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SST Exclusive Interview with Composer Mychael Danna

13 Dec 2006

Mr. Danna –
First of all, thank you for your music! Many of the listeners of have been fans of yours for a long time, and are looking forward to learning more about you, and getting some more insight into your music. Here are some questions they would like to ask you.

Where were you born and raised, and do you come from a musical family?
My whole family are all music makers of some sort, none of them professional other than my brother who does what I do as well. My parents both enjoyed music and actually met singing opera together. We heard music all our lives definitely.
I did all the usual classical music beginnings, piano lessons, choirs. Your typical suburban Canadian boy kind of upbringing in that musical way. I played in bands, started becoming interested in electronic music in the mid-70's when I was growing up and then ended up going to university and studying composition. I didn't really know where there was a place to make a living writing music and I didn't really consider film music that much - I didn't actually like film that much. I never really watched films and I wasn't really interested in them at all.

Please tell us a little about your education and musical training.
When I got to university I ended up getting involved in various music making schemes, and worked with the theatre department and various theatre groups at school as well as all kinds of other things. The planetarium was right next door and I ended up getting hired there as a composer in residence at the end of my undergraduate degree, so I basically went right next door and started as their composer in residence. Then at that time I had met people in theatre and one of those people was Atom Egoyan. We ended up doing a film together and really, that's how it happened. I certainly never planned on it, and I certainly never modeled my life after you know, John Williams or somebody like that.

Who or what inspired you to become a composer?
It was completely an accident of fate. I studied what I was interested in, which was ethnomusicology; early music. I ended up writing music for theatre at the university. That’s where I met Atom Egoyan, who was also involved in writing theatre pieces. So that is how I accidentally fell into writing for film.

What were the influences in your earlier days that got you interested in exploring a broader spectrum of world music? Why do your scores very often have an exotic sound?
I've just never felt that there was any reason to be limited to choosing Western orchestral music to score films with. Not only can you expand that into different places to draw from as your musical source, but also different times.

Congratulations on the success of Little Miss Sunshine! Was it easy or challenging writing for a comedy this time?
It’s fantastic that there’s now a recognition of more than just standard orchestral score. For me, the first big question in the film scoring process is always the concept behind the score, and right from the beginning, the directors and I felt the music of DeVotchka was a perfect musical analogy for what the film was saying. Using the band for songs and score was a limitation that didn’t feel limiting at all.

Is there any particular genre you'd love to compose music for that you haven't already? Do you think that someday you will get a chance to write an action score?
The thing that gets me sitting in my chair is the sense of discovery and finding connections that weren't there originally. It's really exciting to me. I don't know if I know how to work on things that don't work on some other level as well.
There will always be mindless action flicks... which I happen to like, actually! I enjoy them, but I don't know if I would really be able to offer anything to them--at least one that didn't have some other depth to it. But, there are a lot of interesting films being made these days. I think it's a good time for film making in that way.

How do you go about scoring a new film? Do you have a particular working method?
I really like to begin with concept. That's really the most important thing to me. And again, maybe that comes back from composition teachers that I've had. You know, figuring out what it is before you start going "Ok, music starts here and ends here and hit this door closed and do that". You know, what exactly are you trying to say with the music and what is the purpose of the music? What is the film trying to say, how can the music help the film communicate that? Is the music a story? Is it a character? What is the music? Just basically stripping down, wiping the blackboard clean and starting from scratch to find out: what are we doing here? That's step one. Once you have a concept, the concept dictates the instrumentation; the orchestration that you're going to do, whether it's electronic, or medieval, or Indonesian, or 19th century Western orchestra, or what. That's dictated by the concept and then you get into the nitty-gritty of: "How can we afford that?" [laughs], where does the music start and end and what does it do in this scene and that scene? That's when the inspiration ends and the perspiration begins.

To date what has been the most satisfying project you’ve worked on, or best memory of your career?
That's a tough one. I mean, the ones that turn out artistically well are often the most painful to bring about because they're just so tortured. And just coming up with the concept can be a long and torturous trail. The Ice Storm, I'm very, very proud of how that score turned out, but it was brutal to work on. Ang [Lee], is a brilliant director and I love my collaboration with him but it's tough to work with him. I mean, it's really tough. He's very hard on everyone including himself in the sense that it's a process and he's relentless in finding the absolute best solution.

