A Week With Musical Storytellers Of The Silver Screen Music can give movies special power. Hear NPR's Robert Siegel speak with the composers behind Life of Pi, Whiplash, Chocolat, Halloween and Finding Nemo.
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A Week With Musical Storytellers Of The Silver Screen

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A Week With Musical Storytellers Of The Silver Screen

A Week With Musical Storytellers Of The Silver Screen

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

All week we've been hearing from film composers about the process of writing music for the big screen.

(MONTAGE OF MUSICAL SCORES)

SIEGEL: This last bit from "Lawrence Of Arabia," one of my favorites, was for the really big screen, music as big as Cinemascope. Well, things have changed over the years. Canadian composer Mychael Danna remarked on how much more involved producers and directors are now with his work on the music. And he says he relishes that back-and-forth with filmmakers.

MYCHAEL DANNA: I love that about film music - that it's collaborative - that the score for "Moneyball" or "Life Of Pi" are not how I would write them, but they're how I wrote them with those two great directors.

SIEGEL: And a collaboration paid both for both director, Ang Lee, and Danna. They won Oscars for their work on "Life Of Pi," a saga of a boy and a tiger adrift at sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LIFE OF PI" MUSICAL SCORE)

SIEGEL: What instrument is that that's tinkling like that right now?

DANNA: The bansuri is the Indian flute - he santur, which is kind of a Persian instrument that made its way into India. All those instruments were recorded all over the world in the most complicated possible ways we could think of doing it. The santur was recorded in Mumbai, the bansuri here in Toronto, the orchestra in Los Angeles. So it's a real global effort what we're hearing there.

SIEGEL: When we spoke last, it was in 1997. You had composed the score to Mira Nair's "Kama Sutra."

(SOUNDBITE OF "KAMA SUTRA" MUSICAL SCORE)

SIEGEL: Your very eastern, South Asian approach to music, which seemed to belie your Winnipeg childhood - completely, utterly occidental background - this has only become deeper in years since, with a film like "Life Of Pi" and "Monsoon Wedding." You've really become the go to we-have-a-sort-of-South-Asian-like-movie-to-score-here guy.

DANNA: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a real attraction for me to that culture. And, for obvious reasons, it's so different from what I grew up with - piano lessons and church choirs and orchestration and harmony class. And it's a completely different way of approaching music. But, then, I love that and lot of other kinds of music, too, that I've also used. So I think of myself more as a global thing. I certainly have a South Asian interest, for sure, but, speaking of Ang Lee, we worked together on "The Ice Storm," and that was a film where I used Native American music.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE ICE STORM" MUSICAL SCORE)

DANNA: The Native American approach to music is inspired by the sounds of nature and the voices of animals. And it's a completely different way of looking at music than either in South Asia or in Europe, where my background comes from. Music is such a magical and unexplainable thing anyway that we've come up with these different approaches and different ways of expressing ourselves through sound. It's just, I find it really fascinating and it's something that I've - when I fell into film music, I wanted to bring all those influences and all that play time with me basically.

SIEGEL: As I mentioned earlier, you scored "Monsoon Wedding."

(SOUNDBITE OF "MONSOON WEDDING" MUSICAL SCORE)

SIEGEL: Boy, listening to that score, the last person I would suspect who composed it was some Canadian guy sitting in Toronto and raised in Winnipeg. It just sounds very beautifully Indian.

DANNA: Well, thank you. I want to respect the cultures that I'm referring to and working with. And I think Canadians and maybe someone from Winnipeg or Toronto is really well-qualified for that, because Canadian culture is so new and almost nonexistent in a way that it's easy for us to see through the eyes of other nations and other cultures and other people. And I think that's what makes Canadians great comedians and journalists and maybe film composers too.

SIEGEL: Do you have, by the way, on your laptop, say, ideas that you have that aren't for a movie you're currently working on, but they're there to draw upon an plug-in at some future date?

DANNA: Yes I do. And the interesting thing is I have never used one of those in another film.

(LAUGHTER)

DANNA: But I continue to collect them, stubbornly, and it never fits any other movie either.

SIEGEL: Well, I guess at the very opposite end of the scale of how exotic a story is, a boy on a raft at sea with a tiger would be squeezing a winning team out of the Oakland A's payroll in "Moneyball," which was a score that you also composed.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MONEYBALL" MUSICAL SCORE)

SIEGEL: A very different kind of challenge to make this movie have music?

DANNA: Absolutely, because the most elegant way that music can help tell a story in a film is the most simple possible way, within those just few notes, so that you can hear a few bars of music and right away be in that world, in that story that the filmmaker is telling. That's really the hardest thing about writing film music - is finding that magic key. And as soon as you find it, you know you found it, and everybody in the room knows that it's right. It's kind of amazing.

SIEGEL: And when you go to a movie - not one that you've written the score for - can you actually watch the movie, or are you hearing too much? Are you constantly listening to the score?

DANNA: Yeah. It's difficult, I have to admit. And sometimes I get frustrated or angry about what I'm hearing, (laughter) because, of course, you know, I have very specific thoughts about what music should be doing at any given moment. I don't think you'd want to sit beside me and watch a movie.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) You know, it's interesting - the idea of laying it on too think in a film score. At one time, when Bernard Herrmann did something for a Hitchcock movie, that was the first time anyone had heard somebody do that. It was novel and it was tense. It was suspense. The 40th time you've heard that, it's a cliche. But, at some point, these things are relatively new, no?

DANNA: Absolutely. And the fact is audiences are different than they were in the 1950 or 60. They're more sophisticated. They have a shorter attention span. You have to reflect that in the way that you score a film, and what it is, of course, what we're doing is manipulation. A film score is telling a story and it's manipulating you emotionally. But a good film score, in a way, nowadays, in 2014, it asks more questions than answers, and it helps the audience ask those questions. But it doesn't solve the problems. I think that's something that's really changed in the last generation or two of film music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL SCORE)

SIEGEL: Well, Mychael Danna, thank you very much for talking with us once again about your work.

DANNA: My absolute pleasure, and we'll do this again in 17 years

SIEGEL: (Laughter) OK, it's a deal. Composer Mychael Danna has written the music for the films "Life Of Pi," "Monsoon Wedding" and "Moneyball." You can hear all five of our conversations about scoring the screen at npr.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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