Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by novelist, radio dramatist and BAFTA-winning screenwriter and Wolfblood creator Debbie Moon @DebbieBMoon
Soundtrack by Gustavo Dudamel, Michael Giacchino, Gustav Holst, George Butterworth
Music is important when I’m in the early stages of creating a screen story – it helps me establish the mood of scenes, create character, and finalise the tone of the wider world of the story. At the moment, I’m working on an action-adventure screenplay set during the Russian Revolution – think Indiana Jones meets Doctor Zhivago! – and capturing exactly the right tone is going to be crucial.
So what am I listening to for this as-yet-untitled project, and why?
Our protagonist, Zoyah, is first described like this:
She’s been called a thief, a spy, a witch and an adventuress, but that barely scratches the surface. If the word had been invented yet, she’d probably call herself a superhero.’
Europe in 1917 is still very much a man’s world, but Zoyah knows how to use that to her advantage. So the piece of music that most remind me of her is Gustavo Dudamel’s Danzon No 2 from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
Not the the right historical period or the right continent, but it feels like her – daring, playful, and smarter than you first think.
The Revolution will be musicalised
Sometimes the best music for writing screenplays to is film scores. After all, they’re all about mood too. To capture the chaos and the sense of hope and joy that the Revolution brought to Russia, I spent a lot of time listening to historic recordings by the Red Army Choir.
But my favourite piece to evoke the ‘new’ Russia is still the punningly-named Kremlin With Anticipation from Michael Giacchino’s music to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
When Zoyah and her sidekick Sebi are recruited by the communist secret police to tackle a supernatural threat, I imagine them being marched into the awe-inspiring, intimidating palace of the Kremlin to the strains of something like this…
Things are always worse than the protagonist thinks
The thing that surprised me most while researching this project was the discovery that the Revolution was far from clear-cut. Rival left-wingers struggled for control in the halls of power and in the fields and factories – on top of civil war between ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’, with the outcome far from certain in a nation exhausted by the First World War.
As Zoyah and Sebi return to the countryside they grew up in and see the devastation hunger, war and anti-capitalist purges have wrought, I resort to my collection of English string music – perhaps the Nocturne from Holst’s A Moorside Suite. It’s both beautiful and sad in that way that folk music often is, capturing the charm and the harshness of rural life the world over.
But no good action-adventure is complete without magic and the supernatural! Zoyah and Sebi have been tasked to recover a specific object that was lost during the Revolution, one that – whether the rationalist Reds believe it or not – is vital to the continued existence of Russia. As they pursue it across the war-torn country, they start to get glimpses of the mastermind behind the theft – who may or may not be a mythical bogeyman known as Koschei…
Koschei is a tough character to convey on paper, or in music – part dark wizard, part dirty old man, comical and yet immensely dangerous.
Thanks to a classical music radio station, I stumbled across a great album of Chinese piano music, and the way it references classical piano while still being very much its own things seems perfect for Koschei. I’ll go for Red Lilies Crimson And Bright, perhaps, as played by Yin Chengzong.
Everyone has a weakness
No dramatic character is worth writing about unless they have a weakness or a flaw – because a flaw needs to be overcome, and that means change. As we know from our own lives, changing who you are is the most difficult thing in the world, and that’s why we admire characters who overcome their weaknesses to survive and thrive.
Developing Zoyah’s character flaw, I was thinking about Indiana Jones, who, in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, goes from not believing in the supernatural to realising the Ark’s power and treating it with respect, thus surviving where the villains do not.
Zoyah is the opposite of Dr Jones – she believes so passionately in the supernatural that her the ‘real’ world is slightly unreal. As long-suffering Sebi puts it when he finally snaps:
These are real people feeling real hunger, real cold, real pain, and I don’t think you even see them. All that’s real to you is the tantalizing glint of magic just out of reach.’
Until Zoyah resets her priorities – including facing up to the unresolved feelings she and Sebi have for one another – she’s never going to be able to stop the bad guy and save Russia. And this calls for some romantic music! It’s back to early 20th Century English music for George Butterworth’s The Banks Of Green Willow, a lyrical triumph from a composer killed in battle about the time the film is set, and perfect for a realisation of true love just before the big all-action finale…
Debbie Moon is a BAFTA-winning writer for film and television. She’s the creator of the children’s supernatural series Wolfblood, which shows in almost 40 countries around the world, and has a number of film and television projects in development. She has also written a novel, Falling, short stories, and a radio play. Her blog is here and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @DebbieBMoon