While Mychael Danna already has an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Golden Globe on his mantel, there is something else he considers to be just as valuable.
It’s a collection of letters he received from various space agencies. The letters are more than 50 years old and are responses to questions about astronomy that Danna sent them when he was 10. That’s how old he was when the first moon landing happened in 1969.
Now 53 years later, the Winnipeg-born music composer, who was raised in Burlington, Ont., is nominated for another Emmy. This time, it’s alongside Harry Gregson-Williams in the Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series or Special category. The nod is for his work on Netflix’s “Return to Space,” a film celebrating America’s return to crewed space flight in 2020 under the guidance of Elon Musk and his SpaceX team.
“It kind of made me smile to think that I have come in a big circle here,” Danna said in an exclusive interview from his home in Los Angeles. “When I was 10, the two biggest things in my life were space and synthesizers, both of which were kind of being pioneered at the same seminal moment.”
Danna has always had stars in his eyes. Besides his early love for astronomy, he also served as the composer-in-residence at the McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto from 1987 to 1991.
Along with his love of the skies, the invention of the Moog synthesizer, first sold in 1964, had a profound influence in shaping Danna’s career.
“As a 10- and 11-year-old, music and space were the two most exciting things for me.”
His passion for music led Danna to the University of Toronto where he received his bachelor of music degree in 1986. Just like method actors who completely absorb the characters they play, the musician says growing up in Toronto was crucial to expanding his ability to listen.
“You are what you have heard and you are where you have been, it’s as simple as that,” Danna said. “At the University of Toronto, there was a wonderful ethnic musicology program and there were concerts every Friday at noon in the atrium, as I recall.”
Danna said the program, featuring artists from all over the world, exposed him to music that he might not otherwise have experienced.
“Toronto, certainly at the time, was just booming as a multicultural centre with an emphasis on the cultural part of that. Here, there were just so many opportunities to hear music from so many different places.”
It was also during his time as a post-secondary student that Danna met future director (and fellow U of T student) Atom Egoyan. The pair’s immediate connection led to Danna scoring every Egoyan film since “Family Viewing” in 1987. Cultivating close relationships and collaborations with filmmakers is what Danna believes is the essence of his success.
“The choice (on the music composer for a film) lays with the director. The director makes a film in their mind and it’s usually one that is often related to another film. Then those films that they are influenced by, they will look at the score and ask who was responsible.”
One of the relationships Danna was able to nurture was with director Ang Lee. The pair started discussing “Life of Pi” five years before the start of the film’s epic production. The music for the film (which tells the story of a young Indian boy who is shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a tiger) was composed entirely by Danna. He received an Oscar for his work in 2013.
“The thing about ‘Life of Pi’ was that you could feel it and you could feel it early on. It was the right score and the right film for that particular moment in time. It’s one person on a boat for three-quarters of a film with them not saying anything. The music does a lot of the work.”
It’s a success that Danna hopes to replicate at the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards this Saturday. Win or lose, he doesn’t think he will ever achieve EGOT status, the distinction of winning all four of the major American entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
“I don’t have any plans on winning a Tony or a Grammy. Frankly, there are so many Grammy categories that if I ever wanted one, I probably could spend a year and work really hard at one of those obscure categories. I grew up in Burlington, Ontario. I thought being a history teacher and playing electronic music on my own at night would be a great way to spend a life. In fact, I probably planned my career not to win awards.”
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