An Interview with Jeff Danna by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.83/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Jeff Dana’s career as a guitar player was sidetracked by a hand injury suffered when he was 21 years old. Turning to composition, Jeff began finding work scoring small, independent films in Canada. In 1992, he moved to Los Angeles to assume a career in Hollywood, scoring music for television and feature films. His efforts on the 1992 resurrection of KUNG FU on television led to additional assignments. His most recent endeavor was the lavish and, varied score for THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, an entertaining documentary about film producer Robert Evans. Danna has also collaborated with his brother Mychael, notably on a series of Celtic music recordings, but also on film scores such as last year’s GREEN DRAGON and this year’s TV docudrama, THE MATTHEW SHEPARD STORY. While his hand injury precluded his ability to play live performances, he still plays briefly for recording sessions.
What initially got you involved in film scoring?
I was living up in Toronto playing guitar in a band, being a songwriter, and doing some session work. That was the future I had planned, and then I hurt my hand in a pretty bad injury – carpal tunnel, tendonitis, that kind of thing – and couldn’t play for quite a while, and they were wondering if I was going to be able to play at all. So after I stopped thinking about throwing myself off a tall building I started thinking, well, what am I going to do now? I knew a couple of people who were getting into film scoring, my brother among them, so I went in as a player on some film work – I could still play sessions, I just couldn’t do performances anymore with my injury. So I thought maybe I should give that a shot. I did a bunch of Canadian films that no one in the States has ever heard of, and they became my training ground. Then I got on this TV series for CBS. I was 25 years old and I was just learning the whole thing…
Was that SWEATING BULLETS? Which you probably were at the time!
(Laughs) Yes, it was quite a grind. Episodic television is always a grind for a composer, but that show was insane! Every six days they wanted another show, and every show had 35-40 minutes of music. I was 26, so of course I could do it then – I could stay awake for nine months in a row! And then I went over to Warner Bros. for KUNG FU, and that was my second American gig, and I did that for quite a while.
It was during that experience that Mychael and I thought we’d take the off-season to make a record, and we made ‘A Celtic Tale’. We just did it because we had this interesting idea of combining ethnic instruments with orchestra music, which is something we always loved to do. That surprised us when it really took off. It charted and everything!
One thing that strikes me looking over your filmography is that there are really a great variety of assignments. You seem to have had the opportunity to do a variety of different things…
What I like most about any project is just being given the opportunity of doing something that’s just a little outside of the most obvious way of doing it. Those are the kinds of projects I look for, where I can do something that references this era of music in history, or this country, or something that will maybe give me a chance to do something a little off the beaten path. Not way off, just a little off!
Would you describe your approach as one more atmospheric or introspective as opposed to more bombastic or highly thematic and melodic, or is that just the kind of projects you’ve been getting to do so far?
I would say I’m a melody writer before I’m an atmosphere writer. ‘Celtic Tale’ is sort of my preferred way of writing. It’s more melody based but it’s not, as you said, the bombastic, wall-of-orchestra so much. It’s a little more intimate. I’m mostly moved by unique sounds and melodies, and that’s what I try and reflect in my work.
Let’s move back to your first thing. You’re 26, you’re in Hollywood. What were some of the first challenges you had adapting to this whole notion of scoring to specific slices of film?
You realize there’s another whole dimension to writing music. There are two major factors you have to bring into the assignment of scoring. The first one is that now you’re working to someone else’s picture and story, so you have all of those musical requirements and parameters to meet. The other factor is that you have people with their own ideas who need to be satisfied and pleased.
KUNG FU was a follow-up to a popular series that had been done a decade before. Did the earlier musical approach affect where you were coming from, or did you have a clean slate to launch from?
They pretty much wanted to stay away from the earlier one. There were a couple of shows that flashed back to that, and for those they asked me to adapt that theme, which I was happy to do, because I think it’s a good piece of work. Mostly, though, they wanted it to be very synthy and techno. I really lobbied hard to sort of bring in real Chinese musicians with traditional instruments, and add that element to it. There was never the budget for a full orchestra but I was able to use four or five of those players on that show, and that made it very interesting to work on.
How did you make the transition from TV to Hollywood features?
When I came here I had to start down on the ground again, which was fine. I liked getting the work under my belt, anyways, to learn. I think scoring is scoring. I was lucky in KUNG FU in a sense that they weren’t saying “do this, don’t do that, you can only use piano and oboe.” I didn’t have those constraints on me, so when I got to do films like THE BOONDOCK SAINTS and then moving on to things like “0”, it wasn’t really that different. I was just a little better for the experience I’d put in, and I got to use real orchestras instead of samples, but because I wasn’t doing “standard” television music, I didn’t.
What were some of the earlier challenges as far as scoring features versus television?
The biggest challenge is that with each feature you’re reconceptualizing. You have to come up with a whole approach that should be unique to that project.
With television, once you get that thing going and everyone you work with likes it and it’s working for the show, it tends to stay that way. You have your themes and your sound palette intact, and off you go. You’ll get certain episodes where they’ll say “we’re going to go this way” or “that way” but for the most part and with most shows you have a musical overview that’s fairly consistent.
