Executive Music Producer Ian Eisendrath on Working With Shawn Mendes in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile
If you walked out of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile with a smile on your face and a tune stuck in your head, you owe a big thanks to Ian Eisendrath.
Ian was the executive music producer on the film, working with the songwriters, musicians and cast—including Shawn Mendes as the titular computer-animated croc Lyle—to get the sound picture-perfect for the big screen. We got the chance to hop on a Zoom call to chat with him all about his job, collaborating with a massive pop star on a movie project and his work on the upcoming film Spirited, starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, and here's what he shared with us.
Sweety High: Can you walk me through what your role as executive music producer looks like day to day?
Ian Eisendrath: I feel like my job is to oversee and take responsibility for the total music product, which is everything from vocal performances to music production, recording sessions and the music arrangement mix. Generally, in any form of narrative storytelling, the role of music is to deepen, enhance and further the character, story and action. I always look at everything from the perspective of a storyteller. How can we, as a music department that shifts from project to project, support the story and the filmmakers' vision and what's on picture? We ensure that music is always supporting what needs to happen moment-to-moment in the narrative film.
SH: For something like Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, it sounds like a big endeavor to keep that narrative coherence when it's a blend between original pop songs, well-known songs and the orchestral score.
IE: Yeah, Lyle was really, really fun because there are basically three different kinds of music in the film. There were original songs written by [Benj] Pasek and [Justin] Paul, some of which were sung on camera by Javier Bardem or Constance Wu or Winslow Fegley, who played the young boy Josh. He had to convincingly sing badly, which was interesting because he actually sings quite well.
Our job was to develop and produce those songs prior to filming to work with the actors, which essentially gives you a document of how we'd like the songs to sound, including the acting choices, moment to moment, that the directors are looking for. Then, while we're shooting, we work with the cast members to replicate that performance—or it might need to shift based on what happens on camera, and what the directors want.
With those original songs, we also have a CGI character, voiced by Shawn Mendes. While we did shoot those with a CGI stand-in, who learned to sing the song so we could get something on camera, from there we sort of reverse-engineered it for Shawn, working to bring everything he is to the moment that's already been filmed and developed. Even after recording with Shawn, it undergoes more developments and shifts.
Then, on top of the original songs, we had a bunch of songs that we call "needle drops," which are pre-existing songs where you can basically drop the needle and play back an already-existing master. In Lyle, that's how Lyle finds his voice, and communicates with other people. Lyle, as a character, ends up hearing these songs, after being given a music player by Javier Bardem's character, Hector. You sort of get the sense that Lyle was all alone, and all he had was this playlist on repeat. He uses the songs to communicate his thoughts and feelings to the characters, because he can't speak. With those songs, it was all about figuring out whether Lyle while sing along with these songs or if he was going to do them a cappella, as a solo, and how that would sound.
Then, there was the score, written by the incredible Matthew Margeson, and that obviously is much more akin to a traditional film score, underscoring the drama moment-to-moment. Between all of these elements, it was really important to us that they all felt like one. We did a lot of different things to make sure that there was crossover, whether it was some of the same musicians performing, and in the way we recorded and produced everything. Thematically, you'll hear all over Matt Margeson's score, quotes of the original songs, and also the original songs, very much written in the style of pop music today. Hopefully, they share a little DNA with the needle drops.
SH: How closely did you work with Pasek and Paul to get those to feel really cohesive with the full film?
EI: They truly are the masters of the theatrical pop song. That is just something they do so uniquely well, and they were very much aware when they did this that they wanted the songs to be of a vibe/tone/style/sound of the world of this film, which includes everything from Elton John to Stevie Wonder. They definitely wrote with the intention of writing pop songs, and the bulk of my work with Pasek and Paul was, once the song was written, getting it ready to be recorded and working with the team to develop the instrumental tracks, whether they were programmed, produced tracks versus more acoustic instruments with an orchestra, as well as producing the vocal performances in the studio. I conducted the orchestra for a lot of these and ended up just getting in the trenches with them from day one until the final mix.