What advice would you give a struggling artist or composer just starting out in the business?
The first step into this world are the relationships with the directors, the film makers themselves. Those are the people you need to know and meet and work with. If you're at the beginning label, I just feel you need to go to people who are at that level. You need to go to film schools and places where people are beginning to direct movies. That's where you need to meet them and form relationships at that level.

Could you tell us how the Celtic Tale series with your brother Jeff came about? Are there any non-film albums that we can expect from you in the near future?
I guess at the time it was something my brother and I were looking for something to work on together, and it was with a style that we thought would be really fun to play with and to do something really different with and to mix almost film writing with a folk story from a Celtic tradition. That's really how it kind of happened, almost like a scoring job for a story instead of a film.

Your newest film is The Nativity Story. By focusing on European instruments, early Christian melodies, and Gregorian chants, are you concerned that it will privilege a Western take on The Nativity Story rather than drawing people from other cultures in through the music? What are your intentions and hopes for how the music will be interpreted with The Nativity Story film?
I did a lot of research on music of Judea and Palestine at the time. I learned a lot and then decided not to use any of it. The reason for that is I find that ever since Peter Gabriel’s work for “The Last Temptation of Christ” composers have all approached the same era and subject matter with the exact same things. We hear all the same instruments and the same vaguely Middle Eastern sound. The fact is, nobody really knows what the music of that time was. The second temple was destroyed by the Romans around 70 AD and at that point, all of the music of the Jews was pretty much destroyed. Also, out of mourning they banned music from their synagogues from that point on. So nobody knows anything -- other than a few vague images in the Bible – what was going on musically at that time. Every film score that is written for that area uses the duduk, which is an Armenian instrument and probably has nothing to do with that area. They use Egyptian and Moroccan music. I’m kind of tired of that approach. I think it’s time for something fresh.
The other thing is that I think this story has its big resonance not in the Middle East. It’s not really a story about the Jews. It’s really a story about Christians and about Europe and about the incredibly profound event. The meaning of this event really resonated through the entire civilization of the West. This event this meant so much and affected every moment in life in a civilization was in Medieval Europe, the Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe. So that’s where I’ve gone to for the inspiration for the music.
It’s a story of Europe and a story about the west and Western Civilization. That’s really been the inspiration.

For The Nativity Story, were you inspired by earlier epic biblical film scores or did you take a different route? I'm thinking about scores like King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ten Commandments, etc.
I think the audience nowadays is much more intelligent and more sensitive to emotional manipulation. It’s something that puts off modern audiences. Those old scores are dangerously close to that kind of style. People are too sophisticated for that sound.
Some of the modalities I used in the orchestral writing kind of harken back to that sound, but it’s a much more subtle version of it and a more updated version of it. In the Fifties, they might have mimicked a Middle Eastern ney with an oboe or something. Now, in using a ney, you can update that sound in a sense.

Since you've developed a close collaborative relationship with Egoyan, what is unique about working with him as compared to other directors? Do you feel like you can take more creative risks?
Atom makes a film every other year and I really look forward to them. The understanding of each other is so profound that it's not even thought about anymore. All the energy and creativity goes into the actual work; breaking new ground and doing things that we haven't done before. Working with someone I haven't worked with before, a great deal of the energy and time goes into understanding and getting to know the other person. We passed that stage a decade ago so it's really rewarding and fun for both of us to rub out hands, dive in and do something new, different and challenging.

Could you tell us how it was working on a project like Atom Egoyan's Ararat which featured a movie-within-a-movie? It seemed like your music captured the ethnic influences and yet blurred the distinction between time periods as the film switched between them. What kind of orchestra did you use for it?
Because of my close relationship with Atom, who is the person that I began this career with, because I’ve known him for so long, I know how close this work is close to his heart. It was a very important film for him. Because I was very close to him, it was very close to my heart as well. It’s something that I took very seriously. When you are working with history, not fiction, you have an obligation to honor the actual life of the people who is involved in the story and to remember these are real people and real cultures. They are alive. I wanted to honor that through the music. I spent a lot of time studying Armenian music and getting to know quite a bit about it. I traveled there and worked with musicians there. It was a tremendously moving experience to be there with Atom and work with the music of his culture which, in a sense, I was reacquainting him with on an intimate level. Recording a choir at night in this 4th century church was just an incredible experience. It’s a very important film to me.

