Exclusive SXSW Interview: Director Bess Kargman On ‘Diane Warren: Relentless’ Documentary

SXSW is currently taking over Austin and downtown is filled with excitement as people make their way toward insightful panels, enthralling music, and star-studded premieres, myself included. I had the opportunity to watch Diane Warren: Relentless (which premieres today at SXSW) and speak with the director, Bess Kargman. The documentary follows Diane Warren, a legendary songwriter who’s worked with all of your favorites from Taylor Swift to Beyonce to Cher. You name them, she’s written a hit for them all on her own and Kargman was more than willing to talk about her experience directing in this beautiful and heartfelt documentary. Enjoy my conversation with Bess Kargman! 

So first of all, Diane Warren is a legendary songwriter. Your documentary, Diane Warren: Relentless follows her. It tells the story of her life and how she got to be the incredible person we know her as today. How did this come to be? Was this something that was pitched to you or is someone you’ve always wanted to highlight? 

So it’s actually sort of a full circle moment for me to direct this documentary because coincidentally enough, when I was in college, I was singing Diane Warren songs acappella. It’s just serendipitous. But this project was brought to me and I’m so grateful and lucky for that. They were interviewing other directors, but luckily they found that I would be the best fit, and also Diane and I clicked. Usually, I meet with someone I’m thinking about filming first without the cameras. And of course, I tell them, don’t tell any great stories until the cameras are rolling when we see each other next time.

But I could tell she was very she was animated. She was interesting. She told me things about her life that weren’t googlable stories, untold stories. And I got very excited. It’s a blessing that this was brought to me and I knew that I wanted to do her story justice. So it really had to be a true intersection of who she is as a human being and then also who she is as an artist, and then a really full-fledged portrait of her music. So that was the mission from the beginning. But I did tell her way early in the process, “If you want a puff piece, I’m not the right director for the project.” 

I can see that. I mean the tone that you managed to get and the way that it’s not very “puff”, as you would say, it goes a little bit deeper. So in the past, you’ve done more sports-related projects following dancers or coaches. How else did this project differ from anything you’ve done before? 

That’s a great question. So music was always something that I wanted to do a documentary about, just because. Well, first of all, in my dance documentary work, music is such an integral part of filmmaking, especially when you’re referring to other art forms. And then also music has been a huge part of my life. Growing up I was a singer and I knew also that there’s never going to be too many music documentaries. It’s just a wonderful thing to chronicle. So it was on my bucket list, you could say, to do a documentary focused on music. I hope to do many more because it’s really special when you can take a visual medium and then something that’s only for your ears and combine them together. It’s very fulfilling both for me as a creative person, but also hopefully for the audiences as well. 

And what a subject to highlight! I mean, wow. The documentary takes us through quite a few years with Diane. How long were you following her? When did this all start? 

So we have been going nearly three years now since we finished filming. It was about two and a halfish years. And, you know, you’re not filming every day. You’re swooping in and out of her life. But I think that amount of time was really important both to earn her trust. And also we got incredibly lucky with all of these huge life events that sort of came across in and are now part of the narrative arc of the story, that it was all coincidental. It was coincidental that her beloved cat passed away. It was coincidental that she got her honorary Oscar, but sometimes magic happens when you happen to be in the right place at the right time. So the timing couldn’t have been better. 

By the way, if you hear any noises, it is my cats. And I was sobbing during that scene. It’s crazy that you caught that, but it’s also heartbreaking. There are so many testimonials from different celebrities, artists who work with Diane throughout the years. Who is your favorite? You got to speak with? 

That’s a great question. In terms of who did I think was the most interesting to interview or–

Personally, who you were most excited to even get?

Diane Warren’s so called “cave” where she writes most of her songs!

