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Eye and ear of the tiger

Had you read the book before Ang Lee approached you to score for Life of Pi? What did you think of the original Yann Martel story?

Yes, I read the book when it first came out. I loved it and felt a deep connection to the style and the material. I am Canadian, like the author and the destination in the story, and I am married to an Indian woman, and have spent quite a bit of time there, travelling, visiting family and working as well. I also remember when I finished the book and put it down, I thought, “There is a book that will never be made into a film”. Much like how I felt when I finished reading Moneyball, which I also ended up scoring!

What kind of research did you do before starting your work on Life of Pi?

It seems like my whole life has been a research to do the music for Pi. I used a wide range of instruments and players — the Balinese Gamelan, piano, English Church School Boys’ Choir, accordion, mandolin, a large Hollywood studio orchestra, and then all the Indian instruments: bansuri, sarangi, santoor, kanjira, etc.... I grew up playing the piano and singing in choirs, and I have used all those non-western instruments in one film or another over the 20 years of my career. I had never used them all in a film before and that was very complicated — recording in a lot of different countries and writing for different tuning systems and having to make it all work together. But the world we were creating for Pi had to be rich and universal and all those years of experience were put to use.

You worked with Ang Lee back in 1997 on The Ice Storm. What has changed in the man in these 15 years? What makes him special?

Really nothing has changed in our method of working through all this time. Ang is the ideal director for a composer, always striving to be true to the story and characters he is working with. He is relentless in this search, which means he sets the bar very high for everyone working on the film, including himself. Every moment has to ring true, and he is very sensitive to the effects of music, so he is a wonderful collborator, very involved. What also makes him special is his courage to put himself and his team into very difficult and very different projects. There is no film that is like Pi that we could refer to. We were in new territory... a dangerous place to work, and Ang consistently works in those dangerous places.

Life of Pi is about survival, spirituality and surrealism. Did Lee’s brief concentrate on one particular aspect or a blend of everything in the score?

Ang worked on the film for four years and we talked about the themes of the book over that entire time. We knew the score had to touch on all the major themes — faith, hope, identity, why humans tell stories. But although the score has to address all these big questions, we found that it was very important that the score did not get too bogged down in intellectual qualities, that it had to carry us emotionally along with Pi on his journey, treating his experiences and the audience with compassion.

Above all, it had to flow easily and just be beautiful to listen to, so that it did not fight the stunning and overpowering imagery. Even though it contained a lot of complex concepts, it had to sound simple. This was what I found very, very difficult. Simple is hard!

If you were to put it in one line, what do you think the Life of Pi soundtrack evokes?

Hopefully, compassion for the joys and discoveries and losses of a lifetime.

Mychael Danna (right) with Ang Lee

You scored for Indian or India-themed films like Monsoon Wedding and Water, working with Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. Did that help you in scoring Life of Pi?

Definitely. Ang and I wanted to use Indian musical elements in the score to reflect Pi’s childhood and heritage. It was, however, important that we don’t go too far with any kind of regionalism. Pi himself is very much a world citizen, finding truth and beauty in other religions and cultures than the one he was born into. We want this story to be felt by everyone who sees it, no matter where or what their background is. So although we use a rich group of musical voices from around the globe, it was important that there was an effortless and comfortable blurring of borders between all these sounds.

Pi was born into a place that is both Indian and French... so from the start of the film we have Indian instruments playing French melodies and Indian melodies on accordions and so on. We have English Boys’ Choirs singing Sanskrit mantras and shlokas, and Tibetan-style choirs singing in Latin. So it really helped that I am very comfortable working with Indian musicians and music, which I have done many times in my career.

Life of Pi was in such spectacular 3D. Did that have any impact on your score? How much did the images inspire you?

Composers of big films with a lot of CGI unfortunately don’t get to see the full glory of the images until after they are finished with the music! Most of what I was scoring to were rough mockups of what the visual department was working on. But I had a director with me who knew exactly what he was headed for with the images and what we needed to convey, so although it required more imagination on my part there really were no surprises as far as what I was doing and how it worked with the final images. Ang’s descriptions were inspiring enough it seems!

India’s very own A.R. Rahman is now a regular feature in Hollywood projects. Does his work excite you?

I was in india when his early scores like Roja and Bombay were taking the country by storm and it just bowled me over. In a moment he redefined Indian film music. We worked together on Deepa Mehta’s Water and I’m very proud to have worked with him on that lovely film.

In your last interview to us, you had spoken about Capote being your most challenging work till then. After the high of Pi, where do you go?

Sometimes I think scoring a romantic comedy might be a nice change! But I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some of the great directors of our time, who are defining the borders of our art. Working in those realms is not easy, and unfortunately my experience is that the best work comes with a cost of struggle and pain. There were moments of crisis working on Pi where, like Pi himself, it was difficult to hold on to hope and push away despair. The story of Pi’s journey was one that all of us on this production I think identified with a little too closely sometimes!

With Life of Pi, everyone’s talking of an Oscar nod for you. How important is an Academy Award for Mychael Danna?

I sincerely feel that Life of Pi was the film I was born to do the score for... my whole life was a preperation for this work. I am extremely proud that we made what I think is a beautiful film, against all odds really, as no one ever thought this book could be made into a film with the very same spirit as the novel. I feel that the world is a little better place because this film got made. And it is incredibly gratifying that a lot of the audiences feel the same way about the film and the music. Those are the rewards of making this film that I would not trade for anything. Awards are not why we do this but the kind of praise from your peers that the highest awards in our business symbolise is extraordinarily special.

Danna’s delights

The Ice Storm (1997)
8MM (1999)
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Vanity Fair (2004)
Capote (2005)
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Moneyball (2011)

 


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