For twenty-five years, Canadian film composer Mychael Danna has created an extensive and varied body of work. His filmography includes multiple films with Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe), Mira Nair (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair), and the Best Picture nominees Capote, Little Miss Sunshine, and Moneyball. Another of Danna’s long-running creative partnerships is with Oscar-winning director Ang Lee for whom he scored The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil. Danna’s latest work is on Lee’s new film Life of Pi, for which Danna has already received Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Score. In addition to writing the score, Danna’s work on the film also included writing the Oscar eligible original song “Pi’s Lullaby” with Indian singer Bombay Jayashri. In celebration of these accolades, I recently enjoyed a conversation with Danna while he was taking a break from working on Egoyan’s next film Devil’s Knot. Here’s what Danna shared with me about working with Lee, writing a score that included sounds and instruments from all over the world, and crafting Life of Pi.
Jackson Truax:Although you’ve yet to be personally recognized with an Oscar nomination, you have scored three Best Picture nominees and done really incredible work on all of them. Did the success and acclaim of those films change your life or career at all?
Mychael Danna: My first collaborator was Atom Egoyan. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to work on some really interesting and unusual fare right from the beginning… Even if they’re not Best Picture nominees or big box office smashes, they’re the kind of films that people notice. They’re the films that other filmmakers notice… Certainly, those films were justifiably recognized on all those levels. I don’t know if I noticed any change in the work I was offered or the work I was doing… I just gravitate toward things that interest me, and that are unusual, and just make me start thinking about music as soon as I read the script… It certainly didn’t change my choices in any way.
JT: Ang Lee has a reputation for, at least at times, having a meticulous and unflinching vision for what he wants in a scene, and giving the cast or crew very specific directions to execute. Was that your experience of working with Lee on Life of Pi? Or was the experience very different?
Danna: Starting in the late nineties with The Ice Storm, his method of working is pretty much the same. He is incredibly meticulous and devoted to the story and digging out the truth that’s there. He’s just got an incredible sense of what’s false. And anything that does not ring true is hunted down and eradicated. So our experience together, we talk a great deal about concept and what the role of the music is in the film. And just kind of the conceptual issues about the film itself. The themes of the film, and what it is that he’s trying to say. On Life of Pi, we literally talked about that for a couple of years before we started writing the score. So I had a very good sense of the story he was telling. And what it was that he found compelling about that. And started to work toward the role of the music within that big picture… He is very meticulous. And he is as meticulous with himself as he is with anybody else. That kind of director is a kind that makes scores better. He’s a fabulous collaborator that way. And also, the fact that he’s got this courage. He puts himself, and us with him, in places that we’re not comfortable with, that are uncharted in some ways. And together we have to…problem solve in a fresh way. And figure out, “What is the heart of this story?” And how best to tell it through the music.
JT: You and Ang Lee made some really interesting decisions on when and how music would be used throughout Life of Pi. How did the approach come about and how did it impact your scoring of the film?
Danna: We talked just in purely conceptual ways for a number of years… Just hammering out a sense of what the film was going to be. And what the audience should walk away with at the end of it… And our original idea, before the film was shot, was that the music had to carry a lot of that load about these big questions about why we tell stories, about loss, about the spiritual voyage, about the mother’s influence and the father’s influence on Pi and how they affected his life, and all the different religions and all the different cultures…and all these different colors and experiences that make up Pi’s life… And that’s something that we thought…[was] all going to have to be in the music. And certainly we did end up with that. And that’s why we have such a wide array of instruments from all over the world, Indian instruments, Western instruments. Probably more instruments than I’ve ever used in any film. However, we found in early sketches that the music, if it got too intellectual, if it got too bogged down in those concepts, that it was fighting with the images and fighting with the through-line of the story. It was just taking up too much processing power in the audience’s brain, in a sense. We found that all those things had to be woven in a very artful way, so that you’re almost not conscious of it. And that the thing that you are most conscious of is a simplicity and a through-line and an emotional arc. That became really what the score had to be about on the surface. And then somehow, all those other things had to be woven in, but in a way that was not difficult to listen to. Overall, the score should be beautiful and enjoyable to listen to. And help carry you along on this voyage. As opposed to feeling like too much information that you had to process somehow. So that was what was difficult about Life of Pi, was that we had to ingrain all that information and all those themes and all the richness, and yet it had to be simple on the surface.
JT: How did you navigate so seamlessly weaving those sounds and ideas together, and crafting this musical tapestry of ideas from all over the world?
