How did Jay Roach get a Beatles song for 'Dinner for Schmucks'?
When I was having breakfast with Jay Roach Thursday morning, I couldn't have opened the interview with a dumber question. Having seen his new film, "Dinner for Schmucks," which stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd as the ultimate kind of odd-couple buddies, I asked Roach who he got to do such an uncannily accurate cover version of the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill," the song that plays over the opening credits. He took pity on me by not bursting into derisive laughter at, well, how foolish the question was. "Actually, it is the Beatles," he said.
As it turned out, it wasn't all that easy to reel in a Beatles original. According to the music detectives over at the Film Babble blog, there's a pretty short list of films with actual Beatles songs (as opposed to cover versions) in them. "The World According to Garp" has "When I'm Sixty-Four" playing over its opening credits. John Hughes has the band's cover of "Twist and Shout" in the parade sequence in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Hal Ashby was a true Beatles devotee, and one with clout, having nabbed a pair of Beatles originals for both "Shampoo" and "Coming Home." And of course, Robert Zemeckis' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is loaded with tons of Beatles songs that play throughout the film.
For Roach, having "Fool on the Hill" was invaluable because, as he told me, he'd been wrestling with how to give audiences an early glimpse of Carell, even though his character--a lonely loser--isn't actually on screen for the first 15-or-so minutes of the film. As the song plays, we see someone constructing intricate dioramas populated with dead mice, which as we later learn, depict images from Carell's character's long-gone marriage. "I'd been floundering a little with how the movie should start and when our music editor put the song on, it just worked," said Roach.
So Roach did what filmmakers do best. He wrote a long letter to Paul McCartney, making it clear that there was no possible substitute for having "Fool on the Hill." "It helped I think that we'd done an homage to 'A Hard Day's Night' in the first 'Austin Powers' film, which I'd heard had been well received," Roach explained. It also probably helped that Roach's wife, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, had met McCartney a couple of times and was a serious Beatles fan, having covered "Got to Get You Into My Life" with Matthew Sweet a few years ago.
"Still, I think the letter helped," Roach said. "I wrote it as if I were the Minister of Storytelling, telling Paul all about the character that Carell plays, with all its irony and sweetness and sadness, and how the song really captured the mood of what was going on. And I admitted that I couldn't think of any other way to start the film."
Roach sent McCartney footage of the opening sequence, with the song playing over it, and--voila--permission was granted. The song didn't come cheap. Paramount/DreamWorks reportedly paid $1.5 million for its usage. But the song sets a perfect tone for the film, neatly capturing the melancholy spirit that is at the heart of Carell's performance, so I'd say it was worth all 150 million pennies.
UPDATE: Paramount is saying it paid less than a million for the Beatles song, though it wouldn't provide a precise figure. In dollars or pennies.
Photo: Paul McCartney in performance at the White House earlier this year. Credit: MJ Kim / PBS