Resounding Music

Gabriel Hudelson

Q&A: Do You Feel The Script?

Steven asks: “When looking at a script, do you picture and feel the emotion that needs to be felt by the future viewer to the movie?”

This is a question that is on one hand very personal- the answer is likely to vary depending on which composer you ask, because the composition process isn’t necessarily the same for anyone. At the same time, there are some overarching constants that every composer’s answer will include.

I don’t always look at the script. If the film is already in a rough- or locked-cut state, then I just watch that. But if the film is not yet in a viewable state (maybe they’re still in pre-production), I like to look at the script. There are a few reasons for this; first, to make certain that this is a project I want to be a part of (Ben Botkin gave me that advice a long time ago- always read the script!); if there is something in the film that would violate my convictions then I need to know as soon as possible so I can graciously excuse myself from that film’s team early on, rather than stumbling across the scene when I’ve already composed 10 minutes worth of music and spent hours and hours communicating with the director. I learned this lesson the hard way- started work on a feature film before watching the whole thing, and then when I saw the full rough cut I was shocked at some of the content in the movie. God was gracious, and the director let me back out of the project painlessly, but it’s a lesson I don’t want to have to re-learn. If a rough cut isn’t available, then looking at the script allows me to make sure we aren’t going to set ourselves up for big problems down the road. Being able to commit to the project with confidence allows us to work out all the fine print details well in advance of post-production deadlines.  So when I get my first exposure to the script, a lot of times I’m skimming it for conscience’s sake more than soaking in it for artistic reasons.

Next, and more in line with Steven’s question, we come to the emotional and artistic value of script-reading. For me, this varies depending on the reason I’m reading – am I doing a quick read to make sure I can commit to this project? Or am I doing a more analytical read, mulling over musical possibilities?

For me, reading a script is pretty similar to reading a book. Good scripts can be just as emotional as good books, so in the case of a well-written script I don’t so much feel the emotion as it should be to the viewer; I rather feel the emotion of the story itself, just as I would if I was reading a Charles Dickens novel. Of course, the inverse is true- a badly written script doesn’t spark as much of an emotional response, or sparks a negative one.

With that said, a script is different from a book in the sense that, if I’m reading it because the filmmaker is bringing me aboard his project, I am of course getting a feel for something I will be called on to bring to life musically. Sometimes reading through a script musical ideas do jump out at me. I was just reading an early draft of a film’s script where there is an epic reveal of some fancy technology; the way it was written painted in my head the picture, and I could hear matching music for the scene.

I generally go about the composition process in three stages. It starts with prayer- prayer for a good melody, for wisdom, that God will glorify Himself through the music I’m about to write. And then there’s an idea- maybe musical (“let’s use the Phrygian mode to give this an otherworldly feel”), maybe emotional (“bittersweet memories”), maybe conceptual (“the protagonist works in a steel mill- let’s integrate some metallic elements into the score”). I hunt for the melodies and start collecting musical material and building the composition template for the project. Along with that, it’s rather hard to describe- I feel or hear the music, how it should be, what it should say, in my head. The composition process for me is a dance between those two elements- mental creativity and emotional realization.

Both of those elements are in play as I read through the script- artistic analysis and emotional impressions.

And this is all part of the second reason I like to get my hands on the script as early on in the production process as possible; it allows me to simmer on the concepts of the story without the pressure of deadlines; to begin to ask questions of the film and get to know the story. It also allows for me to give a composer’s perspective on things that otherwise would already be set in stone by the time they cross my screen.

My favorite thing about getting in on a project early is that sometimes there is the opportunity to actually sculpt the musical world of the film before composition proper even starts; to flesh out the melodic and harmonic and sonic and rhythmic elements that will make up the score. Then, when there is a locked cut on hand and a deadline looming, there is already a template laid out with the right instruments and sounds, and there is already a musical toolbox to draw from; once the film arrives ready for music, no time is wasted laying the groundwork, and we can jump straight into composition.

Below is an example of such a suite, written for Monitogo Studios’ “Bound” before composition on the film proper actually started. This allowed me to really nail down all of the big musical questions with the director, so when the time came to score the film we were already on the same page.

The important part of Steven’s question is the last half: “the emotion that needs to be felt by the future viewer.” Steven has pinpointed every composer’s job; as Jurgen Beck says, our job is to “create emotions.” Reading the script is one step on a journey into the heart of the film. As I read the script, I begin to better understand the world of the film; I am able to ask the director specific questions about the story, and transition from broad genre-based ideas into concepts hand-tailored for the story of the film. Rather than discussing the project as an “action movie” or a “RomCom,” we can talk about “James’ escape from an ISIS prison cell” or “Sarah falling in love with the mailman who makes a point to always have something to hand-deliver to her door.” We can now formulate ideas for ethnic references, whether or not the villain deserves his own theme, whether the hero’s theme is going to be heroic or distressed or- we can move beyond knowing that dinner is going to be Chinese and actually start looking at the menu.

Now the ideas can really start flowing with more specificity. We can begin to pinpoint the flavors and feelings that the world of the film needs to present. We have common ground on which to build our discussion of the score.

Sometimes those ideas come spontaneously; sometimes they come analytically; often it is a blend of emotion and analysis. Regardless of how we arrive at them, those are the ideas I am hunting for when I look at your script.

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This post is the first in a series answering questions about the composing process. Next week, I’ll be fielding a question about the pros and cons of temp tracks. Have a question for a film composer? Just comment below and I’ll add it to the list!

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