Danna: That’s maybe why I was, in a sense, born to do this film. Ang, when he first called me to do this project, he was laughing. He was just saying, “You were meant to do this film. It’s a Canadian novel with a very Canadian sensibility, about a boy from India coming to Canada. You’re Canadian. You’re married to an Indian woman. You have all this experience with Indian music and all these different kinds of music from around the world.” I’ve been doing them for a long time. And they are very natural to me now. So I think that was something that worked in our favor, that those kinds of non-western elements are seamless. They sound effortless. Not that it is effortless. But it’s very natural to me. It’s just something that’s part of me at this point… It just comes naturally to me. In the same way that Pi is attracted to all these different cultures and religions, this has a very international worldview. So, that was, I think, something that really did work in our favor. Just the amount of experience that I’ve had. I didn’t use any instruments in this that I’ve never used before. I used all these instruments before, but never all in one film… But I’ve recorded Indian music. I’ve recorded in India many times. So recording there again, it’s something I knew how to do, where to go, who the players are… All these different elements. I have a great facility to work [in India] at this point.
JT: Parts of the score weave in and out of major and minor scales, again seamlessly. Why did you think that approach was important? Was it a challenge to pull off?
Danna: That is one of the building blocks of the score; the contrast between major and minor and the shifting between the two. Within that is the sense of the yin-and-yang, the good and evil, just how life can shift so quickly and seamlessly between opposite experiences, in a way. And yet they’re both equally a part of life. That’s definitely a major building block of the score. Most of the themes have that built into them. The God chord is this major/minor chord that shifts between the two unexpectedly and surprisingly… That is what the score can be boiled down to.
JT: How did the song “Pi’s Lullaby” come to be? How did you come to collaborate with Bombay Jayashri?
Danna: We wanted to start the film in this paradise, this childhood paradise of Pi’s, where he has everything… He’s born in a zoo. So he’s protected behind walls in a place with a mother’s love and beautiful things to look at. And the little animals that are the introduction are so interesting and safe. That’s the sense that we wanted to build, was this wonderful, perfect, paradise world. Maybe somewhat idealized, but in a sense, the thing that carries with him and certainly he loses in Act Two… That theme does reappear in a few places. But that was the motivation of having a lullaby at the beginning. And having a South Indian lullaby in the title language… I was familiar with Jayashri’s work and her vocal quality… She has this beautiful voice. If had an Indian mother singing a lullaby, that’s exactly the voice I would want. Exactly a year ago…I traveled to India. We met and spent a few days and wrote the song together and recorded it.
JT: I know different composers have different views on this, but when you assemble your team of musicians together to record a score, whether it’s in Los Angeles or India or anywhere else, do you show them the picture that you’re scoring to?
Danna: I never, ever show them the picture. I learned early on that, especially with non-western musicians, if you show them the picture, they start to overplay… I think that the composers’ job is to be the facilitator…between the musician and the picture. In my head is the vision of what I need and what it is that their role is. They don’t even need to understand that, in a way. Frankly, I’ve found that it’s better not to even enter into that discussion. I know what I’m looking for. I know what it is that I need. Usually, and especially in an Ang Lee film, it’s going to be subtle. And the expression is not going to be a superficial expression. That’s what you end up getting when you get people to play with the picture. I’ve spent a lot of time working with non-western musicians… I’ve found that to get the best results, you need to go to them in every way. Physically, I find that I get better results when I’m working in the country where the musician is from and with them there. And I think you need to go to them psychically as well. You have to work in their style as opposed to dragging them over to your style. Find their comfort zones and their strengths and get them to play to those. As opposed to forcing them into a box of your own making. That’s how I’ve had the most success with the non-western players.
JT: If you were to finally get recognized by the Academy by receiving an Oscar nomination or winning Best Original Song or Best Original Score for Life of Pi, what would that mean to you, personally and professionally?
Danna: I really feel, the film, it’s something I was born to do. My whole life, in a way, it’s been a preparation for working on this score. I’m extremely proud of it. I think we made a beautiful film. And against all odds, in the sense that many people, including me when I first read the book, did not believe that this could ever be made into a motion picture. I’m really proud that somehow we figured out a way to really bring the story to life on the screen in a way that’s really very true to the original vision of the novel… And it’s very gratifying at this point to feel a great many people have loved the film. And there are audiences that feel the same way that we do about the film. And also about the music. Those rewards are huge. To be recognized by your peers…it’s the highest honor in that sense. It’s a symbol of recognition from people who do this everyday, that understand what it is to make films. So that is something that would be incredibly special.