The songwriters for Netflix’s Over the Moon – Christopher Curtis, Helen Park and Marjorie Duffield – dive into the inspiration for their music with Awards Daily. Plus, they discuss how animation and music seamlessly blend. Finally, they weigh in on their first time writing songs for movies and what it taught them about cinema, including what they would like to work on in the future.
Over the Moon is now streaming on Netflix.
Awards Daily: What attracted you all to this project?
Marjorie Duffield: We felt really lucky to have been part of a project with the legendary Glen Keane and with the astonishing screenwriter Audrey Wells. I think one of the first things we were all introduced to for the project was the script, and the script is one of those that I remember exactly where I was and what I was wearing when I finished reading it because it was so moving. It was bringing me to tears, taking us through this incredible journey of emotion. Certainly the opportunity to write for a project like this was glory calling all of us. But inevitably knowing that you might be working with Glen Keane, and working on script so beautifully crafted, it was irresistible.
Helen Park: For me I had the same reaction as Marjorie, the script was so moving, so wonderfully crafted I could hear songs coming out of the script. It felt like it would be so great to be involved in writing the songs for this wonderfully written script. In addition to that, I also personally felt that I needed to be on board because the story is centered around these two amazing Asian women going through grief at different points in their lives, and it is not examined in a usual stereotypical way. It’s examining the real journey of experiencing grief and overcoming it or going through it and moving forward with it. It is just examining the real human experience that people have in their lives. So, I loved how this universal topic is examined through such specific characters. It really meant a lot to me in terms of representation.
Christopher Curtis: So this started with an image drawn in China of a young girl looking out the window up at the moon–Fei Fei. That image spoke volumes right there. I had the same reaction that Marjorie and Helen had to the script. The script felt like a musical, songs just jumped off the page. You could read the words and you could almost hear the music of those moments and that was really exciting. Because sometimes people say they want to make this into a musical, and you read the script and you go, this doesn’t sing. I worked with Thomas Meehan on Chaplin and he would always say why he didn’t think it sang. This sang, this project sang from the moment that you read it. I was also excited because I had briefly known Glen when I did the Disney song writer program some years ago, and I was really excited to work with him. I had never really met him, I had only met him on Skype back then. So when I met him in person it was like, wow, you are a real person, this is cool! There were a lot of wonderful reasons to do this project. Like working with Peilin Chou, a wonderful producer we had worked with before, so yeah, it was a gift.
AD: What was it like for you all as your first time writing songs for a film?
HP: We all had a background in musical theater and we had training in musical theater writing. Marjorie and I both went to NYU’s musical theater writing program, although at different times in different classes. But we went to the same program and I also went to the BMI workshop. So we are familiar with the structure of musical theater writing, so that was a great starting point for us, the fact that we can be on the same page when we are talking about the songs, it was a great help during the process. Everything was made so much easier by the fact that there were such open-minded and understanding and collaborative people on the other teams. Glen Keane, the director, was so interested in what we wanted to communicate in the songs, and he wanted to be involved a lot in the process. Also Peilin Chou loves musical theater so she loved being in the room when we were experimenting with songs; she wanted to lend her ear, so that was a big help. We had a great team that didn’t mind that we never had a song in a film before. Actually everyone was really excited about the music and lyrics that we had in our minds, they were most interested in that. The fact that they were excited and wanted those ideas from us was encouraging and empowered us to be confident in expressing our ideas and thoughts.
MD: I just want to add to that, because in addition to this being the first time we all wrote songs for a film, this was also the first time we had worked together. Because of our musical theater background the script in many ways felt like a beautiful book to a musical, and because everybody on the project was so deeply invested in getting the characters right, and telling the story. Even though we were new to each other and new to the form we were in completely familiar territory of articulating, drawing out, and exposing and expanding characters through song. Everyone was looking for some degree of an authentic or truthful expression from each of the characters in their own way. And that was something that we all felt very familiar with. So the forum and the team were different, but what we were seeking to allow these characters to sing themselves was very familiar territory for all of us.
CC: The script was so beautiful, and I think there was a higher purpose to this and that was Audrey (Wells). We got to know Audrey through this process and she really inspired us to write these songs and I think we wanted to bring this story and characters to life to honor her. That was an underlying drive for all of and something that we are very grateful for.
