Composers Jeff and Mychael Danna have taken individual paths from a common point of origin. Mychael's early association with filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and Ang Lee won him serious art house credibility, and ultimately a Best Score Oscar for "The Life of Pi." Jeff has traveled the indie trail and created evocative soundscapes colored by his rock sensibilities. Both have an enduring fascination with those non-Western musical forms that are typically lumped together as "ethnic." Occasionally, and with striking results, their separate paths have merged on collaborative scoring projects such as the Netflix miniseries, "Alias Grace," which was the take-off point for our chat.
AH: I want to thank you guys for getting together to do this interview. I know that some of the pros read these, but I’m especially keen on reaching people just coming into the business who may be wondering how composers at your level ever got started, and the Dannas have one of the more interesting “origin stories” I know of. We’ll get to that by way of your current collaboration on the Netflix miniseries based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, “Alias Grace.” It was written and produced by Sarah Polley, and Mychael has a connection with her going back at least to The Sweet Hereafter. I’m curious, Mychael, about whether you and Sarah formed a creative kinship on that earlier picture, or whether Alias Grace came about via a more general ‘Canadian connection.”
MD: I’ve known Sarah since she was about 14 when I recorded her singing some songs for an animated film I scored in Canada. But I got to know her very well when about five years later we co-wrote songs for Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. She’s a brilliant person, funny and fearless, and it was apparent at an early age that she’d be putting her formidable talent to work in interesting and compelling ways. When she called me about this project I was very excited, not just to work with her again, but also because I admired the fiction of Margaret Atwood.
AH: Alias Grace is a period drama—19th century Canada—but even so, you’ve scored it in a more ‘classic’ style than I associate with either you or Jeff, whether solo or as a team. Tell me about that choice. Did you feel like you were “stepping out of character?”
MD: Both Jeff and I have spent our careers moving in all directions on the axes of time and place. I think a 21st-century Composer has to be comfortable with this. And that suits me, because my musical tastes have always been all over the map.
AH: Yeah, in fact, that eclecticism was sort of your calling card in the beginning. Indian music in Exotica; Renaissance ballads in The Sweet Hereafter; Gamelan in Girl, Interrupted and The Ice Storm… It’s what drew me to your work.
MD: With regard to gamelan, there was an ensemble formed by friends of mine at the University of Toronto, but I didn’t finally get to Bali until last year! I was able to study one-on-one in a small village. I brought some instruments back with me. It’s a music I particularly love and it’s an absolute joy to play. In the right place and in the right story, it can be a wonderful voice in a film score. But there are so many wonderful voices…
I think it’s critical that a contemporary film composer feel very comfortable with all these forms and have a truly global outlook, but then you must make them your own, and even more important, use that musical style to serve the story. Those last bits are hugely important. You’re not just aping the musical culture but interpreting it through the lens of drama because it says something about the story on the level of myth.
I studied ethnomusicology in university, alongside more conventional “classical” training, and that combination prepared me well for my vocation. I’m very comfortable working with musicians from all sorts of different places, and I love learning new musical “dialects.” It’s like taking a fantastic trip without leaving the studio. If you look at it from this angle, Alias Grace is really the same thing. The period and place just happen to be Canada in the 19th century. We wanted to conjure that period musically as well as the film captures it visually. But there had to be a twist. The squareness and stiffness of the style was part of story, but also a sense of gray area, of uncertainty and ambivalence, since the story is basically a question that may never be answered.
AH: Exactly…which sets up my next question. The story is a whodunit, or maybe a did-she-do-it, and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that, having watched all of it, I’m still not sure. Does having that kind of ambiguity surrounding the main character make it more difficult to plant the usual seeds and thematic clues? How do you avoid shading things one way or the other and still keep the score interesting?
MD: Well that was exactly the riddle we had to try and solve. We knew we wanted the music’s outward form to reflect what was on the screen in terms of the language of the characters, their dress, and the overall visual design. But there’s an unanswered question that hangs over every moment of the piece and that was something the music had to keep hanging for the six hours of the drama. We had themes for Grace and the doctor, for example, that were tailored to their characters. But woven into every theme and every moment there’s a thread of uncertainty, which a small string group like the one budgeted for the film was able to conjure up beautifully!
