Tony Cummings quizzed Canadian film music composer MYCHAEL DANNA about his memorable score for The Nativity Story feature film.
The film The Nativity Story was the latest in an increasing number of movies dealing with spiritual themes targeted at the mass cinema audience. And although the anti-Christian bias obvious in Britain's film distributors ensured that the film got exceedingly patchy showings in the UK, in the States the film grossed 40 million dollars. A thoroughly biblical telling of the incarnation the film, produced by New Line Cinema and starring 16 year old Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac and Shohreh Aghdashloo, powerfully impacted US audiences as it chronicled Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. For instance, the Hollywood Reporter called the film "smart, artistically and spiritually satisfying."
The memorable music for The Nativity Story was penned by Canadian composer Mychael Danna. Danna, a committed Christian, began his film music career with the score for Atom Egoyan's Family Viewing for which Danna won a Canadian film award, an award for which he has been nominated 11 times. He has earned a reputation for skilfully blending ethnic instrumentation into contemporary film scores, integrating Moroccan music into 8MM and medieval European and Persian music into the score for The Sweet Hereafter. He has scored eight movies by director Atom Egoyan including Where The Truth Lies, Arafat, Felicia's Journey, Exotica, The Adjuster and Speaking Parts. More recently Danna scored the Oscar winning Capote, Black Tideland and Little Miss Sunshine. Mychael has recently begun working on Surf's Up, the first animated project he has worked on. This hugely gifted composer took time out from his busy schedule to answer some of Cross Rhythms' questions.
We kicked off by asking Mychael what was the biggest challenge in working on The Nativity Story music score. He responded, "It's a bit overwhelming to write music for this story that every great composer since year 0 has written for. I wanted to honour some of what came before, but I didn't want to distract from the story by bursting into Christmas carols all over the place. Just to have that wafting in the air - even if you don't quite recognize what the melody is - just the sound and sense that it's an ancient melody."
Listening to the soundtrack album to The Nativity Story (released in the US by New Line Records in December) one is struck by how dark and dramatic some of the musical passages are. Was Mychael aware that some of the tracks would make for uncomfortable listening? "Every film is different, and the question is not, 'What do I want to do?' It's 'What is the best thing for the film?' I've worked where atmospheric, non-thematic music is certainly the way to go. Then there are films like The Nativity Story where it's best to have more orchestral and melodic elements working in it. I really wanted to build a time bridge, using medieval and Renaissance instruments and themes. But I also thought it was very important to have an emotional connection between us and the characters on screen."
Danna has brought his wide sweep of cultural eclecticism into The Nativity Story score. He explained, "When I was studying music in Toronto, it was a point in time when Toronto as a cultural city was exploding, and exploding in a good way. Toronto is a very successful, multi-centric city - all these different groups intermingle. There is a great deal of artistic expression from Egypt and it's all very accessible for anyone else. So, when I started going to school and studying composition at the University in Toronto, it was so easy to accept all these different kinds of music and dance and art forms from all over the world. Toronto continues to be a very great working model of what a multi-ethnic city can be. That's really where I first started hearing these sounds and getting excited about them. As a result, I brought them into my work."
Working on the score was a very emotional experience for Mychael. "I've known these melodies all my life and I've sung them since I was a little kid. I've sung in choirs right from the time I was seven or eight. The other fun thing is that I used to be a church choir director and an organist. Sometimes I got flashbacks when I was working on this."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.