Executive music producer Ian Eisendrath was tasked to work closely with songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile‘s vast array of highly memorable songs. Via Zoom, the executive music producer described the job as taking responsibility for “the whole musical product and supporting the songwriters, the directors, the studio, the actors, and mixers in evolving the film. I aim to get each song to its ultimate place, what it should be, and how it can serve the story. But we also want them to be a really great song.
I worked on the album after that, in which you take the songs from the film and figure out the best way for them to live on an album, which sometimes involves adding an ending, making some cuts, and expanding some things that we might have had cut from the film.”
The film’s songs are pre-recorded by the actors before they perform them on set, which Eisendrath describes as “a great process because we’ll already have rehearsed the song for the actors. We’re in the studio, the directors are there, and they can explore and come up with options for what the song could be. I think that is a great opportunity for everyone to get on the same page. Because we put together a concrete plan for the directors, they’re able to say, “Well, I actually wished that he sounded a little more tortured on this word,” or “I’m missing his optimism at this moment. “
We end up with a document that describes what everyone thinks the song should be before the shooting. And when you get on set, and the camera starts rolling, what the song becomes is sometimes different than what you thought it should be in the studio. We then record the actors live on set. We’re making sure that they are singing things in a way that is in sync with the tempo, the rhythm, and the melody of the songs, but also sometimes asking for things that might be different than what was originally recorded so that we have that option as well. In post-production, we then figure out what is the greatest version of the songs now that we know what’s going to be on the film, and we know what the actor is going to look like. We know what their intention is. We know what the structure of a song is because we might start with a song that’s five minutes, and then it used to be cut down to two and a half minutes for the picture.”
On rehearsing songs with the film’s main cast, Eisendrath explained that everyone he worked on the project had a different approach:
“You have Shawn Mendes, who has obviously spent a bit of time singing. That process was less of, “Let’s get you really comfortable singing,” and more of “Let’s get you in the studio, and let’s throw some paint in the wall and have you give us all of these versions.” What was really fun with Shawn was that he always makes great musical and vocal choices. And he is also an actor, as a signer. You listen to his songs, and you hear him acting in his pop songs. He’s not playing himself or a character that he’s written. He’s playing Lyle, who has a specific set of needs, wants, and things to communicate. It was really fun exploring that with him in the studio, the sort of moment-to-moment, dramatic beat of each song and how to accomplish that, not only musically, but in a way that will be compelling in the mouth of a CGI character on screen.
Then you have someone like Javier Bardem, one of the great actors of our time. He has had singing experience in the past, but I don’t believe he would call himself a singer first and foremost. With someone like that, I will spend hours and hours looking at the song as a monologue. Javier actually has an amazing voice, because he has sung before. We weren’t starting from scratch. But we started to add some pitches, and rhythms, and get him in the center of the interior life of every lyric and the character from moment to moment during the song. That frees him to use his voice, as an actor, to accomplish what his character needs to accomplish. At the same time, every actor works with vocal coaches. So while I’m coaching the songs, and how we want them to sing each phrase, and the articulation through the style and all of that, I’m very much doing that in tandem with great vocal coaches who are working out their voices and strengthening the muscles and the instruments so that they can be at their most flexible place in the studio, so that we can have all options open.”
Eisendrath praised Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s work on the movie because they are great dramatists:
“They’re always thinking about story and characters. They will often be like, “We’re not ready to write a song until we really understand what is happening on screen, and what the beat of the story is the song covering.” When they write, they aren’t just writing melodies. They aren’t just writing accompaniment, they aren’t just thinking about music production. They’re thinking of how the character would say, and sing each of these lyrics. Their rhythms tend to be incredibly specific. A lot of my job is to figure out, what they want, why they wrote what they wrote, and then how to work with the actor to get that. Both of them are also great singers. So they just have a very clear sense of what they’re after with these songs, and what the singer needs to do in each song.”
Pasek and Paul are songwriters who “have found a way to write pop songs that can stand on their own, be universal, and something that every single person can see and hear their own story. They also create something that is completely functional within the story. The goal is always both. But in a film like Lyle, with a song like “Take a Look at Us Now,” it’s a very specific style sung by a specific character in a specific location. While that story is character-driven, they still wrote a song that you could believe as a pop song of that character’s era and of that character’s world. That is something that anyone could sing and hum and find really great.
But then you go to songs like “Carried Away” or “Top of the World.” If you were to encounter those songs outside of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, I would put money on the fact that you would not think that the song is sung by a crocodile on a rooftop showing his new friend the wonders that await him. You would only think that it’s a great song, written by a singer, and is about an expression of what it means to be human. But when you put that in the context of the story, every single lyric relates to a specific aspect of that character, their present situation, what they are longing for, hoping to accomplish, or sharing. And that character can play and express a dramatic objective, which we always look for in narrative-driven songs, especially in the first-person tense. We need to know why they are singing, what they are trying to accomplish, and the point of delivering these words. It can never just be because we need a song there.”
On working with directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, Eisendrath described the process as being wonderful:
“We all worked really closely with them. They would first meet with Benj and Justin, and they would talk about what the vibe of the song might want to be or what it might want to accomplish. Benj and Justin really want to understand what the directors are envisioning, what they’re looking for, what’s going to be on camera, and what the action is so that they can figure out, what the tempo is, what is the hook, what does the song feel like, how it evolves, where it starts story-wise, and where it ends. From there, they would go and write, and then come up with their first draft. They present that back to the team and get feedback. Pretty soon after that, we head into a demo, where we will get the movie scored out and get a small group of musicians, some demo singers to work on the song in the studio to help realize what it’s going to be, which then becomes a sort of rehearsal document until we get our actual cast on those records.”
Eisendrath also described his collaboration with composer Matthew Morgenson, who praised him for “such a beautiful job at creating a score that feels like it leads us from song to song. I think what Matt did so beautifully was pulling those themes from the songs, turning them on their heads, and figuring out how to use the motifs and language of these songs in a way that will tell a story and connect everything into one giant musical texture. Not to mention with a million ideas of his own, but I respect the fact that he did find really artful and subtle ways to fold in thematic material from the songs to help develop character and the dramatic intensity of a situation.”
Eisendrath also worked on Spirited with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which releases in select theatres on November 11 and on Apple TV+ on November 18. The movie is described by Eisendrath as “a modern retelling of the classic Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol, starring Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, and Octavia Spencer. It’s a giant musical. It exists in sort of a fantastical space where the ghosts sing, and dance. It’s extra-musical theater. It’s fun, absurd, but also really moving. And it’s just really incredible to see Ryan will and Octavia sing these songs and tell a timeless story.”
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is now playing in theatres everywhere.