At Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, Toronto composer Mychael Danna will find out if he can scoop up an Oscar (or two) to keep his Golden Globe company. Danna is up for best score and best song for Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s epic, cross-continental adventure. We met with the maestro a few days before his escape to L.A. to talk process, pressure, and his most exciting celebrity encounter.
I read somewhere that when Ang Lee acquired the rights to Life of Pi, he called you and said, “You were born to do this!” No pressure, right?
Ha. Not at all. Ang and I had already worked together on a couple of films. He knew that I had travelled a lot in India, that I’d worked with a lot of non-Western musicians, and also that I’m married to an Indian woman. Plus, I’m Canadian. It’s a Canadian book with a very Canadian viewpoint, so I think to him it was like: Canadian with an Indian connection—you’re hired.
The nature of life, death, God, truth: These are not small themes. How do you even begin to approach a project so big in scope?
It is a film about God and loss and the nature of our experience here on Earth, but it also had to play in cineplexes around the world, because it’s a big-budget movie. That’s a big puzzle right there—how do you bring those two things together? Musically, all of the issues had to be in there, but the overall effect had to be easy, simple, and elegant, and not bogged down with all those intellectual concepts.
When I saw the movie, I was struck by the parts where you chose not to add music. The giant storm at the beginning, for example.
The idea is that you’re creating a concert of all the different crafts—the special effects, the sound effects, the dialogue. Everything has to work together, not compete. I think in the case of the storm, [music] would have made it less chaotic and less frightening. There would have been this feeling of the music tying it all together and giving you an emotion on a plate, as opposed to letting you feel it and experience it in a raw state.
What is your process like? Do you see the movie before you start to compose?
Very often, yes, the film is shot and then it’s in the editing process for three or four months, which is when the composer is brought in, but for Life of Pi, Ang and I started talking even before the script was written. I took pages and pages of notes over several years. Most of them aren’t about music but about the concepts and the themes. We didn’t start working on the music until last December, when I went to India to write “Pi’s Lullaby” [the Oscar-nominated song that opens the movie]. I like to write from the beginning to the end. Characters change and develop as the story unfolds, and the music should morph and grow along with them.
Do you have false starts? Like, do you spend weeks or months pursuing one approach and then decide to go in a totally different direction?
If there are 70 minutes of music in Life of Pi, I must have written 2,000 and thrown most of it out. We talked about these big, intellectual concepts so much that, in the beginning, the music was about that. Then we sat down and watched it with the film and it was just too much of a sensory overload.
Is there a Citizen Kane of film scores?
Wow, that is a great question, but I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer it. I fell into film music by accident. I was never very interested in films or film music growing up, so I didn’t see the same iconic examples that everyone else did. What film music used to be, a generation or more ago, was extremely manipulative and unsubtle, which is just so against my grain.
What do you mean you fell into film scoring by accident?
I was at U of T, studying music composition, and in my spare time I did sound for the theatre department just for fun. That’s how I met Atom Egoyan, who was studying political science, but writing plays. We ended up making a film together, so we both kind of learned about film and making film music together.
Okay, now let’s talk a bit about the awards season hoopla. Are you spoiled for regular life from here on in?
No. It’s intense and it’s quite a ride, but like all good rides, they’re good because they end. Atom Egoyan gave me really good advice, which is to enjoy it and soak it in, so we’re just trying to be in the moment.
What has been your most interesting celebrity encounter?
My favourite encounter was seeing Catherine O’Hara at the BAFTA Tea. I grew up loving SCTV and my son’s favourite movie is Home Alone. I went over and asked for a picture, and, of course, she was great and so funny. I also sat at a table with Rupert Murdoch and J.Lo, which was pretty interesting. That was at the Golden Globes.
Is it true that the Globes are a huge piss-up?
Yes, there is quite a lot of alcohol involved.
Have you planned your Oscar wardrobe yet?
Sure, I’ll be wearing the same tux that’s seen me through this whole awards season. It’s by Gucci and it pretty much looks like most tuxes. My wife’s clothing is a lot more interesting.
Beethoven or Bach?
Beatles or Stones?
Keith or Mick?
Argo or Zero Dark Thirty?
Late nights or early mornings?
Gordon Lightfoot’s Complete Greatest Hits.