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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Care For a Little Mood Music?

My apologies in advance for this post that has only marginally-screenwriting-related information, but it is still about film in general, so I consider it relevant. And for you writer-director types out there, this is worth considering.

* * *

I've been thinking a lot lately about music in film, and how it can often be used in interesting ways because of the associations we all have, and make. First there was my anger/frustration with what I considered an intentionally deceptive use of music (among other things) in a movie's radio commercial. Then came Halloween time, and with it the annual presentation of wall-to-wall horror films on TV. If you're a fan of the genre (like this guy, for instance, who also deserves H'ween movie-related congrats), this has got to be one of your favorite times of year.

I was plopped in front of the TV, when my roommate flipped over to the classic Kubrick version of The Shining. At first, I thought of the hilarious spoof trailer last year that recast the film in a new light. My roommate and I both thought the funniest bit was when "Salisbury Hill" kicks in, again underscoring the power of music to set mood.

So I keep watching The Shining, and I noticed something really interesting that Kubrick did with it. As the tension begins to build, nearly every single sequence has the traditionally advancing, scary and intense mood music in the background. I hadn't seen the film in a long time, so picking it up in the middle and hearing that music made me expect it was building to a horrific zinger. But in fact, it just built to the end of a scene in which nothing truly scary happened at all! I thought to myself, "Hmm, that's interesting and odd." Then the same thing happened in the next sequence.

And suddenly I realized what Kubrick was doing here. Since music so powerfully alters our mood, he was using the soundtrack to build a pervasive feeling of tension and fear, even when nothing specifically scary was taking place. And he was doing something else as well. In less talented hands, "scary" music can sometimes work against a film by alerting or warning the audience to expect something scary. But by making the music a standard throughout, Kubrick through the audience off guard and made them less aware of when the really scary stuff was going to go down.

A very interesting choice.

I remember watching Deliverance a long time ago. When I first watched it, I had no idea what it was about or what to expect. And I was amazed at the way Boorman created an overwhelming mood of tension from the very opening frame of the film, when in reality, nothing really bad starts happening until the beginning of the second act. I'd like to go back now and see how much music played a role in that.

My bottom line here is that music can be used in interesting ways to create mood, but usually if we apply it in unexpected fashion. Some time ago, I thought about opening a horror or serial killer film in similar fashion. I wanted to set the discovery of the killer's first gruesomely horrific murder against a backdrop of purposely happy and upbeat music. The idea being that it could play as even more shocking in that scenario than it would be if it were set against the traditionally scary music.

As a writer, we don't (unfortunately) have the option to say much in relation to the music in a film. We can sometimes mention it in the most circumspect fashion, but we don't have much of a say. And that's a shame. But at least be aware of it, and find ways to indicate it subtly at times. And if you're a writer-director, think a lot about it!

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Blogger Milehimama said...

I like M. Night Shmayalan's non-use of music. In SIGNS, Mel Gibson "doesn't hear the children"... we actually don't hear much of anything. The silence, unusual in a movie, builds tension too. THE VILLAGE uses the background sound to build up the plot as well - if you happen to watch, pay close attention to the audio when it's Ivy's (the blind girl) POV.
Then, watch BOOGEYMAN to see how to insult your audience with annoyingly expositional music. Bet you didn't know you could have 'on the nose' crap via the soundtrack, didja!

6:53 PM  
Blogger wcmartell said...

The reason why there are no "stings" in THE SHINING music is that it's all classical stuff. Existing music. The main piece is slowed down from it's original tempo (kind of jaunty when you hear the real version) but other than that it's exactly as that long dead guy wrote it.

- Bill

7:48 AM  
Blogger Scribe LA said...

Nice seeing you again on Sat.

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your blog is DEAD, dude.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Hey Anon -- I'm trying! But it is definitely less dead than it was when I first started working. Sorry, and thanks for checking in again anyway, whoever you may be!

1:34 AM  

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