HomeInterviewsSXSW Film Spotlight – ‘Diane Warren: Relentless’ director interview

SXSW Film Spotlight – ‘Diane Warren: Relentless’ director interview

As part of our SXSW Spotlight series, 360°Sound spoke with Bess Kargman, director of the new documentary film, Diane Warren: Relentless, which premiered this week at SXSW 2024. It’s a remarkable film that ascribes the arc of award-winning songwriter Diane Warren’s life, from her childhood in Van Nuys, California, through her early success as a songwriter, and her eventual establishment of one of the most valuable publishing companies in the music industry. Diane is the songwriter behind countless chart hits and film soundtrack smashes, from DeBarge’s 1983 hit “Rhythm of the Night,” to 2022 Tik Tok sensation “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” recorded by Paloma Faith, and this year’s Oscar nominated “The Fire Inside,” from the film Flamin’ Hot, recorded by Becky G. Diane has won Emmy, Grammy, and Golden Globe awards, as well as an honorary Academy Award.

As a director and producer, Bess Kargman’s previous work has won awards at DOCNYC and the Tribeca film festival, among other prestigious festivals. She won a Producers Guild Award in 2021 and was nominated for an Emmy for Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can view the entire interview at the end of this article.

Filmmaker Bess Kargman

360°Sound: How did you get connected to this project? 

Bess Kargman: I feel like I was meant to do this film, because when I was 18 years old, I was singing her music a capella in college. I’ve done documentaries about dance and about sports, but I had never done a music film. And I had been chomping at the bit for the right project for me. I was vying for it against some other directors. I really pitched hard, because it’s such a perfect fit for me. The mixture of the music with her personal story is such a gift as a director. And then it was my job to get out of the way and let her story unfold in front of the camera.

Can you tell me about the journey you went on gathering the great contributions that you got for the film?

It’s been about three years since we began this project, since I first met Diane. And the goal was always to swoop in and swoop out of her life, because she definitely liked getting back to her songwriting. We were never able to film for consecutive weeks at a time. That allowed us the freedom, over the course of two and a half years, to see what would unfold in her life. And also to hear from all these other interesting voices, from her friends who had known her since she was 13, and people who work with her, and collaborators, to some of the greatest vocalists of all time. We got to hear how indebted they are to her because of the hits that she’s written for them.

What was it like digging into Diane’s upbringing with her?

I definitely needed to earn Diane’s trust in order to get her to open up. I could sense very early on, from my first interview with Diane, that there was a list of questions I would have to wait to ask her, way down the road. When she doesn’t want to answer a question, she usually replies with a joke, or something a little flippant. And that’s your cue that you need to circle back with that question later. But there were no questions that were off the table. That’s my rule – I’m going to ask you anything I want. And if you don’t want to answer it, that’s your right. But it’s my right to ask you what I think is going to interest the audience.

The other thing about it is we began filming deep in the middle of COVID. So there was an added challenge there. Because to really get to know someone, usually it’s spending time with them both with the cameras on and with the cameras off, and I couldn’t even really get that close to her. So there was a crazy moment where she was coming up with all these jokes, and I was wearing a mask. Diane likes people laughing at her jokes, and likes to feel heard and know that you’re really engaging with her. But she hadn’t been given her vaccination yet. And so I had to stay far away. And she had a moment where she was like, ‘I don’t know if Bess is the right director for this project. I don’t think she gets me. She’s not laughing at my jokes.’ So Cindy [Weiner], her dear friend and assistant, pulled me aside and was like, ‘If this is going to work, you really need to know that Diane doesn’t get that feedback from you.’ And I was like, ‘All right, I have to take her out for dinner, masks off, and really get to know her and have her get to know me.’ After that moment, everything changed, which was really important to getting her to open up and, honestly, to be able to push her to prevent her from making a joke with some of my questions.

You explore Diane’s aversion to romantic relationships, despite writing passionate songs about love. Tell me about presenting that dichotomy in the film.

Diane’s disinterest in romantic relationships is one of the most fascinating aspects of her personal life. I wanted to unpack that as much as I could. It was always a goal from the beginning to have people saying opposite things. People around her who have known her for a long time. So, someone said, ‘You know, it’s fantasy.’ And then someone else was like, ‘She does not fantasize about that at all.’ And someone else said she’s always got her ear out.

