Shawn Patterson may have written the irresistible LEGO Movie earworm “Everything Is Awesome,” but everything—well at least many things—about his journey to his first-ever Oscar nomination was actually more bittersweet.
Academy Award nomination morning started out with sheer bliss for Patterson, 49. His name was the very first Oscar nominee read when J.J. Abrams began announcing this year’s list of contenders. Minutes later, however, his heart sank when The LEGO Movie, the film for which his song is the jubilant theme for and which every Oscar pundit thought was a shoo-in to win this year’s Best Animated Feature award, was snubbed of a nomination altogether.
Then there’s his experience of writing the “Everything Is Awesome.” He landed the commission to write the track, sort of an “It’s a Small World” for a modern audience because of its catchiness and indelibleness, more than two decades after arriving in Hollywood to pursue a career composing music for film and TV. He arrived in 1990 with just $400 to his name and no representation.
After steadily racking up credits writing for animated series like The Ren & Stimpy Show and Robot Chicken, he was hired to write “Everything Is Awesome” for The LEGO Movie, the rare original song that isn’t just played during a film but is a lynchpin plot point in and of itself. While he was writing the aggressively positive and sunny track, however, things were not as awesome is in personal life. Patterson was actually going through a rough divorce at the time.
Writing a song about sheer optimism, then, became a very interesting experience for Patterson. It was ironic, sure. It was cathartic. And in a way, Patterson’s personal darkness even may unconsciously helped color the song with deeper meaning than he had originally intended.
After all, as The LEGO Movie star Chris Pratt said, “Well, I think I think [the song] follows the theme of this movie, which you think is just some LEGO movie made to sell toys—and it’s actually a really subversive, interesting, thought-provoking commentary on society. Pratt’s prediction: “Twenty of 30 years from now, I think people will look back at ‘Everything Is Awesome,’ and it’ll be more than just a cool pop song. It’s really reflective of where we are right now, and that’s what art is all about.”
"Everything Is Awesome” is one of five contenders in the Best Original Song category at this year’s Oscars and faces stiff competition—chiefly from John Legend and Common’s song “Glory” from Selma. But Patterson’s track has something go for it that no other nominee does. Everyone from me to you to even Tilda Swinton can’t get it out of their heads.
We chatted with Patterson about he did that, the personal darkness that may have inspired his new hit song, and even a little about the Sarah Palin and Jesus buddy-comedy musical he’s working on now, too. (Is that really a thing? You betcha.)
Like the rest of the world I’m a fan of the song and can’t get it out of my head. Should I thank you or blame you for that?
Let me be the first to say I’m sorry. It’s a very funny mixed reaction like that. People seem to like it, but then parents will shake their fist at me.
Like a modern version of “It’s a Small World.”
Well, I think I’m going to take that as a great compliment. You never know. You never know if this is going to be the thing that sticks in people’s heads.
When they were giving you this assignment for The LEGO Movie, did they make “earworm” and “catchiness” part of the directive?
No that language never really came up. It was more like they just wanted it to be—there were very basic buzzwords. “Catchy.” “Poppy.” “Hand claps.” Things like that. I remember Chris McKay, who was the animation director who called me to ask if I wanted to write it, he basically just said, you know, “This would be a song that the main character, Emmet, would love. And his world was the ultimate pop song.” The rest just came by osmosis, just writing and plugging away at it.
Why did they think of you for this?
Well Chris McKay and I worked together on Robot Chicken. I did a season with him there and then I was a composer on a different series that Seth Green had produced. I knew when he left Robot Chicken that he was going to The LEGO Movie. A little bit of time passed. I think they were getting their bearings and settling in. And Chris just called me because we like working together. We have a great working relationship. we’ve had some really funny train wrecks, too, in the past.
A train wreck? Do go on.
Where I didn’t understand what he meant, and then we didn’t talk about it. Because we were working on about 60,000 other things, he would just kind of let me go and then a while later I would play him what I wrote. And one time he started laughing. I said, “What?” He said something like, “Make a song like George Clinton.” It was a sketch for Robot Chicken. I thought he had said “Bill Clinton.” So I sang it like Bill Clinton. He heard it and burst out laughing and was like, “That doesn’t sound like George Clinton at all. It sounds like Bill Clinton.” It actually ended up in the show because it was so funny.
