by Dan Goldwasser
Composer Jeff Danna started to get more recognition with his score to the controversial drama O, and now with his score to the successful The Kid Stays in the Picture. Previously, Danna also worked with his brother Mychael on two Celtic albums, as well as scoring music for film and television projects. SoundtrackNet got a chance to catch up with Jeff in Los Angeles where he was mixing the score to his latest project.
You recently scored The Kid Stays in the Picture, the highly acclaimed biopic about Robert Evans. How did you get involved in the project?
Directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstin were looking for a composer, and were just listening to CDs. They took a somewhat uncommon approach. They got about 40 CDs in from different agencies, then they took all the covers and resumes and put them aside, and just listened through the albums - and at one point something caught their ear. When they went and looked back, it turns out it was my score to O. They got in touch with me and said they wanted to talk about this project - and once I saw the film, I was sold. It's a very good movie. So this is just one of those things where they connected with something I had written.
Does that approach happen often with you?
It happens more often now - people have heard more of my stuff now I suppose.
I've been getting calls now because people have heard my music from Kid. At the time, I was just pleased that someone was listening to the music, and not deciding strictly from the resume. I was pleased that something musical had touched them.
How did you approach the score, given the large timeline that the film covers, and the different musical influences through the varying time periods?
I think the most important thing that Brett and Nanette said to me was, "This film is an opera, and Bob's voiceover is the libretto". I had to think of it that way - they really wanted to play this stuff up. The pathos would be deep, the trouble would be traumatic, the good times would be sparkly and tinged with gold. It was really that kind of operatic approach to things that was really attractive from a musical point of view - it sounded like a lot of fun. Then it was just a matter of figuring out era-by-era, and event-by-event in his life, how best to handle it. So it was quite a challenge! There were some topics covered in the film that you never would really cover in a more straightforward dramatic feature.
Can you give me an example?
Well I remember the first thing we came up against was trying to decide what to do in the moments where things in Bob's upward career-momentum started to get out of hand. Like when Frank Sinatra calls Bob up and says, "Give me back Mia Farrow," (she was shooting Rosemary's Baby for Bob), "I need her for my film!" Or the moments where Paramount says "We're going to fire you" and he has to make the pitch for his life in the New York meeting - the life of the studio, really. And we were wondering how to score those moments. We thought that carnival music would work, because his life was very carnival-esque, spiraling upwards. And so we ended up with that brassy, twisted carnival music that is present in a lot of the score. Another thing that is rather unorthodox [ as a subject to score ] was the episode in the film when he sells the rights to the book "The Detective", and he bargains for a suite of offices, or something like that. It's not your typical scene, but it's a deal that was so pivotal in his life. So we decided to do an ironic and slightly off-kilter waltz to describe his interaction with the rest of the industry. So many things were a little unusual to approach, musically.
How did you work you score with the songs?
All of the source music was set, so I knew what was there. I had to write into them, and out of them (so to speak), bearing in mind the key, tempo and atmosphere. So things like the Cat Stevens song, or the Elton John song, were basically landmarks that I had to work around.
What is the story behind the "Godfather Love Theme" performed by Slash?
That was a last-minute addition to the album. I was at Bob's house, and we were just finalizing the order for the CD, and he off the cuff mentioned that he had this thing he wanted to play for me that Slash had given him for his birthday, about five years before. It's not in the film, but it's a nice capper to the album. It's somehow very "Evans-like", and it seems to fit somehow into the whole thing. It was literally a last-minute addition - he handed me the DAT that night, and we mastered it the next morning.
According to your biography, you were more of a performer, until you suffered a hand injury?
Yeah, I had a really bad case of tendonitis and carpal tunnel in both my hands and forearms. It was bad - I had a hard time opening doors and stuff. It was pretty debilitating, and the doctors questioned my ability to continue on as a player at that point of time. That precipitated this shift from performing to composing -much like my brother's injury, which is really weird. The straight-up-performer in me was pretty much over. It took a long time before I could play a lot again, like 8 or 9 years. In the meanwhile, I could only do it in bursts, to write, and to do some session work.
Your first major television show was "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues".
That was my first television show that I did here in the States. I had done a number of Canadian features before that, and another TV show based in Canada. But that was my first show for Warner Brothers, based in the USA. I then did 10-12 episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210". Basically, I started in films in Canada, then came to the States, and started back at the bottom doing television and worked my way back up to films. Uncorked was my first feature here in the states, and O was my first studio film.
On the CD release of the score to O, the final track, "To Take Flight", seems to be underscoring the finale of the movie - but in the finished film, the "Ave Maria" is used instead. What prompted this decision?
"To Take Flight" was a track that I did separately from the film. What I did was take a few different themes that were in the film, and wrote another track to give the album its own end-point. But it wasn't part of the film, and wasn't written for a particular scene. I try to make my soundtrack albums a listening experience just on their own. I work hard to re-sequence them, and edit them to make them as melodic and thematic as possible. And listening to O, I realized I needed a nice ending, especially after all of the gloom and doom.
How was it to be competing against rap and hip hop songs for the movie soundtrack for that film? Did it influence the type of score you were writing?
Well we wanted to play away from that kind of music. The only mandate director Tim Blake Nelson gave me when he hired me was that he didn't want anything electronic in the score, and wanted it to be an organic, orchestral score. So we went from there, and were playing something completely different from the songs on purpose.
Who decided to use the piece "The Blood of Cu Chulainn", composed by both you and your brother Mychael, for the opening credits of The Boondock Saints?
