Before you start writing any screenplay, make a playlist of music that feels like the movie. It’s a fundamental part of my process.

I’ve done this from the beginning. For Go, I had a mix tape with Christmas songs and rave beats. 1 For Big Fish, I burned a CD. In the age of iTunes, it’s vastly easier. Think of movies that resemble your movie, then click through their soundtracks, previewing tracks before adding them to a custom playlist.

Most of these songs would never be in your final movie. Rather, you are assembling music that reminds you of the feeling you’re trying to create. More crucially, you want music that reminds you why you’re writing this script.

A good playlist helps you get started. A great playlist helps you finish.

Over the life of a project, you are bound to lose enthusiasm many times. Deep into the second act, you’ll curse the decision to write it. On your third draft, you’ll wonder why the opening set piece is so much better than everything else.

That’s when you need your playlist. Listen to it and remember. Let it be your totem, your mandala, your happy place. I rarely listen to any music while I write, but during crunch times, it helps. Particularly days like today, when most of the jackhammers in Los Angeles are outside my window.

What was this movie, again?

Professional screenwriters often have to ping-pong back and forth between several projects. During one week in the early-aughts, I had to write on Big Fish, Barbarella, Jurassic Park 3, Minority Report and Scooby-Doo. That’s a lot of switching gears. Music helps.

For a more recent example, here’s a touchstone track I used for Preacher, 10th Planet by Hot Snakes.

For an unannounced thriller I’m writing, I used both Let’s Misbehave and a track from Silent Hill 2.

Right now, I’m writing Monsterpocalypse and Frankenweenie2. Danny Elfman’s fantastic and underappreciated title track for Planet of the Apes gets me in the mood for smashing buildings, while half his canon is appropriate for Frankenweenie.

Is it a luxury to pick tracks from the composer who will probably be doing the soundtrack? Yes. I won’t apologize.

It’s your choice whether to share your musical influences with your collaborators. I almost never do. For The Nines, I gave my editor the tracks, but only one (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”) made it into the movie.

The truth is, by the time you’re actually making the movie, you’re often thoroughly sick of these tracks. They’ve served you well, but you don’t want to hear them again.

  1. Mix tapes were plastic cassettes with two geared spools of magnetic film inside. Analog music was recorded onto each side of the tape, generally at 1:1 speed. Because this meant a lengthy process, the mix tape maker could spend time decorating the paper liner used to protect the tape, perhaps writing the song titles.
  2. Did you know the original short film for Frankenweenie is on iTunes? And did you know Sofia Coppola is in it?