"Sirens" Songs: musical inspiration October 30, 2015 18:26

From Jess: 

My husband and co-author, Chris, has worked in the animation industry for almost thirty years. He helped shape modern Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," and "Mulan," and he co-wrote/co-directed and lent his style (and his voice!) to "Lilo & Stitch." At DreamWorks, his current studio, Chris co-wrote and co-directed the first "How to Train Your Dragon" film as well as "The Croods." He's always worked in story, whether that means storyboarding (which he still does today even in his role as director) or writing, and, if you ask him what one of the most important tools is in filmmaking, he'll tell you that it's music.

"Music does the heavy lifting," Chris says, and he went into his first project as director planning for that. When it was time to talk about budgets and music for "Lilo & Stitch," Chris wanted to hire one of his favorite composers, Alan Silvestri (known for scoring "Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump," and "The Avengers," among many, many other films), and Chris told his producers that the score for the film was of paramount importance. Even though they were going to be making "Lilo & Stitch" for a budget, he made an agreement with the studio that whatever the best score in the world would cost, they could carve that off the overall budget and he'd make the movie for whatever was left over. Alan delivered a score for "Lilo & Stitch" that was rousing, moving, and emotional. Not only that, but Alan directly affected the story. And Chris learned a lesson that he would never forget.

In the early planning stages of the music for the film, Alan would view the story reels with Chris and co-director Dean DeBlois, and they would discuss the placement and vibe they were considering from moment to moment. After covering most of the film, Alan surprised Chris with a question. "There's one thing I think I missed," Alan remarked. "I didn't catch the moment when Stitch turns from bad to good."

"The question caught us off guard," Chris says today. "Even though the entire film was based on the idea that a villain would be redeemed rather than killed off, as they usually did in Disney movies, we had left that pivotal moment off the screen. We explained to Alan that of all the moments in the movie we'd written, we just couldn't find a way to land that one. It was too subtle, too delicate. We'd both taken runs at it and whenever we'd tried to verbalize it, we'd failed. It was always too awkward, or too vague. So in the end we'd just left it to happen off-screen. We just couldn't find a way to do it.

"And that's when everything for me changed. Alan looked at us and simply said, 'Put it on screen, and I'll do it.'

"Boom. A light went on. Up till that moment, I'd thought of music as something to sweeten what was already there. But Alan reminded me that music was much, much more than that. It was a tool of storytelling. In fact, I've come to think of a score as the closest thing to real magic there is. It is at once a wing and a throttle. It raises or turns your emotions and either propels you forward or holds you entranced and still. It can be a jolt or a kiss. It wakes up your heart. It is powerful. It is unassailable."

Chris goes on: "So the most important moment in the film was carried by Alan. And it was perfect. From that time on I would build homes for music within my films. Quiet zones where the characters would shut up and music would do the talking. A perfect example of that would be the sequence in which Hiccup befriends Toothless in 'How to Train Your Dragon' (scored by John Powell), or the moment in the treetop when the Croods see the stars for the first time in 'The Croods' (like 'Lilo & Stitch,' scored by Alan Silvestri).

"It's the thing I most look forward to when I write and storyboard," Chris says.

Long before there's a scene on screen -- or, in the case of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist," if you're penning a book rather than a screenplay -- having the right music playing when you're writing a scene can make the difference between smooth sailing and tearing your hair out. But, just like Chris and I have different writing styles (he's a gardener; I'm an architect), we also have our individual preferences when it comes to the music we put on while we write.

While Chris likes to listen primarily to movie scores, my go-to music for writing is the background music in video games. The first video game music that I fell in love with was Spencer Nilsen's instrumental work for Sega's first two "Ecco the Dolphin" games (and some of Tim Follin's score on "Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future" for the Dreamcast), and that haunting, dreamy ocean sound was the perfect background for writing much of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist."

The thing I like best about video game music is that (with the exception of cinematics, which are more--well, cinematic!) it's pleasantly repetitive by design; a video game's score has to be something that you can listen to over and over and over again when your character keeps dying (or is that just me?), and it also has to add a mood and an atmosphere without calling so much attention to the music that it distracts you from playing the game. It helps put me in the right mindset without getting in the way. Film scores, by contrast, are written to complement specific actions on the screen, which is awesome when you're watching the movie -- a passive activity -- but, for me, not so awesome when I'm trying to write and the music accompanying that surprise explosion scene takes me right out of what I was doing. Many people, like Chris, aren't bothered by that, and can even listen to songs with lyrics while they write, but, for yours truly, video game music is the way to go.

In addition to the "Ecco the Dolphin" scores, I also listened to a lot of music from two other ocean-themed game series: Nintendo/Arika's "Endless Ocean" and its sequel "Endless Ocean: Blue World," and "Aquanaut's Holiday: Hidden Memories," composed by Hideki Sakamoto. When you're writing about mermaids, it helps to have appropriate music playing!

But I had other game soundtracks on rotation, too -- games that had little or nothing to do with water. Greg Edmonson's "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," and "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" albums are all fun, adventurous instrumentals... 

...while Jeremy Soule's score for "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" is some of my favorite music of all time, period. Soule isn't called "the John Williams of video game music" for nothing, and his work on "Oblivion" is by turns stirring, delicate, and bittersweet -- but always beautiful.

The most recent addition to my "Rescue Sirens" writing playlist is the soundtrack to a video game that I've never actually played: Devolver Digital's "Hotline Miami." Since "Rescue Sirens" is set in Miami Beach, I thought I'd give this album a shot even though I knew nothing about the game, and I'm really glad I did.

Much of "Hotline Miami"'s electronic music is leisurely and lazy, chill, ambient, relaxing but never, never boring; it's like eighties synth music was chopped up in a wood chipper and then put back together again in a way that's a bit... off. It is, to me, a sound that defies easy explanation, but I love it and I listened to it like crazy while writing the last chapters of the book.

There are various artists who contributed to "Hotline Miami"'s twenty-two track album; my favorites are probably Sun Araw, who performed "Horse Steppin'" and "Deep Cover," and Jasper Byrne, who did "Hotline" and (wait for it...) "Miami," but the whole album is enjoyable. If you're curious, you can listen to the soundtrack in its weird, wonderful entirety on Devolver Digital's SoundCloud account.

Now that Chris and I are working on the next "Rescue Sirens" story, it's time to sift through our respective music collections and make our playlists, which is always fun; maybe we'll even find some new favorites!

If you write, or draw, or sew, or do anything else creative, what do you like to have on in the background?