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  • Writer's pictureMichael Lee Simpson


They are often ghosts in the background, puppet masters hiding in shadows above the stage, strings tied to musical notes, dancing with their fingers to make the show a live production. Some are household names. Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Danny Elfman, James Horner, Bernard Herrmann, the late Ennio Morricone. The greatest scores are often in the forefront of our minds, drums and orchestras swelling in our ears every time we think of Star Wars or Superman or The Godfather. There’s an obvious correlation between the screenplay and the score. But how? The writing and music are typically on opposite ends of the creative process. I asked some industry insiders to offer some insight into the power of music and how it relates to the magical art of screenwriting.

“The main purpose of a score is to paint the underlying mood, indicate development and define the profound message of the story,” said Best Music Awards Jury Prize winner Anita Andreis, composer/singer/songwriter, The Brave Adventures of a Little Shoemaker, Bobo and My Dear Fish. “While screenplay offers a valuable foundation and understanding, the lens through which the audience will perceive the movie is greatly determined by the director’s vision and style. The most crucial element that can support, hold, mould and lead that vision is a perfect blend of moving pictures with the (right!) score. The score uncovers the hidden sub-layers of emotions, it defines their intensities and thus completely shifts the lens of a viewer’s perception.”

“There are times when the right score takes what could have been a very simple scene and compliments it so well that the score is like soulmates meeting for the first time,” said writer/producer Jeff Rivera. “At the same time, there are moments when the most inappropriate musical choice is so distracting that it completely destroys what could have been an amazing scene. When I think about scores that moved me emotionally to this day, years after I’d seen them—I absolutely think about scenes in The Color Purple in which composer Quincy Jones broke my heart and at times healed it or, of course, just about every John Williams/Steven Spielberg collaboration on the silver screen.”

Everything on the screen starts on the page and although you can’t audibly hear it, the words have a tone,” explained Pete O’Brien, composer/writer/director, Misery Loves Company and Running Through Darkness. “It can be in the description, or the character’s dialogue. The script is the first indication of what the film is going to be (action/adventure, comedy, drama, horror, etc.), and ultimately the first clue in how to score it. By the time the script has been filmed, the director has interpreted that narrative tone into a visually tangible form of existence. The composer must then take those visuals, derived from the story, and make an aural parallel to support it.”

There are a variety of interchangeable terms—a background score, background music, film soundtrack, film music, screen composition, screen music and incidental music. The nuts and bolts of screenwriting—everything from sluglines to dialogue—sets the groundwork for the spirit of the project, the blueprint for what the composer has to work with.

“It’s essential to complement the emotion of a film,” said musician/singer Caley Rose. “All one has to do is mute a scary movie to know that this is true. Music is so adept at emphasizing the drama of a scene that sometimes it only takes two notes, as is the case of the famous Jaws theme. The perfect combination of rhythm, melody and drama can bring a story to life and elicit emotion-tugging at heart strings, terrifying, and delighting. The perfect marriage of an emotionally evocative screenplay and the right musical score can make a film a masterpiece.”

“How much, and how big the music is involved really depends on what your story is about,” said Ed Hartman, film/TV composer and owner at 8th Sense Productions. “Music can add emotion, sentimentality, reference, location, era, transitions and overall storytelling above and beyond the visual information and dialogue. Watch any movie without music and you will get a big shock! Music is usually the last thing that many filmmakers deal with but can be 50% of the audience’s experience.” Hartman recently scored and produced a 1938 unreleased silent sci-fi film by Richard Lyford called As the Earth Turns, fueling his creative drive to write a biopic on the enormously talented filmmaking pioneer.

“When I work on a project, the process always starts with talks about the story, the characters, the real themes behind the visuals and dialogue,” reflected composer Arnaud Drieu of Nostalgia and the upcoming action film Wrecker. “These elementary steps are crucial keys that will form the music direction. This is where I get my inspiration to craft deepness and sonic identity for the score. Each film project is different and deserves an original voice to support it. At the end of the composition journey, I aim for the score to stand as an inherent part of the film.”

“It may be deep in the thicket of the film and you’ve long forgotten the opening credits, when the music was featured,” added Colin Aguiar, Life of Pi, The Good Dinosaur and composer at Musifactoral. “Now music recedes while the dialogue and the actors occupy the foreground. But music is very active in what you’re perceiving onscreen even though you don’t know it. Music can accompany scenes in many different ways. You might take in the visuals, but music is telling you what to think. For one, music can follow the natural path of the scene. It’s the typical notion of what you’d expect from a score, but it can do this in varying ways. It may choose to not be intrusive and invisibly let the performances play out, but at other times and in the hands of skilled composers, music can start to enhance what you’re seeing.”

Elaine Roberts, Executive Producer at Chase Your Dreams Productions, knows through years of experience that the connection between words and the soundtrack is paramount to the world of cinema. “It has to create the moment—what the characters are feeling, what is happening in the scene, the meaning behind it all—it has to translate the heart of the scene with audio. It’s what taps into the audience’s emotive responses while they watch the film, and this allows them to ‘get into the moment’ and become part of the scene at the time they’re watching it. Pivotal scenes, climatic scenes, a big action car chase scene are all entertaining to some extent, but what causes the ‘magic’ of the audience being fully enraptured and transported into the scene itself is a score composed perfectly to bring the scene to life.”

-Nostos Screenwriting Retreats


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