Interview with Mychael and Jeff Danna

By • March 6, 2020

(Photo by Tyler Curtis)

Film music has often run in the family, whether relatives like Randy, David and Thomas Newman respectively practiced their craft solo, or had siblings joined at the piano hip like Disney’s Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman. In any case, two heads linked by talent, and blood can be better than one, especially when scoring the fantastical adventures of two troll brothers and a one day-resurrected dad missing his top half. 

Such is the wonderful quest that Canadian-born Mychael and Jeff Danna find themselves on for “Onward.” Singularly in their prolific careers, Mychael might be best known to the Pixar audience for paddling alongside a tiger in “The Life of Pi” and throwing the winning pitch of “Moneyball” – while younger Jeff might be a bit more grown up in his notoriety with the gang-blasting antics of “The Boondock Saints” and the haunted tonalities of “Silent Hill.” While they’ve trod drama together with scores like “Fracture” and “Lakeview Terrace,” the Dannas have often shown a synergy for unleashed imagination, be it finding surreal melodies for Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” or hearing the ethnic sorcery of Showtime’s “Camelot.” Animation in particular has brought out an inventive energy from the Dannas from “Storks” to the old country black humor of “The Addams Family” and the prehistoric percussion of Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur.”

For a brand abounding in high concept cheer, Pixar’s “Onward” spins mythical creatures into a workaday consumer universe, as populated with a Dungeonmaster’s worth of characters. Yet what gives this clever spin on “Monsters, Inc.” its own decidedly personal identity is its story’s root in the reality of director and co-writer Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”). Having lost his father at a precious young age, Scanlon and his brother were only left with the briefest audio recording of the father’s voice to create a complete picture of him. That wish to be reunited is transformed here into troll high schooler Ian and his way-too-enthusiastic n’er do-well older brother Barley Lightfoot (their characters respectively voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt). Given a magical stone and staff to bring their accountant dad back for a precious 24 hours, the spell of course goes halfway right. Seeking to generate eyes with a face (and the rest of dad’s body), Ian and Barley venture from a Chuck E. Cheese-esque world that barely bothers with its magic to rediscover the far more sorcerous, and dangerous place it used to be.

With their dexterity at both ethnic and orchestral music, Mychael and Jeff Dana conjure a wondrous, theme-filled quest that drives “Onward’s” magic bus past biker pixies, green blobs and schoolhouse rocks. With ancient instruments creating the sound of a fantasy world before technology blew it, the bros rock on with a 70’s vibe for a time-warped Barley. A rousing symphony is cast to deliver an epic sense of magic and wannabe valor, while a chorus majestically incants. But most important of all amidst the Dannas sympatico, and truly charmed approach is the emotion their music gives to the bond of brotherhood, one that radiates the poignancy of the father that could have truly been, as well as the do-or-die bond of brothers – no matter how different their paths might have gone. It’s a heartfelt tone that truly unites “Onward” and the Dannas’ music for a road trip that captures the eternal magic of Disney itself.  

When you were kids did you ever play Dungeons and Dragons? 

D and D is slightly later than our time, and anyway we were both too busy with music. But fantasy was huge in the ‘70s when we were teenagers: everyone in high school read all the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” books. Fantasy artwork was everywhere: LP covers, calendars, and of course painted on the side of vans! That fantasy aesthetic was in all the music we loved too: early Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, even Led Zeppelin has lyrics about Gollum.

(A childhood Mychael and Jeff Danna)

How would you say your approach to scoring is similar, but different? 

We grew up in the same household, listened to all the same music growing up and had very similar musical training at first: piano lessons, choir… but by our early teens had chosen different instruments and our tastes began to diverge somewhat. Jeff was drawn to rock music and guitars. I was drawn to classical music and piano/ organ. Our music overlapped when we played together in bands, Jeff as a guitarist and me as a synth/ keyboard player. While rooted in the same place, we grew in different directions and therefore have different strengths and areas of expertise. That has been incredible invaluable as collaborators. If we were exactly the same there would be no point in collaborating: the value and the fun of it is that we both bring something different, but our fundamental communication and language is rooted in the same place.

