Manuel Betancourt

Writing Soundtracks, or How Film Scores Inspire Me

January 18, 2013 · in Film

As a graduate student, I spend a good part of my time writing. This can get quite boring, if not outright unbearable without some good music to go with it. When I am editing I can get away with singing along to the new Adele or Frank Ocean (okay, sometimes I also bounce to Britney and Kylie). When it comes to facing the blank screen and trying to come up with dissertation-level arguments, I have to admit that I tend to stay away from songs I can sing if not outright dance along. Instead, I turn to — what else? — film scores.
I bring this up because last tonight, @SeriousFilm caught my eye with the following tweet:

Best soundtrack to write to: The Fountain
— Michael Cusumano (@SeriousFilm) January 18, 2013

And, not to sound too much like Carrie Bradshaw, but this got me thinking about the type of film scores that I’m drawn to and listen to the most when I’m writing. Needless to say, a great soundtrack (take for example, Clint Mansell’s Black Swan or Michael Giacchino’s The Incredibles) doesn’t usually make for a good writing soundtrack (unless I wanted to feel like I’m constantly paranoid and/or running away from a giant robot trying to kill me). That said, my four favorite scores to write to manage to be both fantastic scores on their own accord — elevating and nuancing the films they belong to — even as they make for pleasantly unobtrusive writing soundtracks. Funnily enough they all belong to films that ended up in my Top 2/3 for each of their respective years:

Glass’s minimalist score for The Hours, Marianelli’s typewriter-infused tunes for Atonement, Newman’s fittingly dour ditties for Revolutionary Road and Iglesias’s moody themes for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are in constant rotation on my iTunes and Spotify (though sometimes I’m in the mood for the pulsating beats of The Social Network, for the Pan’s Labyrinth lullabies and even for a Desplat or two). I don’t think it’s a surprise that the first two speak directly to the process of writing (Woolf with an inked-pen in hand; Robbie’s infamous typewritten note) as I’m sure my mind wanders back to those scenes as I stare into the blank screen in front of me. I mean, what better way to stimulate writing than to plunge into the psyche of Smiley and his single-minded approach to his work? Or into the lovingly broken hearts of April and Frank Wheeler? Okay, maybe only the former as the latter makes me sound like a masochist. My point is that this is what great scores accomplish; they at once help construct and complement the moods and emotions we see on screen. A bad score is always distracting (be it in its contrivance or in its obvious emotional machinations), but a good score is both felt yet unseen, which is exactly what I need for when I write.


As my choices show, I’m more drawn to the quiet and restrained scores which makes sense as I don’t think I know anyone who’d want Williams bombast or Zimmer horns blaring as you try to explain how fan-like adoration of cinema infected the aesthetics of twentieth century queer writers.

Of the scores this year, I have found the Russian flavored score for Anna Karenina (my pick of the Oscar five) and the intertwining tunes of Cloud Atlas have made for good writing soundtracks, but I’m curious to know if anyone has any suggestions (old or new!) as I’m always eager to discover new music that can keep me inspired and stimulated as I work my way through this dissertation.