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Sometimes Screenwriting Means Being A DJ

Listening to music can be more difficult than just listening to music. You’re chilling out on a Sunday afternoon and really fancy some classical. Or that little extra motivation you need to get up and clean the house is one of the great rock albums. Those, and a hundred and one other reasons why we would listen to a particular genre of music. I suppose it does not even have to be a genre of music. It can be a whole array of varied music tastes in one sitting. Standing. Laying down. Blah blah blah.

The reason why this ramble is losing your attention is because what I want to say is kind of three fold. Right now, I am wondering what to listen to, before I write about how I listen to a particular style of music when working on a particular part of screenwriting, which brings me to the style of music that is a crucial character element in a movie I really ought to have finished by now.

Saoirse Connell is the lead female character in a movie I have been writing, on and off obviously, for a few years now called Monsters and Angels. That title itself is also a song by Voice Of The Beehive – a rather jolly and somewhat fun sounding song {like the artists} that simply has nothing in common with the movie. Except the title of course. The movie is actually not jolly or fun. Not to say you, or anyone else, won’t enjoy it. My screenplay Monsters and Angels is one of the heavier things I have written in fact. I mean, I have written a couple of, maybe three, what you could call comedies. But even they have their dark sides, like a premise built on the death of a father for example.

No, this movie is a serious story, about a serious woman, who attempts to recover from one serious chain of events to only fall splat in a new serious situation. You see, I love drama, high drama, without going overboard. And the subject matter of this movie is partly well out of my remit {for example, I have never gone to Afghanistan during the war, or been romantically involved with a con artist}, so the research here was also heavy. And that is fine, sometimes it is okay to write what you know. And sometimes it is fine to write what you don’t know – this means I can really get my hands dirty with the months and months of research that go into making a screenplay as good, and in this case authentic, as you possibly can.

The music of Monsters and Angels was often serious. By “the music” I mean the music I listened to as I read about the army, as I stripped the movie bare into scenes, as I wrote pages and pages of dialogue, as I sat down and just wrote a scene. I always listen to music when I write. Remember, the process of screenwriting is not just creating words, into sentences, into scenes, into a movie. It is sitting, thinking for hours about one movement a character makes. It is about looking in catalogues to find your character’s wardrobe. It is about playing a scene over and over in your head. It is about reading pages and pages from several different books, without actually writing at all. Screenwriting is a process that is not all about the words on a page. In the end it is, but that is a long, long way off from when that idea pops in your head.

When I met my now wife online (around the time Monsters and Angels was first conceived) my Facebook status was something along the lines of “I want James Newton Howard to score all my movies.” That was a moment in time when I was listening to him specifically. I can get hooked with a particular composer (as much as any given genre or style), maybe for weeks, or maybe just for a couple of hours. And right then it was James Newton Howard. I have had my Thomas Newman moments,  John Barry moments. I could list my moments all day long, and they would fill an entire blog. The score I seemed to have listened to most consistently, and most often, while I have worked on Monsters and Angels would be James Newton Howard’s score for The Village, with the incredible Hilary Hahn playing the violin. You have to mention Hahn when you talk about The Village soundtrack, she is the heart and soul of the music around Howard’s spine. The violin floated around my head as I thought of Saoirse, who is from Ireland, and seemed to trigger some serious correlation with the character and the story. I just can’t appreciate the score alongside the movie it was written for. To me this is not longer the score to The Village, it is the score to Monsters and Angels.

While working on this I have also listened avidly to John Powell’s score for United 93, and Hans Zimmer’s score for 12 Years A Slave, and more recently the Gone Girl score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I have also listened to a lot of Dead Can Dance, and Lisa Gerard’s work outside of the group, as the tone and emotive style of some of their music just seemed to fit perfectly with Saoirse’s memories of the army and the time in Afghanistan. It may seem bonkers to some, but to me some of that music, and often very specific tracks in particular allowed me to just close my eyes (sometimes figuratively) and picture the movie coming to life. Playing before me. And in turn it helps me get into the head of Saoirse, a very strong and resilient woman, who has some horrors of war and broken family on her mind, but she does not want to be reminded of it. She does not want to see or hear or feel what she did then. And music, like that I have mentioned, helps me get there. It helps me build character, and it helps me build on the story. Sometimes take it in a different, but much better direction. Not always. Truth is, there are no actual sequences of war in this picture. We never see Saoirse, or anyone else, at war. This is all in her head, and we never see that. But as the writer, I simply have to be there too.

In fact, not just Saoirse talking about her past in the movie, the only cinematic demonstration of the shit she went through is through her inability to seemingly be alone and in silence. She just cannot cope with that, in spite of how tough she is. When Saoirse is alone, with only her own thoughts and no stimulus from the world around her, she listens to music – usually through headphones. And I am talking loud music. This sort of ammo has to be included when you write a biography of your characters. Especially your lead character. And so it is. The significant exception to her enveloping herself with the music through headphones, that is included in narrative of the movie, is Saoirse’s weekly night out to a club that has a classic dance night. So she can go, dance to the music she grew up with (music I grew up with), and escape her current fears. For the time being. And not all characters are based on myself, but the music utilised here is music I love, or have loved at one time or another. Music that Saoirse also listens to because the loud beats take her some place else. Somewhere better.

So now there I am listening to The Chemical Brothers, pretty much their whole anthology, and the ridiculously good Hanna soundtrack (pure coincidence there that the lead character is played by an actress called Saoirse – small world). And loving it. Even when I am not sitting in front of my computer, with the screenplay in front of me. I too can stick the headphones in my ear, and try and figure out which track goes where. Like the scene in the hospital when Saoirse almost has a freak out because she needs to sleep but has no beat music. Or the scene that transitions from the opening bloody crime scene to months earlier with Saoirse listening to loud music as she waits before a job interview. I even plucked out tracks like Loneliness by Tomcraft or Diesel Power by The Prodigy to play in the night-club where Saoirse dances until she passes out. Sometimes being a screenwriting means being a DJ too.

Sometimes I become the Irish woman with her troubles and her free spirit. I think like her, I move like her, I see the world like her, I listen to the same music as she does. It’s just amazing to listen to music you love, and write a character you love, in a movie you have always loved. But the love is growing, and soon the movie will be written. A screenplay, words on paper without music. But music plays its part. It has to. This won’t be the last thing you read from me by the way talking about screenwriting and music. That is me, I cannot account for any other writers with what I suspect and assume of them. The whole process has so many parts. And they change, and swap, and come and go, with each movie you write. It’s a great, rewarding, and very tough profession. A profession where, at this stage, reading up on degree course at about twenty-five different universities to establish where your character attended, can be just as crucial to the creation of the screenplay as listening to the always fantastic track Six Underground by Sneaker Pimps.


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