Do you think that scoring Showtime’s “Camelot,” or the surreal fantasies for Terry Gilliam with” Tideland” and “Doctor Parnassus” help pave the way for “Onward?”

Period music and fantasy are two of our passions, so as was the case in the projects you have mentioned above, this story provided an exceptional playground for the way we like to work – combining things like early music instruments with a sweeping orchestra in a way that is hopefully original and highly melodic.  One might even describe Terry Gilliam movies as being animated films realized in live action! We seem to thrive in that kind of atmosphere, and “Onward” is as potently fantastical as anything we have ever done.

Did the deeply personal nature of Dan’s story give this another level of importance, as well as to your collaboration with him?

(Onward director and co-writer Dan Scanlon)

When Dan first pitched his story to us, we were somewhat astounded by the parallels in our own life – teenage brothers growing up together and coping with the loss of their father (who in our case, was actually an accountant like the father in “Onward!”)  So it was easy for us to access the deep emotional places that were required to score this story. “Onward” is not just a film about loss, it’s a movie about what replaces the thing that is lost and how we grow together in the wake of that loss.  All these factors made this a highly unusual and poignant project to work on for us.

What was the particular process of scoring “Onward” like together? And did either of you gravitate towards certain scenes or characters?

(photo by Scoring Sessions)

We approached this score like all the others we write, dividing up the themes and just wading into it.  It wasn’t as simple as “Myke takes Barley (the older brother) and Jeff takes Ian (the younger).” However, by the end of it (as is usually the case with us), we couldn’t really remember who had written what in the beginning.  What was different about this score, was that we started the process with writing the rock music for Barley’s van, Guinevere.  These were prog-rock and hard rock songs that we assumed would have no bearing on the orchestral score to follow. However, they turned out to have the seeds of the quest theme that we came to call upon a great deal in this score. 

How would you solve any creative differences you had? 

Creative differences are not a bad thing, they are opportunities to make the concept and the music better. Film composers are composers that have had to learn to drop their egos, as the entire career is based in collaboration from start to finish. You have to be able to deal with and use to your advantage any friction in ideas. For us, if one of us feels very strongly about something, the other guy listens. It can be heated sometimes, but that’s because we feel very passionately about what we do. But we are never finished with anything until both of us are happy with it. So all those inevitable differences get worked out, which is something that doesn’t happen if you write by yourself. It leads to stronger ideas and better music when every musical idea has to pass through both of us. Or pistols at dawn!

Could you talk about the themes of “Onward?”

(left to right  of Onward producer Kori Rae, composers  Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna and director/writer Dan Scanlon at the scoring session for Disney and Pixar’s “Onward” which opens in theaters on March 6.)
(c)Disney.

We ended up with three main themes and a few other subordinate themes.  We knew that Ian would need a strong theme that would follow the considerable arc of his character, from timid young teenager to triumphant young man.  It starts with many of the folky guitars that Jeff plays – bouzouki, cuattro, tiple, dulcimer, lute etc, and in the end, graduates to a fuller sound that includes orchestra in that palette.  The Quest had its own theme that we drew from the music we wrote from the van, Guinevere, that also graduated from something simple to something large and sweeping. Another theme we needed was a Magic theme, four notes from the whole-tone scale, that seemed to evoke the ancient power of Old Magik and bursts into the film at our first glimpse of the landscape of “Onward.”  

How did you want to get across the idea of a magical society that had mostly given up on its birth rite?

The score starts with a fanfare from the Magic theme that bounds through the landscape of “Onward” like the imagery we see of the old days of magic. By the end of the first sequence, we have arrived at the modern New Mushroomton, and in with that, the score decreases in size to a small, folky ensemble where we meet Ian for the first time.  The next time in the film that the orchestra is dynamically unleashed again is when magic unexpectedly arrives back in the film and our quest really kicks off.

What was it like creating the “source” music, especially given Barley’s character who’s steeped in a 70’s rock vibe? And how did you want it to filter into the score?

