This is one of those posts that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. This is about my lifelong connection to music, and how it personally relates to my writing.
I love music. Holy lord I love music. I love ALLLL kinds of music. From the mildest New Age Zen to the hardest Norweigian Black Metal. There really isn’t a style of music in which I can’t find something to love. I liken it to my high school days when I was friends with all the cliques. I had drama friends, jock friends, stoner friends, and everyone in between. It’s my personality to find a little something in anything or anyone. Movies are the same way; my love of film crosses all genres. Now, of course we all have favorites. Horror movies and Metal will always top the list. We could talk all day about how I grew up a horrorhound metalhead because I was raised in a very conservative religious town, and horror and metal were my outlets to rebel against that oppressive society, but this isn’t that post…
You see what’s happening here? I have so many different thoughts, stories, and connections to music that my brain is being scattered a thousand ways. Why am I talking about my love of metal now? Focus, Jeff. FOCUS. Okay, maybe in the future I’ll post about some of my other relationships to music, but today, my plan was to focus on one thing.
This is about my close link to screenwriting and movie scores.
Every writer has a cornerstone that helps them get into the headspace of writing. It’s impossible to just sit down and “turn it on.” The dirty secret (that’s not so secret) is how so much time writing is actually spent staring at the computer screen doing absolutely nothing, almost like you’ve been lulled in by Videodrome. But it’s understandable. A sprinter can’t just walk down and break a record. He has to prep. He has to stretch. He has to focus. Our brains work the same way. To me, this is what movie scores help me do. They are my “brain stretching.”
I’m what you’d call a Scorewhore. I love movie scores so damn much. Ever since I was a small kid, before I knew a thing about filmmaking, I’d watch a film and point out the score. I’d recognize how a specific scene that I loved was helped by the fact that a composer lifted it up far beyond what was originally there. Movie composers are geniuses and are so rarely regarded the way they should. Most people know the names of John Williams, Hans Zimmer and James Horner, but I wish more knew about the Clint Mansell’s, Alexandre Desplat’s, and James Newton Howard’s as well. Granted most Scorewhores know these names as much as they know that water is wet, but sadly we’re the exceptions.
One of my favorite albums growing up was Danny Elfman’s Music for a Darkened Theater, which was a collection of many of his compositions. Hidden amongst his larger more well known themes for Batman, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and The Simpsons was a track for a horror movie I love, Nightbreed. Reading through the liner notes (as you used to do), he talked about how he didn’t have too much of a budget for it like he was used to, but still felt he nailed a good theme. Well, he was right. It’s one of my favorites, and probably the single track that made me realize I could write to this kind of music. Yet another example of the fact that higher budget doesn’t always mean better. Anyway, thank you for the that, Danny Elfman. You have always been a hero of mine.
Continuing my movie score journey, I first started actually writing to them in college. Sure, when I put on my headphones it blocked out my loud roommates screaming about the Utah Jazz in the other room, but I quickly realized how much it put me in a different place and a different mindset almost immediately. It transported me just like films do. It helped with my schoolwork. It was here that I also noticed how different styles of scores could help me do different types of school projects. Darker scores for more dramatic English projects. Peppy action scores for more quick busy work like math. Interesting…
But it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and became an actual screenwriter that I discovered the single best thing writing to a film score can do for you. Movie scores can be Pavlovian.
Let me explain exactly about this process. It’s one that works so well for me. When people ask me how I’m able to work on numerous projects at once, this is my trick. Every time I start a project, even at the treatment stage, I scour for a score that matches the tone of what I’m writing. It’s like courting. Once I find that perfect match, I put on the headphones and start writing with that score on eternal loop. Bear in mind there has to be ZERO words. Musical only. Occasionally I find a score that is amazing, like Trevor Jones’ score for Dark City (which I wrote my project FRAGILE to), and there are a few tracks with singing on them. Well, then I create a playlist and edit those out. “Music only” is important. This isn’t about distraction. This is about immersion. Anyway, what happens as I hear this on constant loop while I write is that it gets ingrained in my head and is now connected to the project entirely. It goes hand in hand with the project in my brain. The music and the project you’re writing are now one.
As any writer knows, you’re constantly bouncing between projects. This is one of the harder things. Sometimes I’m working on one project in the first half of the day and another in the second half. Plus as we all know, writing is rewriting, so sometimes you’re brought back to old projects that have found new life with a new producer. How do you keep this all straight in your head? That’s where the Pavlovian qualities of movie scores come in to play. Put on those headphones and play the score you initially wrote the project to. The SECOND you play the score that was associated with that script, everything flows back in to your head like a river. You remember the characters, their instincts, the setting, your theme. It’s immediately there like you were working on it all along. This is a trick that I’ve used for a very long time, and one that I’m passing on to any new writers out there that are having a hard time focusing on any one project.
Hopefully this little trick helps.
Dammit, once again I went on too long. This is a recurring problem. Sorry readers… I even had a whole plan to write an additional section about my projects and which scores I used for them, but naw, that’s a personal thing and I’m out of space. I’ll let you discover that world for yourself. Spotify is a great resource by the way. Use it. So I’ll leave you here.
Although one last thing, since I know someone will ask. If you’re curious, currently I’m using Joseph Bishara’s incredible Conjuring 2 score for my most recent project, and it’s perfect. And if you’re wondering what my favorite score of all time is, well I have about ten. But I will say everyone should listen to Clint Mansell’s score for Requiem for a Dream. It is absolute perfection.
Hopefully you enjoyed my disjointed trip down musical memory lane with my connection to movie scores, and maybe just maybe my little Pavlovian movie score trick will help some writer out there. Hey, if one person finds this helpful, I’ve done my job.
Until next time, put on those headphones and melt away into a new world.
Farewell, horror friends.