“So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves, so it’s gratifying to have something you have done linger in people’s memories.”
– John Williams, film composer
In 2011, My Week with Marilyn explored the fraught relationship of Marilyn Monroe and highly tested director Laurence Olivier. Last year, HBO’s The Girl explored the bullying ways of Alfred Hitchcock with leading lady Tippi Hedren. Countless films have played on the exasperation of screenwriters and authors trampled by Hollywood. And 1999’s RKO 281 portrayed Orson Welles as a filmmaker at war with almost everyone involved in Citizen Kane.
Few films, however, have explored the movie-making relationship between director and composer. That collaboration process is a bit of a mystery. And make no mistake about it: It is a collaboration. Speak to any director or soundtrack creator, and you will be told of the inseparability of sound and image, elements bound together in service to the story.
Which is probably why Mychael Danna has a slightly puzzled look on his face when I show him the Life of Pi soundtrack CD. The Canadian composer is up for two Academy Awards – best original song (for the melodic Pi’s Lullaby) and best original score – for his work on the Ang Lee film based on Yann Martel’s cosmic fable about an Indian boy and an ocean-faring Bengal tiger. “I have mixed feelings about it,” says Danna, talking about the evocative, Eastern-themed musical creation cleaved from the artful whole. “The music was not designed to stand on its own. I’m not sure it makes any sense.”
Lee took four years to make Life of Pi. Danna spent a year on the project – an inordinate amount of time for someone in his line of work. Pi was anything but a cakewalk. “For four months, all I did each day was wake up and walk the 100 metres from my hotel to the Fox lot – and then back again at the end of the day.”
The process of scoring a film varies, depending on personalities, schedules and the movie in question. Deepa Mehta, for example, worked with Danna and A. R. Rahman on the third part of her Elements trilogy, 2005’s Water. Rahman (of subsequent Slumdog Millionaire fame) didn’t read the script, choosing instead to have Mehta tell him the story in her own words.
Danna, on the other hand, did read the script, after which he proposed a background score inspired by Ravi Shankar’s sitar music. “After he said it,” Mehta told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview, “I knew instantly it was what the film required.” After the film made it to the fine cut, Danna began composing, with Shankar’s sounds as the springboard. “His strength is that he can go from describing the written word musically to actually interpreting it specifically,” the director says.
The amount of autonomy a score composer is granted varies as well. The great Bernard Herrmann, responsible for the music of Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), Cape Fear (1962) and Taxi Driver (1976), once said, “I have the final say, or I don’t do the music.” Of course, anyone who can come up with the scariest three-note motif in the history of onscreen shower stabbing – “Eee! Eee! Eee!” – should enjoy a certain level of creative independence.
Herrmann’s insistence on autonomy is the exception, however. A respectful, symbiotic partnership between composer and director, regardless of the latter’s musical acumen, is the ideal (and often results in extended collaborations). The late French composer Maurice Jarre, known for his versatility as much as for his memorable scores, is acclaimed for three films with director David Lean: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984). “In that long sequence, when Lawrence enters in the desert to rescue a lost man,” Jarre once said, “Lean listened to the music I wrote and wanted to extend the scene to let my work stay completely.”
Of course, it isn’t always up to director and composer. Producers and studio executives have a big say, especially when the stakes are high. The suits in charge of director Lee’s Hulk in 2003 weren’t enamoured with a non-traditional score from Danna that featured Japanese taiko, African drumming and Arabic singing. In what Danna calls an “unfortunate situation,” he was replaced by another soundtrack star, Danny Elfman.
Danna worked with Lee on 1997’s The Ice Storm, but his longest-running collaboration – totalling 11 films – is with Atom Egoyan, who first worked with the composer on 1987’s Family Viewing. It was Egoyan’s second film, and he had never worked with a composer. Completely entrusting the musical direction of the film to Danna, he was not disappointed.
“I was completely overwhelmed by what he was able to do with it,” says Egoyan, currently working with Danna on Devil’s Knot, a fictional representation of the controversial story of three Arkansas teens released from prison after serving 18 years for murder. “It gave the film an emotional coherence I didn’t think it would have otherwise.”
Egoyan considers Family Viewing their best film together; it was nominated for eight Genies, including best music score. Asked about Danna’s Oscar nominations for Life of Pi, Egoyan says he is perplexed that the recognition took so long to happen. “He should have been nominated for The Sweet Hereafter,” he says, of their 1997 collaboration. Egoyan also mentioned Capote, Moneyball and Little Miss Sunshine as films that should have gotten Danna consideration from the Academy.
As for Danna, he’s enjoying the award season, during which he has already nabbed a Golden Globe for Life of Pi. “The non-stop parties for two months are fun, and the big silver pieces of metal are fun,” he says. “But it’s not about me. It’s about the story and the music and the director’s vision of where the music needs to live.
“Ultimately, we wanted to tell this story, from a novel that I love. We didn’t want to mess it up.”