Mychael Danna Reflects on Zurich Prize

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

It was the mid-1980s and Danna was a student of electronic music at the University of Toronto, paying his way through college by playing organ in local churches and by composing ambient pieces for the nearby planetarium. He’d also score plays on campus, mostly for kicks. Sitting in the sound booth one afternoon, and idly chatting with the neighboring lighting technician, Danna stumbled onto a new path. “My friend told me about another guy from campus who wanted to make a film and was looking for a composer,” Danna says. “That is literally how it happened. I met with the guy, we had a great conversation, and just [hit it off]. And in those five minutes, we established what we would be doing for the next 30 years.”

The filmmaker was Atom Egoyan, who encouraged Danna to embrace his novice background 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 film music,” Danna says.

“I had no formal instruction, no mentor and I didn’t know anybody who was scoring film,” he continues. “I learned everything by myself seated with a video tape, stopping and starting with my pause button and my sequencer.”

“We were making something new, having fun and experimenting, and that was really a big part of making music and art of any kind in Toronto at that time. There was a sense of fun and a lack of pressure because our commercial aspirations were so low,” he says. “[We were in] this sandbox where you could play around, and do whatever you want. Having fun, because we weren’t getting paid much and only 100 people would ever see the films.”

Starting with 1987’s “Family Viewing,” evolving through follow-up features “Speaking Parts” and “The Adjuster,” and taking full shape with 1994’s international breakout “Exotica,” Egoyan and Danna’s collaborations shepherded the composer toward his signature style.

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

Danna’s work on “Exotica,” with its mix of folk chants, world beats and vaguely sinister synth, opened new doors for the composer, who soon added filmmakers Mira Nair and Ang Lee to his stable of collaborators. Like Egoyan before them, Lee and Nair also explored cultural divides, often mining – or at least recognizing – the gaps between East and West. So as he worked on Nair’s “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” and “Monsoon Wedding,” and on Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” the composer could continue building that conceptual bridge.

“It’s almost like there’s a stone in your shoe, like something nagging at the back of your head,” Danna explains of his technique. “There’s this dissonance between what you expect, what you’re seeing, and then what you’re hearing alongside it. Hopefully, the subconscious processes it, making the connection between this music that doesn’t fit, that defies expectations, and asks, what is different about this? What is the effect?”

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

In subsequent projects, Danna would mix Middle Eastern sounds and medieval instruments for “The Sweet Hereafter,” and work Moroccan folk chants into the grimy world of “8mm,” a Nicolas Cage-led neo-noir that marked Danna’s first full-on Hollywood production. With that door now open, many more studio projects would follow. And as the composer delivered high-profile arrangements for award-winning titles like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “500 Days of Summer,” and “Moneyball,” he launched a parallel track partnership, teaming with his brother Jeff on animated projects 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 additional writers, that’s where I reached out to my brother,” says Danna. “I trust my brother’s musical sense more than anybody’s. 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’re more powerful.”

No matter the case, whether working in tandem or all on his own, the composer doesn’t change his overall process. “I come up with the concept first,” says Danna. “I think: What is this film about? And then, if I can sum up this film in two sentences, what’s the most elegant musical way of helping people understand that, of conveying that theme without hitting them on the nose?”

“Usually it’s with a different idea,” he continues. “Repeating what’s already there, what we’re already seeing doesn’t necessarily bring anything of value, [because] if you took it away, you’d still have the same thing. But when you add something that will stimulate an equal and opposite reaction, say by evoking peace when the film is about war, that becomes really interesting. When you add that salt to the sweet, that’s where the magic happens.”

Struck by the bout of reflection that comes part and parcel with a career achievement honor – “It’s a career achievement prize, not a lifetime award,” the composer cautions, “I like that better because I still got some lifetime to go!” – Danna calls “Life of Pi” “the most meaningful film” in his life, and not just because it won him the Oscar.

“That film kind of sums up everything, it summed up all my work up to that point, combining East and West,” says Danna. “I was born into a country that is this multi-cultural experiment, a mosaic rather than a melting pot, where people feel comfortable keeping and presenting their culture. Without planning to, I ended up working on a film that is the expression of those very beliefs. Satisfying isn’t big enough a word to describe it, it’s magical.”

“One thing that’s so important to me when using 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 the music in that culture, by knowing where the instruments come from, by knowing who plays them, and under what situations. That’s something that I really took into my music and ‘Life of Pi’ was basically the epitome of that full philosophy and concept,” he says. “So it was terrifying to work on.”

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 really gratifying that people look at my body of work and feel that there’s something of lasting value there, so that means a lot,” he laughs. “But that still doesn’t make starting the next film any easier. I still look at the blank page and am filled with deep terror!”

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