She has this great story that she told us, which couldn’t make it into the film, where she said a friend of hers was having an affair. And she was like, ‘Ooh, this is interesting. Can I draw inspiration from this?’ And then she wrote a song called, “You’re the Right Kind of Wrong.” And she was calling her friend being like, ‘OK, with your affair, is this how you’re feeling in your heart or your emotions?’ So she really draws inspiration from everywhere, even if she’s not the one living that affair. There’s a saying – write what you know. But who knows? Maybe deep down inside, Diane actually knows everything that she’s writing about, but no one will really know the truth.

Diane doesn’t like to talk about process, but you got her to talk about process. How’d you pull that off?

You can’t make a film about a songwriter and not have the audience learn about process. They would feel so unsatisfied, but every time I asked Diane about process, she would just say, ‘I get to work.’ And I really, truly think she has a work ethic that very few people have. But the audience does want to know that you spend a full day, maybe only focusing on one tiny phrase of a song. She would say, ‘You know, I need to go work on a song.’ And I’m asking her, ‘Can we film that?’ And she’s like, ‘No.’ I wanted the audience to feel what it was like for me as the director to come up against that. I mean, she asked us to rent her a guitar for the 48 hours that she’s here in Austin.

Diane signed a really horrible contract with [Laura Branigan’s] producer  Jack White that ended up in a law suit. How did you get White to contribute to the film?

She was the one who suggested I interview him, actually. They’re cool now. I was going to interview him no matter what. Without that huge, contentious, double lawsuit with Jack White, she wouldn’t own all of her own music. She thinks it’s the greatest gift, that she wasn’t allowed to sign with other publishers due to the lawsuit, because now she owns all of the publishing, anything that comes out of her brain. So she says she’s grateful to Jack White, but back then it was really contentious.

For me, Diane’s relationship with her cat is the emotional heart of the film. Tell me about capturing that really powerful moment with her cat.

So her relationship with her cat, named Mouse, was one of the first things I observed. It was very apparent to me that the cat was going to play a role in the film, because the first scene we ever shot was when she stays up all night before the Academy Award nominations. And she was so concerned with, ‘Where’s the cat? No one let the cat out!’ Because there are coyotes in the hills where she lives. I had observed that the cat looked very old, and I thought maybe there would be a story there eventually. The timing of the cat’s passing was not planned. She is such an animal lover. She had a very special bond with that cat. I really thought to include the footage of the scene of Diane’s cat passing away, because next to her father’s death, I think it was one of the most painful days of her life. So I knew it had to be in the film. And someone who was with her that day happened to be filming. It took me six months of begging Diane for that footage. It’s a really emotional scene. “Unbreak My Heart” could be about her cat’s passing, it doesn’t need to be about a lover. So that was a real moment in the film.

You depict Diane’s strong desire to win a competitive Academy Award, not just the honorary one. Why was that important to telling her story?

Diane has achieved every award you can think of, but growing up, she would watch the Oscars on the floor of her living room with her parents. It holds very special meaning to her, especially with a mom who didn’t really believe in her career path. Someday, I know she will win that competitive Oscar. A little bit of, ‘Look Mom, I did it. I did this all on my own.’ Not many of us have a life’s passion that is so all-consuming that it’s really, truly one of the only things we care about, at the expense of relationships. She didn’t want children. She has to leave parties early to go back and write songs.

It’s not about her winning the Oscar, it’s about her song getting that recognition that it deserves. So that’s why we focused a bit on on her desire for an Oscar. Also, she loves to joke that she’s one of the biggest losers of all time. But you know, Freud said there’s no such thing as a joke, right? So when she jokes about being the biggest loser, you know that she’s hurting. But I do believe her when she says she would rather get 15 nominations than one win. I do believe that it gives her great joy to earn an Oscar nomination.

Diane Warren: Relentless does not, as of this writing, have an announcement regarding distribution. Check back with 360°Sound soon for an update.

Learn more about Bess Kargman and her work on IMDB


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