With 11 nominations for Best Song and counting, Diane Warren is used to being an Oscar also-ran, but the songwriting legend isn’t afraid to admit she finally wants to take home that gold. She could earn a nomination this year for “Io Sì,” the heart-tugging ballad she penned for Edoardo Ponti’s Italian Netflix drama “The Life Ahead,” which the country didn’t submit as its international feature pick. But it’s nonetheless stirring buzz below the line since Warren grabbed a surprise Golden Globes win this past Sunday, her first in 10 years. (She won in 2011 for “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” performed by Cher for “Burlesque.”)
“Netflix sent champagne to all of the nominees. I don’t really drink but I’m like, ‘I’m probably not going to win. Let’s just get drunk or something,'” Warren recalled in a phone interview with IndieWire out of her studio in Hollywood, where she tends to barricade herself to work solo, penning Oscar-nominated earworms like “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close and Personal,” “How Will I Live” from “Con Air,” and, of course, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from “Armageddon.”
“I’ve never won [an Oscar], and I’m hoping too,” she said. “I’m not gonna lie. Some people go, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ But it’d be fun. It’d be great. When you look at the people that are voting in the music branch, they are the greatest composers and songwriters working today. If those people pick your song, to me, that’s the win.”
Often, either studios or filmmakers come to Warren looking for that specific, ineffable, emotional flourish she brings to movies, and for singers like Lady Gaga (“Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground”), Jennifer Hudson (“I’ll Fight” from “RBG”), Faith Hill (“There You’ll Be” from “Pearl Harbor”), Andra Day (“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall”), and Chrissy Metz (“I’m Standing With You” from “Breakthrough”).
But in the case of “The Life Ahead,” starring Sophia Loren as a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor who’s now a surrogate mother to hardscrabble kids in the port city of Bari, Italy, it was Warren who chased director Ponti, who’s also Loren’s son.
“My friend was telling me the story of the movie, and I thought, ‘I need to read the script.’ Edoardo sent me the script, and it’s such a beautiful story that just kind of breaks your heart in a beautiful way. I kept seeing this word ‘seen,’ because here you have people that the world doesn’t really ‘see’ for who they are.” While Loren’s Madame Rosa is looked on as an aging prostitute, and the 12-year-old Senegalese boy she takes under her wing named Momo is seen as just another troubled street kid, Warren said, “These are really beautiful people. Just their journey of how they see each other, and how they love each other for who they are. I loved the concept for wanting to know that you’re seen.”
Thus, the song “Io Sì” (styled as “Seen” in U.S. vernacular) was born. It’s sung by Italian superstar Laura Pausini, and a music video for the track closes on Sophia Loren, who told Warren “Seen” was “the most beautiful song she’d ever heard in her life.”
Warren loves working alone, rarely letting anyone besides her closest collaborators into the secret world of her studio. “A lot of times you see nine and 10 writers on some of these songs these days. I’m like, ‘What are you actually doing on that song?’ Someone came up with a hi hat pattern in the bridge. Someone got coffee. I’m not really one of those people,” she said. She’s also something of a machine who persists, much in the same way she does through the Oscars gauntlet, despite obstacles thrown her way.
“I broke my hand around last year’s Oscars. I fell in my office. Everyone says ‘Break a leg!’ but no, I did something different. I wrote the song with a broken hand, and I went to Edoardo’s house because he was going to Italy the next day,” she said. “I went over there with a guitar and a broken hand, and he loved it.”
While Warren often writes siloed from a film’s production, and can even work based off of just a few scenes, “The Life Ahead” was a different experience, and one that had her especially agog once she and her music supervisor Bonnie Greenberg traveled to Bari during the shoot. “Sophia was sitting next to us. ‘I’ve got to get a selfie!’ She’s a legend. I’m here and I’m not going to leave without a selfie.” But Loren demurred, as on this particular day of shooting, the actress told Warren, “No, I’m dying today,” meaning the actress didn’t feel her glamorous best while portraying her character at the end of her life. But Warren said, “Even when she thinks she’s looking bad, she’s still gorgeous.”
Though not exactly able to travel anywhere so tony as Italy right now, and even without the glittery hobnobbing of awards season parties and passed crudités and starry campaign screenings, Warren said, “I’ll never be jaded with any of this. Even the Zoom version,” even when so many players are surely fatigued by a season stripped of its promotional perks.
“It’s not quite the same when you’re sitting by yourself in a room,” she said. “Then again, there’s some dinners I always wanted to get out of. Now I have a pretty good excuse.”
Even still, she said a possible 12th Oscar nomination for “The Life Ahead” is a silver lining. “I stay up all night waiting for those nominations,” she said. “We have sleepovers at my house. I don’t know how we’re going to do that this year. I’m staying up all night.”