How Fiona Apple’s ‘Paper Bag’ Became the True Anthem of ‘The Idea of You’

Fiona Apple is the go-to songwriter for exorcising your romantic demons, ruing the ones you loved, the ones who didn’t love you back, the ones you pushed away amid yet another freefall of your own design. She’s also the go-to singer for three studio comedy auteurs: Michael Showalter, Judd Apatow, and Paul Feig.

Apple’s songs have featured in three of their films — Apple wrote the original song “Dull Tool” for Apatow’s “This Is 40,” capturing a decades-long marriage at its breaking point. Elsewhere, her epic ball of romantic resignation “Cosmonauts,” off the 2020 album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” was also originally meant for that film. Meanwhile, her classic cabaret-inspired love song “Paper Bag,” about having too much emotional baggage to enter into a new relationship she wants “so bad, oh it kills,” featured in Feig’s “Bridesmaids” in a montage of Annie (Kristen Wiig) making cupcakes as a balm for her terminally single life. The song now also features in director Showalter’s romantic drama “The Idea of You,” starring Anne Hathaway as Solène, an art-dealing divorcee in a tentative-turned-whirlwind romance with pop star Hayes Campbell (Nicholas Galitzine). And the lyrics to “Paper Bag” — where Apple is “having a sweet fix of a daydream of a boy whose reality I knew was hopeless to be had” — genuinely speak to Solène’s current state of drifting singledom.

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Apple is famously precious about how her songs get incorporated into movies and TV, and when licensing music for projects, she typically donates the royalties to charity. (Apple, who has not released an album since “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” has mostly since taken to social activism as a court watcher.) She did provide vocals for the “Lord of the Rings” TV series on Amazon as well as the theme song, “Container,” for Showtime’s “The Affair.”

Apple’s Hollywood connections on a personal level abound: She dated Paul Thomas Anderson (director of the “Paper Bag” music video and others) for years as well as magician David Blaine and comedian Louis C.K. But so rarely does her music show up onscreen. Her song “Valentine,” about an inferiority complex over another woman and off the 2012 album “The Idler Wheel,” appeared in a Season 2 episode of “Girls,” also executive-produced by Judd Apatow. That show’s chronically searching main character, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), earlier that season opined to a weekend-long stand (Patrick Wilson) about wanting to “feel it all” just like Apple says in the lead single, “Every Single Night,” off the same album.

“Paper Bag” comes into “The Idea of You” during Solène and Hayes’ first encounter after their Coachella meet cute. Solène is but three years out of a pretty rancorous divorce and surely still feeling just a bit “too shaky to hold” (Apple’s words in the song) for a new fling, with Hayes presumably being her first since the breakup. He’s the frontman of a One Direction-esque band called August Moon who probably doesn’t know too much about Apple when Solène name-drops her at a warehouse in Glendale, where they’ve gone to look at more art after Hayes bought out her entire gallery.

Solène introduces Hayes, who is clearly already wooing her, to a painting called “Unclose Me” by her artist friend Sarah (the IRL painter is named Sarah Anne Johnson). They met in college, where Solène knew they would be fast friends because she was “blasting a Fiona Apple song from her dorm room” (a classic Apple inception story). Cut to Solène and Hayes back in her car, and she’s playing “Paper Bag” on the stereo, Hayes surely hearing it for the first time. Now we know where Solène’s daughter Izzy (Ella Rubin) got her love for “aggressively talented female singer/songwriters,” as she says in the film’s first scene, i.e., this girl is most definitely a Mitski fan, too.

THE IDEA OF YOU, from left: Nicholas Galitzine, Anne Hathaway, 2024. ph: Alisha Wetherill /© Amazon Prime /Courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Idea of You’ ph: Alisha Wetherill /© Amazon Prime /Courtesy Everett Collection©Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection

As Showalter explained in an email with IndieWire, “Originally, the line was about Ani DiFranco. That’s what we shot, and for a while, we had Ani DiFranco’s amazing song, ‘Both Hands’ in the film.” (DiFranco, if you need an adult alternative refresh, is right up there with Apple, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, and Tori Amos as the Gen X goddesses.)

“In the edit, we realized that we wanted a slightly more mainstream artist/song for this moment but also that Ani DiFranco was a more appropriate reference for someone who’d been in college in the early-mid ’90s versus early 2000s,” said Showalter (Solène is turning 40 in the film, likely set pre-COVID around the time Robinne Lee’s 2017 novel came out). “Fiona Apple’s album ‘When The Pawn’ came out in 1999. It’s a perfect kind of album for Solène to have listened to in college. ‘Paper Bag’ is just a brilliant, soulful, infectious song. Anne came in, and ADR’d the line ‘Fiona Apple’ to replace ‘Ani DiFranco,’ and the rest is history.”

Showalter added, “I am an Ani DiFranco fan. The Ani DiFranco reference is something that I put in the script [by Jennifer Westfeldt]. Turns out Anne loves Ani, too, and so it was no fight at all to convince me to use the song ‘Both Hands,’ but we did try some other Ani DiFranco songs, too. Most notably ‘Buildings & Bridges.’ But then I decided that Ani felt too folksy for the moment and that we needed something with a little more pop to it.”

It’s fascinating how mostly male directors (Showalter, Apatow, Feig) have incorporated Apple’s work to such pointedly plot-driven effect — just from personal experience, Apple tends to be the province of women and gay men. Galitzine told IndieWire his sister introduced him to Fiona Apple, known most broadly for her brooding 1996 single of self-destruction, “Criminal,” and the various (and at times equally self-destructive) controversial moments that followed in her heightening fandom (like that MTV Awards speech where she decried the entire music industry and also the world). And “Bridesmaids” and “The Idea of You” each center around women in or nearing their 40s at a crossroads, which can also be said for “This Is 40,” though that film splits its time between the POVs of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd as a flatlining married couple.

Who better to tell a tale of romantic ennui onscreen musically than Apple? Working off the Joni Mitchell tradition of confessional songwriting, she has inspired many of today’s “aggressively talented female singer/songwriters” in her path toward lyrical honesty, from Mitski to King Princess (whom Apple has actually collaborated with). And even amid all those catchy August Moon earworms, “Paper Bag” emerges as the true banger of “The Idea of You,” as Apple watches the “dove of hope” begin its “downward slope,” and Solène realizes she’s more than just “a mess that he don’t wanna clean up.” What if maybe Hayes does?

“The Idea of You” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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