In This Issue: Music as Fuel for Writing; Dealing with Notes; Top Fives: Movie Songs
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Music as Fuel // Writing Like a Rockstar // Dealing with Notes // Top Fives: Movie Songs
Dear Writers,

There’s a reason musicians make such good filmmakers. I’m thinking of recent Sundance hits like Sorry to Bother You (2018), written and directed by The Coup frontman Boots Riley, and the directorial debut of The Roots’ Questlove, Summer of Soul, coming out next month.

Of course, musicians are natural storytellers, but they also understand pacing, rhythm, and how to build a piece of work into a crescendo—essential skills for any screenwriter.

Music itself plays such a large role in most cinematic viewing experiences. As the writer, you may not always have a say on what tunes make it to the final soundtrack, but that doesn’t mean that music can’t be part of your writing process. In fact, some writers can’t work without it.

In a
Sundance Co//ab webinar with Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights), the prolific writer/director insists that, “Music is everything. And it really does inspire me and inspire my writing.” She creates a unique playlist for every project that she writes, “and it's just  a collection of songs that fuel me...that open me up emotionally to what I'm writing.”

Prince-Bythewood finds this exercise most helpful when the music plays in her headphones “full blast so I'm completely enveloped” while she’s writing. You might find that particular method distracting, but I encourage you to curate your project playlist nonetheless, even if it’s to play as a ritual before you write, to get you into the world or headspace of your story.

Some useful questions to ask yourself when putting this playlist together could be: What would my protagonist listen to? Or, which songs make me feel the way I’d like audiences to feel when they watch this film? Or, what type of music transports me emotionally to the setting in which this story takes place? Most importantly, have fun with it!

Meanwhile, read on below for insights and writing tips from the storytellers of the Sundance network.

See you on the page,
Director of Content
P.S. For some musical inspiration of your own, check out the playlist that Geeks of Color created featuring songs from Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film The Old Guard.
Throwing Muses
Writers on their sources of inspiration
Contributed by Jamie Mayer, Co//ab Advisor (Fall Into Me - Lifetime/A&E)
My husband, James, is a songwriter—not only by occupation, but by nature. It is the deepest core of who he is and how he moves through life. Yes, he was in a rock band years ago that toured and had record deals and played festivals. He’s also been a solo artist, and has been in other bands through the years. And now he mainly does other music-related work for a living, but never stopped writing and recording his own music, because he has to. In the 16 years we’ve been together, the number of days when he hasn’t picked up a guitar, or scrawled a lyric on an envelope, or disappeared into the studio for a few hours, are few. It’s a daily practice, a meditation, the fundamental way he processes the world, and perhaps a compulsion. And it’s been an inspiration to me as a writer. So much of writing is showing up. Sit down and things will evolve. But I struggled for a long time with making space for that. When I didn’t know what I needed to do or say next, I avoided sitting down at my desk. It felt hard and could sometimes be a daily struggle. But meeting my husband and seeing how his practice is simply the thread that connects his days has helped me with my own work enormously. He sits down and noodles even when he isn’t sure what comes next. He is in that headspace as a default. He has demonstrated to me how to LIVE as an artist, not just to do the work of one.


Getting Unstuck
Answers to common writing questions from Co//ab experts
Q: How do you approach taking notes and rewriting?
A: In her Master Class on Comedy Writing for Features, Victoria Strouse shares that, "The one thing I believe in is rewriting." This can feel frustrating because, "All of us want to write a draft and have that be the draft [but] you have to both believe the thing you're writing is Oscar-worthy and also know that it's garbage, which is an incredibly hard line to walk." As a comedy writer, she uses the hilarious analogy of screenwriting as being like "giving birth to a sofa. Halfway through, you realize it is part of a living room set. And by that I mean the pain is real and it’s bigger than I thought." These words are not meant to be discouraging. In fact, according to Strouse, "If you're doing it right... you should never really be giving up on getting it better and better."
A scene from Finding Dory (left) written by Victoria Strouse (right)
So how do we keep pushing our work to get from "garbage" to "Oscar-worthy"? Strouse argues that notes are an integral part of the process and that it's important to understand how to take notes: "The biggest favor you can do for yourself as a writer is to listen. And that doesn't mean execute every single note as given to you. It means, listen." What you're listening for, in Strouse's experience, is the diagnosis rather than the treatment. She likens it to going to the doctor: your job is to tell them what’s wrong with you, and their job is to suggest a solution. With notes, your audience is the patient; you're looking to them to describe what’s not working in your script, and then it's up to you to doctor it.

