…Bring the Jazz

I had a vision. An audio vision, if you will.

As we were gearing up to shoot the movie I thought about the music that would become basically an additional character to the film. Since this movie is a detective story, and we would be paying homage to some film noir traits, I wanted to have a jazz score.

But how to do that on a limited budget? In his excellent book about ultra low budget filmmaking Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodriguez says the answer is simple: write your own music.

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Robert Rodriguez: a one man band.

One problem. My six years of piano and five years of saxophone in my formative years did not translate into actually being able to WRITE music. Unless I want the score to be REALLY minimalist (and out of tune), I had to think elsewhere.

Enter Zak Shelby-Szyszko. He lives and breathes jazz. He works or has worked for jazz-dominated record labels such as Resonance Records and is a consultant for the Angel City Jazz Festival. I came to him with a crazy idea: does he know any up-and-coming jazz artists who would be willing to place their original compositions in our movie for… ahem… VERY cheap? And the emphasis on original compositions. We can get an artist to donate their music for free, but if they are recording a John Coltrane song, we’d still have to negotiate with and pay the Coltrane estate. Zak watched our rough cut, said he could certainly help, and so we hired him.

Very soon I spent hours listening to dozens of recommended musicians. All VERY talented. And fairly quickly we were able to pick songs that reflected the tone of scenes. Some songs were clearly just temporary tracks, like we’re not really going to use this Miles Davis song for the climactic fight scene. But the tone was right. After a few months we had filled our rough cut with dozens of songs, about half from artists who might be willing to license their music for very cheap.

As for the rest, enter Jamie Christopherson, a talented and seasoned composer who had worked with our producer Beau before. He, Zak and I watched a cut together and discussed the music arc, including various tracks and themes for different characters. It was very easy to figure out what would be scored and what would be placed music.

Fast forward a few months. The score is finished and beautiful. Jamie recorded in his home studio, bringing in a jazz guitarist and horn section to round out some tracks. As for the placed music, we are still in negotiations with some of the artists but I am optimistic that we have our music.

We might not have a finished movie yet, but for now, the soundtrack exists on my computer. And if all goes well, it can grow up into a soundtrack album someday.

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Can’t publicly share the songs yet, but if you want to come over for a drink some evening I’d be happy to play the soundtrack for you.

Next up: color correction, visual effects, and a VERY BIG EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT!

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Taboo to You

I am a terrible Taboo player.

You know the game, where you try and make your teammate guess a word by describing it, but without using key trigger words or phrases. For example, describing Tom Cruise without using the following words or phrases: Actor, Katie Holmes, Nicole Kidman, Top Gun or Scientology. It’s fun, but I’m not the best at it. Sure, I can do it, but I get fixated on certain words and if my partner can’t figure out my often illogical thinking, then time runs out after only getting a few words. Frustration abounds for everyone.

However, I had a recent revelation that Taboo is an excellent exercise for writers. What can be better than telling a story without being obvious? I am a big Ben Folds fan, and was recently listening to the excellent album Whatever and Ever, Amen. On that album was his band’s one big hit, Brick. It’s a quirky song from a quirky band, a three person band named Ben Folds Five. It’s an unusual hit which tells a story that contains subject matter not found in pop hits. For a brief time the song and video played everywhere. Quirky fact: because of the first line of the song, it holds the odd notoriety of being the only video ever played simultaneously on MTV, MTV2, and VH1 (back in the day when those channels played music videos).

Read (or listen) for yourself:

——-

6am, day after Christmas
I throw some clothes on in the dark
The smell of cold
Car seat is freezing
The world is sleeping
I am numb

Up the stairs, to her apartment
She is balled up on the couch
Her mom and dad went down to Charlotte
They’re not home to find us out

And we drive
Now that I have found someone
I’m feeling more alone
Than I ever have before

She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly
Off the coast and I’m heading nowhere
She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly

They call her name at 7:30
I pace around the parking lot
Then I walk down, to buy her flowers
And sell some gifts that I got

Can’t you see
It’s not me you’re dying for
Now she’s feeling more alone
Than she ever has before

She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly
Off the coast and I’m heading nowhere
She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly

As weeks went by
It showed that she was not fine
They told me “Son, it’s time
To tell the truth”
And she broke down
And I broke down
Cause I was tired of lying

Driving back to her apartment
For the moment we’re alone
She’s alone
I’m alone
Now I know it

She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly
Off the coast and I’m heading nowhere
She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly

——-

The subject of the song is abortion. Nothing delicate about it.

But what makes the songwriting excel is not necessarily the subject matter, but what the band avoids saying in the song. The word abortion is never heard. Neither are these common trigger words: doctor, girlfriend, pregnant, baby, choice, decision.  This song is about abortion, with a lower case “a”, not a capital “A”. It’s not political. It doesn’t choose sides. It just tells the story, and leaves us as the listener or reader to draw our own conclusions on everything except how the couple was feeling at specific moments. And that is great storytelling that I try to emulate: even if the issues are grand and important, how does this affect the individual? How does the protagonist live his or her specific life under very important circumstances?

And now, thanks to Taboo and Ben Folds Five, when I look back on a recently completed scene or script, I wonder if I’m giving the audience too much information, or if I’m appropriately leaving out the key words. We writers need to let the audience connect the dots.