With features you’re reconceptualizing every time out. Also, the pressure’s usually higher because they’re spending more money, and it all just gets ratcheted up from there.
What would you say has been your toughest assignment so far?
I would say THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE was as complex and as challenging, on every level, as anything I have written. It’s a documentary on Robert Evans – it is a documentary I suppose by definition, but the filmmakers sure didn’t approach it that way. They came to me and they said: this is an opera and Bob’s dialog (because he narrates the whole thing) is the libretto. It covers fifty years from the 1950s to the present day, with an incredibly wide array of moods and musical temperatures. There’s tarantellas, there’s a lot of carnival music, which I’d never written before, there’s some big orchestral music, there’s 1950s gangster music, there’s vaudeville, but it all had to be tied together – even with all those eras and styles going through, they wanted Evans’ theme to be strong. There was also the issue that these guys were tight on time. It was about four and a half weeks for 50 minutes of music. Also, there were two directors, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, together. I was mentioning earlier about that whole thing about having people to please, and a big part of scoring is that you are collaborating. Well, now I had two directors to make happy, and that’s one extra person in the mix who has to be satisfied on every level. Fortunately they worked very well together, and they had a common vision, although they got there from different directions.
How did you approach the score to “O”? This was another modern retelling of the Shakespeare play, in the midst of films like ROMEO + JULIET and TITUS and HAMLET. What was your voice in putting that to music?
Because “0”” was set in modern times, we knew there was going to be a lot of urban, modern music. Tim Blake Nelson, the director, said “Look, we’ve got the electronic thing and the rap all covered in the score, and there’s lots of it. I want you to play completely away from that. I want it to be orchestral, I want it to be acoustic, and I want it to be inside the characters’ heads. I want to play away from all of the noise that’s around them.” We talked about it for a while, and I suggested using some of the instruments of Shakespeare’s day to try and draw that line back to the original time. And to that end, I used a Hurdy Gurdy and a Viola Da Gamba and Vielle and things like that to sort of connect us, even on a subliminal level, with the fact that we’re watching a story that’s really very old. At the same time, it is a modern orchestra sound but it’s certainly not a conventional orchestra sound. It’s sort of this big, dreamy atmosphere with these instruments playing this melody inside of it.
You worked with Tim Blake Nelson on THE GREY ZONE as well, an intriguing film about Nazi death camps. What was that project about for you?
The approach to that music was interesting. Tim didn’t want very much music at all in that film; in fact he toyed for a very long time with no music. All he wanted was this very harsh, bleak soundscape. It’s set in Auschwitz, and he wanted the ovens rumbling all the time to remind us all, whether we wanted to be reminded or not, about what is going on there, all the time. But there were a couple places, at the end, where we opened up to music, and one of the pieces that Tim really liked was ‘Quartet For The End of Time’ by Olivier Messiaen, a composer who spent time, and wrote that piece, in a concentration camp (in Silesia). There was something very 1940s and dark about that mood, so I did a bit of research and saw that Messiaen was working in a 7-tone mode, a scale that was like an alternative tone / tone / semi tone thing. So half the score to GREY ZONE is that sound and half of it is this classical Yiddish music, sort of a Klezmer sort of sound. That was the approach – it was very different. There were a lot of “bent notes”. If you’re working in that sort of (plays a few notes on piano) weird scale then it’s bound to take some unexpected turns, but it works for that world.
What kind of research do you do when you’re using either a style of music you may not be familiar with or trying to get a sense of some ethnic instrumentation?
You just hit the books. One of the biggest research projects was GREEN DRAGON, which Mike and I did together. I had a lot of experience by then with Chinese instruments from KUNG FU, and of course Mike had done the Indian thing, but neither of us had the Vietnamese thing, and that’s probably as long as I’ve spent researching a film ever. There’s a very large Vietnamese community in Orange County, and Mike and I spent over a month meeting with the players, and just going down with a camcorder and recording them and talking to them and learning about it.
Is it difficult adapting your own style to a different ethnicity in terms of music, or as a composer are you fairly able to switch between different modes?
I think you just sort of make something your own in that way. You learn the rules and the scales and the modes of that culture and then you make it your own. Unless, of course, the call is to be completely traditional, but in most films made in the Western world, most filmmakers wouldn’t really want 100% traditional Eastern music, they would find much of it clangy and a bit noisy and tuneless. So usually when you’re doing film work that involves these other worlds, there’s almost always an assumed hybrid of West and East, or wherever you’re referring to, and so that would just build itself into the process.
How does it work when you’re collaborating with Mychael?
We started this process with the Celtic records, and even before that, on some of those independent Canadian films, so we’ve done quite a bit of stuff that way. Since I live in California and he’s in Canada, e-mail comes in handy now! We’ll divide up the themes, at least preliminarily, and each guy will work to get that idea off the ground, and then when he’s just barely functioning, the other guy comes in and we start hammering away at it together.
When you’re collaborating, either your voices are similar or you’re coming from very similar sensibilities, or you’re able to merge your different sensibilities together in a very nice way, because something like GREEN DRAGON doesn’t sound like the work of two people.
