October 20, 2021


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Michael Dana, a reflection of the Zurich Prize

5 min read

The road to composer Michael Dana from the basement of a Toronto church to an office in Hollywood and Vienna and on stage at the Zurich Film Festival, where he will receive the honor of achieving a career on September 30, began – as such things often do – with an offhand comment.

It was in the mid-1980s and Dana was a student of electronic music at the University of Toronto, paying for college by playing organ in local churches and composing piece pieces for a nearby planetarium. He also scored drama on campus, mostly for kicks. One afternoon sitting in a sound booth, and chatting with a neighboring lighting technician, Dana stumbled on a new path. “My friend told me about another guy on campus who wanted to make a movie and was looking for a composer,” Dana said. “It simply came to our notice then. I met the guy, we had a great conversation and that’s it [hit it off]. And in those five minutes, we have established what we will do for the next 30 years.

The filmmaker was Atom Egoan, who encouraged Dana to adopt her new background as a creative tool while learning the craft. “The idea was to make a different kind of Canadian movie, obviously on a different budget, with very different dramatic and commercial aspirations, so these things made it really perfect for someone who had no preparation in film music,” says Dana.

“I had no formal direction, no mentors and I didn’t know anyone who was making the film,” he said. “I learned everything myself by sitting down with a videotape, pausing and starting with my pause button and my sequencer.”

“We were creating something new, having fun and experimenting, and it was a big part of creating any kind of music and art in Toronto at the time. There was a lack of fun and pressure because our commercial aspirations were so low,” he says. “[We were in] This sandbox is where you can play around, and do whatever you want. Just kidding, because we weren’t getting paid too much and only 100 people could see the pictures.

The follow-up features, starting with “Family Seeing” in 1987, are evolving through “Speaking Parts” and “The Adjuster”, and in full swing with the 1994 international breakout “Exotica” Did.

“Atom is a conceptual filmmaker, and he taught me to be a conceptual composer,” Dana says. “It simply came to our notice then [“Exotica”] Adopting this music from other cultures and bringing it into the world of alienation and projection. I literally took my full fee and got on a plane with a digital tape recorder. I toured Asia for a few months for some of the strangest and most interesting things I was able to record.

Danner’s work on “Exotica”, with a mix of folk songs, world beats and vague horror synths, opens new doors for the composer, who soon added filmmakers Mira Nair and Ang Lee in place of his colleagues. Like their predecessors, Lee and Nair also explored cultural divisions, often digging – or at least acknowledging – the gap between East and West. So just as he worked on Nair’s “Com Sutra: A Tale of Love” and “Monsoon Wedding” and Lee’s “The Ice Storm”, the composer can continue to build that conceptual bridge.

“It’s almost like there’s a rock in your shoe, like something moving behind your head,” Dana explains about his technique. “There is this inconsistency between what you are expecting, what you are seeing and then what you are hearing with it. What’s different? What’s the effect? ​​”

For example, in “The Ice Storm,” Dana used Balinese gamelan music to contrast the story of suburban unrest. “The film is about this broken bond between a family and a society, in contrast to the music played by a group of people in a village, all of whom have a strong bond with each other,” he explained. “Music is the complete opposite social structure of the story, and sometimes that contrast is extremely effective.”

In subsequent projects, Dana will combine Middle Eastern sounds and medieval instruments for “The Sweet Afterlife” and work Moroccan folk songs in the inferior world of “8mm”, a neo-Nair led by Nicholas Cage that Dana’s first full-Hollywood production , Many more studio projects will follow. And when the composer arranged high-profiles for award-winning titles such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “500 Days of Summer,” and “Moneyball,” he began a parallel track partnership with his brother Jeff in animated projects, “The Good Dinosaur.” Onward “and” The Adams Family “as well as for the limited series” Elias Grace “.

“With a 100-minute animated film, you probably have 90 minutes of music. You need a lot of help, and instead of having a bunch of extra writers, this is where I got to my brother,” says Dana. “I trust my brother’s musical instruments more than anyone. We speak the same language, and obviously, we grew up in the same house, listening to the same songs. I like his writing, and he does things I can’t do. Together we are stronger. “

No matter, whether working alone or on his own, the composer does not change his overall process. “I came up with the idea first,” Dana says. “I think: What is this movie? And then, if I could summarize this movie in two sentences, what is the most elegant musical instrument to help people understand that content without hitting their noses?”

“Usually it’s with a different idea,” he continued. “Repeating what already exists, what we already see doesn’t necessarily bring anything valuable, [because] If you take it, you will still have the same thing. But when you add something that evokes an equal and opposite reaction, when the film evokes peace during war, it becomes really interesting. When you add that salt to sweets, that’s where the magic happens. ”

“It’s a career achievement award, not a lifetime award,” the composer warned, “I like it more because I still had some life left!” – Dana calls “Life of Pi” the “most meaningful movie” of her life, and it’s not just because she won an Oscar.

Dana said, “This film is the sum of everything, it summarizes all my work in the combination of East and West.” “I was born in a country where this multicultural experiment, a mosaic instead of a melting pot, where people feel comfortable keeping and presenting their culture. Without planning, I ended up working on a film that is an expression of that belief. Satisfying is not a word to describe it, it is magical. ”

“One of the things that is very important to me when using non-Western music is that I have a deep respect for it.” Show your respect. It’s something I really took to my music and ‘Life of Pi’ was basically a symbol of that whole philosophy and concept, “he says.” So it was awesome to work with. “

And when he reflects on the unexpected path that led him to Zurich, Dana admits that fear, at least, has always been a constant. “It’s obviously really satisfying that people look at my work and think there’s a lasting value, so it means a lot.” “But it still doesn’t make it easy to start the next film. I still see the blank page and filled with deep terror!

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