This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending a premiere for a film that I co-wrote a few songs for. The premiere itself was my first. Definitely another view into the “business of show” that I hadn’t experienced before. Since the project involved mostly YouTube stars, I was witness to a whole lot of actor interviews, selfies, social posting and smiles with “tweeners” and “tweener fans”.
Unlike the glamour and pomp that was the face at the premiere, I had to chuckle at the thought of the actual process of what “arrived” me to that premiere. It wasn’t even close to glamorous. It was straight-up hard work.
So I’m going to take you back behind the scenes to the start of the writing process for the film (a good year and a half before there was any premiere). I’ll try to give you a snapshot of what REALLY happens when you’re writing songs for film, before any of the hoopla of show business.
First off you might be wondering… Diona, how did you get the gig?
Well, it started with a simple email I got from a film score composer company in L.A. They had received my information from a trusted source.
The email went like this:
“We’re currently working on a film called ‘______’. ‘_____ is scoring the movie. It’s a fun teenage thriller that needs a couple original songs in addition to the score. We were wondering if you’d be willing to collaborate with _____ on a couple original pop songs. We’re trying to put together something in the vein of _____ “
At first I had some apprehension. Was I was getting punk’d? Are these guys legit? Can I do this? After I decided 1. no, 2. yes and 3. yes, I answered back.
A few days later I connected with the composer by phone and we chatted about the project. He asked if I could come to his studio in L.A.for a couple of days to write. “Sure,” I said, deciding it was a really good opportunity to expand my resume and to work directly with a film composer, putting songs together with the film footage at the same time. Until that point, my songwriting experience was writing songs in a vacuum and then finding an opportunity for them after the fact. This was going to require VIEWING the raw footage, READING the scene breakdowns and synopsis and WRITING to that… FOR that emotion.
From the first minute I arrived at the studio it was go time. I was introduced to the staff, given some notes and input from the composer, and then we immediately started writing. The composer would show me his ideas on the piano and the both of us would work on the chords, melody or lyrics. I would go over the notes I was given, we’d both look at the raw footage to see where the emotional moments were and where the music needed to happen, ducked into the dialog of the scenes. Then at the outset, we would record a rough of the song.
Later (sometimes days or weeks), it would be presented to the director/producer, either digitally or in person. Then they would give feedback. “Yes, we like it”… “ No, we don’t”… “Maybe something more like this artist”… “Maybe something more like that artist”… And so back to the writing we’d go.
The direction seemed to change as frequently as the take-out menus (it was a 12 hour day each session). Many versions of a couple of the songs we wrote together didn’t make the final cut.
I repeated the process of traveling to L.A. a couple of times, each for a couple of days. Writing and re-writing. On the second trip I was traveling to L.A. via train (from San Diego) and had a few hours of time to kill. The composer emailed me a chord progression that he liked and some possible ideas for a title, and I spent those few hours with my headphones plugged into my laptop looking at the footage and coming up with a lyric and melody to fit the progression. Since I couldn’t sing out my melody on the train to record it, I had to sing it over and over in my head to memorize it. I can remember going off of an emotion that I was feeling when I watched the raw footage.
When I arrived at the studio with my ideas, we got to work, putting the song sections together and scrubbing over the words and music until we had what we thought was the best marriage of the two. Then back to getting feedback from the music supervisor/editor, who was sitting in a glass bay just off the main studio.
Finally, during the last session, we brought together some hired singers to come into the studio and put down demo versions of the songs (a couple of which landed on the soundtrack).
It was a work-filled couple of sessions. And the work, BTW, continued when I wasn’t in the studio. In the month or so in between each of our sessions, the work continued… changes to this, lyric tweaks to that.
I can’t even imagine what kind of workload the film composer must have had, since he had to fill in all the other gaps with the film score.
“Without Warning” performed by Tiffany Alvord and Tyler Ward
All in all, it was rewarding to experience something that started from a seed and flowered into something so much bigger.
Tips for writing songs for film
With all said and done, I definitely learned a few things about writing songs for film. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, or you aspire to, hopefully these take-aways will help:
- Expect to write and re-write.
- Don’t be married to your contributions because they can be scrapped at an instant for any myriad of reasons.
- Don’t take it personally when they scrap your versions. It’s the way it happens with many decision-makers.
- Be flexible and focus in on the task at hand.
- Be willing to work with lots of activity going on around you.
- Be a good co-writing partner. (Not sure what that means? Check out my post about co-writing).
- Understand that the song’s function is to serve the scene.
- Maintain a sense of humor and adventure.
- Be confident about your songwriting ability.
- Come prepared and rested. Study the footage, make notes on the scene breakdowns, be present.
- Be cheerful and work toward solutions.
- Never settle on things that are in your control.
- Let go of the things that aren’t in your control.
So that’s it… a behind-the-scenes look at the process of writing songs for film.
If you’re interested in learning more about the craft and business of songwriting, you might like my other posts. Subscribe here so you don’t miss any.