Considering the evidence, and universal acceptance, that music has a significant influence on the mood and impact of a film, it’s a mystery to me that it’s so often a mere afterthought in the filmmaking process. For me that just can’t be the case – when I embark on a new project, I cannot truly settle into the creative process until I have found the right soundtrack to work to, and inevitably that music will have an influence on what I write.
So, in Rachel the music was not an afterthought but a governing part of the creative process, which began many years before the film came to be.
When I started work on Rachel it was with the inevitable thought – how can I make a film for as little money as possible? Obvious – find a story that involves very few characters and keep them enclosed within one room. A funeral director’s chapel of rest seemed an ideal choice, the insoluble question of whose needs a funeral should meet was a perfect subject, and what else to listen to but Prokofiev’s glorious Romeo and Juliet ballet score?
But as I worked I grew more and more miserable until I couldn’t see a way out for either my characters, or me. Not surprising, given the subject matter and that the first time I played for a Royal Ballet season of Romeo and Juliet I got so emotionally engaged and traumatised that I couldn’t eat for a week. And so, as an act of self-preservation, I turned to listening to music that brought me back to happy times, to my days in Boston, USA.
I first went to Boston to continue my violin studies for six months, but then I fell in love, got married and stayed for over five years. What moving to America gave me was a chance to heal from the deep sadness of losing my dad, and the freedom to explore life outside of my musical world. There is much that I don’t like about America but it is an awe-inspiringly beautiful country and there is an amazing, infectious, ‘be who you want to be’, spirit of adventure to be had there. Even now, it is the friends that I made in Boston who have been the most enthusiastic supporters of my efforts to make Rachel. No questions about why I wanted to do this crazy thing, just cries of “You go girl!”
So, what has this digression got to do with Rachel? The Body Shop in Harvard Square. As part of my finding myself adventure, I worked there for two years, making gift baskets, selling coconut oil shampoo and listening to Flathead, aka Ned Landin, playing his guitar and singing his wonderful songs outside our door. And it was his album, ‘Corner of My Heart’, with its cover art picture of Ned playing outside the Body Shop, that I turned to for solace when writing Rachel. And, before long, I was listening over and over to my favourite song, ‘Down at the Levee’, and through that I discovered a way out for my characters – a trip to a beach, which would eventually lead to the budget for the film doubling, thereby fully explaining why producers don’t like writers to think about the music in advance!
In fact, ‘Down at the Levee’ became such a part of the story that I wove the words into the script and decided that the final part of the film would have no dialogue, just Ned’s song. All that I did, having checked with Ned that he would be willing to strike a deal for its use should I eventually make the film.
So, when that time came and I contacted Ned once more, it was a bitter and heart-wrenching disappointment to get no reply. I tried hard to track him down – tweets to other folk musicians, a letter to the Santa Monica Pier where he was last filmed busking, and of course Facebook messages that he might have seen but to which he never responded. The very thing that made his music right for Rachel – that free-spirited, off the grid approach to life – was my downfall; there was no record label or publisher to approach instead.
Finding a replacement was tough going – I kept hoping Ned would suddenly rescue me – but when I eventually chanced upon Tim Halperin’s song ‘Only Love’, I knew it could work.
Then I researched this guy Tim Halperin, who I had never heard of, and discovered that he’s a former American Idol contestant and a seriously committed Christian. This gave me pause for thought. Could I really feel comfortable using his song in my film about a Jewish girl who has rejected her faith? Would I be causing offence where certainly none was intended and inviting controversy?
But then I listened to ‘Only Love’ again, as I had first heard it and as it should always be listened to – as music, and only music. It’s beautiful and it speaks for itself.
When Robert Dukes was preparing for his role as Josh, and even during the actual filming, he listened to the song – imaging that this was Josh and Rachel’s song. And when I sat down to draw up my storyboard I started with the scenes that ‘Only Love’ would be accompanying and planned the shots to fit the music.
Likewise, I myself recorded the opening two lines of the Jewish Kol Nidrei prayer before we started work, and I was absolutely adamant that that recording would be used in full, resulting in the pace and composition of the title sequence being informed by the choice of music.
Now that the film is complete I have gone back and played Ned Landin’s ‘Down at the Levee’ over the final sequence of the film to see what it would have felt like had I got my original wish.
Ned is an incredible musician. I still love that song. I still wish I could have used it – it has all of the joyous, freewheeling, rebellious spirit that I imagine the character Rachel would have had in life, but it’s interesting – by allowing Tim Halperin’s song to influence Rob’s performance and the footage we shot, the tone of the film has changed in subtle ways so that now ‘Only Love’ really is not only the better choice for this story, but the only choice.