into her office every day to write (“phones aren’t ringing like crazy, nobody to annoy me”), and in 2020 she wrote the official song for the Biden/Harris campaign and completed her first solo album, which will be out this spring and will include vocal performances by John Legend, Céline Dion, Mary J. Blige and others.
And in a particularly thrilling moment for her, she wrote a song for Ringo Starr, “Here’s to the Nights,” which he recorded with Sheryl Crow, Joe Walsh, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Grohl, Finneas, Chris Stapleton – and his old bandmate Paul McCartney.
“I have two Beatles on my song!” she said. “It’s crazy.” She paused. “I did have the whole plan in my mind. I said to Ringo, ‘Let’s get all your friends – old friends and new friends.’ And my ulterior motive was to get Paul McCartney. But when it happened, I couldn’t believe it.”
It has been, she concluded, a year of legends: Sophia Loren, Ringo Star, Paul McCartney … “This is a terrible year in general, but in my world, I’ve been super busy and productive and creative,” she said. “I don’t take that for granted, you know?”
Read more from the Race Begins issue here.