AD: You did a lot of different styles of music throughout the movie. What inspired that decision?
CC: The script. The beginning has a very traditional, almost musical theater, to rocket to moon, this theatrical rock ballad to Lunaria, which had this dance pop song. Then it was Glen’s idea to have a rap song for the ping pong scene. So the script and Glen’s incredibly playful passion gave us this wonderful playground of music to play in.
MD: It was pretty wonderful that it wasn’t prescripted. It was just like, oh wait, this character would sing like this. We were able to write through the character and the dynamic wasn’t limited by genre; we were just able to let the characters sing in the style that they would sing, so to speak.
AD: The visuals in this film really compliment the script and vice versa. Does it change how you look at your music, and what does it look like when you see it all on screen?
CC: It is pretty amazing. It is so interesting because when you read the script you can hear the music in the moment, the visuals just dictate lyrics. It’s interesting with animation because you do the songs first and then they animate to it. You are almost part of it, the songs become the blueprint of what the animators are creating, and that is plain beautiful and exciting. When you see an image and a lyric that comes specifically from that lyric it is beautiful. Or when a moment in animation hits a melodic line or a beat, and you know that melodic line inspired that visual in the animation, you feel like you’re part of this amazing tapestry. But that starts with the song and that’s the first thing that is done, which is incredibly exciting.
HP: I really appreciated how they captured the emotion of the songs in the animation. I know that they set different cameras while Cathy Ang was recording “Rocket to the Moon.” There were a couple cameras that recorded her facial expressions when she was singing it so that helped a lot in making the animation as specific to that emotion as possible. But I was pleasantly surprised at even the little details like a worried frown but with a little bit of smile. That complexity in the emotion in every moment was brought out in the animation.
MD: The script had the goddess Chang’e and the world of Lunaria, which had these lights and huge billboards advertising her. So we were all coming from the brush strokes that the script had, and we borrowed those to think what the musical moments were, and they brought the musical moments after we had written them to go back and fill in all the lines. I was even saying it in “Rocket to the Moon” when Fei Fei is climbing the stairs at a tower in a water town, which is based on Wuzhen, a town Chris and I had visited. Glen and his art group and Audrey had been there as well, so we had all been exposed to similar visual things so there was a real passing of it back and forth.
CC: Glen is a painter of music; he hears music and images and takes those notes and animates them and paints them. You can be sitting with him and he will go, “Yeah, I love that, but what about this,” and to him you are playing notes as he is drawing images. It’s a beautiful collaboration.
MD: The process was very unique in that Glen is a visual listener. The way we sang a certain line would affect how he would think of a song. We were in a room performing in different ways as well, and that’s the way you could collaborate with an animator, like we were all characters, and it was a fun process.
AD: Are you interested in doing more movies? Or do you have any other projects lined up?
CC: Definitely interested in doing more movies.
MD: What I really appreciate about working with Chris and Helen was we are very visual, the music is visual, the lyrics are visual. You know in the liner notes on the album Glen even talks about it and it is like Glen, you are right again! I hadn’t really thought about it that way but, thinking back, with animation that was particularly helpful. We were very lucky to be on this project during the pandemic because they were so far along in the process. We were lucky to be able to record with the one orchestra still working in Vienna. We had some tight deadlines but it was pretty wonderful. It would be great to work on a film project.
HP: I think for me personally the magic of film, in comparison to theater, is that there’s an opportunity to look really closely at a character that you never really thought about, someone different like an Asian character, like in Over the Moon. The medium of film allows people to take a good look at people’s lives and their emotional journey, and what is great about music in musicals is through songs you get to another layer of the character’s emotional journey, you get to actually hear the emotions, through their voice. I think that deeper level of examination of the characters and human beings is so exciting to me. That’s why I want to create more musical films, films that have songs that communicate internal emotion. I think there’s something super exciting and necessary in that. So yeah, I hope there are more musical films out in the world and I hope I can be part of some of them.
Christopher Curtis: Everyone knows the phrase “listen to music,” but especially with animation, listen to the images, because in those images there is a rhythm, there is a melody. I am doing a score for an animated short right now and that language feels so much more natural to me because I’ve worked in animation now, so that’s very exciting. There is something about animation and music that is just a beautiful and inspiring combination