For veteran Canadian composer Mychael Danna, his journey with “Life of Pi” began 10 years ago when he read Yann Martel”s novel. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope nobody makes a film of this book and wrecks it,”” he says.
Four years ago, he was forced to revisit those thoughts when Ang Lee approached him about potentially adapting the book. Thus began a journey that gripped Danna and has now led him – after two-and-a-half decades in the film business – to his first Oscar nominations, for both Best Original Score and Best Original Song.
Danna says he considers his directors co-composers as he seeks to help fully realize their vision through music. “Our conversations are not musical or technical in that way – they”re emotional and narrative and cinematic,” he explains, noting that he needs to understand precisely what the music is meant to convey.
In this case, as usual, he sought a very close collaboration with the helmer of the film. Indeed, the chance to work again with Ang Lee (they had collaborated previously on “The Ice Storm” and “Ride with the Devil”) was largely the reason he got involved. “I thought, ‘He is the only director I can think of who has a shot of actually making this work,’” Dana says.
As usual, Lee didn”t tell Danna exactly what to write – but he did convey every emotion he wanted expressed. “Ang is one of the most sensitive and intelligent directors out there,” Danna says. “He”s very aware moment-to-moment where we are in the story in every regard and how we need to adjust to what he”s up to. It”s Ang’s score as much as mine. He knows every note as much as I do.”
About a year and a half ago, however, this remained all conceptual talk. Then Danna started seeing footage and was amazed. He worked on writing the music for over a year and journeyed to India last December to write the song “Pi”s Lullaby” with Bombay Jayashri.
The last four months of work were intense, as the normally Toronto-based Danna moved to Los Angeles, about 100 meters from where Lee was working. He is glad that he did, as it resulted in collaboration with the film editor, sound designers and visual effects artists as well. Danna particularly recalls seeing the latest visual effects shots as they came in so he could write and/or adjust music accordingly.
The film was obviously very dependent on factors other than dialogue to make it work. Danna recognized this, and the challenges it created. “There”s so many sequences where words are not the mode of communication, so music has a bigger responsibility to help guide the audience emotionally and narratively,” he says.
But it did not change his fundamental approach to scoring, just as the film”s large budget didn”t change his approach. (Most of his work has been on features with much smaller budgets, and he built his career by collaborating with many luminaries in Canada”s avant-garde film industry such as Atom Egoygan.) “I”m a director”s composer as much as possible,” he says. “On a larger film there”s a lot more people involved and politics. It”s more challenging because of that. But if it”s a $2 million film or a $102 million film, it”s kind of the same process. There”s no reason you can”t make an absolutely wonderful score for very low budget compared to high budget.”
When asked about finally finding his way into the Oscar race, Danna immediately steps back, noting that his pride in what he and his fellow filmmakers accomplished on “Life of Pi” goes back to long before awards. “We”ve been walking around with smiles on our faces since we finished this film,” he says, recalling the feeling of “we did it” when he and the rest of the cast and crew first viewed the finished product. “To see the world internationally embrace the film has been incredibly gratifying.”
Even so, the recognition from his colleagues is especially sweet. “The Oscars are a huge thing,” he says. “They”re your peers who do what you do every day; they understand the challenges and difficulties, so they know what you”ve done.”
We”ll see how his peers across the filmmaking business treat his film, and the music in particular, on the 24th. I”m willing to bet they’ll be very kind indeed.