Monday, August 16, 2010

Why you shouldn't include songs in your specs - associations

I can always tell when I've hit my readers where they live because after a blog post that covers some bit of information that's fairly conventional wisdom within the industry, I get hit with several emails from people arguing that their writing is the exception. Usually these emails start with "What about if you do it this way?" or "Suppose it's really important that I...?" or just "Hey, can't I have fun at the spec stage?" After I mocked writers who set up websites promoting their scripts, I got invitations from several writers to check out their sites and discover all the ways that their site should be considered an exception to my advice.

Spoiler alert: none of them were at all exceptions to my advice.

Another big pressure point seems to be music in spec scripts. There's a certain segment of my readership that will go to war over the right to put their iPod playlist as the soundtrack to their spec. And I guess I just can't resist poking them.

If you're not willing to consider the financial and the clearance implications of including copywritten music in your spec, I'm going to try to appeal to you on artistic grounds.

The half of you who are laughing, shut up. The other half heading for the exits, don't bother. I've already boarded up the doors.

A while back, my wife and I were figuring out the music for our wedding ceremony. She really wanted to walk down the aisle to the Israel Kamakawiwo'ole version of Over the Rainbow. (The Hawaiian version, for those who don't know.) I told her - at least twice - "It's a nice song, but I've got such a pre-association with it, I'd rather not." I explained what I associated that song with, she still wanted to do it, so I gave in.

What do I associate that song with? I'm glad you asked.

That's from ER's "On the Beach," an episode from the 8th season that featured the slow, lingering death of star Anthony Edwards' Mark Greene. The background is that he and his daughter have been at odds all season. She's been into drugs and alcohol and he's scared about the choices she's making. He knows he's got very little time before he dies of a brain tumor, but everything he does to reach out to her fails. She pushes back at every turn... until the final night of his life. She goes to him, knowing this is the end. He offers some last advice, and then in a callback to an early attempt on Mark's part to recall the good times they had watching The Wizard of Oz, she says "I remember, Daddy" and puts her walkman on his ears as Over the Rainbow sends Mark to that big ER in the sky.

It's one of the saddest moments of the entire series and I absolutely cannot hear that version of Over the Rainbow without thinking about this scene and hearing Rachel Greene say, "I remember, Daddy," giving Mark peace as he goes off to meet his maker, and then at that point I.... Excuse me....

*sniff* *SOB* *WAAAAA!*

Sorry. I'm good now.

So on that day, she walked down the aisle looking beautiful and I was doing everything humanly possibly to not listen to the music and think of Anthony Edwards dying. No one wants Goose invading their private moment.

I'd held out hope that the emotion of the wedding day would overwrite my previous association with it. No such luck. A few months later my wife and I were watching Glee and they performed the song. Foolishly, I made some remark about always associating that music with something in particular.

"Me in my wedding dress?" she asked with wide eyes.

I'm honest to a fault. Suffice to say, that wasn't the answer I gave. Fortunately, my wife is forgiving to a fault which is why instead of making me spend the night on the couch, she completely let the subject drop two minutes later.

My point is: even though you used a particular song because it means a great deal to you, you cannot assume that it will mean the same thing to the person reading it. Maybe you think James Blunt's You're Beautiful is the most romantic song ever written while those of us with taste and working ears find it to be one of the most obnoxious, annoying douchey love songs ever in heavy rotation.

Seriously, if someone says "I love You're Beautiful," I completely write that person off as a non-entity.

The odds of this happen going up with the popularity of the song you chose. Pick a Top 40 hit from a few years ago and some of us might associate it with a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend, a fun trip with friends, that horrible semester of college, anything. If the music really truly fits the moment, maybe it can overcome that.

But if you're just throwing it in for the hell of it, maybe you're doing more harm than good. Maybe you're inviting the audience to project too many of their own emotions onto the film. A good filmmaker knows how to manipulate that effectively and take advantage of it. A bad filmmaker picks completely the wrong song and runs the risk of pulling their audience right out of the film.

Don't put a song in a film because it's your favorite song - do it because it's the right song and no other song would suffice.


  1. Great example at how songs can have different meanings for different people. It's also hard to create a feeling or mood by just writing down the title and artist of a song. Even if the reader is familiar with the song, I can't imagine it would have anywhere near the same impact as hearing the song during the film. So my advice would be that screenwriters should send a CD with all the songs they want included in the script. At key points in the script, the writer can write: Play Track 1 during the following scene. That way as the reader reads that scene, he can become fully invovled--Okay, okay that went on a little too long. Obviously I'm kidding, but I bet at some point a screenwriter has done that.

    Something else that I've never understood is why writers want to include indie or unknown artists' music in a script. Chances are the reader isn't going to know the song and he sure as hell isn't going to stop reading to look up the artist.


  2. I guess I get it when a writer wants a certain song, but this article - and the many others like it - always remind me to just not care as much.

    While this may not always be true (and I doubt you're saying that writers should give up that hope that a certain song can be in that film they write), I find that the director's job is to tell the written story both visually and audibly. My opinion is: I'll leave it to the director (and really even the music supervisor) to decide on the music. If my words are truthful then a good director (and the viewing audience) will know what music needs to be played.

    Of course, then we're getting into the whole "letting go of your story" level of screenwriting. Almost never easy.

  3. Do you mean it's a terrible idea to include songs for the soundtrack, or to have the characters sing (or both)?

    My (T.V. pilot) spec has a fair amount of (integral to the premise of the show) acappella singing--a la "Glee" but without the massive choreography.

