Screenwriting 101: How to Incorporate Music in your Screenplay

By August 17, 2017August 6th, 2019Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Christopher Osterndorf

Raking in over $100 million worldwide at the box office, it’s safe to say that Baby Driver has become something that none of Edgar Wright’s other films ever really were: a legitimate hit.

From an excellent cast, to the stunning action sequences, to a great marketing campaign, there are many reasons Baby Driver has found favor with audiences. It manages to be Wright’s most accessible film, without losing the visual style and sense of humor that brought him such a huge cult following. But if there’s one element of Baby Driver that fundamentally separates it from your average action movie, it’s the music. Plenty of movies have great soundtracks, but few filmmakers are able to bend music to their will as skilfully as Wright.

When Danny Boyle used to be told that his movies were too similar to music videos, he said, “I took it as a compliment. MTV was something new and different, and that is what I wanted to do. Film has a certain rhythm and I try to bring that out in songs.” But unlike filmmakers such as Boyle and Martin Scorsese, who are directors first and foremost and can consider music in post-production, screenwriters have to be careful when soundtracking a script.

Baby Driver is a masterclass for up-and-coming writers in the right way to use music in a screenplay. Of course, it helps if you get to direct your own film, but Wright has made it clear that the music of Baby Driver was instrumental since the writing process. Here’s what you can take away from that.

Only write in music if it’s essential.  

When Wright sent the script for Baby Driver out to actors, it included a thumb drive with the music attached. He’s also talked about how he would include links to music in the actual script, so you could actually listen to an MP3 of the song on the page while reading.

This kind of attention to detail would be overkill for your average writer, but it’s indicative of the way Wright made music an essential part of every scene in Baby Driver, virtually inseparable from whatever else was on the page. This is different than writing in a song that helps establish tone, but is not necessarily the song that would have to go there. In other words, if there a number of songs that might work in place of the one you chose, just hold off altogether.

There are more practical reasons to be discerning about how you use music in your writing too. For one thing, if you are writing a script which you believe could actually get made someday, you, as the writer, probably won’t have final say about what music goes into the film (again, if you’re a world-renowned writer/director like Edgar Wright, you can feel free to ignore this advice, but for everybody else it’s worth considering.) Furthermore, if you write a famous song into your script, that just makes it easier for an artist to jack up the licensing fees, all but guaranteeing the movie will exceed its music budget.

However, while a writer who haphazardly throws a song (or, God forbid, a whole bunch of songs) into their script without taking these facts into account will come off as amateurish, a writer who finds that one perfect song is more likely to impress. Edgar Wright wasn’t always Edgar Wright, after all. As always in screenwriting (or any kind of writing,) it is important you know the rules before you attempt to break them.

Consider how the music complements the action.

Wright has talked about how important The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bell Bottoms” was to Baby Driver going years back, and how the concept for the film grew out of the idea that,

“Maybe a getaway driver is listening to this song, and he’s actually trying to time out his getaways and literally have the perfect score for the perfect score.” With the invention of the iPod, Wright realized that making a movie completely set to diegetic music was very possible. But since none of the music in this film would be background noise, every song therefore had to add something to the scene in a specific way.

“When I wrote this script, I basically put the beats of the song into the stage direction along with the action,” says Wright. “We did storyboards, and then we cut the storyboards to the songs so we could try and time it out and make sure that it worked” As most viewers will surely notice, guns and explosions are literally happening on the same beats as the music throughout the film.

Director John Woo has oft compared action movies to musicals (rumor has it his favorite film is Singin’ in the Rain.) In this sense, when we talk about action, it’s worth thinking of it not only in the context of bullets and car chases, but in any scene where a character is active. Consider the scenes in Baby Driver where Baby gets coffee, gets to know Debora, or the moment where he joyfully vibes out to The Commodores’ “Easy” (a song which wasn’t originally in the script.) All of these scenes are as essential to the movie as any of the more traditional action movie scenes, and all are just as heavily soundtracked.

The commonality throughout is the thought Wright puts into how each song compliments the scene it’s soundtracking. This doesn’t always mean a song has to match up perfectly with what’s happening or what the characters are feeling. Sometimes, the use of a song that strikes a discord with what’s happening onscreen is just as powerful. Remember the use of a certain Gene Kelly classic in A Clockwork Orange? Or the ear-slicing scene set to “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs?

Baby Driver achieves the best of both worlds with in its use of Barry White’s “Never Gonna Give you Up” when Baby encounters Jon Hamm’s Buddy at the diner. The song’s romantic nature is ironic, given the violent conclusion the scene builds to. However, the lyrics also mirror how far both Baby and Buddy are willing to go for the women they love.

Then there’s the way the characters in Baby Driver talk about music, never failing to acknowledge the impact it has on them. Music is the subtextual and literal language the characters in the film use to communicate, to relate to one another.

The average writer doesn’t necessarily have to get this intense when writing music into their movie, but again, it’s important to think about what a scene would actually look like if the movie ever got made. This goes back to the idea that music to capture tone is one thing, usually handled by the composer, the director, or the music supervisor. But music that not only captures tone, but becomes intrinsic to the narrative and action of the movie, can be considered as you are writing your script. Not everyone can be Stanley Kubrick, and fundamentally change the way we think about certain music because of how it was used in films. But it should be the aim of every writer to leave some kind of impression with their work, and if you are going to go out of your way to write a song into your script, it should be a song that fundamentally enhances the nature of a given scene. As Quentin Tarantino notes, “when you do it right and you hit it right then the effect is you can never really hear this song again without thinking about that image from the movie”

Think carefully about the music that you write to.

This one is a little more abstract, but bear with me. To quote Tarantino again, he once said that, “when I start coming up with an idea, I go to my record room where I have a big vinyl collection … and I’ll go through my records and what I’m looking for is the beat of the movie, the sound of the movie. That might be other old soundtracks, rock-and-roll music … all kinds of things, but I’m trying to find the rhythm and the beat of [the film].” He continues, “This is before I’ve even officially started [on a script] but I’m really starting to think about seriously about this idea… Even as I’m writing something, if I need a little pick me up, I just go back in and put some of that music back on and I’m right back into it again.”

Tarantino isn’t the only filmmaker who writes to music. Edgar Wright is the same way. After Baby Driver first premiered at SXSW, he said that, “When I’m writing, even outside of this movie, I have to write the music playing, and it has to be the right kind of music. Whenever I’m writing a script, I’m scoring myself by playing the right kind of music.”

What can aspiring writers take from this information? Well, basically that it’s important to have taste. If certain music helps you get in the mood, perhaps that’s the music that belongs in your screenplay. After all, the music you would listen to while writing a western is not necessarily the same music you would listen to while writing a comedy. If something inspires you enough to put words on the page, chances are that means it will fit the scene you’re writing.

Ultimately, almost no movie can rest on music alone. There are certainly those who have criticized Baby Driver for the way the music overwhelms the script. But regardless of whether you’re writing a music-heavy movie or not, the point is that you should put just as much time and consideration into what songs you put into your script as Wright did when crafting Baby Driver. (And if you can’t completely justify a certain song’s existence, maybe just cut it out of your script altogether.)

Download the screenplay for BABY DRIVER here for free

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