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Music Cues In Your Screenplay?

February 17, 2016
4 min read time

Conventional wisdom says don’t.

But this same wisdom also tells you never to direct in your script, nor telegraph what a character is feeling, etc.

I respectfully disagree with this.

George Lucas wrote American Graffiti around soundtrack cues. Tarantino often cites his music cues in his scripts. I understand these are directors, but what? Only directors can write detailed scripts with a lot of color and personality? I’d argue that the writer of a spec script is in more need of color and personality. A director has storyboards and will flesh out his film as he shoots and edits it. If he’s a working director with a good track record, he doesn’t need to sell so hard. A newcomer, however, does.

Don’t think of your script as a blueprint simply conveying dialogue and basic action. Unless you’ve got one of the greatest concepts ever, your script is going to be boring to read if there’s no personality in the writing. If it’s boring to read, it’ll be a hard sell. Your task is not only to entertain on the page, but most importantly:

To Have Readers Imagine A Movie.

That’s the number one priority of a spec script.

If you’re lucky, it’s by no means a finished work. If it sells it’ll go through rewrite after rewrite. The spec is essentially a pitch for your movie in the form of a screenplay. It’s the movie you see in your head. And you have to get it into another person’s head. To this end, it’s best to use every trick available.

A lot of people think it’s a waste of time placing pop songs into a script due to copyright issues, how expensive it is to obtain certain artists’s songs, etc. This shouldn’t be a concern. Everyone in the industry is aware this is a spec script. They know it’s not a shooting script. It’s understood that some of the music choices might not make it to the final cut.

It’s more about creating a mood or atmosphere. For example, if you wrote a scene in which a character walks into a dorm room where a character is grooving to the Wu-Tang Clan, it conveys a bit more than if you just wrote “hip hop or rap music”. Yes, you might not get that Wu-Tang jam, but at least you conveyed this is a harder, rawer brand of hip hop. It adds color. It becomes shorthand for an aesthetic rather than simply listing a genre. It takes up roughly the same amount of space of the script, why not say a little more?

Now for this reason, I would suggest not using music that’s too obscure.

Even if you don’t listen to the Wu-Tang, most people under fifty have a sense of the Wu-Tang.

Whereas they might not have a sense of Dr. Octagon.

The Smiths. Yes.

Grandaddy. No.

If a person is blasting Willie Nelson from their pickup truck that says old school, outlaw country.

If a person is blasting Keith Urban that says something very different.

Likewise James Brown is as synonymous with “funky” as AC/DC is synonymous with “rocking”.

Music cues are a nice tool for creating an immediate impression of a character and/or location. You don’t have to labor over too much detail. Most people reading scripts these days have been brought up on the Internet. They don’t want to read a long paragraph of description. They prefer a lot of white and breaks in the page. They have a multimedia mindset.

I’ve written a lot of scripts in the past ten years. Some have sold, others haven’t. They‘ve all had, to varying degrees, music cues. I never had a producer, agent, manager, studio exec or director tell me I shouldn’t do it. In fact, the few times my use of music cues was mentioned it was in a positive light.

The first spec I sold, PIERRE PIERRE, was brimming with music cues. There were a lot of Serge Gainsbourg songs. Now Gainsbourg is a more obscure artist (unless you’re French), but this was an exception to my prior rule. It worked because even if the reader never heard of Gainsbourg they knew from his name and the song titles that it was French music. The script was about a French character. French character, French music. It didn’t trip people up. The first production company that was attached to the script loved the music cues so much they burned a soundtrack CD, which they included when they shopped the script around town. PIERRE PIERRE became more than a spec. It was a hip, francophile fashion statement. I think this was one of the many factors that led to its sale.

I had a similar situation happen with a script I developed with a major production company a couple years ago. It was a buddy comedy about two fugitives in the South. I wanted the script to have some local flavor. As such I peppered country music and southern hip-hop throughout. Old South meets New South. The producers loved the music cues and just like with PIERRE PIERRE they burned a soundtrack CD. One of the producers kept going on about Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene”. I turned him into a fan.

You might’ve picked up on a certain method here. I don’t just put in music that I’m into. That would be self-indulgent. I use music cues that convey something about the characters, the environment, the movie I’m pitching in my script.

Last year I wrote a script that takes place in a working-class town in Michigan. In one scene a character walks into a local bar. What gives you more a sense of the scene: Classic Rock plays from the jukebox or Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” plays from the jukebox? What puts you there? What makes it feel like a movie?

Of course like any technique, music cues can be overdone or utilized incorrectly.

If utilized correctly, however, they can’t hurt.

They can only enhance your script.

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