Why Sting Almost Passed on Writing a Song for a Tragic HBO Documentary

Sting - Standalone - Square - 2016
Joey Falseta

The musical icon, who collaborated with Oscar-nominated composer J. Ralph on the ballad behind 'Jim: The James Foley Story,' reveals he was devastated after watching the film for the first time.

When composer J. Ralph first screened Jim: The James Foley Story for Sting on Thanksgiving Day 2015 — in hopes of drafting the musical icon to write a song for the wrenching HBO documentary — things didn't go as planned. Devastated after watching the film, which tells the story of a photojournalist beheaded by ISIS in Syria in 2014, "My first reaction was: I can't write a song about this," says Sting. But he had an epiphany later that night and "The Empty Chair," a poignant ballad with music by Ralph and lyrics by Sting, was born. The artists, who knew each other through a mutual friend, tightwire artist Philippe Petit (the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire and the 2015 feature The Walk), have five Oscar-nominated songs between them but never had worked together before. Seated side by side on a sofa at L.A.'s Sunset Marquis nearly a year later, they talked about their collaboration and how Foley continues to inspire them.

After watching the documentary, you asked director Brian Oakes for a transcription of the letter that Jim wrote his family, which is read aloud at the end of the film. Why did you ask for that?

RALPH We thought it would be extremely powerful and inspiring to have Jim's actual transcribed letter while working on the song. We really hoped to imbue who he was. It was invaluable to have something so personal while working on the song, as we felt an indescribable connection to Jim and his story through the letter [and] getting to relive his actual words and wishes.

Sting, you said your initial reaction was to pass. What turned it around for you?

STING I sat with my family at the table and imagined if one of my kids was missing and there was an empty chair there. Once I got that metaphor, I wrote the song that night and sent it to Josh [Ralph] the next day. Josh had written this beautiful, hymn-like setting, and I didn't know what to do with it until I found that image.

J. Ralph, what did you think when you read the lyrics?

RALPH The day after Thanksgiving, an email saying "The Empty Chair" from Sting arrives. I call him up and am like, "Are you kidding me? This is beautiful. You're supposed to make this look a little bit hard." I think we both find Jim very inspiring and [find] a lot of hope in the story. It's not a film about the end, it's about what the beginning could look like and what his sacrifice could mean to the world.

Both of you carry around a button with Jim's picture on it. Why?

RALPH To look down and be reminded of how special he was and the sacrifice he made to try to help the world understand the civilian casualties of war.

STING My feeling is that in this time of political divisiveness, when the uglier side of American culture is being trumpeted, Jim was a wonderful example of what the world loves about America, really. It's the Peace Corps, it's rock 'n' roll, it's Levi's, it's kindness and generosity. That's what we need to hear from America, not this bullshit. So I think it's a very important symbol now, and people should see this and be inspired by it because all this other crap is so demoralizing.

Sting, lending your name brings awareness to a project. How did that factor into your decision to do a song for this film?

STING I only can make a difference if I can complete the song. My celebrity means nothing if I can't do the job, so it wouldn't have gone any further than that if I hadn't been able to come up with something that resembled a song.

What did Jim Foley's family say to you after they first heard "The Empty Chair"?

STING Thankfully, they loved it. It was a very emotional thing for me. I had to perform it in front of them [at Sundance].

RALPH After the performance, the father came and gave us this big hug, he almost didn't want to let go, and said, "You would have no way of knowing this, but Jim's favorite bar, where he went all the time ever since he was a teenager, keeps an empty chair with his name on a plaque."

Will you two work together again?

RALPH Love to.

STING Never. (Laughs.)

RALPH Was I supposed to say never?

STING We've got to get our act together.

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