Having been creating film score music for more than 25 years, Canadian composer Mychael Danna has finally been noticed by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and garnered not one, but two nominations for Academy Awards - one for Best Original Score (which he won) and one for Best Original Song – from the same film, Ang Lee’s visual feast, “Life of Pi”.
He has already won awards from the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, and the Golden Globes for his work on the imaginative soundtrack, and we were lucky enough to score some time with the man prior to Oscar night!
Read on, as we spend some time learning about what makes “Life of Pi” so special with newly-dubbed Oscar winner Mychael Danna.
Were you made aware from the beginning that this would be a 3D film?
Oh definitely, I think that was part of the plan from the beginning, when Ang Lee got involved. We wanted to create this fantastical world that the audience would be immersed in, and musically, that was something we tried to address, as well, because of the depth and richness of the format.
This is not your first time in the ring with a film that is so visually rich, having worked several times with Terry Gilliam, however, is it easier or more difficult to find the voice of a film that is such a visual spectacle?
I don’t think it’s easier or more difficult. It does help you make choices and informs your decisions all along the way; and a film and its score nothing more than a long, long series of choices, and every one of those choices adds up to the end product…the final result. So, you have to make each choice as well as you can, whether it’s orchestra or small ensemble, C# or C natural, and so on. And 3D definitely contributed to informing those decisions.
How long had you been attached to the project? This was one of those movies that had switched so many hands since Fox 2000 obtained the film rights to it in 2003.
Yeah, it had been floating around for a while and unfortunately was saddled with the “un-filmable” moniker. Several people looked at it and came to that conclusion, but thankfully, Ang likes a challenge. And I think that’s something that drew him to it - this book seemed impossible to turn into a motion picture.
He worked on it for about four years, and I was with for almost exactly one year, which is the longest I’ve ever worked on a film score. And it needed all that time, because it’s such a rich and complex story, and musically, we had to be in that same world. And it was a complicated set of musicians from all over the world that came together to perform this score.
So what was your process for carving out the sound of the film? There are multi-cultural aspects, multi-religious aspects; nearly the entire film takes place at sea. So many musical ideas come immediately to mind.
Yeah, you raised a very interesting point; there is so much diversity and variation in this film, from the setting to the emotion and texture of all the different scenes. I mean, you’re jumping from jungle to open sea, to Montreal. And then we jump from Hindu to Christianity to Islam. And we touch on all sorts of big questions like loss, identity, and hope.
And the music had to relate to all of that and acknowledge all of those things. But the role of the music, as we came to see it, was that it had to be the emotional guide for Pi and for the viewer. There had to be something unifying that carries us through the arc from his childhood to the end of the picture, and helps us to understand the different phases and experiences of his life. That was paramount to the message of the film – the universality of these concepts and ideas.
What was the process for bridging reality with what was going on in Pi’s mind?
The film starts with him as a child with a childish view of the world and the religions he was attracted to. So it was important to have the music reflect the world through his eyes, emphasizing the magical and fantastical aspect of his imagination. We didn’t want to get incredibly literal and heavy with all these religions he was experiencing, because of the way his mind perceived things. We wanted to present the difference between the God of these religions and mythologies and the God of absolutes; the God that doesn’t care whether you live or die, which is who he encounters on the open sea. We were very careful to keep all the lines blurred.
And certainly, multiculturally, he is already born in a sort of liminal state – he is Indian but living in a French colonial town, so he’s already bombarded by European influences. So, at the beginning of the film, we have traditional Indian instruments, but we also have the accordion, the celeste, and piano in a bit of a French flavor. We also used French melodies played on sitar and Indian melodies played on the accordion. We really worked at greying out the borders.
And for the religions, we had an English boys’ choir singing Sanskrit words, and we had a Tibetan choir singing in Latin. It was very important to us to express universality and the ease of moving from one position to another, just like Pi, in a sense, belonging everywhere and nowhere.