Do you plan to use more female vocals as you did in Felicia's Journey with amazing Kate Crossan?
I got to work with my sister on “The Nativity Story.” She’s a Latin and Greek scholar, which probably doesn’t come up very often in the world of film scoring. For “The Nativity Story” we decided all the words the choir would sing would be in Latin. She wrote some original poetry and did some translating of popular carols – “Silent Night” for instance – and translated back into Latin. That was a really fun experience to be able to work with her.

What kind of dialogue did you have with Deepa Mehta about Water before you began scoring, and what kind of musical sensibility does she have as a director?
For “Water,” I did travel to India and recorded all the instruments there. I guess that is very important to me as well. Not only to have an intellectual concept but also to immerse myself in the spirit of whatever film, even if it means to physically going to the place or using music from that place or studying, and researching, and reading… I find really inspiring to me, trying to get inside the film physically. Maybe sometimes I've gone too far! For “Water” we recorded the Indian instruments in Mumbai and used people in studio that I've worked with before. So it feels very familiar and less dangerous than it used too. I have a pretty good understanding of how to get a good score made in that city. I think that's appropriate for this film, because the theme is a really simple structured film score, almost one simple melody symbolising this little girl. It's just kind of variations of that little folk melody. Really it's an almost homage to the score of “Pather Panchali.” In a way I think that the film has an element of homage to that as well. It was a labor of love.

Could you please describe your process of writing scores for films such as The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's Journey, Exotica, and/or Ice Storm?
There is no question for me that the most fun scores that I have are the ones that are unusual. Those are the ones that I'm most proud of. You know, I love the sound of “Ride With the Devil,” and I think it's original in its way but I love the fact that “Felicia's Journey” is just so bizarre and yet I think it fits in with the movie so well. It's a score that I guess other people could write, but I don't think it would be anything like what that was. So I find that much more satisfying. It's fun to use techniques, you know, twelve tone technique or early music writing technique or all these things that you kind of know about and enjoy and it's a wonderful tool, why not use it in a film score? Writing big, sweeping scores, that's fun too but to do that all the time would just be really boring.

Please give us a little insight into your score for Capote. Did you view the edited film before you started scoring it, or did you start before shooting was finished? What was your goal for the music?
What the instruments are playing is certainly something that has more to do almost with the landscape than with Truman's life, with his internal life than what we're seeing on the screen. I wouldn't say that it is repeating what's there on the film, but it is certainly not perpendicular or running parallel in an unusual way, like in “The Sweet Hereafter,” where the music is actually scoring the fable as opposed to the story of the film. I think the most important thing as a film scorer is that before you write anything, that you conceptualize and come up with your approach very carefully, choosing what it is that you're trying to do with the music. And that will suggest the instruments you'll need to use. Sometimes there'll be on the surface what might seem to be unusual choices and sometimes what might seem to be conservative choices. "It would be the right thing for the film" is the right answer.

It’s cool how you find a way to add influences from different regions into scores that might not necessarily call for them. For example, “Ice Storm” has the Indonesian gamelan, “8MM” has a Moroccan influence, and “Little Miss Sunshine” has some Eastern European sounding parts. How do you decide which regional influences to draw from when composing for such American stories?
I guess I don’t consider divisions in music like that. It’s just music. It’s like a director casting a film and looking for actors; you just look for the best person to say what you need to say with that character. In the case of musical instruments, you look for instruments that say what you need to say and bring the associations you want to use. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as ethnic music anymore. There’s just music, musicians and instruments.

If you had a couple of friends over for dinner at your house, what music would you likely have playing in the background?
To be honest, if someone asked me what do I listen to when I go home, the answer is Baroque music. It's very, very close to my heart. It's the "musak" I play in my house. They've got this station that comes from my cable that only plays Baroque music and that's what I have on all the time. I guess it's deep inside me, definitely, that kind of music.

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule.
We look forward to seeing more of your films and hearing your music yet to come.
All the best to you in your upcoming projects!


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