Mychael Danna – Tips from the Stars

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In the life of many composers nowadays comes the moment where one must choose whether or not to move to a different city/country/continent. One should always take many factors in consideration, and be aware that the outcome of moving to a new place can range from extremely beneficial to disastrous for their career.

My story

mycheal danna

Of course everyone has their own unique path, and you need to be open to finding it as it unfolds, but I hope my story will enlighten your own choices!

CANADA

toronto mycheal danna

Because of the geography and culture I was born and raised in, I do what I do in the way that I do it. I am Canadian by birth and lived there until I was in my 40s. I was born in Winnipeg but grew up in a suburb in Toronto, then went to college in Toronto and began my working career there. When I was young, English Canada was a rather homogenous and static place culturally. There was little filmmaking of any note. The vast majority of the films we saw in movie theaters were made in Hollywood, a place that seemed a far away, unreachable world.

The idea growing up of becoming a film composer was just not something that occured to me as something possible, or even something that i could comprehend. Instead I grew up with the kind of typical subburban Canadian musical upbringing: western classical piano lessons, choirs, theory lessons and so on.  As a teenager I played synthesizers in rock bands but I was always interested in composing. I started writing piano pieces which ended up on the Toronto conservatory examination lists, and so some of my pieces were, and are still played by young Canadian students. I knew that I wanted to continue writing and I ended up studying composition at the University of Toronto.

At that time in the late 1960’s and 70’s, multiculturalism became government policy, and started really changing the makeup of the population. Suddenly I was exposed to all these different styles of music and musicians from around the world. I knew this was something that I wanted to bring into my music.

I started combining these new sounds I was discovering with standard classical, western and pop music. At the same time I was also really interested in historical styles, early medieval music, renaissance and so on. So I started using all these kinds of music from different times and different places and treating them equally. Having this freedom was a new thing at the time.

The first medium that I wrote music for was theatre. I got involved with a few different theatre groups while I was in college. It was there and I met people making films. At that time there was government support for Canadian filmmakers creating European-style art-film movies. Particularly the ‘auteur’ kind of directors were being supported and celebrated. One of the people I met while writing for theatre, Atom Egoyan, began making films, and we began our collaboration which still continues today.

When we started working together we took all the things we were doing in theatre—freely mixing music based in different times and cultures —and brought them to film. We had our back turned completely to Hollywood, it really didn’t influence us at all. We were looking towards Europe if anywhere, or Asia, but not to the Hollywood model. Little by little I started to have a successful films scoring career within the Canadian film community into my 30s. It was only at that time that people outside of the area started knowing about my work.

NEW YORK

The next city that I began working in was New York. It had that similar independent aesthetic to Toronto. They were not doing Hollywood kind of films. And with the success of Atom Egoyan’s films, my work came onto that the radar of a few New York filmmakers, and Mira Nair was the first person to bring me there to work. While I was there with her working in the Brill building in Time Square, Ang Lee’s music supervisor happened to be walking by the door and heard some of the music for Kama Sutra. Alex Steyermark stuck his head in and that’s how we met. Soon I started working with Ang on The Ice Sorm.

And so I had a foothold in the New York scene and would travel back and forth from NY and Toronto, which is less than a one hour flight away. New York certainly is a very different place than Toronto.

Toronto has a certain almost English reserve and formal ways of doing business. You have to work your way into who you know, it’s a little bit conservative that way. New York of course is a very different place, a bit brash, exciting and open-minded to new people. This is the great quality of America: A sense of excitement for the new guy, the new idea.

I ended up working on a bunch of films in NY in the late 90s and still had no interest in Hollywood films. In fact I didn’t even really watch Hollywood films, or television, I went much of the 90’s without even having a television. Most of the music that I heard in standard Hollywood movies didn’t really excite me. There were exceptions of course, like the score of Planet of the Apes by Jerry Goldsmith.

Also, if I’m being completely honest, I did notice that New Yorkers worked harder then Canadians, and pushed me to work harder than when I was in Toronto, and being pushed to do the best work I can do is something I appreciated. I remember having a whole concept in place for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and then after six weeks on it, he phoned me and said “no it’s not working… let’s come up with a different approach”. That was frightening but also really exciting and challenging. There still was quite a bit of freedom but definitely more of a sense of oversight and high standard of expectation.

HOLLYWOOD

At that point I entered the radar of the Los Angeles system. The first director that called me to LA was Joel Schumacher, who called me to work on 8MM. On the first few projects I was brought into I was afraid I was going to get shoved into a cliché box of traditional film scoring but that didn’t happen at all. In fact Joel basically gave me one instruction :”Be Bold”. I’ve always been grateful that he eased me into the system like that, and in fact my score for 8MM is defintely BOLD. What I found in Los Angeles was this super high standard and fanatstic infrastructure. People work long hours striving obsessively for the very best, challenging each other to a whole new level, one that I hadn’t felt in the other cities I had worked in. 

