Mychael Danna may be the leading proponent of musical multiculturalism in film music. An Oscar winner for “Life of Pi,” an Emmy winner for “World Without End,” composer of scores as diverse as “Moneyball” and “Girl Interrupted,” he often blends ethnic sounds with a traditional orchestra in ways that few would dare attempt.
Pixar’s new “Onward,” however, posed a unique challenge. Working, as he often does, with his brother Jeff, Danna had to score an animated fantasy about brothers who had lost their accountant dad at an early age, just as Mychael and Jeff did when they were teenagers in Toronto.
At Pixar’s original presentation of the story, Mychael recalls, “we were just like, ‘Is this a joke? Is this some weird prank?’ because it was pretty much our story.” Adds Jeff: “There were so many parallels, we were shaking our heads, we couldn’t believe it.”
“Onward” director Dan Scanlon insists he knew nothing of their personal story when he invited the brothers to write music for his film. “I didn’t know about their father until I pitched them the movie, and then it became a kind of therapy session for us,” he says with a laugh.
“Their music emphasizes authenticity, that this is a real-world [story], these are real emotions. And then they added a big sweeping journey to be taken seriously, not a joke, and an incredibly deep, rich, emotional heart.”
There is a 92-piece orchestra and 30-voice choir, but the mystical sounds of Renaissance lute and wire-strung harp, along with the medieval voice of the crumhorn, flavor the score with hints of the fantasy world that’s on screen.
Elf brothers Ian and Barley pursue their quest for a magical gem (one that can complete an unfinished spell to bring their father back to life for 24 hours) in an old van whose cassette
player blasts a wild mashup of ‘70s progressive rock and ‘90s indie rock – all written and played by guitarist Jeff and keyboardist Mychael in a callback to their own, pre-film-music experiences in Canadian pop bands.
“We sort of joked that this movie says all the things that we have never said to each other,” Mychael offers. “At this point in my life, looking back at my career, there is this strange feeling of a pattern and design – it’s kind of humbling and inspiring at the same time. ‘Onward’ was personal, sometimes almost too emotional.”
Sitting in his comfortable, colorfully decorated studio in the heart of Holly- wood, Mychael Danna reflects on his more than three decades creating music for movies and TV. He recalls a “very traditional, suburban, North American upbringing. But I also grew up in a place and time in Canada in the 1970s and ’80s when multiculturalism was blossoming in a really successful way.
“It was in the air and water all around, and I just found those other solutions to the question of music, other ways of looking at it; other uses for music; all super-exciting to me,” he says.
Atom Egoyan hired Danna for his second film in 1987; they have collaborated on more than a dozen since then including the Cannes Grand Prix-winning “The Sweet Hereafter” in 1997.
Egoyan cites “Mychael’s limitless resourcefulness and creative inspiration. He brings an emotional dimension to my films that the characters themselves are often trying to sort out and negotiate.
Through his careful and extremely sensitive use of motifs and musical textures, he is able to thread all sorts of subtext and areas of subconscious thought.”
For his 1997 drama “The Ice Storm,” Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee relied on Mychael Danna’s music to “glue the movie together,” Lee tells Variety. Their collaboration revealed new musical possibilities: “it can play against the film, or play missing elements. The music was magical. Artistically, that movie was a very satisfying experience.”
But it was their work on “Life of Pi” that sent Danna’s stock soaring. Lee called him five years before he made the film, saying “you were born to do this!” The story of a 16-year-old Indian boy who survives the sinking of a freighter, drifting on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, demanded a seamless blend of ethnic instruments and orchestra.
The use of Indian bansuri flute and Persian ney flute; the stringed santoor, sarangi and tanpura, sitar, and unusual percussion including Indonesian gamelan, recorded in several locations, combined with an 80-piece L.A. orchestra and London choirs, was “very tricky,” Lee recalls, “a long and very difficult process. But we got through it and Mychael blossomed on that one.” Two of the film’s four 2012 Oscars went to Danna and Lee.
Director Bennett Miller, who has worked on three films with Danna including “Capote” and “Moneyball,” says those collaborations were “long and somewhat tortured,” yet he would not have wanted any other composer.
“When one makes a film, you hope that you’ll have at least two people that you can seriously relate to, and with whom you can share an understand- ing for what you’re working on. In every case, Mychael has been one of those people. He brings an immense amount of understanding and care and talent. I’ve not made many films, and I feel like I got very lucky. I couldn’t think more highly of him. He’s an artist, not a gun for hire. He’s a collaborator, not an employee.”
Along the way, there have been art- house films (“Monsoon Wedding”), indies (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “500 Days of Summer”), a Terry Gilliam feature (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnas- sus”), animation (“The Breadwinner,” “The Good Dinosaur”), period pieces (“Vanity Fair”), studio films (the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic “On the Basis of Sex”) — whose aggregate box office totals more than a billion dollars worldwide- wide — and acclaimed television series (“Tyrant,” “Alias Grace”).
“Every film is a completely different world, a different puzzle to figure out,” says Danna. “I’ve literally explored the world through music. I’ve recorded in Morocco, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, you name it. I’ve discovered myself and learned so much about the thing that I love the most, which is music.”
It isn’t always easy. As Danna admits: “It can be very stressful, but I think that’s also the draw of it. Some of the darkest moments of my life have been because of film music, those moments of doubt or failure or challenge where you feel you can’t do it and fight on to do your best to overcome those moments. There is that urge to put yourself in a dangerous place where you’re at the very edge of your ability.”
After 33 years and more than 100 media projects, Danna remains fascinated by the process. “Story is everything,” he says. “Every decision you make; what the next note is going to be; what instruments you’re using; how loud or soft; if you don’t know the answer, the answer is in the story.
“And the great irony and truth of art is that the more personal it is, the more universal it becomes. Does it really come from your heart, from the
deepest layers of yourself? That’s when it reaches other people. That’s the irony and the magic of music.”
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