Novelist Michael Smith talks with Lawrence students during a songwriting class.
Novelist Michael Farris Smith (center) joins the Advanced Collaborative Songwriting class in Harper Hall to talk about music for an upcoming film adaptation of one of his books. (Photos by Danny Damiani) 

Lawrence University students in a new songwriting class are writing music to be considered for an upcoming film.

Michael Farris Smith, a Mississippi author with seven novels—mostly gritty thrillers—and two film adaptations on his resume, met with students in the Advanced Collaborative Songwriting class that is being co-taught this term by Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory of Music, and Cory Chisel, an Appleton-based singer-songwriter. The students have been split into three creative groups to write songs that will be submitted to Smith for consideration for inclusion in one of his movie projects. 

The connection with the author-screenwriter-producer comes via Chisel, who co-wrote the title song for Desperation Road, a Smith film released in 2023 by Lionsgate.

Finn Lee, a first-year student, plays guitar during the songwriting class.
First-year student Finn Lee shares music during the songwriting class.

A second Smith novel, The Fighter, also was adapted to film (Rumble Through the Dark) in 2023, and Smith is optioning three other novels for major studios. Salvage This World, published last spring, is the novel in play for the Lawrence students.

“I was lucky enough to be invited to set during the filming of Michael’s film Desperation Road, where I was able to present to him my original composition, co-written with the lead actor, Garrett Hedlund,” Chisel said. “Michael wound up loving the song and choosing it to be the title theme for the film.”

Desperation Road is available on streaming platforms such as Amazon. Chisel is listed in the credits as theme music composer.

Michael Smith sits on the stage in Harper Hall as he talks to students in the songwriting class.
Michael Farris Smith talks with Lawrence students about his latest novel, Salvage This World, published last spring. The students are writing music to be submitted for possible use in the movie adaptation of the book.

Pertl and Chisel have been co-teaching courses in collaborative songwriting for five years, but this is the first iteration of the Advanced Collaborative Songwriting class.

“Cory is bringing an incredible opportunity to the class as the culminating experience,” Pertl said of the interaction with Smith. “Through Cory’s connections with prominent movie directors and producers, he has created the unprecedented opportunity for our class to meet with a writer-director and hear his vision for the story and the movie.”

While there is no guarantee a song from the class will be selected for use in the film, the opportunity to be considered along with other songwriters is experiential learning at its finest, Pertl said.

“They will be in the running right along with high-profile songwriters,” he said.

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Chisel said he reached out to Smith to see if he’d be willing to connect with the Lawrence students.

“I asked,” Chisel said, “if he would be open to a final assignment I had in mind for our class: ‘Let’s give our Advanced Collaborative Songwriting students at Lawrence their first chance to present a song based on your book for consideration for the film.’ Amazingly, he said that sounded like a fine idea.”

Students did extensive research on the author and the book. They watched interviews with Smith in preparation for writing songs for the film. And on March 5, Smith made an in-person visit to Harper Hall, talking with the students, listening to their music, and providing feedback. The students will now finalize their entries before submitting them to Smith.

Production of the film is many months away. And there are no guarantees. But the opportunity is real.

“Brian and I always teach to be ready for this kind of opportunity, and I cannot wait to hear what they create,” Chisel said.