Interview

Q&A: Michael Cera Talks Dina And His Soundtrack Song With Sharon Van Etten

Michael Cera tends to come off as a music fanatic that occasionally moonlights as an actor. He played with Sex Bob-Omb in the film Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and the indie-rock supergroup Mister Heavenly (featuring his friend Nick Thorburn) in the real world, played on a Weezer album, and even released a lo-fi folk album through Bandcamp called True That. Never one to put down the guitar for long, he has now added “film composer” to his multi-hyphenate belt with his work on the upcoming documentary Dina, which will be released on 10/6.

Directed by the team of Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles (best known for the documentary Mala Mala), Dina is a sweet and moving look at living with neurodiversity and the romantic adventures of the boisterous and resilient Dina Buno and her amiable fiancé Scott Levin. After seeing an early cut of Dina, Cera asked the directors if he could write music for it, and his gentle, strummy compositions quietly bolster the film’s wistful grace. Cera also wrote the movie’s big-hearted synth jam “Best I Can,” featuring Sharon Van Etten, confirming once again that’s he’s a big softie with a good ear for hooks.

I spoke to Cera over the phone about Dina and his music career, and though I would have liked to get him to talk about his already legendary appearance as Wally Brando in Twin Peaks, unfortunately he had to get back to work on the fifth season of Arrested Development. Read our Q&A and check out the video for “Best I Can” below.

STEREOGUM: How did you get involved with doing the music for the documentary Dina?

CERA: I was invited to a screening for the movie early on, where the [filmmakers] showed it to friends and get thoughts on the movie, because the editor of the movie, a woman named Sofía, is a friend of mine. This was the second film she’d done with these guys, and I saw the first one, so I kind of knew them through her. I came to the screening to see this thing that they were working on and that I’d been hearing about, too, and it sounded amazing as they were making it. It sounded like it was really going to be special.

I loved the movie, and I really thought I had a sense of what kind of music would suit it in terms of a score, which… it’s a very sparse score. It didn’t need very much because it’s a really kind of dry tone, and it’s this real-life couple. It didn’t want to be wall-to-wall music or over the top — just little touches here and there. And I asked [the filmmakers] if they would let me write music for it, and they were open to it.

STEREOGUM: When you were watching Dina did you instantly think: “I want to be part of this?”

CERA: I did. I wanted to contribute in some way to it. I was really taken with it. It’s a very special movie, and I wanted to take on that challenge, too, of offering to provide original music for a [film] and see if I could do it and see what that [type of collaboration] would be like.

STEREOGUM: You’ve contributed to both the Scott Pilgrim and Juno soundtracks. Is this the first time you contributed music to a movie that you aren’t starring in or involved with in any other way?

CERA:  No, it’s not actually. It’s the second time I’ve done something in that regard, but that movie hasn’t come out yet. It’s a movie my friend Michael Angarano made a few years ago that I did the music for, called Avenues, which I think… that’s going to get released soon.

STEREOGUM: As an actor, do you like the challenge of not being involved with the movie in any other way except for making music?

CERA: Well, yeah. It’s just a very different kind of exercise, and it’s different from working on a movie in any other capacity because you’re basically working by yourself. I mean, it’s a back and forth, but I did everything alone except for when I would have people play certain instruments and stuff. That’s a totally different kind of work, because a movie, the whole thing is that you’re constantly surrounded by and depending on all these people around you.

STEREOGUM: Were there any favorite movie scores that you had in your mind or were referencing when you were working on the score for this?

CERA: To be honest, no, there weren’t any real references. Because the stuff I like, Henry Mancini or Nino Rota or something, would just not have applied here and also is completely not anywhere near my spectrum of capability. The approach was very simple: sitting down with a guitar and watching the movie in the certain spots, the cues that the [filmmakers] told me they wanted some music in, and just seeing what comes and then building it up from there. It was a simple and organic way to approach it.

STEREOGUM: You and the filmmakers, you’re not trying to sell the movie as “featuring music from Michael Cera” or whatever.

CERA: No. And it’s really not enough music to merit anything like that. It’s a pretty small contribution, and it’s their thing that I just tagged myself onto.

STEREOGUM: So tell me about the song you wrote with Sharon Van Etten, “Best I Can.” How did it come about?

CERA: I proposed this song to replace another song that [filmmakers] had playing during a montage. The song was “Only You” by Yaz. They have that in the movie, and at one point they didn’t know if they would be able to clear it. I said, “Well, let me make an original song for there, just in case, and it’ll be a different kind of option for you.” They tried to use “Best I Can,” and it didn’t work as well for them. They had fallen in love with the Yaz song, and then they ended up clearing that. My song was ultimately rejected, but after that, they thought, “Well, since we have it and you made it, why don’t we release it and give it its own kind of life, so it doesn’t just kind of die and nobody ever hear it?” That was basically the inspiration to put out the single and the music video.

STEREOGUM: Did you know Sharon before working with her?

CERA: Yeah, I knew Sharon because we both share this music rehearsal/recording space together. We share the rent, and we split our time in there. We’ve been doing that for a few years, but this is the first time we’ve ever worked on a song together.

STEREOGUM: I watched Dina and though I really liked it, I could definitely see some people — no matter what the directors’ intentions are — worrying that these documentary makers are exploiting these people who don’t know better. Are you already prepared for a backlash, and what is your response to anyone that may accuse the directors of taking advantage of people?

CERA: I don’t think so. I don’t have that feeling — maybe because I know so much of the background of the movie. Dan Sickles is one of the two directors, and Dan’s father started this group [called the Action Club] and was running it. Dan was brought up being a part of that club, [which Dina is a member of], so Dina was a part of Dan’s life since he was a little boy. She was family to him. And I know [the filmmakers’] inspiration for making this movie, and it’s the furthest thing from exploitation. But I think that’ll be an individual thing, the way people react to [the film] and what people take away from it.