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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Hollywood screenwriter Mark Staufer @MarkStaufer
A few years back, I wanted to break out of my screenwriting comfort zone. I decided to confront the issue that bemused me the most of all: acting.
As a screenwriter, I’ve always viewed actors with a certain amount of trepidation and — I’ll get shot for this — a smidgen of superiority. I mean, we’re the clever ones, right? We writers conjure universes and characters and astonishing dialogue from our super-awesome-God-anointed well-spring of transcendental brilliance. And we do all this in three acts — not exceeding 90 minutes for a comedy and two hours for a drama — and we always deliver on time and don’t require a Buddhist Lama or a manicurist written into our contract. Unless we’re that Joe Ezsterhas-from-the-80s guy.
Damn actors, though, they simply wander in and rearrange their photogenic facial expressions and move their well-toned bodies like puppets, parroting the words we maestro-minds have spent months bleeding over and creating. And rewriting. Again. And…
Wait. Just, before I die, let me finish…
So, I confronted my fear and wrote a script with one of those bloody annoying actors. You may know Josh Stewart from Third Watch or Dirt or The Dark Knight Rises — to me, he was a friend first, and a scary, Brando-esque methody-actor second. As we worked on the script together — he as committed as I was — it became (painfully) apparent that I was learning a whole new dimension in screenwriting. Sure, I was fucking superb at writing and scenes and structure and ‘creating universes’ and theoretical whatnot, but Josh, as an actor, slipped into characters and dialogue like an eel. He was like a specialist fine-tuning these parts of the body, while I resembled something akin to your garden variety local GP.
Josh taught me so much about the most important parts of screenwriting — characters; motivation; showing, not telling; use of the semicolon; minimal big-print — that I feel totally embarrassed about the whole ‘rearranging expressions’ statement a while back. Oh, if you want to read our magnificent script about an archeologist-turned-grave-robber… Give me a yell.
And a similar thing has happened with music and writing with The Numinous Place. Not that I’ve ever been quite so damning about music and composers — but I’ve learned so much from actually listening, and listening hard to music, and musicians, that it’s completely transformed my approach to writing as well.
You see, in the middle of the night, about a decade ago I awoke from a most wondrous and startling dream and immediately thought to myself, how cool would it be if we developed the technology to film dreams. That was the spark that hovered and wormed its way into my consciousness until I finally dragged myself into the dark room and began work five years later on (gulp) my life’s work. By that stage I’d been researching like crazy, the characters and plot were pretty much fully formed, my entire belief system had been turned upside-down, and I knew I needed to tell this particular story in an utterly different way.
For maximum impact, I needed to create an authentic storyworld about the scientific discovery of the afterlife using all storytelling techniques: first-person narrative, audio, video, web and magazine articles, comic, photographs, diagrams… Nothing less would suffice than every narrative device we’ve used since cave-painting began 40,000 years ago.
Reading is visceral
There was no gimmickry involved in this decision to create in a multidimensional fashion. It’s just that I believe a reader’s response to realistic artifacts and information is more visceral — it’s a case of showing not telling (remember what Josh taught me?). As the narrative unfolded I didn’t want anyone to have to suspend their disbelief for a moment. Everyone really needed to believe that science had indeed discovered the afterlife. And for that to happen, it was going to be necessary to present them with all the relevant evidence — totally believable evidence I’d gathered from since the beginning of time. Here’s the newspaper article, take a look at the news report, here’s the page in Wikipedia… Seeing is believing.
I also wanted to include a soundtrack with the book. With the technique of lucid dreaming — becoming conscious in your dreamworld and controlling it — at the core of the narrative it was important to be able to conjure an immediate response with readers. And music is by far the best way to do this.
It was necessary for my writing, too. Music was what helped me tap into my subconscious and those other realities in which my narrative and characters already existed. Music was the bridge to the worlds of archetypes and parallel universes where every story lives and waits to be told in the here and now by someone like you.