(Mychael and Jeff growing up)

Maybe it was just us (!), but the world of New Mushroomton and Barley’s van really seemed to harken to the 1970’s we grew up in and the wizard/fantasy tinged prog-rock and hard-rock of the day. It seemed to be a perfect fit for quest-obsessed Barley and his airbrushed 70’s van.

How does working for Disney on “Onward” and “The Good Dinosaur” compare to other animated projects you’ve done like “Storks”, especially when it comes to their development and level of studio oversight? 

It’s no secret that Pixar is the best game in town. It’s been an incredible honor to get to work with them twice now, and a high-water mark for both of us. The level of artistic commitment and the tireless quest for excellence and truth in storytelling is legendary there, and it’s something we’ve witnessed and been proud to be a part of. Ideas get examined and critiqued from all sides in the most positive way possible, so that the ideas that make it through the process are the best that they can be. The score gets heard by dozens of people in the sketching process and it really does distill the work into the strongest version of itself. But the process is based in creativity, exploration and positivity as opposed to being fear-based, which again helps the work be the best it can be.

Before “Onward,” you’d put your own spin on an animated “Addams Family.” Could you talk about giving them your own voice, while capturing the musical nature that had come before in their live action incarnation?

In Conrad Vernon’s and Greg Tiernan’s visually lavish film, they took us back to the Addams Family’s old country European roots as the film begins its journey. Musically we relished the opportunity to explore things from that perspective and arrived at gypsy music as a way to access the history and the dark humor of the family as they migrate to America to start their new lives. Combining gypsy instrumentation and modalities from Spain and Eastern Europe with a cinematic orchestra gave us a tremendously colorful and lively palette to work with. Adding a dash of large gothic organ and musical saw to the brew, we created a sound that moved easily between large & frightening and whimsical – gothic and ironic .We felt it appropriate to have moments where we honored Vic Mizzy’s popular 1964 “Addams Family” tv theme song , a tune that is linked inextricably with the iconic Addams characters . We enjoyed putting that music into a new light, with gypsy instruments and time signatures, and sometimes the full orchestra pounding out the familiar 4 note refrain.

In the end, would you say that animation is harder than scoring live action?

An animated world certainly needs a lot of music to pump life into its CG veins. As the cliché goes, there are a lot of notes!  What we love about scoring for animation is that there are few rules and few boundaries in such fantastical settings which open the door for interesting and engaging musical solutions.

For viewers who might not have a brother, or have lost a parent at a young age, what do you hope that “Onward” and your score communicates about that bond? 

Every family experiences loss and pain: that’s just life for everyone. For us the loss of our father at an early age was something we could directly relate to Ian and Barley were 19 and 16, in our case we were 19 and 13. Like the father in the film, our father was an accountant. When Dan pitched us the story for the first time, it really kind of blew our minds at how close this was to our own life story. The story is based on Dan and his brother’s story, so we had that immediate connection to Dan, and to the story which was also a very personal thing for us, and a story we could immediately access the emotions of. That said, it was in some ways more difficult as a lot of these emotions have been buried for years, and it was painful to have to pull those memories out and use them as we needed to in order to portray the emotions in the film. A lot of things that we really have left unsaid for many, many years had to be addressed. It was a form of therapy for us I think! But I’ve always found that the most effective and universal art is art that is extremely specific and personal. That’s the irony of art, and the power of art. So I have no doubt that everyone will be able to relate to and feel this story. 

(Mychael, Jeff and Dad)

Do you think this film has strengthened your relationship as artists and brothers?

The film was a reminder that we all sort of take for granted these people who are thrust upon us by our parents …our siblings. Looking around our houses in our young lives at the people around us, we forget that these are profound relationships and this film is an excellent reminder of that. As brothers we have been fortunate to be able to continue the interaction that started in our playroom as kids into the challenging, rewarding and sometimes nutty work of filmmaking, and we believe our craft is always the better off for it.

“Onward” opens March 6th in theaters, with Mychael and Jeff Danna’s score available on Walt Disney Records HERE

Listen to Mychael and Jeff Danna’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Mychael Danna’s website HERE

Visit Jeff Danna’s website HERE

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