Music First, Words Later

When I am thinking up a screenplay the first thing that comes to mind are the songs that populate my characters’ world. I am one of those writers who come up with a soundtrack before I even have a story. Of course, this is slightly problematic because producers frown upon music cues. But I don’t really care.

I find the research into the music of the movie as enlightening as the research into the characters. Both kind of work together. When I wrote Da-ad, my story about the Beltway Sniper siege of 2002, I read up on the event and then asked a couple of my friends about the music they listened to back in the day. Then I developed a list of songs for each character. Craig, the introverted son in a hardcore band listened to the Dischord records catalog, while dad Donald listened to the sort of soft rock they played on 97.1 WASH-FM. When I first conceived the idea of a day in the life of the Beltway siege, Maggie May by Rod Stewart punctuated the trailer in my mind’s eye—so that made it into the movie.

I decided that all of the music (except the Rod Stewart) should be by Washington D.C. artists. A visit to Amoeba Records in Hollywood rounded out some of the more esoteric stuff I couldn’t find on iTunes and I still plan a visit to DC to pick out even less-known music. In this way, I am still adding songs to the playlist.

The idea for Truly Desperate came while I was listening to a merengue song on my car’s FM radio. A random series of scenes from a movie popped into my head and pretty soon I was scribbling them all down. The story, about a couple of losers escaping Los Angeles with their lives seemed to come pre-packaged with the music. A coworker made me a mix CD; many of the songs ended up in the story. I popped into a Latin music store near where I worked and heard a Spanish-language version of “Last Kiss” that blew my mind. In this way, discovering music incidentally through friends and adventuring around the city, I had thirty-six songs by the end of the writing.

For me, life is music. Writing is placing life on paper and what would that feel like without the popular song?

Here are a couple from Truly Desperate:

Bite My Swag—Asia Lynne (A “Jerk” track that I think was pretty popular in 2009 Los Angeles, at least among teenagers)
Stand Tall—Burton Cummings (This song reminds me of my main character’s self-pitying, simpering struggle)
Laurel Canyon Boulevard—Van Dyke Parks (Every time I drive through the valley, I feel some of this song’s disorientation)
Hang onto Your Ego—The Beach Boys (Just another psychedelic offering from Brian Wilson)
Frijolero—Molotov (A funny Spanish-English song that makes some pretty prescient points about immigration)
I Wish We’d All Been Ready—Larry Norman (A creepy, slightly apocalyptic Christian rock song that well…scares the heck out of me)
El Ultimo Beso—Polo (The entire movie runs through my mind when I hear this)

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6 responses to “Music First, Words Later

  1. Funny, sometimes I feel like one of the few writers who doesn’t connect music to my writing. Like, I sometimes listen to music while I write, to get me energized (just like when I run, although writing music doesn’t HAVE to be hip hop/upbeat like running music does :P). But I don’t really do soundtracks the way a lot of writers seem to… Am I a freak?! 😛

    • No-I think I am the freak, haha. But seriously, however music enters the story, it seems like it’s always around, whether we plan on it or not.

  2. Dude, I totally wrote about this today. But what is not in my post is that I also have soundtracks for my books. Awesome!

    • Hmm…funny. We must be mindreaders-or telepathic. Sometimes I have soundtracks to other books, too. For example: Oh Sister by Bob Dylan always goes with Midnight’s Children by Rushdie for me.

  3. Yup, same here! I listen to music and scroll through my iPod to find a good song title that could be my working title. The latest scripts I wrote were inspired by Vast’s She Visits Me and Robert Downey Jr.’s The Futurist. I think we have just the same approach as Quentin 😉

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