So my answer may be surprising. I cared less about the celebrities, even though I knew they would help the project because people do really want to hear from them. And it was more the people who had known Diane since before she was famous, before she was successful before she had amassed a fortune due to her incredible number of hits. Because I wanted to learn about like how much people often say a person changes once they really make it big. And they were the ones who could tell me whether or not that had happened, which is you know–it’s so interesting. She truly is the same person as, you know, the 12-year-old who is teaching herself guitar… 

But then also one of my favorite stories with Cher is Cher has a sense of humor. And then also on top of that, she was willing to be spontaneous and do that phone call with Diane, which created a lot of magic. We couldn’t fit all of it into the film, but their banter was hilarious between the two of them. And I loved hearing stories going back and forth between Diane’s version of the story and Cher’s version of the story. When Diane grabbed her leg and wouldn’t let go. That was a pretty awesome story that Cher shared.

We’re shown that Diane has quite a personality. Is there anything surprising that took place that didn’t make it into the documentary? 

My gosh! There are so many incredible moments that we had to cut for time, like we were there for at least three of her slumberless sleepovers, which she was up all night waiting for the Oscar nominations to be announced. We were at many of them, but you didn’t need to show all three to get the point across about what that experience was like for her. And I mean, she’s just so funny, but some of her humor was a bit…it was a bit…how do I describe it? It was just not appropriate. Yeah. For anyone under the age of 35. [Kargman laughs] a lot of a lot of very funny jokes with bad, bad words didn’t make it in. 

That’s a good response! So there’s maybe a little bit of spoilers, so be sure to watch the film for those reading, but were you surprised when the man who sued Diane Warren said yes to being on camera? How did that even come about? 

So, there is a saying that time heals all wounds, and that’s an incident that happened a long time ago. And I found in chronicling Diane’s life that even people who she’s had a huge falling out with, eventually time brings them back together again. And so Diane bumped into him, I want to say, a decade ago, and they had lunch, right? They decided that it was kind of water under the bridge. And I said, “My God, Diane, for you to feel that way, you must have done so much therapy.” She said I don’t think it was that. Even though she has done a bunch, she goes, I don’t think it was that she said. I realized that without that lawsuit, which prevented me from signing with others, you know, publishing houses without that, I wouldn’t have owned my own music since, you know, the late eighties.

She owns every single piece of music that she writes, which gives her songs so much power and freedom and creativity and protection. So she looks at it is what a blessing in disguise that he sued her and then she countersued because without that she wouldn’t have her company called Real Songs. So that changed the course of her life forever. 

To finish this off, what is your favorite Diane Warren song?

Everyone says either “Unbreak My Heart” or they say “Rhythm The Night” or they say “Turn Back Time” I probably should know the answer to this by the time her film premieres. My favorite Diane Warren song is a song that hasn’t come out yet. And it’s unbelievable! And she hasn’t even assigned it to an artist yet, but when Diane played it for me, it made me cry.

Oh My Gosh!

I’m not a crier and I’m not a sappy person, but with this one song it made me cry because the lyrics resonated with me so deeply. They’ll resonate with a lot of people, though, so I will say it’s a song that hasn’t come out yet. But you know, some of her songs that are very fresh, I love her collaboration with Taylor Swift, “Say Don’t Go”. It’s a great song. And then “The Journey”. My God, that’s a new song with her. That’s a great song. She has this song that she’s recording right now with Gwen Stefani. It’s a very cool song because she also has one of the most famous artists based in Africa on the song. So she really likes crossing all genres.

Thank you so much for your time, Bess. It has been an absolute pleasure and a dream truly speaking with you. 


Diane Warren: Relentless premieres today at SXSW, for readers located in Austin, be sure to check out SXSW’s website for all information as you can still purchase tickets for public showings. You can also follow Bess Kargman and Diane Warren to be the first to know where you can catch the film. 



  • Camila Dejesus

    Magazine & Media Editor, Camila Dejesus has been writing since she was a child and enjoys all forms from creative writing down to narrative analysis. She graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor's in Television and Radio Production and works full-time at Latinitas Magazine. In her free time, she loves writing stories, water coloring, or playing songs on her Baritone Ukulele. Now, her greatest passion is finding new topics that will engage and inspire Latinx youth.

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