Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Music Q

Thanks for leaving questions in the last post, much appreciated. I'll get to them one-by-one (there were a couple handled directly in the comments section, if anyone wants to check it out) but I thought I'd start with the music question, from JJ: "What about using music in scripts? Generally, we're advised against it but I've seen plenty who do it, so what's the good & bad ways...?"

Some would say that it’s best to avoid having musical references in a spec script. This is because of clearance issues (from the music publisher and the author) and whether or not they’ll allow their song or clip to be used. This is more to do with the film’s actual soundtrack than it is about using songs for a specific scene. A lot of scripts will try to impose their own soundtrack into the narrative where they will namecheck and reference twelve to fifteen songs throughout the story. Some writers/producers even go as far as to submit a CD with the accompanying songs with a ‘note to the reader’ to press ‘play’ at certain points in the story. Hate that. Hate it. The CD is never played, I can assure you.

However, it’s perfectly acceptable to reference a song for a particular scene, as long as it’s relevant to the character or the story. For example, say if your character had to sing a karaoke song in a key scene, you'd want to mention the song, right? And the song would no doubt be relevant to whatever the character is going through (e.g. he gets to sing 'I Can't Live if Living is Without You' after he's just been dumped). It's all about context, and for a specific reference like this in the story, you'll probably get away with it. However, if the script goes into production but you can’t get clearance to use the song, then you have to use a different number.

Occasionally, writers will ‘set the mood’ by referring to a certain type of music, usually in a bar scene, something like: “John Smith enters the bar. It’s a dingy place. Metallica, or someone similar, pounds out from the jukebox.” It gives the reader a general vibe about the scene without giving the production manager and music supervisor a headache about what track to lay down.

Music selection is generally someone else’s department (especially for TV) but it’s fine for scenes to mention which song is blasting from the car stereo, but remember only if the lyrics/mood are important to the character/story. If you don’t need to be specific about a song or band, then just mention what type of music is blasting from the stereo: “Cheesy pop music blares from the radio”. “The deep bass of a cool R&B number pulses through the car”. Whatever.

So, yes, it’s okay to reference songs and lyrics, but don’t go overboard. Once or twice is usually enough and/or acceptable. Anything more and you’re suggesting a soundtrack, which may not be appropriate or feasible for the script's production.

Next up... personal writing revelations! Oo-er.


Lucy V said...


CDs with scripts, omigod. Got so many of them, especially at lit agents. Not so much now, proving your word is getting through Stackmeister!

I wrote a script set in the 80s and referenced a couple of songs for the arena, that can work too. The whole "vibe" thing as you say - though I think that goes beyond character/story and should definitely be treated with caution. Go overboard and you can look like a prescriptive nutter. And sometimes readers are allergic to it regardless of how careful you are: the same script was called "hideously indulgent" AND "refreshingly textured" by two different readers for the music refs. WTF?

Dan said...

I think CDs with scripts can only be a good thing. I also want sketches of the characters, a pop-up book of key locations, and maybe a tape-recording of the writer acting out a few scenes (this will alleviate the slog of reading), or just doing impressions of the characters. ;)

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that Zach Braff put together a CD of songs to go with his script for Garden State.

But then he's a well-known actor off the telly (Scrubs), so maybe he's allowed.

Danny Stack said...

Actually, I think the script for Stranger Than Fiction came with a CD, or a message that read: "if you don't have the accompanying CD, phone this number and we'll send one to you". I didn't listen to the CD but I loved the script...

Lucy V said...

My fave accompaniment to a script was a note attached to the script reading along the lines of:

"This script received development money from [this particular fund]. This means it is good. If when you have read the script you disagree, please phone [this number] and the writer will explain anything you don't understand."

Anonymous said...

It did Danny, I worked at Film Colony in LA and they produced Zack Helm's Mr Magorium's movie as well as Stranger than Fiction and yep, he provides a CD. Written into the action would be : Play Track 2. It was all very indie MOR and not to my taste. But I have read a few others as well that ask you to listen as you read.

And none of the writer's musical choices made it into the movie.

I can also think of one famous example which was in The Bodyguard. The song Whitney's character was supposed to sing was not I Will Always You, it was something totally different.

Anyway, what you said.