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What I Learned About Screenwriting From My Composer

By Persephone Vandegrift

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Recently I had the opportunity to write, produce, and co-direct my first short film, All Things Hidden. As we know, nothing really prepares you for that first time or the indescribable thrill of seeing your film make it from page to screen. I never imagined I would ever step into any other role other than screenwriting. Looking back, I am so glad that I took the chance because the angst, stress, exhaustion, and hair-loss have been the best screenwriting gifts.

Making that jump granted me the rare chance to work one on one with our composer, Catherine Grealish, on the soundtrack for the film. Being able to work hand in hand with Catherine left me with an unexpected and profound new awareness for what I put on the page. We know we all try hard to put our story and our characters through their paces the best we can, step back, and cross our fingers it all turns out okay.  What I learned from Catherine’s composing process was one of the best experiences of post-production.

What attracted Catherine to my script was the story, and the universal struggle the lead character exemplifies in her journey to overcome her tragic past. She could relate to it and she was inspired by it because she could see all the character transitions clearly on the page from start to finish and how they fit into the piece overall. But when it came time to think about music, I had no idea what this would entail. I was concerned that because I had no musical background, I would be unable to communicate my ideas.

One of the first questions she asked about a particular scene is ‘what are you hearing here?' And 'why?' It took me a moment to realize she wasn’t asking me ‘what key did I want it to be in?’ because I would have been lost. She meant ‘what’ as in emotion, texture, conflict, color, tone.  The ‘why’ stumped me for a moment. Why am I hearing a particular sound of ‘struggling butterfly wings’ for this scene? Because… and I had to take a few minutes to reflect on it, which made me think harder about my answer.

What did I put on the page? What am I putting my character through here? And then it was clear. My character just came out of her ‘cave’ and was about to face her fear, return home, and expose her darkest secret to her partner. Catherine saw that too. The result – a heartbreaking track of struggle, hope, belief, and courage called “Metamorphosis” which follows the character’s transition in that scene from start to finish and also captures the theme of the film. 

What, where, when, why, who, etc – those are the same things we writers strive to incorporate in our storytelling process. And that reminder stayed with me long after the soundtrack was completed. I went back into my other projects, looked at each scene and asked the same questions. I re-examined everything more closely; my word choice, description, action, dialog, setting, etc. Did I have a beginning, middle and end to each scene? Can it be seen on the page? Can it be heard? Are my characters’ transitions, twists and turns recognizable?

As writers, the more we visually open the door to our scripts then the easier it is for everyone involved to bring it to screen. The quality of directing, acting, and overall production design can take a film to a higher level. For me, the soundtrack is often the icing on the cake. I’ve been brought to tears by particular tracks in films that exquisitely captured the emotional and physical guts of a scene from start to finish.

One such track that does this is Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer’s infamous and evocative song “Now We Are Free” from Gladiator. Composed for Maximus’ impending death, the song delicately accentuates the heartbreaking conclusion we are about to witness. It lifts Maximus’ dilemma and carries us through his process. If you watch the scene without the music, the visuals are still beautiful. However, with the underlying music, that final scene becomes iconic, poignant, and we become universally empathetic to Maximus in that moment. But in order for that song to make that impact, the inspiration for it needs to be on the page. The director needs to see it, the actors need to feel it, and the composer needs to hear it.

As a composer, Catherine aims for a harmonious balance between music and story. We writers need to find a similar balance between – well, between everything really. It often seems like an overwhelming task. But with every experience we can get as screenwriters, it definitely broadens our approach creatively and empowers what we put on the page and bring to the table.

So how can the lessons learned from composing apply to storytelling and help you as a writer?  Well, for a start, when you’re done with your first draft, go back and remind yourself to strengthen every scene with whatever tools you have in order to take your work to the next level. Look at your setting, your pacing, the tone and texture, the characterization – are they compelling?  Do they inspire? Are you giving the scene a place to go? What are you hearing and why? If the scene had a soundtrack, what would it be? That soundtrack might even instigate a character choice or help you delve deeper into defining their actions and dialogue.

Learning from Catherine’s composing process helped me revamp my work. She reminded me that if you are a storyteller for your team, your team will be a storyteller for you.  Having a symbiotic relationship with all aspects of the filmmaking process requires respect, patience, and genuinely listening to yourself and your story. We writers can learn something new from everyone involved in bringing our stories to screen. We are passionate sponges. Keep searching, keep questioning, and incorporating all the senses to bring that story to the page.

About Persephone Vandegrift

Persephone Vandegrift is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, producer, and fiction writer. She is the co-writer and producer of MYTHFEST – A one-act play dedicated to women in classical mythology now on the Fringe festival circuit. She is the writer of the multi award-winning screenplay, Death Of A Mortal Woman, and WW2 TV pilot, Esther’s Den.

You can watch All Things Hidden online at: www.allthingshidden.com and check out its Independent Music Award-Winning soundtrack here.

Persephone can be contacted on Twitter: @Persephwrites

Screenwriting Article by Persephone Vandegrift

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