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Soundscaping: The Talented Mr. Danna

One of Canada’s most successful composers, Mychael Danna, talks about music, creativity and filmmaking.

Courtesy of Mychael Danna

I pulled into the mud and muck of a construction zone in north Toronto to find the impressive Tudor-style home-in-the-making of Mychael Danna, Toronto’s returning prodigal son. Danna is unquestionably one of Canada’s most prolific and successful film score composers. He counts seventy-three film scores to his credit, penned over a career that spans nearly three decades. His current output averages three to five feature films a year, ranging from blockbusters to art films. His eclectic film collaborations boast such accomplishments as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, and Bennett Miller’s Capote, to more recently Dilip Mehta’s Cooking With Stella, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, and Robert Schwentke’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Most notably on the home front, Danna is the exclusive music collaborator of Atom Egoyan.

Danna is coming back to Toronto after a six year stint in Hollywood. After our tour of the renovation in progress, which included a glimpse of the self-designed architectural drawings, we settled into the livable part of the house, Danna busied himself in building what he declared to be his first successful fire, quipping, “I guess I really still am Canadian.”

Danna grew up in suburban Toronto in the ’60s and ’70s. His parents were amateur musicians. “The earliest thing that i can remember is hearing my father sing (but) it wasn’t the singing that interested me, it was who made that music, who wrote what—that’s the thing that i thought was incredibly magical, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

It seems that Danna was one of the lucky ones, who knew his own heart’s destiny before he knew himself. “I remember very well my very first piano lesson patiently waiting until the end of the half hour, and then being a little disappointed, and asking the teacher, when do we learn to compose?” By fourteen, Danna was an accomplished pianist who showed much promise for a concert career. Fate, as it often does when guiding one back to their destiny, stepped in: he fell through a window and severed multiple nerves and tendons in his left wrist. As he was about to go under for the first of many surgeries to repair the damage to his hand, he appealed to the surgeon to “make it all better” letting him know his future depended on his hands. The surgeon’s response was pivotal: “You’ll never play piano again.”

Danna’s sheer determination took over. He did eventually return to playing, but the concert stage fell off the options table, which is what steered him back to his true calling. From that moment on, Danna started composing in earnest. Four years later, at the age of eighteen, the Royal Conservatory of Music published his piano works in their graded pedagogy books. Danna went back to the nay-saying surgeon who had unknowingly inspired him to show off his published work.

Danna stresses the importance of understanding the distinction between music and film music, and it’s precisely this delineation that defines his identity. “I really consider myself a filmmaker more than a composer in a sense. It’s very much film music; it’s not music.” Ironically, Danna professes that even growing up he had no real interest in film, and actually disliked much of what he heard in movie houses. “When I studied composition, I really didn’t know what i was going to do with it…I just knew that I wanted to improve my craft.”

The University of Toronto cites Mychael Danna as part of its “top ten reasons to study music at the U of T.” At the Faculty, Danna studied composition with Walter Buczinski, whom he credits with having taught him how to think as a composer. I asked Danna, “How does a composer think?”

Courtesy of Mychael Danna

“The way he taught me to think is that every note has to have a reason behind it,” replied Danna. “There has to be a master plan, there has to be a concept, there has to be a justification, a real organic reason for each note to exist.” Buczinksi’s methodology was to randomly point at things and demand to know what it was and why it was there. “After a while you start thinking as you are writing. Every note is related to the whole. I think I’ve carried that whole philosophy to film scoring itself. ‘What is this music doing here—what’s its purpose, what’s its relationship to the theme of the film?’ It’s a very important way of analyzing yourself and your work as you go, that I really live with every day.” Danna describes his process of film scoring as building “a little universe of the music so that it has integrity.”

It’s always been important for Danna to reach the general public with his music. “I did know that one thing that I really did want to do was to not be apart from whatever trends and forces of society were under way. I wanted to be a working composer. I didn’t want to be an Ivory Tower composer.” So while atonal or non-melodic writing was the accepted modus operandi at school, Danna persisted with tonal or minimalist idioms, in an attempt to break out of the academic exploratory laboratory style of music in an effort to engage a larger audience. “I guess I’m just more of a popular artist in the sense that I want people like my lawyer and doctor friends to be able to listen to work that I’ve done and be affected by it, not just other people with music degrees.”

While casting around to make a living as a ‘working composer,’ Danna produced pop bands, and dabbled in scoring for educational and student films. Later Danna discovered theatre, which is where he met his life-long collaborator, Atom Egoyan, who was working in drama while completing his B.A. in political science. “We learned about film and film scoring together. Our ways of working together and in our own crafts are pretty much in locked step.”

Egoyan has never worked with any other film composer, and why would he? After over two decades, Danna has more than earned Egoyan’s trust. “That’s the thing about collaborating with a person more than once. At first, you spend the whole time working on trust issues. Understandably. Every filmmaker has worked on his or her film at least two years. By the time they get to you, they are handing off a large amount of the emotional content to somebody else—(and) there’s a lot of anxiety. As a composer you have to understand that their entire career depends on the film.”

