How the Song 'Sunflower' Became the Standout Anthem of Netflix's 'Sierra Burgess is a Loser'
Actress Shannon Purser, screenwriter Lindsey Beer and songwriter Leland break down the film's pivotal music moment
This post contains spoilers.
If you’ve watched Netflix’s new teen rom-com Sierra Burgess is a Loser, a modern retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Noah Centineo, chances are you’re still humming the chorus of “Sunflower.”
The song plays a pivotal role in the movie, which finds brilliant band geek Sierra (Purser) texting and talking catfish-style with Jamey (Centineo), a neighboring school’s soulful quarterback, after her school’s head cheerleader/Mean Girl, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), gives him Sierra’s number instead of hers. In their first marathon phone call, Sierra asks Jamey what kind of flower he’d be, and he says she’d be a rose: “The queen flower all the other flowers are jealous of.”
When Jamey later learns the truth -- that Sierra and the real Veronica ended up becoming friends and conspired to keep him in the dark -- he walks away from them both. The loss of those relationships does more than break Sierra’s heart, though; it inspires her to pen a song that captures what it’s like to feel different: “Stretching toward the sky like I don’t care/ Wishing you could see me standing there/ But I’m a sunflower, a little funny/ If I were a rose, maybe you’d want me.”
The song holds a special place for Sierra Burgess screenwriter Lindsey Beer — it’s based on lyrics she wrote when she was a teen. “I remember very clearly the evening that I wrote it,” she says with a laugh. “It was sparked by something that I won't go into, but it was cathartic.”
In the first couple drafts of her script, “Sunflower” was a poem that Sierra turns in for class. But Beer changed it to a song after betting that most actresses reading for the role could probably sing, too. Purser auditioned with the scene in which Sierra performs “Sunflower” for her father (played by Alan Ruck in the film). “I remember going in, and they gave me the option to either sing it or not," Purser says. "So I'm like, ‘Well, I'll sing it. I can sing.’ I just kind of made up a tune — which was fun and scary.”
For the real melody of “Sunflower,” the film’s music supervisor, Jonathan Watkins, asked a few people to submit ideas, including his singer-songwriter friend Leland (real name: Brett McLaughlin). Leland, who’s collaborated with Troye Sivan, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez, among others, was in the studio working on Sivan’s new album, Bloom, with Allie X and Bram Inscore. “I loved the script, and I loved the cast, and all Jonathan had to do was say, ‘It’s living in the ‘80s-John Hughes type of world, and I was like, ‘Drop everything, we have to get this,” Leland says. “So I asked, ‘Can we please take a night, after one of our sessions with Troy, and just try to come up with some ideas for it?’”
The four of them looked through the script together and expanded on Beer’s lyrics to compose “Sunflower” -- and then they wrote two more songs, “The Other Side” and “Kid Wonder,” to boot. Leland even made artwork for the demos before submitting them. Once Watkins told him that everyone at the film's production company, Black Label Media, was listening to “Sunflower” on repeat in tears, he nominated himself and Inscore to score the film.
There are two versions of “Sunflower” on the film’s soundtrack, the first release from Leland’s label, Good Pop. Purser’s -- which marked her first time in a recording studio -- is all stripped-down emotion. “What I love about it so much is that you can hear her acting in it, especially toward the end. I didn't want this to be a perfect studio version, I wanted it to be the same performance as the movie,” Leland says. “I really think we captured something special.”
When Purser filmed Sierra’s keyboard-backed performance on set, there wasn’t a dry eye, Beer says. “The entire crew was in tears, men and women included,” she recalls. “There were definitely some ugly crying faces. I was on set every day, but it was super special because my sister, who's an exec producer on the film and read and gave me notes on every draft, happened to be there that day. And one of our best friends and agents, who set up the film with Black Label, was there that day, too. So it was just one of those days where we were surrounded by people we loved, and it was a really special scene that was filmed.”
Purser was too nervous and focused to register the sobfest on set -- “Maybe that's a good thing,” she says, “because I feel like I would have gotten emotional, too” -- but she understands why the song touches people: “It felt like something I probably would have written in high school, too. Just this idea of not fitting in and being overlooked because I feel like I don't look like all the other girls or I feel out of place ... There's just something about that that really resonated with me, so it really didn't take a lot of extra work to make that real for me.”
The second, full version of “Sunflower” is Allie X’s synthesizer-soaked track that plays over the end credits. “I wanted it to feel nostalgic but also cater to the lyric, and the lyric is not necessarily a happy lyric — it’s a sad, emotional lyric,” Leland says. “But thankfully, as the movie plays out, the song almost takes on a different meaning toward the end, when you recognize that Jamey does see Sierra for who she really is and not for someone she has to pretend to be.”
That happy ending explains why Leland and Inscore had to scrap their original plan to use Allie X's version of “Sunflower” during the movie’s final scene, when Jamey takes Sierra to the homecoming dance after showing up at her house to tell her that Veronica played him her song -- and that, for the record, he thinks “roses are more like the bitchy supermodels of flowers.”
As Jamey kisses pink-polka-dot-wearing Sierra in the headlights of his parked car, intentional homages to John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink, Leland's song “Middle of Love,” a duet with singer VINCINT, kicks in instead. “Allie’s ‘Sunflower’ didn't feel final. It didn't have this joyous ending that the director [Ian Samuels] and Lindsey wanted. So we said, ‘Let's go back and try to write an uptempo ‘80s-like anthem,'” Leland says. “This wasn't like, ‘Let’s just throw something together.’ I tried five different verse ideas, five different chorus ideas, and finally came around to the version of ‘Middle of Love’ that’s in the final scene.”
Once again, he pulled inspiration from the movie’s plot. “The opening lyric is, ‘I only write love letters to you now.’ I wanted everything to be authentic now, and for Sierra to feel confident in who she is,” Leland says. “The pre-chorus is, ‘So let’s ride this right into the sunset, tell me are we there yet, I don't even care/ It’s like I saw you in the distance, now I've got you kissing me in the night air.’ And the chorus is, ‘Baby, don't you know? Don't you know? Don't you know where we are? We’re in the middle of love.’”
Because Sierra Burgess is the first film Leland has scored, there were plenty of other new challenges for him: writing lyrics that evoke the theme of a scene but don’t distract from it, penning an original song that could play on the radio in the background and then transition into actual score. Yet Leland, who also contributed music to the upcoming gay-conversion drama Boy Erased, was quickly hooked on the process. He thinks back to the first scene he and Inscore scored — when Jamey closes his eyes and unknowingly kisses Sierra in the parking lot after his date with Veronica. “It was really emotional for me because Bram and I were sitting in his studio surrounded by like 20 synthesizers, a grand piano, all these instruments. That was intimidating and overwhelming thinking, ‘Okay, so we can create anything in this moment. Where do we begin?’” he says. “That was the moment where I realized this is what I want to be doing more of.”