Actor Michael Cera is no stranger to the big screen, with star turns in Juno and Superbad spanning back a decade. But for the upcoming documentary Dina, which won the grand jury prize at Sundance and releases in theaters on Oct. 6, he wanted to harken back to his musical roots, dropping the single “Best I Can” featuring Sharon Van Etten to tease some of the music he composed for the film.
“I was just really moved by Dina and Scott, who are the two lead people in the movie,” explains the 29-year-old of the doc, which focuses on the shared life of an odd couple. “I just really loved them and I loved their dynamic, watching them work through their relationship. It’s very universal. It’s really successful at putting you inside their relationship and it’s remarkably intimate. You’re really right there inside it of them. They didn’t have any music for it yet, and I also had a strong sense of what would complement the movie and not kind of take away from the tone of it.”
Three years after releasing his surprise debut album True That, a collection of lo-fi bedroom pop tunes, Cera chats with Billboard about how he linked up with Van Etten for the song, if he’ll ever release another project and how he’s musically evolved over the years.
How did you get involved with the documentary?
I was close friends with the editor of the documentary, Sofia [Subercaseaux]. This was her second time working with these guys and they were doing a friends’ screening of the movie early on to get thoughts and see how it was playing with people. That was how I first saw it and I really loved the movie so much that I just asked the guys if they’d consider letting me contribute some music for it.
It feels like you only did production for the song.
It’s all Sharon’s voice. That song came about because it was proposed for the movie, basically, for this one montage that was in the movie and not used. They had another song in there for a long time that they were married to, which I understood. I kind of knew before I even attempted it that that was the case but I wanted to take a shot anyway, to suggest the idea of them to making it an original pop song for the movie. But I wanted to keep the song universal enough that people might hear it and not know whether it was specifically made for the movie or just a song they didn’t hear before. My compass for the kind of production was the song they had in the movie, which was ‘Only You,’ the Yaz song. I was trying to ape that style and that production, so that was my initial direction.
Compared to True That, it’s not as lo-fi. How did you approach doing the song comparatively to earlier music you’ve done?
I’m using different equipment, so it’s not exactly as lo-fi as other stuff I’ve made in the past. I wanted it to be passable as a real song, and then I went through a mastering process with the song, which I’ve never been through with the song before to give it a polish, and I wanted it to be convincing enough if it was in the movie. Maybe just a pop song you never heard before.
What was the motivation to work with Sharon specifically?
Sharon and I are partners in sharing music rehearsal space together. We split the rent and divide our time in there. We’ve never collaborated on anything but I knew I wanted to have a female lead vocal on the song and thought of her and she was open to it, so that was just my good fortune.
You worked with the directors of the film for the music video too?
The video, I’m not really involved in it. The song is more my thing. They wanted to make something that would have a life of its own and tie it the movie. It’s really the only way to illustrate that the song is a product of the movie, really. That was something [Dina directors] Dan and Antonio wanted to do and I was really appreciative, because otherwise it’d seem like the song would be discarded. This seemed like the only way to let it out into the world and have people find it.
What’s the extent of your contributions to the film musically?
Pretty minimal. It’s a sparse score. It’s just a few little pieces here and there in the movie. It’s not wall to wall. It’s very different from how this song sounds. It’s a little more gentle and just a little acoustic guitars and pianos. I tried to work with other musicians here and there, too. There’s a montage song I did in the movie where there are some horns on it, but aside from that, it’s a real stripped-down sounding score.
True That came out in 2014. After its release, I think a lot of people were surprised to learn you’re a musician as well as an actor and have expertise in that field. Once it was out there, what was the reaction to the record?
I was really flattered it got any attention, so that was really nice. I was kind of hoping for that, that people would find it and listen to it. I was pleased that would happen on some level. I was proud of all the music. It was really something I’d never considered putting out. It was just something I would do as an outlet and then it was a very impulsive decision to put it online and see what happens and have it be out there, too. It was such a humble package of music, no real expectations or anything. I always appreciate it when people tell me they listen to it and tell me they were surprised by it.
It’s been three years since you put it out. How do you think your music abilities have evolved since then?
That’s a hard thing to characterize. I don’t know. I have a pretty privileged relationship with music because I love keeping it in my life and I don’t want to lose touch with it or anything and I have a lot of friends who play music and don’t anymore. Life gets in the way for a lot of people like that. It’s something you have to practice and stay in touch with. But there’s no pressure for me to develop or to play. I’m not a career musician and I don’t make my living doing that and I don’t have any kind of real motivation for staying on top of it. I have this nice relationship with it, just organic and there’s no pressure in it. It’s like therapy for me.
Have you started exploring more new equipment and ways to express yourself musically?
Yeah. That’s a really big part of the fun of working on stuff, is just recording and trying new things and you can develop in that way. That’s part of what I love to do the most, is just to go and try to record drums and see if I can make them sound any good. I just ask some friends who do similar home recordings and aren’t necessarily working in studios what they do and what stuff they use. I’ve gotten a few microphones and beefed up my setup a little bit, but in the most minimal way possible because my technical knowledge is very limited and I don’t really have the brain for that kind of thing.
Do you think you’ll put out another record anytime soon?
I don’t really know. I’d love to sometime but it’s not really clearly on the horizon for me. I don’t really see it right now. But if I had a handful of songs that I felt good enough about and wouldn’t be too embarrassing to put out? Yeah, I would do it.
Are you sitting on a pile of unreleased music at the moment?
I would say a pile of undeveloped music. That’s kind of how it is for me. It’s always a matter of how much time you can devote to it for me and when I’m at home and I have free time, that’s what I fall back to. But a lot of things pull me away from it. If it was my job, I’d devote all of focus and energy on it, things would move faster for me. But things move a lot slower for me.