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'Frozen' songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez on writing the 2015 Oscars opener

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Though Frozen songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez were behind Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number at the Oscars Sunday night, “Moving Pictures,” they were watching from Brooklyn in their pajamas. “I have no idea what it looked like in the theater but I know that from where we saw it was really cool,” Anderson-Lopez told EW over the phone Monday morning. “We were just as surprised as everybody else.”

The Lopezes collaborated with Harris and his head writer Dave Boone to create an introduction to the evening’s proceedings that both earnestly honored cinema history, and also took some jabs at the industry through a “naysayer” character played by Jack Black. 

Anderson-Lopez talked to EW about writing the song, writing for Anna Kendrick on the way to the Grammys, and that Idina Menzel moment. 

EW: First off, what was the call like? What was the pitch? What was that initial conversation?

KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ: The initial conversation was kind of a continuation of a couple of awards that Neil has talked to us about before, and we were always really busy. So when he called us for this, he was like, “okay, Lopezes.” And we were like, yes, before he had even said anything. We really took the lead from Neil. He’s such a force of nature that we had had some ridiculous ideas, I think, but then we kind of found that the best way to work was to follow his lead, and what he wanted to do and we kind of all just worked together.

Neil had talked to you about different awards shows?

In the past we had been asked for some other awards shows, and the timing hadn’t worked out. We were just swamped while writing Frozen. This time around he called and we thought, let’s do it. We’ve never written for an awards show before. So that was always on the bucket list of something we wanted to do and try.

What were Neil’s initial ideas that you jumped off from?

He has this whole understanding of the visual world and of magic that can be used. So that was one of the things that we held onto was the idea of how to use movies and use his sort of magic background to play with them. He had this great idea that was realized more or less. We had lots of ideas of moving screens maybe and that he could jump in and out and pull people in and out that ended up getting technically really hard. But he had this great idea about the visual, and I think we all agreed that this was a year to take our fan experiences as fans of the movies and celebrate that.

How did you pick which movies were going to get mentioned? Neil actually did something with EW where he said Clue was one of his favorites, and that got in there. Was it difficult to write? Or fun?

There were so many possibilities. I think there’s a list somewhere of 100 movies that might be interesting to reference. Each of us made our own list. Bobby made his list; I made my mine. Obviously they were dictated some of them by what rhymed. There were those iconic moments we knew we wanted to hit on. We knew we had a whole century, basically, to cover of movies, and that we wanted to make sure nobody felt left out and that we weren’t leaving out the millennials. That was something that we had to pay attention to. It’s interesting because we have kids who are under the millennials and we ourselves are Generation X. But hitting on those movies that the thirty-somethings love that we wouldn’t necessarily have done. I had my sister weigh in. Obviously we referenced Clue because in our first meeting I was like, what movies do you love, Neil? And he was like, “I like Clue.” So the movie Clue got a shout out and we worked pretty closely with Dave Boone, the head writer. He came up with a whole list of interesting movie clips that might be fun to put Neil into. We had this bridge section. And we went from there.

What was it like working with the technical elements? From the viewer’s perspective at home, you don’t totally know how it’s working. Did you always know those would happen when you were writing the number?

The interactive visual element was at the seed of the idea. That’s how we came up with the hook “moving pictures” was the idea of playing with these screens and interacting with these screens. That was always there from the inception and after we wrote the first verse and the first chorus we had a conference call with the director, the choreographer, the music director and the visual development guy. There were many many chefs involved in this. Everyone weighed in on here’s what we think we can do, here’s what our budget allows, and we went from there. Now, I have to admit that because Bobby turned 40 we were home in our pajamas in Brooklyn. Our kids are at school today and Bobby wanted to be with the kids so we didn’t go this year. So I have no idea what it looked like in the theater but I know that from where we saw it was really cool. We were just as surprised as everybody else.

When did you come up with idea for “Moving Pictures?” It’s a little antiquated, referencing the history.

We knew that we were going to do this interactive element. We had a lunch. We threw a whole bunch of hooks around. Again, “moving pictures” we seized on because we were going to do a little bit more with the history. There was supposed to be a bit more of the history aspect. There are only so many things you can do in a song. But I think, again, going from a place of having been there and having experienced that awe of being part of a historical moment, Neil wanted to put his own excitement on like, “Wow, wow that I get to do this,” and the fact that we’ve all really been moved by movies. The message of this song was ultimately that movies have really changed who we are, and we’ve all had those experiences where we sit and we watch a movie and we’re a different person when we get up. I think at its core we wanted to not just have it be a trifle of a song we wanted to say something meaningful as well.

The Jack Black section. That was hilarious, but it also pointed about what’s going on in the industry now. Where did that come from?