More and more work started coming from Los Angeles, at the same time the independent film scene in Toronto waned, largely because Canada went through a period of fiscally conservative government. So the timing worked very well for me to relocate to LA. 

I’ve been in LA for more or less 20 years now. But I am very glad I didn’t begin my film scoring career here, because in Toronto I grew up with a feeling of absolute artistic freedom. In LA there is a long history of a film system, and a way of doing things. And also, there is this sense you always have that everything you are doing is being watched to an extent that can really mess with your creativity. In the smaller sandbox of Toronto I was able to find my identity, I really knew who and what I was as a writer before I entered this place with its bright light, big stages, big names, big expectations.

So this would be my first tip, certainly if you are growing up in a smaller city: find your identity in a smaller place, one that has some outlet for your creativity, but one where you can experiment, make mistakes, find your voice without being under the glare of the Big League spotlight. Once you have a confident sense of who you are and what you do, then Los Angeles is the best place as far as giving you the connections and tools and proximity to work to the best of your ability.

Geography and the quality of your writing

Changing locality can affect the way you write in both a positive and negative sense. This can be as simple as the physical and emotional effect of the environment (weather, temperature, scenery etc…) and also by the character of the artistic circles that you are moving in, all of which are unique to a specific place. For example: I always found it very inspiring to work in Canada, where there are many cloudy moody days where you’d rather not be outside, so you might as well write music. In Los Angeles for many years I found the beautiful weather rather distracting: I always felt I was missing out on a beautiful day by staying in to work!

Working remotely

In a similar way, working remotely can impact the quality of your music as well as the collaboration. When I worked on Girl Interrupted with James Mangold, I did most of the work from Toronto while he was cutting and doing post in LA. I had most of my musicians in Toronto, like the Glass Orchestra, musicians that gave me a distinct sound that James wanted. And if I had to travel back and forth I would have lost much precious working time. So I think we were able to have a very successful collaboration, and it’s a score i’m still very proud of.

Long-distance collaborations

Once you have collaborated with people you like/respect you can keep those relationships alive even if you move in a different scene. Communication is key, reach out, making physical appearances once in a while. Every director is different, some of them don’t mind collaborating at long distance, some of them feel one meeting face-to-face is enough, but a lot of them want closeness. This is certainly understandable as directors are trusting you with the emotional core of their film. They want to feel that they have as much control over that as possible and for a lot of directors that means being in the same room and being able to express how they need this music to be. 

One very important tip to overcome the distance when you work with a director is to have the initial spotting session and the first playing-of-sketches in person. Being in the same room you can pick up on all the small signals of how they are feeling and adjust accordingly. Proximity really does help communication. I have found that over Skype/Phone you are mostly going to be given directions, in person you have more room to collaborate back and forth.

Build connections before you move

When moving to a new place the very hardest thing is not figuring out the zeitgeist, it is finding your place within it. Finding connections that will lead to collaborations. It would be wrong to expect to walk into the scene and right away meet people that will open their doors or get you work. Even in a country like America where people are very open and embrace new people and new ideas.

I doubt I would have left Toronto when I did unless I had got that phone call from New York, and then Los Angeles. Unless you have a significant reputation already, or some work offer already in place, it’s going to be a very tough and long road to break into a new town. I feel that it’s probably better to build your reputation and career as far as you can in a smaller center.

Commit to your choice

The bargain of life is that you lose and you gain with every day that goes by and every choice that you make. And although it’s natural, clinging onto things, or questioning choices in the past is a mistake. One that I have been perhaps guilty of… If you decide to move somewhere else you will likely lose the close connections with friends and family. On the other hand of course you hope to gain new opportunities and connection in the new place. If I could give a piece of advice to my younger self, it would be to commit fully to the choice you make once you make it. Once you move somewhere new, you have to be there with both feet; you can’t be looking back at the things that have gone.


If you liked this article check out the other chapters in the series Tips from the Stars!


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Mychael Danna

Mychael Danna

MYCHAEL DANNA is an Academy Award-winning film composer recognized for his evocative blending of non-western traditions with orchestral and electronic music. His body of work includes his Oscar-winning score for Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” following his collaborations with Lee on “The Ice Storm” (1997) and “Ride with the Devil” (1999). Danna also received the 2013 Golden Globe Award for “Life of Pi.” His other celebrated collaborations include those with Bennett Miller on his multiple Oscar-nominee “Moneyball,” in 2011 and his Oscar-winning drama “Capote,” in 2005; with Terry Gilliam on his Oscar-nominated “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” in 2009 and “Tideland,” in 2005; with Mira Nair on “Vanity Fair,” in 2004, “Monsoon Wedding,” in 2001 and “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” in 1996; and with Billy Ray on “Breach,” in 2007 and “Shattered Glass,” in 2003. Danna’s credits also include the 2006 Oscar-winning “Little Miss Sunshine,” for which he shared a Grammy Award nomination for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album; Marc Webb’s acclaimed romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer” in 2009; and James Mangold’s 1999 Oscar-winning film “Girl, Interrupted.”

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