Read more from Victoria Strouse: 5 Ways to Sharpen Your Comedy Writing Instincts

Showing Up
How do you get yourself in the space to write?
Contributed by Andrew J. Smith, Co//ab Advisor (Walking Out, Winter in the Blood)
My best writing days are the ones in which I immediately go to work upon rising early (when I do wake early, which is about half the time). If I can get up, make a Café Bustelo espresso on the stovetop rocket, and start writing while the day takes on light, that's magic. The key for me is to open the damn file I've been working on. If I slip into checking emails, I've killed it.
My ritual is very simple: do creative work first if I'm going to do it, and find appropriate music for the day's writing. Appropriate music means, for me, something that conjures the tone or atmosphere of the world I'm entering—but conjures it slant, as Emily Dickinson put it—not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence. I tend toward non-lyrical music on these good writing mornings: cinematic music by Arvo Pärt, John Adams, Henryk Górecki, Ernst Reijseger, Hildur Guðnadóttir, but also melodic beauties by, say, Donald Byrd, Bill Evans, Lester Young. Right now I'm writing a film set in rural Montana in the mid-1920's, but the music is all Hawaii'an from that period—a different flavor of cowboy guitar, you might say.
Top Fives
Writers on their favorites from across the world of cinema
Contributed by Celia C. Peters, Co//ab Advisor (Afrofuturism 101, Roxë15)
Movie Songs
Music is SUPER important for me as a storyteller, so when it works really well in a film, it stops me in my tracks. Here are some of the best, IMO:
“Ease on Down the Road” by Michael Jackson & Diana Ross
The Wiz  (1978)

This song, in this particular film—an all-Black version of The Wizard of Oz—is pure genius. It is the soulful alter ego of "We’re Off to See the Wizard" from the original film. In The Wiz, it becomes an anthem to Black Americans' resilience. African Americans have kept it moving since arriving to these shores, despite everything. "Ease on Down the Road" is going to church: a joyous, funky, uplifting spiritual celebration by two characters who are making the most of adversity.

“Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince
Purple Rain  (1984)

"Let’s Go Crazy" embodies the counterculture icon that was Prince Rogers Nelson. It’s in perfect sync with his character’s wildness and the general rebelliousness of the New Wave 1980s. At the same time, it definitely nods to the androgyny, IDGAF attitude and flamboyance of Little Richard, one of rock and roll’s founders.
“The Peacocks” by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock
'Round Midnight  (1986)

This song encapsulates the vibe and the energy of this story. Dexter Gordon is an aging jazz musician facing major life complications. This song is elegant, sophisticated, beautiful, passionate and bittersweet. It contains the energy of the character and his story and of jazz itself, but it also has all the feels of having a love affair in Paris.
“The Big Payback” by James Brown
Dead Presidents  (1995)

The narrative is supported invisibly by this song; it’s like magic. On the surface, it fits the scene like a glove. A bully provokes Anthony, who he’d beat up years earlier when Anthony was an innocent kid—and now Anthony beats the bully to a pulp without mercy: the ultimate, very gratifying payback. In the process, the use of this song (hard, funky, fired up) also illustrates just how much being in the Vietnam War has transformed Anthony, which is one of the themes of the film.
“La Wally (Aria)” by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez
Diva (1981)

Ms. Fernandez plays the titular character in the film and her performance of this song in it really embodies who and what her character is. Beautiful, talented, aloof, refined, elegant, passionate, deep. She is a diva in the truest sense of the world. One of the most unique things about this film is that the beautiful operatic diva who is the object of the protagonist’s obsessive adoration is a Black woman. Atypical for a Black woman character in 1981 and still atypical in 2021. Fernandez is as natural as water in the role and this song serves all of that.
Writing Promptly
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script
Contributed by Ioana Uricaru, Co//ab Advisor (Tales from the Golden Age, Lemonade)
If you would like to see a clear transformation happening to your character in a scene, try writing a line in the very beginning of the scene where the character makes a statement about themselves, about the other character, or about the world. Then, write another line where they say the exact opposite at the end of the scene. Finally, write what could happen during the scene so both lines are believable.

Things to think about:
  • Consider going extreme: make your character go from "I love you so much" to "You disgust me"; from "I can't wait to start" to "I'm terrified"; from "It's a great day to be alive" to "I wish I were dead."

  • The key to this exercise is to earn the line at the end. To get you started, jot down five external factors, big and small, that could intervene during the scene. Which of these factors would your character ignore, rationalize, laugh at, disbelieve? Which one will push them over the edge? 

Ultimately, you may decide to remove these framing lines, but they could also stay in the scene if you think they are needed to make it work.

For more prompts in a live setting, join our free Writers’ Cafe each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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