Mychael Danna is an Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning composer whose career has stretched over nearly 30 years. He has 109 credits for scoring for both feature films and television. His score for Ang Lee’s 2012 film Life of Pi brought him an Oscar. Danna has composed scores for a wide range of films in a variety of genres. He has scored such diverse films as Moneyball, Little Miss Sunshine, Monsoon Wedding, The Ice Storm, and 8MM. Danna is noted for the wide range of instrumentations, the diversity of his musical sources and sounds, and the complexity of the overall score. Some are simple and haunting (The Sweet Hereafter) or lush and orchestral (Capote). Here he talks to us about his career, how he got started, and what goes into composing a score.
DVD. Com: You have had quite a remarkable career as a composer for film. But I noticed that you didn’t come to it right away. You didn’t seem to get your first film credit until you were nearly 30 years old. What kind of musical work were you doing prior to composing for film?
Mychael Danna: I actually kind of fell into film score composing by accident. I don’t think that was something that would happen anymore as it’s now a definite career path and there are lots of schools that train for this vocation. But I was studying music composition at the University of Toronto and doing music and sound effects for various theaters on the campus. It was there that I met a theater director named Atom Egoyan, who told me he was about to make a feature film and would I like to do the music for it. As we entered the film world together we simply applied our theater work to film, which gave us both a very original approach to filmmaking and film scoring.
I had not been at all interested in film music before that time and so I was not particularly familiar with the tradition and what a film score was 'supposed' to be. In hindsight I was very fortunate to begin my career in a way that set me apart from other people writing music for film.
DVD: How did the work you did prior to composing for film impact the music you composed when you started working on films?
M.D.: For me, the concept of the score for a film is very important to establish before you write a note of music. I take time at the beginning of a project to really understand the story, the setting, the director's intention, and what the role of the music will be within the storytelling. I work to not impose my 'brand' on the score but to let the story create the score. This is why my scores are very different from one another and very specific to the film. I’ve been fortunate enough to do a very wide range of genres and use a very wide range of music styles and instruments from every possible time and place. So this preparation is a very important part of the process—maybe the most important. Your concept informs what kind of music you will be riding, what its mood and purpose will be, what instruments it will use, etc.
DVD: Tell us about your musical influences. What music did you listen to growing up?
M.D.: I had a very standard classical music upbringing—piano lessons, singing in choirs, etc. As a teenager I got interested in electronic music and played in bands. Growing up I knew the classical repertoire very well as well as popular music. By the time I was 10, Canada was employing a policy of multiculturalism and immigration from all over the world. And so a great many different musical cultures suddenly became part of our local culture in Toronto. By the time I got to University I had become really interested in all sorts of world music as well as early music. I studied ethnomusicology as well as composition.
DVD: What are the instruments you play and which do you consider your principal instrument?
M.D: I begin as a pianist but when I was 14 I went through a window hand-first and tore my left hand up very badly, cutting nine tendons, two nerves and an artery. So that was the end of my piano-playing career in any serious way. Of course in hindsight it’s apparent that that was something that worked in my favor, although of course it seemed like a tragedy at the time. In school and in university I learned to play several other instruments but only in the most rudimentary way. But enough that I can understand what it’s like to play oboe or cello first-hand.
DVD: It seems like such a great job, but how does somebody go about becoming a film composer?
M.D.: As I said earlier, I ended up there by accident, but nowadays there are so many great schools in training programs for this job that frankly there’s a bit of a glut of composers now.
The collapse of the record industry has also pushed lots of musicians into this world so it’s a very crowded field right now. I’m not sure I would recommend it as a career going forward, frankly.
DVD: Your film scores show a lot of influences from what used to be called “world music.” Tell us a little about the kinds of music that inspires that is outside the Western canon of music. What do you like about that music? How is it interesting to you? How does it help you amplify the stories being told?
M.D.: I’ve always found it really fascinating how human beings in different times and places make music. The instruments they construct, the structures of the music, the emotional content that it has.
We are all human and yet there are these rich variations which illuminate the human condition for all of us. Working in theater there were no bounds as to what could and couldn’t be used, so I was using all kinds of non-western instruments that were becoming more and more available in Toronto.
At this present point that’s quite common, but back in the 1980s that was definitely something new for film scores. I don’t like random choices of instruments in a score; for me there needs to be a concept and a reason for everything. Opening up your options to instruments and styles from any place and any time means that you have so much more room for expression, so many different colors and emotions that each instrument can elicit.
DVD: You have had some multi-film collaborations with two of my favorite directors: Atom Egoyan and Ang Lee. While Ang Lee is widely known in the US, Egoyan is less familiar. My favorite movie of his is The Sweet Hereafter. It is a heartbreaking film set in a small mountain town in British Columbia. That’s not a place that has a distinctive and deep musical heritage of its own that you could draw from as a composer. Your score seems to have some exotic instrumentation and unusual harmonies. It was as if you were creating a musical heritage for that imaginary town with your score. Tell us a little about composing that score. Also, how do you work with Mr. Egoyan; tell us a bit about your collaborations.
M.D.: Atom and I learned how to make films and make music for films together. I owe my whole approach to film scoring to my collaborations with him. His insight and intellect is something I’ve tried to apply to everything I do. For The Sweet Hereafter the music is not scoring the story we are seeing, but rather the fable of the Pied Piper which the modern story is an analog to. Hence the use of medieval musical instruments and a Persian ney, symbolizing the piper.
DVD: Your Academy Award was for your score for Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi. Talk to us a little bit about the kinds of themes/instrumentation/overall sound you were going for with this film. With a film like “Life of Pi”—an adventure of the high seas story—I think of the scores for films with similar settings, such as James Horner’s score for “Titanic.” Did you listen to those kinds of scores prior to starting work?
M.D.: The setting is certainly one point of departure for a score, but the sea was really more of a symbol in the Life of Pi. It’s a very deep and complicated film in some ways but it is really the story of a boy becoming a man, a journey from childhood in India to manhood in Canada.
The nature of God and the need and purpose of storytelling in our lives are the themes that the music also has to track. Because Pi is literally a man of the world, being born in India in a French-speaking town and being a boy drawn to many different religions and ways of thinking, the score needed to be very international.
I think I used every non-western instrument I had ever used in any film score before, all in that film all at once, as well as a big western orchestra and choir. The overall effect of the music, however, needed to be one of compassion for his journey, and as Ang would say, compassion for the audience as well!