At times the boundaries of the trust relationship have been tested. One such time was with Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey. Danna was atypically plagued with writer’s block. “The act of writing music is very solitary. It’s one of the hardest parts of the job. You have to find this balance of inspired energy and yet self-criticism, so you’re kind of pushing and pulling yourself at the same time. The pushing part has to have the greater strength otherwise you’ll just freeze and stop writing and there’s no time for that in film music.”

Felicia’s Journey, dir. Atom Egoyan (1999) / © Icon Productions

Danna had six weeks to score Felicia’s Journey. Three and a half weeks in, he had nothing. Danna recalls that time with Egoyan as “our darkest moment.” Danna ultimately drew upon his core philosophy of writing—everything for a reason. He made a tangible connection between the serialism that he had been reluctantly taught at university, and the very nature of the lead character, who was a serial killer. Serialism uses rows of notes, called tone rows, and flips them in various permutations, like a puzzle. Danna conceived Egoyan’s lead character as a puzzle, and “as soon as I came up with that, it flowed so quickly. It’s a very odd score for a very odd film. But I think they really work well together.”

Danna is well known for utilizing non-western influences in his music. U of T was the eye-opener to his otherwise Eurocentric upbringing. “There would randomly be African drummers playing in the hallway, and all kinds of things that I’d never heard before. It really excited me.” Danna chose gamelan, a percussive instrument that depicts harmoniously human relationships, for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, because it provided the perfect counterpoint to underline the societal disharmony inherent in the plot. For Egoyan’s film Exotica, Danna blew half of his limited budget on traveling to india to record a shenai (double-reed oboe-like wind instrument) to use in the opening theme, once again pushing the boundaries of their trust relationship.

On the flip side, Egoyan is a perfect example of the kind of filmmaker Danna seeks out for collaboration. “He knows all the things that are not spoken in the film. He knows all the background. That’s where the music lives, or where I like it to live.”

Other filmmakers Danna has worked with who meet his standard of “absolute control over their art” include Bennett Miller who directed Capote and Terry Gilliam whose film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassum, hit the screens this holiday season. “Terry is one of the most creative collaborators you could ever hope for. Through creativity instead of destruction, he’ll shape the things that we’re doing.” In a very literal way, Gilliam rewrote the script in three days after Heath Ledger’s sudden death mid-filming, when the studios were preparing to pull the plug on the project. In terms of process, the score was written on and off over a year; however, the bulk of the score was written in three weeks. This is the second Gilliam film on which Danna collaborated with his younger brother Jeff. “Basically, one of us would start a file and send it to the other. Then it would be sent back—and it kept going back and forth (until it was done).”

Much of the film uses CGI (computer generated imagery), so the Dannas were working to action that they weren’t seeing. Gilliam would explain what it was they were scoring complete with mime and animated vocalizations in a “Terry Gilliam kind of way. They were extremely helpful— and very accurate.” As is so often the case, life imitated art. The Dannas came up with a gypsy theme for the score, and by happenstance, the recording was done in Budapest. “The sound of the Hungarian players is tilted a little bit east, and its perfect for this score…it really sounds…gypsy magical and suits the subject matter very well.”

Courtesy of Mychael Danna

When it comes to recording with an orchestra, Danna never conducts, not because he can’t, but because he doesn’t believe it would maximize his efficiency. “I think composers need to be sitting beside the director while the music is going on to tape,” he says. “Sitting there and listening to what comes out of the speakers…Being able to watch the picture and most importantly, being able to react to the reactions of the director is what’s really important.” Once in the studio Danna senses the director’s tension or discomfort, and prides himself on his ability to respond quickly. “It’s very important to me to be able to mould the music at that stage because there are still a great many changes to be made. Even without changing notes you can completely change the interpretation of the music, depending on the director’s reactions.”

Danna doesn’t consider himself a success or as having achieved fame within his parameters. “I think that’s the nice thing about working in LA. Every single person in that city is working in the same business as you and there are a lot of people who are way beyond you. The place revolves around feelings of insecurity, and you definitely feel that when you’re there.” He will go so far as to call himself a “reasonable film score composer” and credits much of that achievement to his people skills. “The thing that probably makes me a reasonable film score composer is that I’m very empathetic. I’ve tuned myself to be sensitive to what people are thinking and feeling. I guess that’s what I do every day, so when I’m with a director I turn that up as high as i can. That’s my job—not to get it musically right, but to do the right thing for the film. To say what it is we’re trying to say.”

In his studio in LA, his assistants learned far more than the craft of composition from their mentor. They got to see Danna navigate the often-competing demands of producer and director and to network with film people across the city. “I think one thing that’s really been a revelation in the last few years is the joy of mentoring… I really have enjoyed helping them and watching them bloom as writers and also in their career.” Danna co-wrote the indie hit (500) Days of Summer with his assistant, Rob Simonsen.

What’s next for Mychael Danna? His current project is with New York filmmaker Nanette Burnstein but he admits that there might be an opera or some other genre of composition in the offing. Danna maintains, though, that film music is his calling and not a stepping-stone to somewhere else. “I’m very happy writing music for film. I feel it’s my destiny.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer frustrating creative moments. “I still don’t feel as if i’ve written the best thing I can write,” Danna admits. “not even close.”