Behind the Sounds: The music in ‘Booksmart’ is all about finding yourself

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Writer Katie Silberman, director of photography Jason McCormick and director Olivia Wilde on the set of "Booksmart." Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures.

Booksmart” is about two girls on a pre-high school graduation mission to shake off the stereotypes that their classmates placed on them. The film uses music to play against the tension of their studious personalities, and as a transition when they break free and become comfortable with themselves. 

Director Olivia Wilde says it was important to have all kinds of music in the movie: “I thought if we're going to reflect that adolescent experience of music being the way you experience your emotions and the way you express yourself, we need to have a range.”

To do that, she relied on music supervisor Bryan Ling to make her playlists. 

“It was very important for Olivia before they started to film to have a lot of music that was on set while they were filming,” he says. “My role at that point was to make her a bunch of playlists that she could pick and choose from and bring with her to kind of set the vibe”

The two of them used those mixes to discover new songs that could work in the movie. But sometimes Wilde had something in mind that just had to work, like Alanis Morisette’s 90s classic, “You Oughta Know.” The song is generally very expensive to license, but Wilde says they secured it with the power of positive thinking.

“There's a lot of dreaming and responding and working really hard to make dreams come true, which is why the soundtrack is what it is. They're several songs on there that we never should have been able to afford,” she says. “But when you bring this experience to a more human place of human interaction between artists, you get away from the kind of labels, price points and that kind of exchange. And it becomes much more about who wants to be a part of something we believe in, and how can we work together to make it happen.”

Some tracks were spontaneously added to the film. In one scene, Kaitlyn Dever, who plays one of the film’s protagonists, swims slowly through a pool. As she comes up for air, she makes a discovery that shatters her world. 

“I was struggling to find the rhythm with which to edit it and put together something,” she says. “I had ‘Slip Away’ on. I realized that I'd started the song right when we started going to hit the spacebar and start playing the pool sequence. And I turned the song way up, and I couldn't believe how well it was fitting with the scene. Suddenly the scene came alive.” 

Wilde says the movie would not be what it is without the contributions of the musical artists. 

“The experience of directing a film and putting music on there is this weird interaction with artists who made the music before you ever made this film. And yet you feel like there's a connection,” she says. “That's why I feel that all these artists, their DNA is in the movie in a way that makes me really proud. I think of them as collaborators. I don't think of it as kind of arbitrarily placed music to create energy, which I think sometimes happens in film. It's this opportunity to bring in other artists to help shape this story.” 

More: KCRW’s Press Play: In ‘Booksmart,’ an attempt to redefine high school labels



Larry Perel


Cerise Castle