But there wasn’t any sort of miscommunication with this LEGO Movie assignment?
[Laughs] No. We had a very detailed, in a musical sense, assignment. They made some broad strokes suggestions. Some lyric suggestions here and there about team work and being part of a big collective. I came up with the idea in the bridge of it being a very vanilla sort of world. All of the things that a nerdy white guy would love. And really trying to identify this character Emmett and what he would love.
Chris Pratt said something about the song that was very complimentary and also surprisingly deep. He called it subversive and a thought-provoking commentary on society. When you were writing it, did you think it had those deeper undercurrents that are more than just an “It’s a Small World” earworm?
Well, in terms of the lyric content, I was definitely toying with the concept of somebody who aspires to be a part of a collective. Just considering all things bee in a hive. Communism. Things like that where your identity is just stripped away and the greatest joy is being accepted as part of a big group. Within that, I have no doubt that some darkness lent itself into the lyric. And then sarcasm and some irony as well. I was always keeping Emmet in mind and what would appeal to him. Because they scripted it like that. They scripted that the song would be called “Everything Is Awesome” and he would absolutely love this song. So there was a lot of “is this too dark?” and “what would appeal to him, and why?” A lot of psychology of the character went into it.
On a not-as-fun note, you were actually going through a divorce when you were writing “Everything Is Awesome.” Did that inspire or inform the song at all?
I don’t know if I would use the word “inspired.” But definitely going through an unexpected, unplanned divorce with three children in the middle of it, it definitely played a part in the way I approached the narrative. It increased the sarcasm level quite a bit. I have to reason to believe that. It was sort of naturally fighting to come out. But music for me and songwriting and lyric writing is something I pour myself into it. It’s always been an escape, a safe harbor for me.
It’s understandable that there was some darkness.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a really difficult breakup, but when kids are in the mix it’s really hard. So to stay positive as a professional writer, you do the work. You’re not singing about a funeral. You’re singing about teamwork and the joy of being appreciated as part of a collective. But the undercurrent of some darkness was definitely present. Finding a balance between what was too far and too sarcastic and too snarky-sounding and what was sounding too silly and then just saying “screw it,” this is just going to be ridiculous. So those moments of being extremely ridiculous were also a way to escape the pain that was going on. So in some ways it did inspire, but not in a negative way. The positive outlook came from moving away from the darkness that was going on.
So when you look back at your time writing your song, does it then have a positive or negative connotation, given all the personal darkness you were going through then?
I never really thought of it like that. I definitely feel positive when I hear it. Because the divorce was years ago now—I think I wrote the song in 2012, if I’m not mistaken. I was already into the divorce at that point. It was ongoing, so I was already writing a lot of other stuff, too. A lot of other music was composed by me during that period. Different things. So I don’t listen to “Everything Is Awesome” and think that it reminds me of divorce. It definitely makes me smile because I know what the song has endured to end up where it is. When you write a song for film or television, the chances of it getting past all the directors, all the producers, and everybody still liking it and it staying intact is a rare thing. Sometimes things can get really modified. And certainly some people were brought on board at the end of it for production and things like that. But the song survived. And the core of the song survived. So for that reason it makes me smile very big when I hear it.
I also have to ask: what the hell happened with the Oscars and The LEGO Movie getting snubbed for Best Animated Feature?
I don’t really know. A lot of people were pretty surprised on the crew. I was surprised, too! When J.J. Abrams read my name and said the song first, I think a lot of us on the crew thought that if they nominated the song then Best Animated Feature is gonna go, too. We had been seeing that in the press, too, for quite a while. I have no idea how and why it got overlooked. I don’t have an answer. I wish I understood it.
I mean, I follow these things as a profession. And in my professional opinion, nothing seemed like more of a sure thing for an Oscar nod than The LEGO Movie for Best Animated Feature.
Yep. I think it was a bit bittersweet. I think everyone on the crew was happy for me and happy for the song, and then a little bit shocked that the film didn’t get a nomination. But a lot of things get overlooked. I mean, I honestly hadn’t even heard that Glen Campbell song that also got nominated for Best Original Song. There were other songs that, whether because they were nominated at the Golden Globes or the Critics’ Choice and all of these award shows, you thought would get in. You see a pattern starting to form about what things would be included, but this all just goes to show how award shows can still vary wildly in their choices. Some award shows even left my name completely off the nomination list.
