Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thursday Throwback - "How not to use music"

This post first appeared on Monday, March 23, 2009.

At age 18, I came up with an idea that would eventually lead to my first feature-length screenplay, and I owe it all to Phil Collins. As I was driving in the car one evening, “In the Air Tonight” came on the radio and though I’d heard the song hundreds of times before, it suddenly struck me that it would make a great soundtrack for a movie scene. The creepy foreboding chords of the beginning made for a great contrast with the famous crescendo drum beats that signal the climax of the song. Immediately, I went home and scribbled down the opening scene of a horror film beat for beat, synchronizing certain actions to the song, with the final brutal attack coming at the aforementioned beats. “Oh yes,” I thought, “This is the scene that will have everyone talking.” When I got around to writing the script, the first lines that appeared were “We hear ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins.”

(At the time, I was unaware that Miami Vice had already used the same song in a famous sequence. What can I say, I was culturally illiterate.)

And if I could reach back in time, I’d grab that 18 year-old hack by the throat and tell him there were few dumber things he could do than that. First, the rights to licensed music costs money. A lot of it. So let’s say a producer buys a script with one or more licensed songs that have been made integral to the plot. What happens if the rights holder decides he doesn’t want that song to appear in your movie? Or what if he holds you up for a lot of money? Because of the fear of situations like this happening, it’s generally understood that screenwriter’s shouldn’t list specific songs in their scripts. Sometimes you can get around this by saying “A song like ‘My Way’” but in general, it’s best to just avoid the issue altogether and not name songs. Above all else, never name a song that is irreplaceable in the context of the film. Don’t have everything building up to your cast singing a karaoke cover of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” as the resolution to the plot.

(The same basic principles apply to using movie and TV show clips in your script. Think long and hard before making the call that your lead character must be watching Jaws or Star Wars on camera.)

Why is this important? Because breaking this rule is another one of those mistakes that marks you as a clueless newbie. Once a reader has made that call about you, it’s a short hop from that to “PASS.” Remember, in this business, there’s no real risk attached to saying “no,” while there might be a slight risk at pushing for a script that your boss ends up thinking is trash. Why gift-wrap your reader a reason for saying no?

And while we’re on the subject of music in movies, I have to say I’m getting tired of seeing movies where the soundtrack seems to have determined the scenes rather than vice-versa. Guys like Cameron Crowe and Quentin Tarantino have made some really cool musical choices in their movies, but the unfortunate side effect has been a lot of upcoming screenwriters who seem to be writing scenes so they can include their favorite songs in films. Good music doesn’t make a good script, and in fact, almost seems like lazy storytelling when the songs become a crutch.

Or to put it another way – isn’t it suspicious that the first thing anyone seems to say when Garden State comes up in conversation is “What a great soundtrack!” Speaking as someone who read about fifty Garden State knockoffs, each with their own indie-emo soundtracks, all I can say is: turn off the iPod.


  1. Garden State was kinda quirky and cool anyway. Besides, Gladiator had the best soundtrack / score - so take that indie kids.

    p.s. Musical interludes really annoy me, such blatant theft for an effect a writer couldn't get for themselves (cue Gordon-Levitts interlude in (500) Days of Summer - I get it kid, you're happy)

  2. Is it a newbie writing faux pas to include a specific song in a TV spec? I've been debating about whether or not to leave it in or take it out.

  3. In the Air Tonight" was used memorably in Risky Business before Miami Vice used it. You weren't wrong -- it's great movie music.

  4. Kevin - It's generally frowned upon. If you're writing a Glee spec, that's a completely different story.

    Then again, if you're writing it JUST as a writing sample, you might get away with it. The person reading it might take the music cue as a sign you aren't aware of how expensive it can be (since the point of spec is to write something producible.)

    I'd say to only do it if you really, really think it adds something to your spec.