Oscars: Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and Best Song Nominees Pose for Group Photo

Best Song Nominees H - 2016
Austin Hargrave

Diane Warren, David Lang, Jimmy Napes, Stephan Moccio and J. Ralph also joined Gaga and Smith for THR's photoshoot following the Academy Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 8.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

"I'm the biggest Gaga fan there is," confessed Sam Smith, a huge grin on his face. "I queued up for her shows when I was 17!" Multiplatinum artist Smith, 23, a first-time Oscar nominee for Spectre's "Writing's on the Wall" (co-written with frequent col­lab­orator Jimmy Napes), not only got to hang with his pop idol at the AMPAS Nominees Luncheon Feb. 8, but he also huddled with her later that day during a THR photo shoot to plan a future get-together, possibly even to make some music. "Maybe it will be awful," said Gaga, 29. "Maybe it will be great." Either way, after mingling with Leonardo DiCaprio and Sylvester Stallone all afternoon, Smith, Gaga and their fellow song contenders already felt like winners as they relaxed at the Beverly Hilton to talk a little shop.

With David Bowie's "Let's Dance" playing in the background, Smith also shared a hug with category veteran Diane Warren, 59, who's up for her eighth Oscar with her most personal entry yet. "Til It Happens to You," co-written with Gaga, appears in The Hunting Ground, a searing documentary about the wave of sexual assaults on college campuses.

"I had had my own situation with sexual assault, and I felt compelled to be a part of [the film]," said Warren. "I called [Lady Gaga] and she was kind and brave enough to be a part of it as well with me."

But the process wasn't always harmonious. The pair tussled over the song's arrangement and tone. Ultimately, said Lady Gaga, who also had been sexually assaulted, "[Diane] let me be my crazy self." Replied Warren, "Your crazy self is f—ing genius."

The pair's song isn't the only contender tackling difficult subject matter. J. Ralph and Anohni's (formerly known as Antony Hegarty) "Manta Ray," from the documentary Racing Extinction, explores the devastating effects of climate change on wildlife. After hearing a recording of a Kauai o'o bird — unaware that he was the last male of his species — singing out for a mate, the 40-year-old Ralph knew that haunt­ing strain would be his tune's theme and that Anohni's fragile, intimate vocals could give voice to it.

"The song had to be a response to that [recording], so that [the bird's] call would not go unanswered," said Ralph. "We wanted all of that pathos and sadness to be in the film, but also to have some glimmer of hope. The tiniest bit of hope can radically change the world."

"Earned It," co-written by The Weeknd and Stephan Moccio for Fifty Shades of Grey, explores a slightly lighter scenario — the developing S&M relationship between the film's two protagonists — but Moccio still had plenty of darkness to play upon. "I drew on the spirit of the movie," he said. "It wasn't the sexuality; it was the psychology. You've got a broken male figure, Christian Grey, and Ana, who has completely fallen head over heels for him."

Moccio, 43, also drew upon the most unlikely of inspirations for the music: Nat King Cole's The Magic of Christmas. "The reverbs that Nat was using, the classic reverbs, was something that I was trying to simulate on 'Earned It,' " he explained.

Similarly, inspired by Daniel Craig's moody portrayal of James Bond, Smith and Napes explored the secret agent's vulnerability in the dra­matic "Writing's on the Wall." "The thing that stands out for me with Daniel Craig is you see Bond bleed and you see him cut and hurt and actually not succeeding and getting turned away from people," said Smith. "I wanted to concentrate on that and just show a little bit of roughness." (Smith would perform the song later that day at THR's Nominees Night party: "That was a bitch to sing," he said after wowing the crowd at Spago. "F— me.")

On the face of it, David Lang, who wrote "Simple Song #3" for Youth before filming began, would seem to be the outlier of the group: The 59-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winning composer traffics in operatic and classical music, while his fellow nominees primarily live in the pop orbit. But on this day, he saw only the similarities: "We're from dif­ferent parts of the world, [but] we're all doing the same thing, which is trying to use music to communicate basic truths about who we are that are important for other people to receive."