There’s a fantastic music site called A Closer Listen which supplied me with many leads and from there I discovered a bunch of musical geniuses whose ethereal compositions sang to my subconscious and allowed me to bring the dreamworld into this reality. The darkly claustrophobic ambience of Adrian Aniol, the hauntingly cinematic music of Leonardo Rosado, the angelic pyrotechnics of Sorabji, the fiery minimalism of Italian composer Ezio Bosso and the wafty electronic otherworldiness of The Caretaker.
But what would an actual soundtrack to a book such as The Numinous Place sound like, and how would it work? Books aren’t movies or games — the reading experience is intimate and self-paced, and I don’t believe any reader wants music or sound effects blasting away behind every word. How could I make music an evocative part of the experience, integrate it into the storyworld and allow it to accentuate the narrative?
Under the guidance of composer/sound designer Walter Werzowa it was decided the music — like the tech and design by Dean Johnson and the team at digital agency Brandwidth — would be used strategically. Pieces would be composed by Maestro Werzowa to specifically enhance the narrative, underscore the emotional intensity and act as scene-breakers.
And, since reading is more about choices than, say, watching a film — the reader can choose to listen immediately, or save the piece and listen later.
Dreamworlds move at their own pace
Because the dreamworld itself moves at a different pace from this reality and is often so difficult to recall, Walter set to work reimagining well-known classical pieces that evoke the moods experienced in the dreamworld by the book’s hero, Henry Meat. You can hear an example here, along with Walter’s magnificent Agnus.
And, just like James Bond films, The Numinous Place needed a theme song. For this I approached fellow-Kiwi Alicia Merz who records under the name Birds of Passage. Alicia’s compellingly hypnotic theme for The Numinous Place captures the atmosphere of the storyworld perfectly — it evokes the dreamworld in a way words often struggle to achieve.
Music being such an integral part of both the creative process and finished product has also assisted me in an unanticipated way. The structural multidimensionality of The Numinous Place means there are a lot of balls in the air during writing. Similar to music — cadence and rhythm and texture are incredibly important — and I’ve learned from all those composers on my soundtrack during this journey.
I’ve learned that, just like acting, it’s the silences between the notes that are equally as important as the notes themselves.
And it is the same with words.
Hollywood screenwriter Mark Staufer is the curator/creator of an ambitious new way of storytelling, a supernatural thriller called The Numinous Place which will be available later this year. Staufer is a former head of production at Universal Studios Networks in London and has been working on his “destiny project” for more than a decade. You can follow him on twitter @MarkStaufer and @NuminousPlace and the lead character in the book @HenryMeat.
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I’ve often thought we need to be able to film our dreams. While we’re at it, can we please record the fully orchestrated music we compose in them? While I’ve slumbered, I’ve written albums that surpassed my favourite artistes, and when my eyes open they’re gone. My guest this week clearly thinks the same way. He woke from a dream and wished he could preserve it on film… not surprising as he is a scriptwriter and former head of production at Universal Studios. From this idea began a supernatural thriller – but no ordinary book. He worked with a composer and sound designer to create a multimedia app that’s a book when you want to read and a musical experience when you choose to open your ears. And of course there are the secret pieces that showed him the souls and truths of his characters. He is Mark Staufer, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by author, games designer and graphic novelist Dave Morris @MirabilisDave
On ‘a dreary night of November’, with rain pattering dismally against the panes, the creature animated by Victor Frankenstein draws his first breath. His senses are a confused storm of inputs and feelings. Sounds have colour. Shapes have taste. Gradually he makes sense of the world, marvelling at the mystery of birdsong and the immense round mountain that rolls across the sky at night.
