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.
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