The Nativity Story

Covering the 2006 movie "The Nativity Story," about the story of Mary and Joseph
and their journey together as they bring the Messiah into the world.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Infuze interviews Mychael Danna (composer)

Mychael Danna has been scoring films since 1987, most recently working on such titles as The Nativity Story, Little Miss Sunshine and Capote. Having worked with phenomenal directors such as Denzel Washington, Ang Lee and Joel Schumacher, Danna is one of the top of his field. In this Infuze exclusive, Danna speaks about his process as a composer and what it's like to work on such a film as The Nativity Story.

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Robin: Tell us about your process as a composer and what that typically looks like.

Mychael: The general way that it works is that the composer often is brought in at the script phase, and the production will want to get your ideas of what you're thinking of, musically. Generally, at the same time that they're shooting the film, they're already editing it as well. Then the composer starts looking at footage pretty early on.

The musical process really runs parallel to the editing process, especially on bigger films, and certainly on The Nativity Story, because it was a pretty compact schedule. We literally wrapped shooting in early August, and the film is in theaters as of early December, so that's a very short [post-production] schedule. They started the real editing in early August and ran until the end of September, and that's exactly when I began recording -- the end of September. So I'm unable to wait until they're finished cutting the picture. I have to write as they're shaping the film.

It's a real challenge; it's kind of a moving target. A very dynamic situation where the composer is writing music for a film that's changing every day. You can write a piece of music for a scene that's a minute and a half long, and then the next day it's two minutes long, twenty seconds long, or it's gone, or it used to be at the beginning of the film and now it's at the end. All of those things happen. That's one of the greatest challenges of writing music for film. To add to all the other challenges, a film is very often a very unstable thing. You're just trying to get an idea of what the film is, and you've got to be writing music for it at the same time.

That was the case on Nativity, where there's something like eighty-five minutes of music in the final film.

And how long is the movie?

About... ninety minutes. (Laughs.)

(Laughs.)

You really have to start early for this kind of a film, because there's only so much you can write a day. Two or three minutes, I'd say you can write in a day, which is actually a lot. So it's certainly a challenging process. As far as my process itself, let's talk about Nativity. This film was largely an orchestral score, and what I do on those is mock-up what the final score is going to sound like with fake instruments with synthesizers on a computer. Obviously, I can't have an orchestra sitting in the next room, playing my sketches so I can hear what it's going to be like.

So we have an electronic version of an oboe, a clarinet, a string section. I write the piece for those fake instruments, and we watch it with the picture to get an idea of how it's working. It's enough to give the director a sense of what I'm trying to do. And then once it's all approved and we hit our deadline -- I won't say "when we're finished" because you're never finished, you just work until they pull a rug out from under your feet and it's time to record -- you print up all those parts, the players play them, you record it, and they bring it all to life.

It sounds really stressful.

Yes it is! (Laughs.) It's a very collaborative art. It's certainly something that a composer who is unwilling or unable to work with other opinions would never be able to succeed at. You need to [be able to] work with people with all different kinds of personalities. You'll have to work with people who may not know anything about music, but they're the filmmakers so you obviously have to be able to work with them, and understand what they're trying to create. To be honest with you, writing the music is often the easiest part of the process. And of course, when you go to school and study composition, they don't spend any time in the classes on how to deal with directors and heads of studios and whatnot.

Sounds very political. So would you say the writing is your favorite part of the process?

It's really fun when you first get the job and you can tell all your friends. (Laughs.) That's really fun. Then you have to actually start working, and that part's really not that fun.

(Laughs.)

Maybe it's just me, but writing is not fun. It's kind of torturous most of the time. I mean, you're creating something out of nothing. The composer is one of the few people, other than the screenwriter, who does create something entirely out of nothing. There's nothing there, and then when you're done, there's something there. That's a challenging thing to have to do -- to pull stuff out of nothing.

But what a sense of accomplishment when it's done!