    Obviously, there are licensing issues, but since the odds of this spec being made are nil, and since "Glee" already uses a lot of licensed songs, I figured it was acceptable. Should I go back and write original songs?

    And yeah, I'm pretty sure you're going to advise me to drop the songs altogether. But it's not as if dropping the songs would make this pilot salable--it's also a Western. So what's the harm? :P

  4. I read a script where the author found a brilliant way around your thought-policing. He cited songs which HE had written specifically for his script. And he even included a special link which allowed the reader to access his online song archive so you could rock out to his Casio recording jams. I really think this made his script stand out because it showed not only that he had artistic vision, but that he was a workhorse who was willing to put in a little extra effort to make a great impression. And despite your naysaying, it really did help me understand the tone he wanted to set with his Star Wars Episode VII script.

  5. Kgmadman just won the thread. Nice to see you again, Madman! It's been too long.

    Sasha - I don't deal as much in TV, so it's harder to make a call there. If you were doing a Glee spec you absolutely could get away with writing licensed music in there because that's the style of the show (and your spec script would be a writing sample, not something that would ever be produced.)

    With a spec pilot, it's harder to say. If its intergral to the premise of the show the way GLEE's music is that would help, but don't forget that GLEE was seen as a HUGE longshot before it came out and that a TV writer who wasn't only the level of Ryan Murphy probably wouldn't have had as much freedom to do a show that called for 7-9 licensed songs PER EPISODE.

    But then, spec pilots are mostly seen as writing samples so you probably could get away with it.

  6. Didn't Zach Helm do that for a spec? I remember reading that he did what eshawcomedy suggested, and made a CD with the songs he wanted.

    From memory, it was STRANGER THAN FICTION and that was a decent movie.

  7. Thanks for the answer, Bitter! And especially for giving me just the answer I was hoping to hear ;).

    I was scared you'd advise me to write original stuff, because I'm no musician--no way could I come up with songs as good as "House of the Rising Sun," etc--audience associations or not, some things are better left to professionals. Also, can I tell you how much of a relief it was when "Glee" came on-air? People didn't think my acappella-heavy spec pilot was QUITE as crazy as they had before. :P

    Also, I heard Fox especially wanted "Glee" because it's sort of the scripted version of American Idol. As that goes into its death throes (and now that Vh1 and MTV are no longer in the music-tv business), maybe networks will try to fill the void by plugging even more music into prime-time via scripted shows?

  8. sigh.

    You must get really sick, Bitter, of giving advice that fits 99.99% of movie scripts, only to have some no-chancer going "wait, dude, what about if I...?"

    I think the problem is, we all think we're exceptions. How many scripts get bought out of the total number registered with the WGA? 0.001%? Yet almost all wannabe screenwriters believe that their script is going to sell, or at least is better than a huge percentage of what's out there.

    Look at the utter cesspool of amateurism that is Trigger St -- typical logline "A mysterious woman enters a sad loner's life with devastating consequence" I just made that up in about five seconds, but that's the standard over there.

    If you can't master the craft of the compelling logline, just how godawful is your script going to be?

    Yet there they (we?) all are, toiling away, and when an insider comes along with some much needed advice, it's always "dude, you don't understand my vision. That track by Trash Monster is absolutely integral to the scene."

    You have a thankless job, Bitter, because we all think we're exceptional; it's the American sickness.

  9. Honestly, isn't it a good thing for a writer to think s/he is exceptional?

    Isn't that the entire point of a writer's job: communicating his/her special vision to an audience?

    Which is more hopeless: a writer who doesn't have a personal vision s/he cares about, or one who doesn't have a dead-on understanding of the marketplace? A feeling of exceptionalism and a certain amount of arrogance are necessary to writing, or art in general. I don't think it's right to be ashamed of it or try oh-so-hard to snuff it out.

    Discussing the nuts and bolts of certain gimmicks (ie, including music in a script) is useful and interesting--but throwing away your entire vision because thinking you're exceptional is uppity and non-industry-approved is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I think.

  10. What about using music genres such as a 'punk rock' song to indicate a late 70's rebellious mood, or a 'psychedelic rock' song to indicate the late 60's/early 70's?

  11. If you look up an "oldie but goodie" song on you tube, and then read the comments, you will find that a considerable amount of people relate the song to a moment in love from their past.

    This is true for the very popular songs. For those who relate the song to a moment in their life that sucked, that's too bad; but as a writer, you should write not only what you know, but what you feel and what inspires you.

    If I'm listening to music and it inspires me to start "flowing like water," I trust that the music that I assign to that moment will convey the targeted emotion; which isn't really targeted, by the way, because it's totally a natural gift.

    That's the difference between a writer, and someone who writes.

    For those of you who experienced a bad moment to such an amazing song like, "Human Nature" by Michael Jackson, my heart goes out to you; but I'm sorry that I cannot consider the unfortunate people's experiences as a deciding factor of whether or not I choose a particular song.

    Look...Movies, and drama's evoke emotions. In good or bad ways, and in ways that they where meant to as well as in ways that they didn't.

    I am an aspiring writer myself who like many others, will not go out on my music without a fight.

    So, what I would like to know is, how did shows like , The Bernie Mack Show, and Everybody Hates Chris, get to have their shows jammed pack with all sorts of hits from back in the day; and who do I have to sleep with to get my music included?

    I am bitter but I want better.

  12. Well can you please tell me Bitter, why popular shows like, "The Bernie Mack show","Everybody Hates Chris," and
    "New York Undercover" were jammed packed with all the chart toppers?