JD: It’s true…the biggest challenge in Alias Grace was how to handle Grace herself. It’s not even clear how she feels about the predicament she’s in. Sarah’s script does a great job in making her thoughts and motives inscrutable. Film scores often operate from point of view, and it becomes really tricky to embody that when a character is coming from so many different—and contradictory—places. We wanted the music to be beautiful, and genuinely feminine, and mysterious, but we couldn’t give hints, even about something as basic as her ‘goodness’ or ‘badness.’ It was a real puzzle.
AH: Young composers almost always have to work with micro-budgets, if they have a budget at all! But modest budgets aren’t limited to newcomers. Mychael, you mentioned doing this with a small string group. How small? And where was it recorded? This is a genuine “chamber score,” and those have always seemed to me the hardest to do well. Is it more daunting to compose when you know that each of your voices will be so exposed?
MD: There were 12 strings and 3 woods. Recorded in the Village Recorder’s Moroccan room, a beautiful old space that makes a small group sound rich. The score is 100% acoustic. The easiest scores to write are the large orchestral scores. The hardest are the hybrid orchestra/ethnic instruments scores. This one’s somewhere in-between. You have to be very aware of voicing and balance, but with first-rate players as we had here, it’s a pure pleasure.
AH: I hear three principal themes in the score. There’s an adagio with a lovely melody often heard on solo violin. I associate that one with Grace as she presents herself. Then a Celtic air that seems connected to the Mary Whitney character. Finally, a slow reel with a descending, “weaving” sequence for woods that ties into the quilt that Grace is knitting. I’ll take a wild stab and ask if the third theme is knitting the first two together…as in dropping a hint about the solution of the crime?
JD: There are definitely cues that weave those three ideas together, although they were each conceived as stand-alones. As for whether that provides a clue, my NDA forbids me from saying!
AH: Fair enough! We'll move on. You’ve both worked with your share of major filmmakers, but far and away the most iconic and notorious guy you’ve worked with as a team is Terry Gilliam. Two films: Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both of them as extraordinary as you’d expect. What’s his music sense like, and how does he express it? Is he ‘hands-off’ or ‘hands-on?’ And finally, what’s it like to be around him? You might expect chaos, but to make films that wild, I’m guessing a filmmaker actually has to be pretty methodical.
JD: Tideland and Doctor Parnassus are two of my favorite projects, without a doubt. Anytime you get to work with an artist who begins by throwing a lot of the tried and true rules out the window, you know that your own artistry’s going to be tested, and that most likely your range is going to be stretched. It’s also more fun, although more time consuming. And yeah, we’d heard some of the Notorious T.G. stories, but in the trenches, he’s a consummate craftsman, practical, and forever trying to get the very best out of his charges, sometimes in pretty unusual ways. In our case, this produced two unusual scores, so I’m happy to be pushed that way.
AH: We’re beginning to hear buzz about his Don Quixote opus, although it seems to have morphed into a kind of meta-Quixote rather than an adaptation of the book. Will you be working with him on that one, and if so, what can you tell us about it?
JD: We’re not doing his next film, because it was a Spanish tax incentive deal, so he’s using a Spanish composer. That’s the way the budget cookie crumbles.
AH: To go back to origins, you’re both Toronto natives. I remember Jeff telling me years ago about your involvement with the early Celtic Revival, and with Canadian public radio and…I think it was the legendary program Music From the Hearts of Space. Now, at that time, that kind of spacey, dreamy, non-linear music would have been pegged anywhere from high-end New Age to ambient or even World. How did you find your way into that, and do you guys consider that your musical baseline for film work?
JD: This was way back—or at it now feels way back—in the mid-90’s. The world music thing was in full-swing. Mychael had already done one album for Hearts of Space, and he’d also worked with a crew of Toronto-based Indian musicians on Exotica. I’d just done a collaboration with Chinese musicians on a score. We wanted to explore this territory more deeply, so we put our heads together and hit upon the idea for a Celtic project that started from the roots but built to something larger, something more cinematic and mythical. The result was two albums, A Celtic Tale and A Celtic Romance.
AH: Mychael, there’s just no way to talk about your origins and their links to Canada without talking about Atom Egoyan. His films were my introduction to your work, and the thing that drew me into the Danna fold. Tell me how that all started.
