An Oscar win is sometimes seen as a step up to a larger career with bigger projects. But Toronto composer Mychael Danna says his professional world was already just the right size before he won the Academy Award for best original score on Sunday, for his work in Life of Pi.
“I’m already doing the exact kind of film I want to do,” he says. “I had the career I wanted before this film. I kind of think of the Oscar as a lifetime achievement award, the culmination of everything I’ve been doing since I began writing for film with Atom Egoyan.”
He says Life of Pi is a grand summation of the eclectic international style he has been developing since he wrote the music for Egoyan’s Family Viewing in 1987. “I feel like every instrument I’ve ever used in any film is in Life of Pi, from Persian ney [flute] to gamelan, from Indian percussion to orchestra and choir – all things I’ve used before, but never on this scale of complexity.”
It was also the toughest project of his 35-year career. “The music had a lot of weight to carry, given that a lot of times it’s just water, a boy and a tiger.”
Somewhat paradoxically, Danna found that he had to simplify his first drafts, which turned out to be too dense for director Ang Lee’s rich visuals. They decided that the youth and optimism of the main character had to be reflected in the tone of the music, which became sunlit and clear.
“All the concepts I started with are still in there, but they’re woven in a much more subtle way,” Danna says. “The story is always the guide as to whether the music is in your face, or so subtle that no one notices. Both are possible, from the same composer, and both can be right.”
Danna has made a dozen films with Egoyan, and is nearly finished his work on the director’s Devil’s Knot, based on the true story of the Memphis Three, a trio of young men wrongly imprisoned for child murders committed in 1993. The music is “very dark and brooding,” he says, with “kind of an electronicized orchestral approach. There are a lot of acoustic sounds, but the overall impression is electronic.” He experimented with regionally specific sounds, as in his other films, “but it felt condescending and narrow. We abandoned that pretty quickly and went for a psychological approach.”
The gamelan heard in Life of Pi was played by Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan. “They were in another Ang Lee film we did, The Ice Storm, and Ang was very excited to work with them again,” Danna says. “I went to school with some of them, so we go way back.”
Another University of Toronto acquaintance who made a lasting impression was Walter Buczynski, one of Danna’s composition teachers. “He had a way of looking at writing that was very clean and demanding,” he says. “I can always hear his voice in my head, saying ‘Why is this note here? Where did it come from?’ You had to justify it, and that’s a way of thinking I’ve never lost.”
Danna still lives in Toronto, where he is starting to work on Egoyan’s Queen of the Night, now shooting in Sudbury, Ont.
Oscar’s latest musical favourite is on good terms with Hollywood, but has no desire to work on any of Hollywood’s biggest money-makers: action films. “I’ve never been drawn to that sort of thing, even as an audience member,” he says, “and when I take a film on, I have to love it. If you get into something you don’t have an emotional and intellectual connection with, you’re in big trouble.”
Danna's dream project is the kind of thematically strong film he has always worked on, with people who really know how to collaborate. “I don’t even think of the score as mine,” he says. “It’s our score, mine and Ang’s, or mine and Atom’s. I love being part of a storytelling team.”