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Interview: Stanford’s Ben Werdegar on music for ‘A Star is Born’

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Despite a 10-hour time difference, I had the chance to interview Ben Werdegar, a junior here at Stanford University, about his work on the music for the recently released “A Star is Born” movie. Starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in Cooper’s directorial debut, “A Star is Born” is the fourth iteration of the iconic Hollywood film. Werdegar, who is currently studying abroad in Florence, Italy, is a trained classical guitarist, but loves rock and pop as well. After his senior year of high school, he went on tour with the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, an opportunity that indirectly landed him in the studio working on the music for “A Star is Born.”

 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You recently had the opportunity to work on the music for “A Star is Born.” How did that opportunity come about, and what was your specific role on the production?

Ben Werdegar (BW): I was working at Warner Brothers in the film music department, but I wasn’t actually working on “A Star is Born,” at first  But basically, one day, I was getting lunch with one of the women there whose project was actually “A Star is Born.” We were just talking and I was telling her a little bit about my guitar. Senior year of high school, two days after I graduated, I got to go on tour with a big indie rock band called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and it turns out that she was a hardcore, diehard fan of this band. She used to follow them around show to show when she was in college or something. So, we kind of started to hit it off. We got to know each other a little bit. When I was younger, I used to do charity work with music and told her a few stories about that which were, I guess, very moving. Anyways, we’re at this lunch table and she started crying and so we became very, very close over this lunch and it just so happened that we get back to the office and about 20 minutes later she comes over to my desk and she tells me, “Okay, we have a problem. We actually need someone to play guitar for Bradley Cooper’s part in ‘A Star is Born.’ Would you be willing to do it?” And she said it like that, except even shorter. This was out of nowhere, I didn’t know anything about the movie, hadn’t read the script, nothing like that. But I gladly accepted, and the next day I brought my guitar to work and found myself in this super secretive studio with a member of Lady Gaga’s team, working on the music.

 

TSD: Wow, that’s an amazing story. What was is like being in the studio working on the music for “A Star is Born”?

BW: It was a little bit stressful, it was high intensity. I would be in the studio for hours at a time with no daylight, just working … I’d be doing a variety of different things, regarding the music and for the movie. Sometimes it was writing guitar parts that didn’t exist yet. Sometimes it was playing something Lady Gaga had written or they needed a new take. I think the first take they ever asked me to do was of “Maybe It’s Time,” and I think Lukas Nelson and Lady Gaga had already laid something down, an original guitar part, but they needed it to sound a lot looser, a lot more drunk. I was 19 at the time and so the sound guy and I were in this studio, which is kind of like this tiny little fortress. He shows me the scene, and Bradley’s faking how to play guitar. It’s already been filmed. So, not only do I have to play it, but I also have to match his fake hands. And I’m trying to play this brand-new material because I can’t take it home to learn it while also looking at the screen trying to match Bradley Cooper’s hands that are doing whatever he wants because he doesn’t know. So, I was trying to channel my inner, I guess, drunk rock star self.

 

TSD: That must have been a challenge.

BW: Yeah, it was very hard at first, but I just kind of rolled with it and just kept coming out with takes and we would move from one scene to the next. Eventually, they showed me the song called “Shallow.” When I heard “Shallow” for that first time – and, of course, it sounded a lot less put together than it does now – and it got to that part where Lady Gaga switches from the chorus and just really takes off, I looked over at the music supervisor and told him, “Wow, this is going to win a Grammy.” It was pretty crazy, but that was the point when I knew that this was something very, very special. Honestly, I think I’ve been over-credited with my role in the writing and playing, but I was there and did get to play a couple of chords for “Shallow.” But, yeah, that song is quite special and I’m very, very proud of Lady Gaga. I have so much respect for her.

 

TSD: Definitely.  Were you mostly in the studio recording, or were you on set as well?

BW: I was never on set. By the time I joined the project, the only scene that they had not filmed was that final scene at the Forum [at the end of the movie where Ally performs solo]. So, I was only in the studio going off of the visuals from whatever they were doing with Bradley at the time.

 

TSD: Did you get to see the movie in advance? Or did you have to wait for it to come out in theaters?

BW: No, I had only seen the clips that I’d worked, on plus a few that were not even included in the final cut, since the director’s cut was about three and a half hours long. And then I went to Italy and had to wait an additional two weeks, which felt like the longest wait ever. But we finally found this theater that had it with Italian subtitles, so it was in English. Actually, the Florence program gave us all our classes off so that the whole student group could go see it, which was really, really nice. It was a ton of fun.

 

TSD: What was that like for you, sitting in that theater? Can you tell what stuff is yours, or is it hard to tell?

BW: Um, I think I can tell, but I’m not totally sure. And my mom thinks she can tell. But the first time I saw it, it was really hard for me to take a step back and just enjoy it. I was so analytical about it, and it’s pretty hard to just enjoy it when you’re hearing yourself on the big screen. But the second time I saw it and they started playing “Shallow” I was very moved; it was very emotional. Then I was able to forget that it was me and really tried to just feel the film the way everyone else was while watching it. But I’m so happy with how it all came together.

 

TSD: And there’s a big chance that song will win an Oscar, too.

BW: It’s been pretty trippy. And this is a Lady Gaga song. I want to make that definitely clear. This is Lady Gaga’s song and there are tons of musicians who worked on it who are also in the same boat as I am, I think, who played a part but are not Lady Gaga. But, I don’t know, I’ve told my friends a couple of times in the last few days that I’ve just wanted to throw my phone into the river over here because I feel like I haven’t gotten a break from it. I have all these people asking me all this stuff about the Grammys and I get that question about four times a day and I don’t even know what the deal is. I don’t know what’s going on … It’s been a little bit stressful. I’m not going to lie.

I’ve had my turn in the spotlight and I actually very much relate to this film, which I think was unique for a 19-year-old kid to be able to relate to the super drunk rock star character. But I had seen that lifestyle when I was on the road with Edward Sharpe; I remember after the first show at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, two days after I graduated high school, I came home and I was talking to my mom and it was the weirdest feeling. I was telling her how two hours ago there had been 8,000 people cheering for me and yelling for me while I was on stage and I had felt like God. Suddenly, I was back home, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. And she just looked and me and said, “Yeah, that’s why they all do drugs.”

So, yeah, I mean this extends so much farther than what the interview is about, but it’s good. It’s a very moving movie and I’m extremely anxious and nervous about the awards and how it will be received and what my role in all of that is. But I’m really content with the project as a whole and am really excited to see where it goes.

 

Contact Hayley Hodson at hhodson ‘at’ stanford.edu.