Yeah. The other part of the process that's really thrilling and indescribably satisfying is when people bring your score to life. When musicians play it, there's just nothing like the feeling of hearing it for the first time. For example, on this film, I had a seventy-piece orchestra and a big choir singing. I had been hearing my sketches in my head, and then hearing them on this pathetic synthesizer mock-up. But to hear real bodies playing and singing it, it's indescribable. It's really a thrill. It's almost worth what you go through.

Regarding the music itself, would you say The Nativity was distinctly than anything else you've done? Or was it in line with what you always do?

You know, there is no typical way that I work. The thing I love about writing music for film is that every project is a completely new challenge. It's a completely new circumstance, with completely new elements, like the story, the people you work with. You really have to wipe the blackboard clean and come to every project with an open mind. Because my job is to try to figure out what it is the filmmaker is trying to say, what it is that they have on the screen, and what the music can do to help tell the story.

You've got to be really open minded. There's different solutions for every film. It's not always just an orchestra playing late 19th Century style, which is what a lot of film scores are. And it's not just the solution that the last guy who did a Bible-era movie came up with either. I think you need to start at the ground level and figure out what will work for each movie individually. I always try to come up with some kind of concept -- an idea, a way of approaching the music for a film that will help tell the story and do something kind of interesting and maybe unexpected, but that helps enlighten the story.

For The Nativity Story, I think lately the trend for Bible-era movies has been to do a World Music mishmash, and have all kinds of influences from Indian to Arabic to African instruments all playing together. That goes back to Peter Gabriel's score in the 1980s for The Last Temptation for Christ, which kicked off the use of World Music in film scores. It's a very effective thing, but I wanted to do something a little different. I also feel like, on screen, the director, Catherine Hardwicke, captured so beautifully the feeling of being in Judea in the year 0. It's all there on the screen; we don't really need the music repeating that we're not in Kansas, you know.

I felt like the music for this one needed to do two things: it needed to build a bridge between the audience and the characters on the screen; and I also felt it would be very interesting to build a time bridge. This story is two thousand years old. How did it come down to us today? Well, it came down to us through the passing of this story for two thousand years, including two thousand years of music. There's a whole culture and civilization in the Medieval and Renaissance period based on this story, and there's so much powerful music and art that came from that period. I wanted to honor that bridge, so I used some Medieval instruments and choir techniques, to touch on that world.

All the singing in the film is in Latin, which was the language of the Christian church for almost fifteen hundred years. I also touched on some of the melodies of the past, some of the gregorian chant melodies and various early carols. I didn't want to make it a "Christmas carol potpourri," so we had to be careful about how far we went with that, and which carols we used. But I did want to bring up that history of music and remind people that they're watching a story that's been carried to us for two thousand years.

I'll give you one example. King Herod's declaration of the slaughter of the innocents, where he orders his men to go kill all children under two years old. In the 1400s, there was a pageant in Coventry, where they put on the Nativity play, and they portrayed this scene about King Herod by writing a carol for it called "The Coventry Carol." It has this beautiful melody, so I wove it into the film. I think it's a beautiful thing to be able to use this melody that was written in the 1400s to tell the same story that we're telling in the 21st Century. To be able to use that same melody in a modern pageant -- I find that really powerful and evocative.

I'm glad you brought that up, because I'm fascinated by how you used those ancient melodies in the score. Because if that same idea had been born in the wrong hands, it could have ended up with Home Alone or something like that. But it comes across so very hallowed in the score, without going too far, without being super-pious. It strikes just the right balance, and I'm impressed with how you pulled that off.

Oh, thank you. That's a great compliment. I tried to walk that line, and it's a bit overwhelming to write music for this story that every great composer since year 0 has written for. I wanted to honor some of what came before, but I didn't want to distract from the story by bursting into Christmas carols all over the place. Just to have that wafting in the air -- even if you don't quite recognize what the melody is -- just the sound and sense that it's an ancient melody.

Okay, here's the question I'm really dying to ask you. You're known for doing all of these very ethnic scores utilizing sounds and instruments from all over the world, and you've done a lot of different kinds of sounds in different movies. And I can't help but wonder: how do you decide what sound to use for any particular movie? Does the movie speak to you in some way, or does the director come to you with an idea of what they want?

