After first reading Yann Martel’s novel 10 years ago, composer Mychael Danna said he hoped nobody would make “Life of Pi” into a film. A decade later, Danna has earned an Oscar for Best Original Soundtrack for Ang Lee’s live-action adaptation.
“I was definitely concerned when I found out I was working on that film. I took it very seriously to work very hard to capture the magic of the book and not screw it up, as it were,” Danna said when reached by telephone for an interview.
“When Ang called me four years ago to tell me he was going to be the one with this responsibility of transforming it into a motion picture, I definitely felt-of all the directors on Earth-he was the one who had a shot at making this a success,” he continued. “But even so, all of us working on the film knew this was a very difficult task we set for ourselves, maybe even an impossible one.”
A multi-layered story, “Life of Pi” tells the story of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. While traveling to Canada with his family and some of the animals, Pi is set adrift in a lifeboat with a couple of unusual (and hungry) passengers.
Danna said he spent over a year writing the music for the film, which he points out is a very long time for a film score.
“Not only that, I was talking about it with Ang for three years before that. We took a lot of care. Because Ang is such a methodical and disciplined filmmaker, the conceptual underpinnings are very carefully constructed,” he explained. “We spent those three years talking about multiple layers and symbolisms within all these concepts: mother’s teachings versus father’s teaching, the sky versus the sea, the blurring of borders between the cultures.”
The composer said that while working on the music, he couldn’t let himself be taken over by those intellectual ideas. “The music has to be, first of all, emotional and track the emotional journey of Pi,” Danna said.
“Everything about this is unusual”
Though critics complain about the lack of original ideas in Hollywood, Danna points out that “Life of Pi” is not a film that audiences have seen five times already this year.
“Everything about this is unusual. You have to go so far as to say there’s never been a film like this. That’s what made it so difficult to write music for; there was nothing to model after. There was no film that we were able to refer to and copy their solutions,” Danna said. “All the problems that came up, we had to solve in a new and original way. “
Danna also said that from the beginning, he wanted to introduce instruments from East and West and all over the world. “We knew visually, it was going to be extremely rich. Ang, from the beginning, was trying to create these beautiful moments and build this world that he succeeded in doing. We knew the music had to be rich, had to have the depth and international quality of what we were looking at on screen.”
When all was said and done, Danna, no stranger to non-Western instruments, used every instrument he has ever used in “Life of Pi.”
“That kind of blurring of borders was what we needed to do in the music,” he said.