Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Song Writing -- plotting NASHVILLE 209 through music.

Michael Lohmann's cool Orson Welles like shot of Layla crying backstage
When you write on a TV show, you only get to actually "WRITE" very sporadically. Most of the job entails being locked in a room with fellow creative eccentrics (ten, on this show) and bashing out stories while trying not to gain too much weight being forcefed lunch and snacks.

So when after the first 8 episodes, the spinning wheel  landed on me, I was READY. What's different about Nashville, and what I was excited to use as a springboard, was the music. Obviously, I had to first pick up "the batons" from the previous episode and move them down the field toward what we knew had to happen in the next episode -- an end of 2013 cliffhanger.

I needed stories that made emotional, narrative, and musical sense. (I also had a private agenda of doing stories that would bring as many of the myriad characters together, because I'd seen other episodes compress under the pressure of delivering scenes for so many storylines -- and besides, we were due for throwing awkward, secret, reunited and ex-couples Scarlett/Avery and Zoey/Gunnar into a room together.)
While music is the trickiest part, it can also be a great organizing principle. We have at least three songs each episode. With rare exceptions, we use only original songs (ie that haven't been made famous by recording artists). Our actors actually sing, we have to rotate who performs, the songs have to make sense in the story, and have to be recorded in advance and played back on set. Though you usually see only a minute or so on the show, full songs are recorded and filmed, released on Itunes, YouTube, and soundtrack albums.  While our cast doesn't tour to support them, we recently cracked the country Top 40 with a Scarlett/Deacon duet, "This Town."

So to answer the questions I've been asked by screenwriting students:
Do writers write the songs? (No!)

We have a weekly meeting with Frankie Pine, our music supervisor, where we lay out future needs and she plays us contenders on her laptop. The ultimate decision lies in the hands of show creator Callie Khouri, Music Producer Buddy Miller, and showrunner Dee Johnson, but we all weigh in. It's an exciting and scary part of the process because we're always up against time deadlines.

What do you put in the script? (Dialogue with XXXXX until the songs are finalized, usually during the last week.)
How do you decide who will sing and where to put them in the show? (I'll just use my episode to illustrate.)

I set about to reverse engineer my stories from which performances I wanted to see, musically and storywise. Two involved pairing up people for the first time, for selfish -- and story-- reasons.

1) Chris Carmack and Hayden Panettiere. Will and Juliette -- and the actors who play them -- are two of the show's most charismatic young performers and we'd put them on tour together, yet they'd not had a scene together since Juliette gave Will the gig pre-opening for her and the ambitious, scheming Layla. I wanted to up the ante and get them on stage together, so I cooked up a plot in which Juliette is threatened by Layla, demotes her, Will invites Layla to duet with him -- so Juliette trumps her by grabbing the mike. So their duet would not just be a musical moment, but a power play, even a flirt.

Juliette steals Layla's mike backstage.

2) Aubrey Peeples. Cast as Layla Grant, the up and comer Eve Harrington of the season, 19 year old Aubrey hadn't gotten a chance to show off the amazing pipes that won her the role. (No, it was NOT because she was in Sharknado). And when Aubrey visited the writers room, I learned she played guitar -- something that would distinguish her musically and visually from Juliette, and show her as more of a musical threat. I decided we'd open the show with Layla overstaying her allotted opener's time onstage by playing an encore,  provoking Juliette's wrath.
Lohmann's three cameras capture Aubrey
Callie and Frankie dipped into our pool of 100 songs and Nashville Songwriters and found two perfect tunes: "Tell Me" for Layla (<- click on the link for the backstory video) and "Can't Say No to You" for Will and Juliette. Both were shot on the same day, on our soundstage, which has the ability to be CGId into arena or even stadium. I thought it might be the hardest day of the shoot, but the crew has mastered how to shoot songs. Director Kevin Dowling, a veteran of dozens of episodes of TV as well as feature films and theater, had his easiest day. Our tireless, hilarious cinematographer Michael Lohmann had three cameras going, all of them in motion. Our guitar master Colin Linden sat behind the monitors to make sure handwork matched the guitar playing.
Video Village during music scene:
Cinematographer Michael Lohmann, Performance Consultant Colin Linden, Brad Stella (dad of Lennon and Maisy), Director Kevin Dowling, Script Supervisor Allison Hughes Stroud
3) Chip Esten and Lennon Stella (Deacon and Maddie). Another situation of pairing two charismatics for the first time. The Stella sisters, who first charmed the world with a simple YouTube video, are pure gold on the show -- people can't get enough of them. But the plotline of the show had added a wrinkle we hadn't explored musically: At the end of Season One, Deacon and Maddie both learned that he, not Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), was her biological father. This at first led to near-tragedy, but they'd been taking babysteps toward reorienting their relationship, and I felt it was time to see them actually sing together.

When my colleague Wendy Calhoun (veteran of Justified and Revenge) returned from the Nashville filming of her episode #204, she reported to me that the local hipster clothing store, Two Old Hippies, had a weekly open mic for teenagers on Sunday afternoons.

