Building the Perfect Romantic-Comedy Mix Tape

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Chuck Zlotnick

A scene from the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

There comes a moment in almost every movie romance when words no longer suffice and the music must rise to the occasion. From the initial meet-cutes to the heated arguments and all those third-act sprints to win back the girl, a movie's sound track often does the heavy lifting, providing all the needed passion, heartache and poetry. The romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, with a sound track ranging from Wolfmother to Carla Bruni, hits all the right notes, with a few surprising ones thrown in. (Hall & Oates?) TIME talked to (500) Days music supervisor Andrea von Foerster about what it takes to build the perfect romantic mix tape.

TIME: In talking to friends about this interview, they all agree: you have the best job in the world.
Von Foerster: There's no debating that. This is one of the best jobs in the world. I get about 200 music downloads a week and 500 CDs delivered at home, but it's not just about listening to music all day. There's a lot of paperwork and politics that people don't understand because it's less tangible. Being the music supervisor doesn't mean you have final say about what gets into the film — the director and the producer and the studio, they all have their own taste. And so your life becomes pitching them: This is so good, please love it as much as I do!

I imagine it feels great once you finally sell them on a song that you love.
Yeah, sometimes on the 19th try, they say they love something, and there's no better feeling in the world. But then the challenge becomes, Will I be able to get the clearance? Sometimes you won't be able to get a song for your budget, or you'll get permission three months after you really needed it.

What are the hallmarks of the ideal romantic sound track? (Listen to TIME's sound track above.)
You always have to start with the joy. I think in anything, it's the same pattern, whether you're old or young — there's a honeymoon period where everything's amazing and you can't wait to see that person and everything is very urgent and joyous and amazing. But then things start to get complicated and painful. In (500) Days, Tom, the main character, goes through the full cycle — and this is a very realistic love story, in that everything doesn't end with wedding bells. For me, one of the biggest parts of a love story are the sad parts. The beginning is great, but I always think of the amazing, gut-wrenching songs that express all the pain you're feeling but can't put into words.

How does the music in (500) Days hit these emotional highs and lows?
In the beginning, it's the Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," when he realizes he's in love with her. When you're a dude, and a hot chick in the elevator sings along with the song you're listening to, and that's your favorite band, there's a connection. Then there's the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want," which he plays on his computer as she's passing and you can already see the yearning. And then Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams," where you go from the pining to planning your future and your wedding. And then the Temper Traps' "Sweet Disposition," showing the growing connection. [Director Marc Webb] already wanted to use Wolfmother's song "Vagabond" near the end, as Tom starts to get out of his funk and get his life back on track.

Most films have three or four emotional moments where you need a great song, but this film probably has six or seven moments where you absolutely needed music. From the beginning, Marc filled up some iPods and gave them to the actors and said, "Here you go — this is the direction we're going."

What sound tracks do you look to for inspiration?
Oh, there are so many. Anything by Danny Boyle — Shallow Grave is my favorite. With all his films, the music and the story are completely tied together. One can't exist without the other, and that's the same way I'd make a film. High Fidelity is one of my all-time favorites.

Karaoke plays a major part in the film. How did you decide who sings what?
Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] and Zooey [Deschanel] had a short list of what they thought their characters would sing. Most of Joseph's were classic-rock songs that were really expensive, but I was ecstatic when we finally got the Clash song "Train in Vain (Stand By Me)" and he sang it so well, just hit it out of the park. With Zooey, I tried to get "These Boots Were Made for Walking," and we couldn't clear that one, but for the right price, the publisher said, there was another song written by Lee Hazlewood, "Sugar Town." And there was another case where Zooey sang it just brilliantly, and it works so well.

So is that pretty common, where you can't even get access to the songs you want to use?
Oh yeah. Writer Scott Neustadter and I couldn't have more similar music tastes, and we loved, loved, loved the new Kings of Convenience album, but it didn't come out in time. A big theme for the film could have been one of their older songs, "Toxic Girl," but it didn't really fit any of the scenes because it was a little too much on the nose and told the story almost exactly.

Isn't that a good thing?
No, because if a song tells too much of the story, it takes you out of the film. Because then you're like, I'm already watching the story unfold, I don't need lyrics to tell me the exact same thing.

So sometimes the best song for a given moment isn't the best song for that given moment?
That's the challenge sometimes: to find a song that makes everyone happy, that we all can agree on, that you can get on your budget and that gets at the emotions. Not as easy as it sounds.