Music as the vanishing point
Last month I published a new version of Frankenstein: a digital, interactive retelling of the story, the purpose of which is to rescue Mary Shelley’s classic from the neglect into which it has fallen. It’s a great story, but one mired in swathes of schoolbookish prose. My aim in making it interactive has been to turn it up to eleven, to reach out and drag the modern reader right into the text. That opening scene of the creature’s birth gave me the clue for one way to do that – a way to show his awakening consciousness using all of the senses. And that led me towards music as the vanishing point where his raw sense of hearing converges with his aspirations to join the communality of art and culture that unites the rest of humankind.
Spurned by his maker and rejected violently by everyone he meets, the creature takes shelter in an outbuilding adjoining the chateau of an aristocratic family, the de Lacys. Here’s where Mary Shelley, not always too concerned with crafting tidy plotlines, came up with an inspired story device: a crack in the wall through which the creature is able to spy on them. He observes the de Lacys at the dinner table, or gathered around the elderly, blind pater familias as he plays the harpsichord. When a Turkish girl comes to stay, the son of the family starts to teach her French and, eye pressed to the crack, that’s how the creature gets his education too.
The former ingenue
It’s at this point in the novel that we start to perceive, buried in its grosser body tissue, the outlines of another familiar story: the former ingenue who, as he acquires education and culture, becomes increasingly dismissive of those who remind him of his former ignorance. ‘Her grasp of French is almost as good as mine,’ remarks the creature of Safiye, the Turkish girl, in a backhanded compliment. When a bullying official of the Revolutionary government shows up to evict the family, the detail that causes the creature greatest outrage is that the man is unable to read.
Finally the creature feels that his efforts at self-education have earned him a place by the hearth. He is ready to creep out of his ruined hovel and go round to the front door. Dressed in stolen clothes, he waits till the others are out to present himself to old Monsieur de Lacy, whom he expects to be the most sympathetic to his plight:
Alone in the cottage, the old man sits at his keyboard playing the opening contrapunctus of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. It is a sweet sad air, mournful and yet gloriously so. Though Bach intended this piece of music as just an exercise, everything human is contained there. We live and will die. Nothing has meaning except what we give it. And yet the tiny equations of mortal perception contain everything that is beautiful and true.
Now, Mary Shelley doesn’t do a whole lot of showing. ‘He played several mournful but sweet airs,’ is how she renders this scene, ‘more mournful and sweet than I had ever heard him play before.’ But in my reworking of the novel I wanted the reader to see how the creature has changed over these months – from a thing whose senses run together in a synaesthetic whirlpool to a man who can quote Plutarch and Milton. And that piece by Bach, played here by Margaret Fabrizio, is surely the epitome of humanity in its melding of simplicity and beauty, logic and a sense of the spiritual.
But it’s not enough to show your character has become almost a gentleman. You must remind the reader where he came from. A few minutes later, talking to M de Lacy, the monster asks him to play something:
Turning back to the harpsichord, he lets his fingers find the keys and then bursts into a performance of Rameau’s Tambourin. It is of a very different mood from the Bach he was playing before I came in: a fast-paced work full of gusto and melodramatic flourishes. A mere entertainment. How disappointing that he doesn’t recognize a kindred spirit.
The creature’s scornful reaction to what is, after all, a jaunty bit of 18th century pop (played here with great verve by Julian Frey) is more than just resentment at being thought unsophisticated. It shows us his fatal flaw. Sheltered in his hovel beside the chateau, all that he has seen through the crack is the best and most serious side of mankind. The aristocratic M de Lacy is wise enough to appreciate that there is room in life for both the transcendent brilliance of Bach and the heel-kicking silliness of Rameau. The creature fails to understand that. His morality is as pure and absolute as an adolescent’s, as furious as those French revolutionary fanatics’. And in the gap between these two pieces of music, these two essential but opposite sides of the human self, he will experience his downfall.
Dave Morris is the author of the graphic novel series Mirabilis: Year of Wonders, originally serialised in Random House’s comic The DFC. His interactive retelling of Frankenstein is published by Profile Books. Dave has two blogs: Mirabilis and Fabled Lands, and you can follow him on Twitter: @MirabilisDave
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'