You know, I think that there’s a lot to be said for the blood thing. If you think about the things that will influence an artist or a musician or a composer, growing up, if you’re living in the same house, then there are bound to be a lot of the same things. We just seem to have this similar aesthetic that is at work. His stuff is a little different than my stuff, and we can tell each other’s stuff apart, but there’s definitely a common place where we can go to where it just really works, and I think a lot of it is just that whole brother thing.
You have a movie here in your filmography called HIGHER LOVE, known on video as UNCORKED. What was that project all about?
That was a very good film that sort of ran a very rough road, legally, and just sort of got stuck in this whole quagmire. A distributor bought it, went out of business, another distributor bought it and got sued, and it was just this big mess. We did it four years ago, and Lions Gate just put it out now. It’s a film about a musician who abandons his muse, so to speak, to do the things that he thinks will make his girlfriend happy and want to marry him. In the end he’s led back to his first love, and the centerpiece of that film is this guitar piece that I had to write before the film actually started. The rest of the score followed that theme when I went and scored it three months later.
I know some projects are going to dictate other methods, but if you had your preference, when you get a film, what’s your preferred way to operate in order to nail an approach and become confident in how you should proceed with its score?
There are two levels that works at. There’s the linguistic level or the conversational level or the conceptual level, any of those words apply. You’re saying “in theory this makes sense,” because, for example, this is updated Shakespeare, so in theory we can draw a line back to the 1500s, musically, that will somehow make sense in this film. So that’s the first step, but in the end, that’s all just words. There’s a saying that talking about music with words is like dancing about architecture, and in the end, that’s just words. It’s an important part of the process but just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it will work, and vice versa – sometimes things won’t make any sense if you say them, but they’ll make sense when you see them on the screen.
The second step is where you actually sit down and try and make the idea work. So you say OK, we’re going to do this East-meets-West Vietnamese thing with these traditional instruments playing their traditional scales and we’re going to use the orchestra as just sort of a watercolorish, textural background to that”, but then you actually go make it work and then sell yourself and the director on it. So that’s sort of a two pronged step, and then after that it’s just this stay awake-a-thon, as Mike and I like to call it!
Now you did a thing recently called KART RACER. What is that all about?
That’s a kids’ movie with Dennis Quaid. I’m still working on it. It’s Nine Inch Nails music, it’s like go-cart music! It’s kind of a nice change after THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, which was very orchestral. This is basically me with my guitar turned up loud for a couple of months. That was a nice change of gears, to say the least!
What kind of music would this type of film require, other than obviously something the kids would like? As a composer trying to also hit the dramatic elements, what would that entail?
How you approach any given problem on the screen is just one of the things that goes along with your whole package, as a composer. It’s like, when we were doing KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, we were saying “how do we approach this whirlwind of good fortune that is the first twenty years of Evans’ life, everything he touches turns to gold, how do we approach that? It’s just like this happy circus.” We talked about that and said, “What about carnival music? You know, with real ironic and bent melodies that make it not quite like your normal carnival but definitely suggest that?””
What I’m long-windedly trying to say is that every film is different, and your way into the film, your compositional skills are sort of the thing that you’re bringing to it. That’s the uniqueness each composer brings to the project.
How closely do you generally work with the directors on these projects?
Generally very closely, unless there’s been some kind of upheaval. Once in a while there will be a project where the director is not in charge of the music division, or is not in charge by himself, but generally you’re working very closely with the director, and that’s a good thing. I like to work with someone who has a strong vision for the project. It will show up in the music if I have a collaborator who knows exactly where we are going.
Is it sometimes difficult for you to discern the kind of thing a director is looking for or the feeling they want when they can’t explain it musically?
I’ve had directors who have said “make it more purple!” THE BOONDOCK SAINTS was an experience where Troy Duffy, – despite the fact that he’s a musician in his own right – just did not speak about music in this film in anything resembling musical terms. It was sort of these very abstract concepts! But as long as I’m getting it and it’s turning into music and the back-and-forth is working…
I would say that my preference is to hear it in dramatic terms. Talk to me about the story, talk to me about the characters and where we are in the arc of their lives. That’s probably the most useful to me, because that’s how I relate to music. My relation to music is very intuitive and emotional and not very by the book. I like working with a director in that sense, because he generally doesn’t come to me talking about the alto clef, he wants to say “Othello’s losing his mind here”.
You’ve done a variety of films over the last decade in various genres, is there a particular type of film that appeals to you musically?
I think anything that really gets deep in the internal world of people. That’s a very abstract way to put it!
Right – make it more purple!
Right! I probably like stuff that’s dark and dramatic. The thing about conflict in ourselves or in film is that it brings up all sorts of wonderful opportunities for music, and so I enjoy something that is on some level connected. I don’t know what this says about me!
Now is there a particular type of film that you have not yet had the opportunity to do that you would like to do?
Action music. This sort of hard-core industrial go-cart music I’m writing now, I’m having a blast with that, so I’d like to expand that way. I like thrillers as well, sort of noiry thrillers.