I was actually hired on that film on because the producer and director were fans of the Celtic albums, and they thought it would be really great to include it somewhere. As they went through the process of putting music on the film, they had a Rolling Stones song, "Street Fighting Man", for the opening credits - which was going to cost a ridiculous amount of money. I can't remember if I suggested it first, or they suggested it, but they had liked "The Blood of Cu Chulainn" previously, and decided to use it there. The Celtic album was how they got to know me, so it made sense that it would come back to that, I guess.
What is your level of collaboration with your brother, Mychael? You've written some scores with him, and even performed for him on some of his scores.
We've done some writing together. Green Dragon is the last film we wrote together, we did those two Celtic albums together, and we did some films in Canada as well. I'm sure we'll do something together again in the next year and a half. He's been really familiar with my guitar playing all his life, so he'll generally call me up when he needs some guitar stuff. He called me in for Girl, Interrupted, and I did some work on Antwone Fisher. We have a good time workingtogether.
Green Dragon was a rather unconventional score, with heavy Vietnamese influences. What kind of research did you do for that score?
We did more research than we've ever done before, or even since - about a month of research. Fortunately, there's a very large Vietnamese community in Orange County - the largest outside of Vietnam itself, so I'm told. So there is a great selection of instruments available, good musicians and singers. The director, Tim Bui, hooked me up with a liaison in the music community here who was a translator and musician as well. He was indispensable, and introduced me to a lot of the people down there.
Learning about the instruments and their harmonic approach was a very different experience. Vietnamese music in its rawest form is quite an alien sound to Western ears, and if we had taken that approach, it wouldn't have flown with the director, for sure. It also wouldn't have worked with the film which was about Vietnamese people thrust into America - a clash of cultures - so it had to represent both sides. So obviously there's a lot of bending the sounds and textures their music has into a Western sound, but trying to leave elements of their sound intact.
How do you and Mychael collaborate? What is your process?
It's the same way as on our albums. Each of us would take a theme, and get it started and we'd build on it to the point where we'd start to toss things back and forth and put it on the table and look at it together. But someone has to come up with the raw materials for each piece by themselves - you can't just sit in the room together and say, "How about a C, then a G!"
What is the most exotic instrument you've ever composed for?
I would say that dan bau on Green Dragon. It's a single stringed instrument that the player changes the pitch by bending a single piece of wood, to which the string is attached, thereby changing the length (and pitch) of the string. . It's very mournful, and has a very unusual sound. I think it's the most exotic one that I've worked with, in terms of being a completely different sound than anything in the Western world.
Have you found that you have had to play an instrument that you've never played before, because you couldn't find a player?
That happened here the other day. This score I'm working on right now has Russian music in it, and there's an instrument called a gusli, which is like an autoharp with a keyboard on the left-hand side of it, and we read about it, and found one, but couldn't find anyone to play it! So I found an instrument that was like a psaltery - basically a box with steel strings that you could play on your lap. It was basically a gusli, without the keyboard chord-markers, so we just recorded that since we couldn't find anyone who could play it. As I recall on The Kid Stays in the Picture I played a ukulele for the first time just because we needed one for the vaudeville piece.
Would you go back to scoring episodic television on a regular basis?
It would have to be something awfully good. The thing about television is that once you establish the sound and color for the show, there can be a lot of repetition. So I'm more interested in doing things 2-3 months at a time, and then going on to the next project.
What would you describe your music as belonging to, stylistically?
I think there's a pretty wide range in my work. I just finished Kart Racer, a kid's go-cart movie, and it was like a Nine Inch Nails score. And I go all the way up to the big orchestra sound from there. I would say that the one common thing is that I like folk instruments a lot, and love to use them with the orchestra. It can mean a lot of extra work, but I like stuff that's a little bit rough and a little out of tune - that handcrafted quality. I think I enjoy hearing different colors than just the orchestra all the time. I like to spice it up with some unusual textures, and I prefer acoustic textures to electronic generally, so instruments like the hurdy-gurdy etc. are a great way to get to those types of things.
So what is this current project you mentioned, the Russian one?
It's a Showtime movie called The Yeltsin Project. It's a very good story about these three American campaign advisors who get a call from Yeltsin's administration saying that they're getting killed in the polls, and need help. So they go over there - it's supposed to be "hush hush" - and they come up against an extremely creaky bureaucratic system. It gets more and more dangerous for them, because as they convince Yeltsin to follow their strategy and he eventually starts to catch up in the polls, many people in the Communist Party and organized crime are unhappy about this - and at the end there are snipers on rooftops looking for them. It's a political thriller directed by Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies). I enjoy working with Roger, we have similar passions. We worked on The Matthew Shepard Story together, which is where we met.
What was the musical direction given to you and your brother for that film?
Oh yeah - I worked with Mychael on that one, too! I remember that Roger said he didn't want it to sound like a "television movie" - he didn't want the emotions to be worn on their sleeves. That is, to make it emotionally restrained - a colder temperature, so to speak. Not to say "this terrible thing has happened", but rather to play it in a different way.
What is your dream project?
Oh, I really like alternate reality, or historical things - so there would be really unusual instrumentations available. I like fairy tales, so a fairy tale on steroids would be great - a two parter, so there would be lots of music!
The Grey Zone, a Holocaust film directed by Tim Blake Nelson and scored by Jeff will be in theaters in October. Kart Racer reaches theaters in March. The Yeltsin Project will air next summer. Jeff's scores to The Kid Stays in the Picture, O, Green Dragon, Uncorked and Baby are available on CD.
Special thanks to Josh Jarry, Ray Costa, and the folks at Costa Communications for making this interview possible.