But this time, for the Oscars announcement, you were the first nominee read, period. That must've been nice.
It was surreal. I was watching with my mom. She gets up earlier than I do. And I didn’t believe it! It kind of went over her head, too. We were like, “What? Did he just say what I think he said?” So it took a while to sink in. I mean, I walked around for most of the day just scratching my head thinking, really? Did J.J. Abrams just say my name? I’m still working on it sinking in completely. It didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination. At Critics Choice, my name was completely left off the nomination. So it’s just been a very confusing and unexpected process along the way.
And the Oscars, for its reputation of stodginess, actually has a reputation for having a sense of humor at the very least in this category. “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie was nominated. “Man or Muppet” won its year. And now “Everything Is Awesome.”
Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s nice to see a wide swing of genre, of style and tone. Because if you examine a lot of the best feature, the actor, the director categories, it’s a real serious lineup for the 87th Oscars. It’s a very serious lineup. So in some ways, “Everything Is Awesome” really sticks out as sort of an oddity amongst that group, in that it’s very silly.
Your career narrative is also tailor made for its own Oscar movie. You arrive in L.A. in 1990 with just $400 to your name. You've never had representation. And 25 years later you’re going to the Academy Awards.
No connections, either. A lot of people who come up here know other people who can help them to endure. I didn’t have that either. To this day I still don’t have an agent or manager. All of this has been from word of mouth and endlessly writing. Non-stop writing. I haven’t had a vacation in five years.
Have things exploded now after all the attention “Everything Is Awesome” has gotten?
Yeah. I’m about to take some good meetings with some good agents. A lot of things are being discussed. I’m hoping to get my musical off the ground this year. It’s a big focus for me.
That musical. We must talk about it. It’s about, and correct me if I’m wrong, Jesus and Sarah Palin saving the world?
Yup. It’s called It Came From Wasilla. It’s really over the top. It’s very silly. I haven’t really discussed it much publicly. It’s a buddy picture [laughs]. Jesus arrives to the Promised Land of Alaska to retool and save the world with Sarah and make sure things are set right with the GOP. It’s a very wild telling. It’s not based on specific factual events in her life. I’ve seen a lot of parody done on her on YouTube and this and that. I haven’t been impressed with very much of it. This is more Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz meets Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure got hold of a crack pipe. I am confident that it’s going to upset some people.
Oh I’m sure she’s going to be thrilled.
[Laughs] You know, she may like it. There’s elements about it that, without giving too much it away, the goal is that the audience feels a lot of sympathy towards the character. And not in a “she’s pathetic” way. But, again, it’s not exactly Sarah Palin. I want to say it’s a character heavily inspired by her. There’s not a lot of specifics that take place from her life.
There’s also been an incredible celebrity response to “Everything Is Awesome.” That must have been a fun experience on the awards circuit, to run into celebrities who are fans of the song but who you never would have expected to be.
It’s been crazy. Chris Evans, I was a huge Captain America fan as a little boy. I had the comics. I had the little garbage can Captain America shield. I met him, he was sitting right beside me at the Critics’ Choice Awards. And I didn’t want to bug him, because people were lining up to get photographs. But I mentioned to the guy sitting beside him, “Hi, I’m Shawn. My song is ‘Everything Is Awesome.’” He goes, “No shit! Come over here! Hang out!” So I go over there and he goes to Chris and says, “This is Shawn. He wrote ‘Everything Is Awesome.’” He goes, “No way! Get out here!” We posed for a picture.
I heard Joaquin Phoenix was a fan.
I saw Joaquin Phoenix at the Golden Globes InStyle party and he was just really cool. He was like, “I fucking love your song.” I’m like, “Come on man. Be serious.” He was like, “No! I’m totally serious.” He was munching on a carrot. He was really intent about it. Robin Wright was really cool about it. She goes, “That song is hilarious.” It’s really bizarre that so many people know it that I wouldn’t even expect would have even heard it. It’s just been wild. Why does Robin Wright know my song? Why do you guys know this? It’s bizarre.