For Mychael Danna, Oscar-winning composer of “Life of Pi”, Concept is King


The route that took composer Mychael Danna from the basement of a Toronto church to an office on Hollywood and Vine and to the stage of the Zurich Film Festival, where he will receive a tribute to the accomplishment of his career on September 30, kicked off – as such things often do – with a flippant comment.

It was the mid-1980s and Danna was studying electronic music at the University of Toronto, paying for her college education by playing the organ in local churches and composing mood pieces for the nearby planetarium. He also marked plays on campus, mostly for kicks. Sitting in her booth one afternoon, and chatting lazily with the neighboring lighting technician, Danna stumbled on a new path. “My friend told me about another guy on campus who wanted to make a movie and was looking for a songwriter,” Danna says. “This is literally how it happened. I met the guy, we had a great conversation, and just [hit it off]. And in those five minutes, we established what we would do for the next 30 years. “

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The filmmaker was Atom Egoyan, who encouraged Danna to embrace her novice experience as a creative tool when learning the craft. “The idea was to create a different kind of Canadian cinema, which was obviously on a very different budget, with very different dramatic and commercial aspirations, so these things made it really perfect for someone who had no preparation in it. film music, ”Danna said. .

“I had no formal instruction, no mentor and I didn’t know anyone who was making the film,” he continues. “I learned everything on my own sitting with a videotape, stopping and going with my pause button and my sequencer.”

“We were doing something new, having fun and experimenting, and that was really a big part of music and art of all kinds in Toronto at that time. There was a feeling of fun and a lack of pressure because our business aspirations were so low, ”he says. “[We were in] that sandbox where you can play and do whatever you want. Have fun, because we weren’t well paid and only 100 people would see the movies.

Starting with “Family Viewing” in 1987, evolving through the “Speaking Parts” and “The Adjuster” monitoring functionalities, and fully taking shape with the international “Exotica” breakthrough of 1994, the collaborations of Egoyan and Danna have guided the composer towards his signature style.

“Atom is a conceptual filmmaker, and he taught me to be a conceptual composer,” says Danna. “Our concept of [“Exotica”] was to take this music from other cultures and bring it into this world of exoticism and projection. I literally took all of my fees and got on a plane with a digital tape recorder. I traveled to Asia for a few months to record all the strangest and most interesting things I could. “

Danna’s work on “Exotica,” with its blend of folk songs, worldly beats and vaguely sinister synths, opened new doors for the composer, who quickly added filmmakers Mira Nair and Ang Lee to his stable of collaborators. . Like Egoyan before them, Lee and Nair also explored cultural divisions, often exploiting – or at least gratefully – the gaps between East and West. While working on “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” and “Monsoon Wedding” by Nair and “The Ice Storm” by Lee, the composer could continue to build this conceptual bridge.

“It’s almost like there’s a rock in your shoe, like something gripping the back of your head,” Danna explains of her technique. “There is this dissonance between what you expect, what you see and what you hear next to it. Hopefully the subconscious processes it, making the connection between this music that doesn’t match, that defies expectations, and asks, what’s different about it? What is the effect?

In “The Ice Storm,” for example, Danna used Balinese gamelan music to contrast a story of suburban malaise. “The film is about these broken bonds of a family and a society, against the background of music played by a group of people in a village, who all have a strong bond with each other,” he explains. . “Music is a completely opposite social construct to history, and sometimes that contrast is super effective.”

In later projects, Danna would mix Middle Eastern sounds and medieval instruments for “The Sweet Hereafter” and work Moroccan folk songs into the grimy world of “8mm”, a neo-noir conducted by Nicolas Cage who made his mark on the Danna’s first full-fledged Hollywood. production. With that door now open, many more studio projects would follow. And as the songwriter delivered high-profile arrangements for award-winning tracks like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “500 Days of Summer,” and “Moneyball,” he launched a parallel track partnership, teaming up with his brother Jeff on projects. animation like “The Good Dinosaur”, “Onward” and “The Addams Family”, as well as for the limited series “Alias ​​Grace”.

“With a 100-minute animated film, you probably have 90 minutes of music. You need a lot of help, and rather than having a bunch of extra writers, that’s where I reached out to my brother, ”says Danna. “I trust my brother’s musical sense more than anyone else. We speak the same language, and obviously we grew up in the same house, listening to the same music. I love his writing, and he does things that I can’t. Together we are more powerful.

Anyway, whether he works in tandem or alone, the composer does not change his overall approach. “I find the concept first,” says Danna. “I think: what is this film about? And then, if I can sum this movie up in two sentences, what’s the most elegant musical way to help people understand this, to convey this theme without slapping them on the nose?

“Usually it’s with a different idea,” he continues. “To repeat what is already there, what we already see does not necessarily bring anything of value, [because] if you took it off you would still have the same. But when you add something that will stimulate an equal and opposite reaction, say bringing up peace when the movie is about war, it gets really interesting. When you add that salt to the candy, that’s where the magic happens.

Struck by the thoughtfulness that comes with an honor of career achievement – “It’s a career achievement award, not a lifetime award,” the composer warns, “I like it better because it I still have a life to go! ” – Danna calls “Life of Pi” “the most meaningful movie” of her life, and not just because it won her the Oscar.

“This movie sort of sums it all up, it sums up all my work so far, combining East and West,” says Danna. “I was born in a country that is this multicultural experience, a mosaic rather than a melting pot, where people feel comfortable keeping and presenting their culture. Without wanting to, I ended up working on a film which is the expression of these same convictions. Satisfying isn’t a big enough word to describe it, it’s magic.

“One thing that is so important to me when I use non-Western music is to have this deep respect for it,” Danna adds. “You show your respect by being educated, by understanding the function of music in this culture, by knowing where the instruments come from, by knowing who plays them and in what situations. It’s something that I really took from my music and ‘Life of Pi’ was basically the epitome of that whole philosophy and concept, ”he says. “So it was terrifying working on it. “

And as he reflects on the unexpected path that led him to Zurich, Danna recognizes that fear, at least, has always been a constant. “It’s obviously very rewarding that people look at my work and feel that there is something of lasting value in there, so it means a lot,” he laughs. “But that still doesn’t make it easier to start the next movie. I am still looking at the blank page and I am filled with a deep dread! “

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