I’ve been committed to the idea of using mostly diegetic sound in my films.
It’s not that I’m against score, I just find the puzzle of finding music that fits the story world to be a fun and interesting challenge. I choose music that my characters would listen to and place it in the right places, where it’s motivated by something that’s happening onscreen. I think it adds authenticity to the fabric of the film and gets an audience settled inside the physical and emotional environments that the characters occupy. Also, some of my favorite filmmakers do this really well, like Robert Altman in Nashville, Pedro Costa in In Vanda’s Room, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièlle Huillet in The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.
Though people tell me I shouldn’t, I write specific music cues into my scripts, like “Birthday Sex” in Putty Hill or the songs that are performed live in I Used to Be Darker. Sometimes the rights are unattainable, and I have to look for creative alternatives. Other times, the music is added late in the mix. But more often than not, my editor Marc Vives and I choose songs during the picture edit and lay them in, crossing our fingers that we can secure them in the end.
For Sollers Point I worked closely with music supervisors Secretly Group, out of Bloomington, Indiana. They became key collaborators on the project, sending me folders of music and turning me on to lots of musicians I hadn’t heard of. Their catalog runs deep, and through them I discovered artists like Lightning Dust, Elyse Weinberg, and Barry Thomas Goldberg.
It was important to me that the main character Keith listen to heavy music. It needed to be contemporary, while still referencing the thrash and death metal of my youth. Yob, Neurosis, Cemetery Piss, and Pallbearer fit this mold. We made one exception with “Fascist Institution” by Doom, from their 1998 album World of Shit. It’s the song that opens the film; Keith is listening to it on his stereo while the credits play. With the lyrics, I wanted to reference Keith’s incarceration, the current political climate in the States, and the mood in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s murder and the subsequent uprising.
Fascist scum still litter our streets
Racist attacks still on the increase
Blind eyes turned as apathy reigns
An institutional fascist disease
No justice here
Convenient ineptness again and again
Racists with fascists
Playing a game, controlling, systems of fear
Protecting the guilty and passing the blame
No justice here
The credit sequence rolls into a scene of Keith making breakfast listening to an NPR piece about former mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake’s reaction to the DOJ’s investigation of the Baltimore police department in 2016. The broadcast is low in the mix, but provides a bit of subtext that works in tandem with the lyrics of “Fascist Institution.”
Sometimes I use songs that have direct meaning, that provide context or add something to the narrative. Other times, they reveal a meta-narrative or editorialize something greater than the film itself. An example of this is YGG Tay’s song “My City”, with the chorus: “Baltimore, that’s my fuckin’ town / I love my city but I’m never home / Gotta live your life ‘cause one slip you’re gone.” The song plays at a strip club and it’s about being a baller, but it’s also about civic pride and walking the line between success and total failure. Placing it in the film felt like an anthemic personal statement. I’m proud to be from Baltimore. Work takes me away from this city, but I keep coming back. And I recognize how lucky and precarious life here can be. The lyrics also provide a distant echo to Nina Simone’s “Oh Baltimore, ain’t it hard just to live”, but with an upbeat, contemporary twist.
Rap was a big part of the world of the film and I wanted to keep the selections regional. In addition to YGG Tay, the soundtrack features music by Baltimore artists Lor Choc, Al Great and Daysia Star. It was always my intent to cast a local rapper in the role of Marquis and weave his music into the film. I met Breezay Bell-El through a close friend from high school. I loved his energy and his lyrical style and discovered he had a great screen presence too. I met one of Breezay’s producers Hands Up! at a local show and cast him to play alongside Marquis. In the film, they’re working on new music in their home studio. We chose Breezay’s “Inside Outside” because of the lyrical content. The song has two cues in the film and signals an important positive transition in Keith’s journey as he tries adjust to life after prison.
Originally, I’d written Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’” into the script. I wanted Jim Belushi’s character, Carol, to be listening to it while washing his car. It’s a heartbreaking song about the loss of love, a major theme for Keith and Carol throughout the film. In “I Keep Forgettin’” Michael McDonald is at his most vulnerable and raw, just like the men in Sollers Point. We received a fair quote, but realized if we used the song it would cut into our music budget considerably, and in the end the scene worked better with no music at all. I still wanted to hint at Carol’s soft but soulful musical tastes, so Secretly Group sent me a folder of similar yacht rock tunes. We decided that when Keith steals his father’s car there could be music on the stereo which could contrast the energy of the scene. So we chose Salty Miller’s “One More Time”, also about unrequited love, to carry us into the film’s climax.
Recently reissued by Light in the Attic Records, Barry Thomas Goldberg’s music was a real discovery for me. He grew up in the casinos and movie theatres of the Las Vegas Strip and his songs from the mid-70’s have the nostalgia and working-class poetry of Asbury Park-era Bruce Springsteen. We chose “Say Your Name Out Loud” to play at the bar when Keith visits his grandma, Ladybug. The lyrics speak of memory and impending loss: “If I never see another morning / If I never see another golden sun / I will always have the pleasure of your memory / And the thought of love will help me carry on.” Keith’s grandmother, played by Lynn Cohen, recognizes that Keith is at a crossroads. In this scene, she invokes the memory of his mother in an attempt to get Keith to turn his life around. Playing underneath the action, “Say Your Name Out Loud” connects the audience to Ladybug and her devotion to her troubled grandson.
From Bresson to Haneke, through Steven Soderbergh and Harmony Korine, many directors have recognized the potential and power of diegetic music. It can still feel refreshing in a medium that relies heavily on score to carry emotional weight. Soderbergh says, “Music has become another of the most abused aspects of filmmaking. For me, it’s ideal when you can get the music to do something that everything else isn’t doing.” I agree with this. When music has a contrapuntal, contradictory, or anachronistic relationship with the image it can be very exciting. And when it comes from within the mise-en-scène then it’s particularly true. Perhaps Bresson, in his Notes on Cinematography, put it best: “Find a kinship between image, sound, and silence. To give them an air of being glad to be together, of having chosen their place.”
When there is no score, silences are felt, as are other sounds. We listen to the silence and the ambience becomes music in and of itself. We hear cicadas, seagulls, train horns, police sirens, helicopters and birds, wind in the trees, the voices of children playing. Most of these sounds are recorded on location and laid into the mix. And then, when you do hear music, it is surprising; you become aware of it and listen more closely. It feels as if it has something to say. MM
Sollers Point was released in theaters on May 11, 2018, courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures. All images courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.