Mychael Danna

Interviews | Nov 29th, 2006

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My name is Bryan, your name is Mychael. Do you get as angry as I do when someone spells your name wrong?
My name is almost always spelled wrong, either my first or my last because there is a double “n” in my last name and half the time it only gets one. I would just like it spelled right in the credits of films but otherwise I don’t really care.

How would you describe your style of composing to someone who might not have heard your work before?
I don’t think I’m influenced by anything when I’m working on a film. I try to completely start with a blank slate and not think of any other music but just think of the film, what it requires and what would be the solutions to the problems of that particular film.

It’s like a director casting a film and looking for actors; you just look for the best person to say what you need to say with that character. In the case of musical instruments, you look for instruments that say what you need to say and bring the associations you want to use. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as ethnic music anymore. There’s just music, musicians and instruments.

Instruments all express different things. It’s like asking if you like red, blue or green. It depends what room you’re painting or what picture you’re painting or what kind of car you’re buying. They are all just different colors that are equally valuable. They are just choices that you need to make at any given moment.

You’re currently working on (or finished) the scoring for the upcoming movie, The Nativity Story. Could you tell us about the film, and how the scoring went?
The story is centered on the experience of Mary going from a young girl in Nazareth to discovering that she has this profound destiny. We followed that path. When we first meet her, she’s just a normal young girl. By the end of the film she and her husband Joseph and her baby are riding off into Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers.

On screen, we’re seeing a young girl in Judea in a tiny village riding on a donkey. That’s what’s on screen, but what that means to us as people who have grown up with that imagery and grown up with that icon, it’s such a powerful thing to us. On screen, there’s nothing particularly special about it but emotionally it means so much. That’s the thing the music can say. That’s been the fun of the music, to remind people to look at this little girl riding this donkey. This is something that’s going to have connotations for thousands of years.

What kind of research do you do for movies like this?
I did a lot of research on music of Judea and Palestine at the time. I learned a lot and then decided not to use any of it. The reason for that is I find that ever since Peter Gabriel’s work for “The Last Temptation of Christ” composers have all approached the same era and subject matter with the exact same things. We hear all the same instruments and the same vaguely Middle Eastern sound. The fact is, nobody really knows what the music of that time was. The second temple was destroyed by the Romans around 70 AD and at that point, all of the music of the Jews was pretty much destroyed. Also, out of mourning they banned music from their synagogues from that point on. So nobody knows anything — other than a few vague images in the Bible – what was going on musically at that time. Every film score that is written for that area uses the duduk, which is an Armenian instrument and probably has nothing to do with that area. They use Egyptian and Moroccan music. I’m kind of tired of that approach. I think it’s time for something fresh.

The other thing is that I think this story has its big resonance not in the Middle East. It’s not really a story about the Jews. It’s really a story about Christians and about Europe and about the incredibly profound event. The meaning of this event really resonated through the entire civilization of the West. This event this meant so much and affected every moment in life in a civilization was in Medieval Europe, the Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe. So that’s where I’ve gone to for the inspiration for the music.

I’m using early European instruments from the 12th-14th centuries. I’m using a lot of melodies from the early Christian church: plain chant, Gregorian chant. I’m also using some very early Christmas melodies, for instance “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which is a very ancient melody. I’m using other tunes like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which goes back to the late Roman Empire when the empire became Christian from about the year 400. I’ve been using melodies from before 1600, or something like that.

It’s a story of Europe and a story about the west and Western Civilization. That’s really been the inspiration.

Besides your score, New Line is also releasing The Nativity Story: Sacred Songs, did you take part in that soundtrack at all?

What attracts you to certain film score projects?
It has to be something that excites me somehow. Either the film or the possibilities of the musical aspect of it. There are a lot of films that I see that I think are excellent but I don’t do them because I don’t think the score would be something that would be particularly fun to do.

You worked with the indie-folk band DeVotchka to score Little Miss Sunshine. Explain how the process was scoring the film & working with the band for that film.
The directors had heard DeVotchka on the radio and they felt their sound was perfect for the movie, yet they still wanted to have a composed score as well as using a few of their songs. I suggested that we actually use the players from the band, who all read music, to actually play the score. I actually wrote score pieces for them to play so that all the instruments you hear in the film are all from the same players. The makes for a real unity of sound.

They were great to work with. They had a lot of fun because it was a new experience for them. They are very musical and creative so we had a great time working together.

Do composers get bitter when their score isn’t used as much as they thought it was in the final print?
The process of filmmaking in total is a collaborative art. Anyone who is not comfortable with that wouldn’t survive very long. It’s just part of the process of working with other people.

Your brother Jeff is also a composer and you have worked on some albums together. Do you guys ever get childish and start sword fighting with your batons?
I’m sure there is, but the fact is that I’m much more accomplished than my brother and better looking as well so I really don’t see what the sibling rivalry could possibly be about.

I’m sure there is some sense of competition. I’m sure there is between all brothers and all composers but it’s certainly not a destructive force at all for us. I enjoy seeing his success and I know he feels the same way.

In your opinion, which score do you think is your strongest to date? Weakest?
Hmm, best, now that’s a tough one. I mean, the ones that turn out artistically well are often the most painful to bring about because they’re just so tortured. And just coming up with the concept can be a long and torturous trail. The Ice Storm, I’m very, very proud of how that score turned out, but it was brutal to work on. Ang [Lee], is a brilliant director and I love my collaboration with him but it’s tough to work with him. I mean, it’s really tough. He’s very hard on everyone including himself in the sense that it’s a process and he’s relentless in finding the absolute best solution.

Are you working on any film score projects after The Nativity Story? If so, can you tell us a little bit about them?
“Breach” with Billy Ray, a turn-coat FBI agent story. And “Surf’s UP,” which is a Sony Animation film. That will be really fun because that’s a completely different world for me to enter. Those are the only two projects I can talk about right now.

Do you have any non-film projects (i.e. A Celtic Tale, A Celtic Romance) in the works?

Any final comments or things you’d like to mention?
Speaking of family members, it was really fun for me to work with my sister on “The Nativity Story.” She’s a Latin and Greek scholar, which probably doesn’t come up very often in the world of film scoring. For “The Nativity Story” we decided all the words the choir would sing would be in Latin. She wrote some original poetry and did some translating of popular carols – “Silent Night” for instance – and translated back into Latin. That was a really fun experience to be able to work with her.

Thanks for the great interview Mychael! To find out more info about Mychael Danna, please visit his website at


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