SH: Do you feel like it's different recording a song for a character who is going to be singing it in live-action versus singing as a CGI character?
EI: I think it's very different. When you're recording something for live-action, it's almost as if the recording process is a big giant rehearsal, because you're working with an actor to find out what all of the different choices and colors and approaches could be possible. You have the directors in the room, who are also hearing everything and giving feedback. That's also the moment that Pasek and Paul get to make sure they're hearing what they envisioned. That ends up being a long, really rich, fruitful process of throwing paint at the wall and seeing what sticks, and then you combine it all together. You choose from the various takes, the various words, the various phrases that feel most true to what the story character and filmmaking are trying to accomplish.
Then you get on set, and while you have that document, spontaneity is everything. Maybe Javier Bardem made one choice in the studio, but now he's actually moving and dancing and looking at an actor, and he might make a different choice. In that moment, we'll pivot, and then decide whether to use the production audio because we got really good audio, or if you're compromised—maybe there's wind blowing, or you're in the rain, or it's just not a great space for picking up sound—we would then go back into the studio to record a choice that matches sync, emotionally and just physically, from what we shot on the day. It's all about having options the directors can look at and consider throughout the editing process. One of the main things I tend to think about during pre-records and post-records is that our job is to make sure that we can say yes to almost any requests that are given to us, which means getting as many options as possible.
SH: And obviously, Shawn Mendes is a huge pop star. Was it different working with him than with your typical actor?
IE: I mean, he's Shawn Mendes! First of all, he has his brand and his vibe and what he expects, and it's really, really important that we deliver on that. He also approaches everything as a singer, which is vastly different than how someone who has sung less than acted more would approach something. What was fun was finding that blend of the Shawn sound and style and vibe that we all want and expect, and imagining how that could be accomplished in this character while also making sure that it is also functioning at a dramatic acting level. I have to say he was just so game, and it was really fun to see him exercise those muscles and try things. I do think the songs, while they absolutely sound like Shawn, also have a really fresh, spontaneous and sort of heightened, dramatic edge to the way that he's singing the text and interpreting the words. He's making sure that not only is he sounding amazing at all times, but he's communicating really specific thoughts and ideas in order to affect action from the person he's singing to.
SH: You also worked on the film Spirited, which comes out this month, starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. Can you tell us a little bit about their viral cover of "Grace Kelly"?
EI: Yes, we did that on set while we were filming. You'll see in the film, but there's a scene that takes place in 1800s London. I remember being on that set in Boston and seeing them filming it. I think it might have been Ryan and his team's idea, but I believe the idea was that it would be fun to tease what ended up being almost a two-hour film. They have a lot of songs and duets that they sing together, so it felt like a great way to establish them as a singing duo. We brought them into the studio really quickly to do a rough recording, and then we went and filmed it.
SH: The film isn't out just yet, but is there anything you're really proud of that you can't wait for viewers to hear when they see the movie?
EI: I really love the film on so many levels. The songs that Benj and Justin wrote are just really, really wonderful. It's sort of a love letter/send-up of musical theater. Everything is so extra and over the top, and self-aware as a musical theater performance. I love the songs they created and the way those moments function. I'm also really proud of Ryan, Will and Octavia and their singing. They all worked really hard to sing songs that are quite rangy and complicated and not easy to sing. That's probably what I am the proudest of, just watching them sing and perform the songs on camera. And they're really, really doing it. I also think the whole world of the film and the sound of the film are really exciting. The score by Dominic Lewis is stunning. I'm excited about the whole thing.
SH: Was there anything else you'd like to add?
IE: We actually just finished shooting Disney's live-action Snow White as well. I'm really excited about that. That's yet another score by Pasek and Paul. I'm also starting a new animated project that is going to feature K-pop songs, and I'm really enjoying that!