LIFE OF PI: Canadian composer Mychael Danna nets Golden Globe nomination

Published: December 14, 2012

Mychael Danna is shown in recent handout photo. Tackling the music for the sweeping 3D saga ‘Life of Pi’ was a ‘terrifying’ challenge, says Danna, who was celebrating a Golden Globe nomination for best original score Thursday. Submitted photo/The Canadian Press


TORONTO — Tackling the music for the sweeping 3D saga “Life of Pi” was a “terrifying” challenge, says Canadian composer Mychael Danna, who was celebrating a Golden Globe nomination for best original score Thursday.

The 54-year-old says he was suffering through the flu when he learned he made the prestigious shortlist, and that suddenly made him “feel much, much better.”

“I got called by my agent with the good news and my wife who also has the flu, we both cheered very softly,” Danna said hours after the nominees were announced from Los Angeles.

Danna will compete in the best original score category against Alexandre Desplat for “Argo,” Dario Marianelli for “Anna Karenina,” John Williams for “Lincoln” and Tom Tykwer, Johnny

Klimek and Reinhold Heil for “Cloud Atlas.”

It’s a gratifying kudo considering how demanding “Life of Pi” was to score, he says, noting it required a delicate balance to evoke various cultures and religions and also complement eye-popping 3D visuals.

Danna says he spent nearly a year working on the score with Oscar-winning director Ang Lee. Most movies typically require just a few weeks or months.

No film like it

“There’s really no film like it and so whenever you break new ground like that it’s very terrifying for us and also just there’s so many … problems to solve that haven’t been solved before. We took a long time to do it and we needed that time.”

Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Canada’s Yann Martel, “Life of Pi” centres on a shipwrecked Indian boy adrift in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. Much of it involves the main character Pi surrounded by an endless ocean speaking to God, with other scenes taking place in India, Montreal and Mexico.

“All the high-minded concepts and the kind of deep philosophical parts kind of come natural to my writing, anyway,” says Danna, who watched “a guy in a tiger suit” romp around the set before the computer-generated imagery was finalized.

“What we found was that the film got bogged down if the music was addressing that too much. The music had to kind of touch on all the different cultures, all the different religions and places and have a real richness … but they had to flow together in a very easy-to-listen-to way.”

Danna pulled in a wide array of instruments to make that happen, including mandolin, accordion, orchestra, Persian ney, sitar, the bowed sarangi and a reed flute known as bansuri. There was also an English boys choir singing in Sanskrit, a Tibetan-style choir singing in Latin and a Toronto gamelan group that specializes in performing with traditional wood and bronze Indonesian instruments.

“Life of Pi” marks Danna’s third collaboration with Lee. The two previously worked together on 1997’s “The Ice Storm” and 1999’s “Ride with the Devil.”

“I’m really glad that his faith in me has been rewarded. He keeps coming back to me, that means a lot that you can kind of deliver when someone asks a lot of you,” says Danna, also a longtime collaborator of Toronto director Atom Egoyan.

“He’s a real special filmmaker and somebody that I have a real closeness with. He sets very, very high standards for himself and for everybody else in his pursuit of the truth.”

Ties to Indian culture

Danna says it helped that he himself felt a real connection to the tale, noting that he married an Indian woman and has a lot of ties to Indian culture.

“It’s a book I just loved and it’s something I wanted to really do a great job on. So it was something I spent a lot of painstaking work on.”

Danna says Lee was well aware of his Indian ties: “He was at my wedding here in Toronto 11 years ago when I rode in on a horse and had my whole Indian Hindu wedding ceremony, so he saw all that first hand.

“He laughed when he called me with this project, he said, ‘Well, who else is going to score this film but you?”’

Danna was born in Winnipeg but moved to Burlington, Ont. as a baby. He studied music composition at the University of Toronto, winning the Glenn Gould Composition Scholarship in 1985.

It was at U of T that he met his longtime partner Egoyan, going on to score all of the acclaimed filmmaker’s features starting with “Family Viewing” in 1987.

“Atom is why I’m talking to you right now,” says Danna, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Toronto, where he lives with his wife and two sons.
“He’s my longest and dearest collaborator.”

Danna is now working on Egoyan’s next film, “Devil’s Knot,” the latest addition to a long and varied list of credits including “Moneyball,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

“The important thing is to serve the story, to serve the film, and that means a partnership, a collaboration with the director who is the one crafting the story,” he says of his work.

“I find my scores are very, very different — one doesn’t sound like another but that’s because they’re very much crafted for each particular film and each one is a blank blackboard that you begin with.”

The Golden Globes bash, organized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, will be held Jan. 13 in Los Angeles.


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