Does it ever occur to you that when you do a project like this, you are sometimes on the vanguard of inventing new genres of music?
Well, this is the 21st century world. I grew up in a very homogenized suburb of Toronto; it was very Northern European and “white,” if you will. But when I was a teenager, there was an incredible influx of immigration. There was basically a Canadian government mandate to turn Canada into a multicultural nation. And that’s something that has heavily influenced my whole approach to music. I was taught the very western style of music when learning to play.
But what really excited me was this collision and collusion of all these different cultures. Look at the President and the future of the world, and you see a shrunken world where all the cultures are intermingled. And there is such an ease and acceptance of these things that you really don’t notice them anymore. I guess, yeah, this is the vanguard of where our species is headed, and artistically, we are reflecting that.
And that is something I think resonates through the score of the film, that Pi is okay with all of these religions and cultures and just accepts them for what they are, not seeing one as better than another.
Yeah, and the discussion he has with his father was really revealing in that sense, when his father tells him that he has to pick one and cannot continue to be all over the place. You’re right, he sees no distinction and doesn’t understand why the all cannot be accepted. They are all part of his makeup. And the way I approach music is pretty much the same concept, so the score is very reflective of that.
I guess the bigger religious argument that could come from this is: who is to say that Pi’s perspective isn’t the right way to go?
Yeah, I think if there is any possible downside to this is that wherever he is, he doesn’t really belong, unfortunately. You see him as a grown man in Montreal, and although he is comfortable there, he doesn’t seem to belong there. He doesn’t have the same kind of attachment that he would if he was from one place and stayed there his whole life.
And I think that, in the future, this is something we are moving away from – the mandate that this is your religion and these are your people. Sadly, yes, you lose that attachment and sense of belonging on a small village scale. That’s the dichotomy of Pi – he is a world citizen, but on the downside, he doesn’t really belong anywhere.
And that’s where I think the balance in the score lies. It sounds like you ride this very delicate line between fantastical whimsy and humanist drama. Were there moments when you had to reel back on one side to allow the other to breathe properly?
Oh, it was definitely a balancing act, but Ang and I, in our careers, we are very sensitive of pushing the emotions too hard to one side. The most effective art is where the audience has to do some work. You go part way, but the audience has to take it and continue on its own. There is a great sense of discovery that comes from an audience that has to do work.
The music does not give you all the information and all of the emotion; we only suggest up to a point, and then you have to take it from there. Certainly, there are moments when we go way past that, but they are carefully calculated, but most of the time, we stay on the side of suggesting rather than telling.
Do you go after projects that have some kind of meaning, or is it simply a coincidence of vocation?
I enjoy working on films that are challenging to the point of fear-inducing, and I guess whenever I feel like I am in an uncomfortable place is where I need to be. Things that are more predictable and comfortable and genre-oriented are less appealing to me. I enjoy them as an audience member, but I have carved out a career doing difficult films, and certainly “un-filmable books” seems to be my latest specialty.
“Moneyball” was also deemed un-filmable, and it ended up being a really fine film. But it was also very challenging to do. Sometimes I feel like I should do a romantic comedy to break this up… [Laughs] but I am very fortunate to be able to work with the best directors in the world.
I just find it interesting that there seems to be an understated magical quality to the films you score. People largely go to films simply for escapist entertainment; but many times, when you see a film scored by Mychael Danna, chances are you are going to leave the theater with something that wasn’t there before, be it an emotional awakening, a new way of viewing the world, or simply feeling a little bit different.
Well, I would be very happy if that truly was the case. But hey, I go to movies to be entertained, as well. And it’s okay that nine films out of ten are completely 100% entertainment and 0% anything else. We crave that. That is actually one of the other things that “Life of Pi” is about – why we tell stories, and why we, all over the world, have different narratives for the same events. We love films and storytelling as a people. It’s just a human compulsion to listen to and tell stories.
Catch The 85th Academy Awards tonight at 7pm Eastern on ABC.
Keep up with Mychael Danna at his official website.