That moment was all ways called “the curmudgeon” or “the naysayer.” We also knew that if we were going to go as sincerely fanboy and girl as we went with this song that we needed to also put some salt in the soup. You can’t go so much into, wow, aren’t movies great, without also having the other perspective of, if you spend your life making movies or doing anything creative, there are always roadblocks and there are always business aspects of the creative experience that are realities that aren’t always as much fun. But you have both. I always think of it as it as isn’t “either or,” it’s “yes and.” And that was a “yes and.”

When did you know that you would have Jack Black to do it?

I think that happened early January. It was just so amazing. I still have the message on my phone when he was like, “Kristen, this is Jack Black. Call me.” That’s really a cool thing to have on my iPhone. I thought he did an amazing job. We’re huge Tenacious D fans. We’ve just been watching School of Rock with our own kids. We’re huge Jack Black fans so it was really exciting to have a brief moment of collaboration even if it was across a continent.

When did you know Anna Kendrick was going to be involved? Did you know you would get to have the Cinderella element from Into the Woods?

That came pretty late. That came about two weeks ago. We’re so grateful that she did that. It was like two weeks ago. We were at the Grammys. I’m not kidding we were on our way in a limo to the Grammy Awards, which we were writing a speech, and eating a bunch of almonds because we hadn’t eaten, and writing her lyrics because they needed them right away to be able to pitch her. But we were really excited and of course we’re huge Into the Woods fans. Sondheim is the godfather of what we love. It was nice to be able to give him a shout out.

Are there any favorite lines that you guys have in the song?

I bet Bobby would have different opinions about that. I like the “small town girls who change the world by challenging the norm.” In whatever I do I try to put a little shout out to strong women in some way. I really liked, and actually this changed: “and then I think of Chaplin and Garbo and Argo and Fargo.” He changed it to Monroe because it was really hard to find visuals of Garbo.

Did you have any specific inspirations when writing the melody for the song?

Neil really loves Finding Nemo – The Musical, which is down in the Animal Kingdom in Disney World, which we wrote 10 years ago. So when we were thinking about having a sincere message at the core of our song and a kind of sweeping feeling we looked at that and looked at what we did there.

Have you known Neil for a while?

Here’s a crazy thing. We’re not close besties, but I just found this out, he was at the opening of Avenue Q Off-Broadway, which was the moment Bobby asked me to marry him. He was there in 2003. And then he was at The Book of Mormon party in 2011. I think that’s where I met him and we kind of have been at theater things together. But this is the first time we got to work closely and have lunches and stuff.

You experienced watching at home, the way I did and so many other people did. Did you ever get a chance to experience it in the theater for rehearsals? Or were you coming at it like everyone else—except for the fact that you had been involved in the whole collaborative process?

I would say the latter. And that’s just one of those things about being working parents. I think in a different universe if we didn’t have two children and live in Brooklyn we would have probably been at a lot of those rehearsals. It’s one of those hard choices we have to make in our lives right now, which is trying to do our best with these amazing opportunities across the country while also being Brooklyn parents, and ultimately being a Brooklyn parent trumps everything at this moment in our life, and so no we didn’t get to see any rehearsals or anything. But we got to imagine it, and like I said, we were texted or called almost every day for the last five weeks. We just had a constant text chain with Dave Boone and Neil, as something came up and Neil was like, “ah, let’s change this word.”  It would happen at like 9:30 at night, sometimes 11. It’s been fun that way.

What did you think of the Idina Menzel-John Travolta moment?

That was amazing. She looked incredible. I was so excited. Idina looked gorgeous, and honestly we were just thinking about all of those nominees waiting to hear their named called and putting ourselves in that position while John Travolta touched Idina’s face.

Is there anything that I missed about the experience that you wanted to share?

It really was a collaboration between Neil Patrick Harris, Dave Boone, the head writer, and the two of us. That it was really four writers, and that it’s been really fun. It’s been like having a really good friend across the country that you’re in a constant text chain with.

How was Neil involved in writing the lyrics?

He was very involved. What’s incredible about Neil is he knows first you get the idea and you kind of spitball it and you throw clay up against the wall, and then it’s all about constantly polishing, polishing, polishing. Until the very last second he was sending, what if we change this “and” to a “the” and he really sweats the details, which I think is one of his superpowers. I’ve said it before in interviews, but I think maybe Neil should run for president, because he’s so smart and he’s so detail oriented. What he pulled off last night was an incredible feat of keeping control over thousands of moving parts, and then he makes it look so effortless when he gets up there but if he was working as hard as he was working on the opening number with all of the other things that he did I don’t know how he slept. He really was involved down to, like I said, the “ands” and the “thes” and the “ors.”

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