This sparked a whole story in my head. Being a divorced dad, I know the complications in multiple parental units attending a kids' event -- and this one had the extra oomph of Teddy being threatened by Deacon's paternity of Maddie. Throw in Teddy's new wife Peggy (Kimberly Paisley-Williams), who everyone loves to hate, and it's a powder keg. Drama is conflict.
Biological dad, step mom, dad, mom. Rehearsal at Two Old Hippies. 
I devised a plot in which Maddie asks Deacon to give her guitar lessons, straining her parents, and then escalates when she invites him up on stage. It was decided for story purposes to re-use the song "A Life That's Good" that the show had set up as an old Deacon solo song.  (Maddie had sung it with her sister Daphne after running away in Wendy's episode. )

My episode also has a bonus song, which my bosses and I chose from a bunch of songs we could afford rights to.  We needed the closeted Will to act out and get injured. The original pitch had been an homage to the roof-to-pool jumping scene from Almost Famous, but production exigencies changed the plan to a dive off of a bar.

So we needed a song that would motivate him to get up and start dancing and singing along. We chose Keni Thomas's "Gunslinger," which had just the right touch of dumbass braggadocio.  It was fun to add the lyrics to the script, and Chris Carmack was so into the scene that, even though they'd flown in a stunt double, he insisted on doing the bellyflop himself.
When I got to town I went to Two Old Hippies in person to scout the real Open Mic. Of course there were only a few people there (though as with everything else we show of the city on our show, that will probably change). The 14 year old girl I saw, however, was great, if unpolished. It made me feel happy I was giving the place some p.r.And in fact MaryLynne Stella is arranging for Lennon and Maisy to play there next Sunday.

Episodes film in the order that makes the most sense to production, not the order of the script pages, and the two big performances -- Layla's opener and Will/Juliette, an Act Three moment -- both didn't film until the 8th day of an 8 1/2 day shoot.

Even Maddie and Deacon's performance at Two Old Hippies, because of time of day issues, were shot reverse order: first the aftermath fight on the sidewalk, then the performance, and then everyone's arrivals. Brad Paisley came by to watch his wife film.

Even though the shop had to shutter for the morning, between takes the cast and crew ended up spending more money than a typical morning consumer crowd would have. We used the store's actual emcee, employee Matt Walbeg, a musician himself, as the emcee, and when his intro proved too short to cover a camera move, supervising producer Michael Waxman had him add the phrase "Home of peace, love, and rock and roll."

Everything came together and the cast and crew kicked ass. The three songs not only anchored the episode, but all three of them will be on Season Two's first CD of songs.


Episode link:

Song purchase links:
A Life That's Good (Maddie & Deacon version):
Can't Say No To You:

For more inside info on the songwriters of some of this season's songs, check out:
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S said...

Hey there,

I wasn't planning on spending so much time on your blog, but the piece about Sorkin got me hooked. I've read a couple of articles about the whole issue and it was nice to get an "inside view" that actually seemed honest. I like the way you write and most importantly what you write about, so I found myself reading half of your blog posts. As for Nashville, I liked the idea of a writer who is a) a journalist, because the documentary style of the pilot and the 2nd episode is what got me interested in Nashville in the first place (besides Connie Britton), so I had thought we'd get a bit more of that. Well…we didn't per se, but you can't blame a girl for hoping. Then again ABC is probably not the right network for that kind of show (as I have it in mind anyway). And b) I thought it was interesting that you had worked with Sorkin, who I thought was always about characters and dialogue. I'd love for Nashville to go more in that direction since it's not exactly a show that's plot-driven and based on cliffhanger after cliffhanger like maybe Scandal or other shows on this network. At least it shouldn't be. That's why I loved Friday Night Lights so much. The writing was incredible and had some real additional value for people that went beyond a tv show. I think that's the best outcome for any creative work of art.

I'm still invested in Nashville - mainly because of Connie who I'd watch read the phone book (the extend of my girl crush is rather alarming ;) ) , but season 2 has had some really good moments so far and there is still so much potential. The Maddie /Rayna scene last night was very sweet.

I'm always so fascinated by the system tv shows get written in the US, as opposed to Germany or maybe Europe in general. I've only worked on films in the past, but I don't think single episodes of tv series here have more than one or two writers and most of the time it's the director who writes the final draft. A staff of 10 people sounds rather insane. I imagine this can be very inspiring on the one hand, but also annoying at times. Thanks for sharing your writing experience of last night's episode, which was very interesting and yeah - educating.

I'll keep reading your blog.

All the best,

PS: That would have been about 50 tweets ;)

Karen said...

There is so much good packed into that private agenda of how you envision stories:

I needed stories that made emotional, narrative, and musical sense. (I also had a private agenda of doing stories that would bring as many of the myriad characters together, because I'd seen other episodes compress under the pressure of delivering scenes for so many storylines -- and besides, we were due for throwing awkward, secret, reunited and ex-couples Scarlett/Avery and Zoey/Gunnar into a room together.)

Thank you.