Usually when I talk to a director, it's not about what they want, musically. Occasionally they'll have that in mind already. But ideally, what I'd like to hear from them is what they'd like to say with their film. Why did they make this movie? What is it that they're trying to say? What's their message? What's their theme? Once you decipher that, then you try and figure out what the music can say to help tell that story.

An example off the top of my head... I did a film with Ang Lee called The Ice Storm. That film is about the fragmentation of a family, based on the stresses placed upon families in the 1970s. Well, it's obvious we're in the 1970s with this movie, so you could easily just play 70s pop music. But it's plainly on the screen that we're in the 70s, so I like to use the music to do other things. What I settled on was to use what, on the surface, may have seemed like some unusual choices. I used a Native American flute and I used an Indonesian gamelan, which is a group of percussion instruments that's kind of soft and chime-like. It may seem a little strange at first, you know -- "Why am I hearing a Native American flute when I'm looking at Connecticut in the 1970s?" But the film also has this theme of nature, and how nature is more powerful than societal trends. The undercurrent of nature is going to win out in the end. That was something that the Native American flute is so in tune with. It came from a people who were probably more connected to their environment, more connected with nature. The gamelan is something that's in every village in Indonesia. It's a societal thing, a unifying thing, with people playing together. Meanwhile, on screen, we see all of these people breaking apart.

So that's the kind of powerful thing that music can do in a film score. It can say things that are thematically linked to the movie, but it's not always the most obvious thing. It's something subconscious and underneath what you're actually seeing.

Do you prefer doing music that's thematic or atmospheric?

Every film is different, and the question is not, "What do I want to do?" It's, "What is the best thing for the film?" I've worked where atmospheric, non-thematic music, is certainly the way to go. Then there's films like Nativity, where it's best to have more orchestral and melodic elements working in it. Like I said, I really wanted to build a time bridge, using Medieval and Renaissance instruments and themes. But I also thought it was very important to have an emotional connection between us and the characters on screeen. And there's nothing that does that better than a warm, modern string section. That was the right thing to do for this film -- a standard string/orchestral sound.

But there's films where that's not the right thing to do. I don't think that sound would have worked on Ice Storm. You just really have to get to the essence of what the film is before you write a single note or select your instruments. A lot of times, people will send me a script and they'll want to know how much it's going to cost. How many musicians will we need? How long will it take to record? And the answer is always, "I don't know yet." We won't know what our instrument group is before we know our concept. Another thing you have to work with is that you often have a set budget. And all of thsoe things -- how many musicians you can have, how long you can spend recording -- are often determined by how much money you have to work with. But I think that the concept is the first and most important thing in film music. You figure that out, and then you go from there.

That's a tremendous gift -- to be able to figure out or know instinctively what a film needs. I'm not sure there are a lot of composers that can do it that way, particularly with the range of diversity that you utilize.

Honestly, I think most composers simply don't bother with that conceptual stage. They just start writing music. They figure out what it is as they're doing it. I spend a lot of time talking to the director and watching film and just trying to come up with some solution, some concept. Then you can go from there. And the whole world of music is available to you: if the answer is a [scintar] and north African drums, then you can do that. There's no reason to cut off any music from any time or any place, as a possibility. It's all available, and it all has specific uses. It's like casting a film -- every actor brings an aura and a set of personality traits to a role. A duduk from Armenia or a [shohm] from Medieval France, it can all be used to say different things. So at the beginning of a project, I find myself casting kinds of music and kinds of instruments, the way a director might cast actors.

What are you working on right now?

I'm just starting on a film called Surf's Up, which is an animated project. It's something very different for me; I've never done animation before. I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm familiar with Surf's Up, and it's a very different kind of animated movie than what we're used to. They're playing it more like a documentary.

Yeah, exactly. It's a very smart film, and it's really beautiful to look at, as well, and it's funny. I think it's going to be a really nice piece.

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