MD: I had absolutely no interest in film music when I was young, and fell into it by association. While I was at the University of Toronto I was involved in theater, doing music and sound for various productions. It was in this world that I met Atom, who hadn’t made a film yet. When he moved into film, I moved with him and, honestly, we just applied our theater experience to our film work, which gave us both what was quite an original voice for film at the time. It’s really with him that I learned how to score. His deep psychological insight and analytical ability made me the composer I am today.
AH: Jeff, I’ve always thought of you as the “rock ‘n’ roll” side of the Danna equation. And if I’m not mistaken, you did have a couple of bands. That segue from rock or “post-rock” to films is much more accepted now, with guys like David Wingo, Daniel Hart, even Mica Levi, but it was still pretty unusual then. How did that work? And as far as your orchestral chops, were they self-taught and learned on the fly or studied in school?
JD: Yeah, I played in bands all through my teens and was heading toward what I hoped would be a career as a recording artist. But I managed to injure both my hands (I was a guitar player!) and that took me out of contention for a while. I ‘fell into’ scoring a film with Mychael by way of that sort of accidental path that fate takes, and when it went well, I thought, “I’ll give that a shot.” In Canada in the late 80’s, you could do that. It would probably be a lot harder now. As far as adapting to the orchestral thing, it wasn’t totally foreign. We'd all had lessons growing up in the family house, and when it was clear I’d have to use that part of my brain, I picked up with private lessons, and went back to school for coursework. I’m still learning, every day.
AH: When the two of you work together, is there a clear division of labor…a sort of “who-does-what” that’s now routine for you? Or is it a grab bag? Do you ever work in the same space, and if not, how do you actually develop an idea? Alias Grace, for example, has a lot of thematic consistency. That doesn’t happen without a process…
JD: It’s funny, a lot of the things in our process we never think about until somebody asks us. We start with general concept and talk about how the themes should be introduced. Once we’re in agreement on that, we’ll literally just say, “you take this one, I’ll take that one” and then come back together to make sure we’re on the same page and it sounds like a single voice. We don’t work in the same space, but we do use the same platform (Logic) and there’s a constant trading back and forth of files. If I’ve started something thematic for a particular character and Mychael has an idea for, say, a better second phrase, he may just pick it up and finish it, or vice-versa. It’s very organic with us, and so it doesn’t need to be too regimented. We’re brothers who actually do get along.
AH: Give us a rundown of the projects coming up that you’re most excited about. I know, Mychael, you mentioned another film with a 'classic' approach…
MD: The Man Who Invented Christmas and The Breadwinner were follow-ups to Alias Grace. They’re both excellent films and both were really enjoyable to work on. The Man Who Invented Christmas—
AH: Now doing pre-orders on iTunes, by the way. I’m hoping it’s rentable by the 25th!
MD: Yep. It’s the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. It’s really a film about writers block (maybe the first one!) and the pressure on a creative person to create while the real world around them is hammering them with stress. It required a period approach in some ways similar to Alias Grace but with a character who was almost her direct opposite. The Breadwinner was a film that Jeff and I had to do a great deal of research for, as it’s a story that takes place in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. We originally planned to go there to record but the situation deteriorated to the point where we weren’t able to travel there safely. So we ended up recording many players remotely, including a girls choir based in Kabul. That was a very moving experience. The brave educators and students of the Afghan National Institute of Music we’re truly inspiring. We take for granted the access to music education we all have in the West, but in Afghanistan, educating girls—for that matter, arts education, period--are still contentious and indeed dangerous topics. I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to work with musicians and students who risk their well-being, even their lives, just to study music.
AH: I can’t wrap this without a shout-out to your intrepid composer assistants, Nick Skalba (for Mychael) and John Fee (for Jeff), both former students of mine who started their careers under the Columbia College internship program.
MD: Nick is the best assistant I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some good ones.
JD: John’s tenure speaks for itself. He’s been with me for a proverbial dog’s age.
AH: They're both solid as Midwestern granite. Any parting words of advice for the newbies?
MD: Don't be Mychael Danna. Don't be Jeff Danna. Be yourself. Embrace what makes you unique, whether it's your background, interests, locale, or the weird things you're embarrassed about loving! Those are the things that make your musical voice sound like 'you,' and that's what we—or anyone who loves film music--want to hear.
JD: Amen. And Happy Holidays to everyone.
AH: As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one.”