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Scorekeeper With FRACTURE Composer Jeff Danna!!

Greetings! ScoreKeeper here delivering an interview with the junior half of the brothers Danna scoring team which earlier this year wrapped up production on the Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling legal thriller FRACTURE (2007). It’s an enrapturing and entertaining film with a smart score setting it apart from other films to come out this year. Jeff Danna is the younger brother of Mychael Danna, another well-respected and prolific film composer. While each of them have had their own scoring projects to contend with, FRACTURE marked a rare occasion where they collaborated together. Judging from our conversation it was a highlight moment for Jeff and one that could possibly be repeated in the future. Jeff Danna has also scored such films as SILENT HILL (2006), TIDELAND (2005) with brother Mychael, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004), and THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999), It was interesting talking with Jeff about his unique experience scoring FRACTURE. His candor and insight made for a very interesting conversation. Enjoy!

ScoreKeeper: I’d like to start off having you talk about what may be the foremost question on the minds of film music fans. It’s not often that somebody composes a score in collaboration with somebody else, much less a blood relative. Can you talk about how you came to score FRACTURE (2007) with your older brother, Mychael? Jeff Danna: It goes back a long time…obviously because of the fact that we’re siblings. We grew up in a very musical household. Our parents weren’t professional musicians but they were sort of semi-professional musicians staying in the local theater…local stage productions…my dad sang at weddings, that kind of thing. So it was musical all around us. Mychael’s six years older than me so it was awhile until I could catch up to where I could play with him. By the time we were teenagers in bands – I was entering my teens, he was leaving his teens – I could play my guitar just well enough to do stuff with him and that was sort of the very beginning of it. I can remember playing on the very first album he made when he was nineteen and I was thirteen. With us it’s a very natural sort of thing to just work together and we’ve done quite a few things over the years. I remember Myke at one point, when somebody asked us that question, he said, “I guess if you have to think about it too much, it probably isn’t going to work.” I thought that was a good way of putting it because it just seems to work for us.
SK: Did you always have a desire to score films? JD: It’s definitely one thing I considered. Another thing Mychael and I have in common is we both had hand injuries of different types. They changed the direction of our lives. He was lining up to be a concert pianist when he was younger and suffered this pretty severe wrist injury with some cut glass…pretty nasty stuff. That ended the super-virtuosic dexterity outlook that you would need to be a concert piano player. After that he said, “Well, I guess I’m going to be a writer.” I had been playing guitar and thinking about more session work or performance. I had various bands and had been involved in that kind of thing along with songwriting. Then I got carpel tunnel and tendonitis. The doctor said, “Well, you’re not going to play much if you’re going to play at all.” So I thought, “OK, what can I do where it’s a little less physically intensive?” Composition came to mind because a lot of that is in your head. I played on a few film scoring sessions up in Toronto back in the late 80’s when I was still in my early 20’s. I saw how it worked and thought, “I think I could probably figure that out.” That was the genesis of how I ended up scoring films.
SK: With FRACTURE were you approached with Mychael together or was one of you hired first and then brought the other along? JD: We both knew the head of music at New Line – Paul Broucek – and we met him in London when we were working on a Terry Gilliam film called TIDELAND (2005). We had been in London recording it together at AIR Studios and he was in the same building working with Howard Shore on the end of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). So that may have planted the first seeds. Paul was doing THE NATIVITY STORY (2006) when he originally started talking to Myke about FRACTURE and pretty quickly those conversations apparently became, “Well, it might be a great thing for the two of you.” I wasn’t privy to the conversations that happened during the NATIVITY sessions but Myke called me and said, “Hey. They want us to do this thing” and I said, “Great.”
SK: Economically speaking, is the director getting a two for one special? JD: He is and it’s really a pretty good deal. I mean, you’ve got two guys who are on the same page – and that’s important because otherwise it would really be a mess – but who are not exactly the same because if we were exactly the same there’d be no point. If we were too far apart that would be impossible. So there’s just enough in common…sort of like overlapping circles. There are these outside areas where he’ll do something and I’ll think, “Ah, I wouldn’t have approached it that way” or I’ll do something and he’ll say “I would have never thought of doing it that way but it’s pretty interesting.” So you get these two guys focusing on your film from a director’s point of view. Film scoring is basically a sprint…it’s a race. There’s a set amount of time – which is never enough – so to have two people on it is a real bonus.
SK: That must be nice for the both you as well. You have each other to rely on during a very stressful process. JD: Yeah. There might be a little bit more sleep happening, although it doesn’t seem to be that way during the last month. One of the things that happens with writing is that ideas develop and the seeds germinate. It takes a little bit of time and a theme that you start on, say the first day of the month, will be better and more mature by the 21st of that month. The more time you can put into your ideas and get a little perspective on them, the better it will be. If you have someone else doing half the work or helping with all of the work, those ideas just seem to have longer in the incubator so to speak. I think that’s part of the reason why it’s a successful collaboration because each individual thing we come up with can simmer a bit longer and be thought about a little bit longer and pondered on a little bit longer because we have twice as many ideas.
SK: It’s very natural that while engaged in the collaborative process – let’s just say between one composer and one director – to have issues along the way or kinks that need to be worked out. Now that there’s a third party involved – in your case, two composers – were there any unique moments were these kinks in the collaborative process caused you to stop and focus a little more to work them out? If so, how were you able to work through them. JD: FRACTURE went pretty smoothly. There have been other films where it took a little bit longer for us to find out what the approach was. TIDELAND comes to mind. It’s a very unusual film with somewhat difficult subject matter. That film took us a little while to get on the same page in terms of what Terry Gilliam meant. FRACTURE, on the other hand, seemed to unspool quite smoothly. We both understood what the film needed. It’s so beautifully shot and well acted that it seemed to point to this place in music that we both seemed to find quite quickly. In that sense it wasn’t as difficult as some. Now, having said that, there’s always moments where I’ll write something and he’ll say, “I dunno. That first half…I don’t know if that works” and vice versa. So that’s part of our process anyway.
SK: Specifically on FRACTURE, how did you collaborate? What was the workload? Did one of you take a cue and one another or did you both work together on everything? JD: It goes back and forth. Maybe the very first day we’ll say, “Ok, you try that theme and I’ll try this theme” but it’s not too long in the process before it gets pretty blurred. That’s because we’ll say, “Hey, those first eight bars are great but I got an idea…What if you try something like this for the next eight bars?” Or we’ll say, “You know that theme for Gosling? I don't know if that’s great but you know what? We could use it for the DA”…that sort of thing. A lot of that goes on. We can actually email files back and forth to each other with the composition program we use. So you can literally sit down at the other guy’s desk, so to speak. If we were artists or animators and I walked up to his desk and Myke was drawing something and I said, “Well, you know what? What if the ears looked like this?” and I rubbed out his ears and drew my ears in…or something like that. That’s kind of how it works. Now having said that, there’ll be days when I call him first thing in the morning and I’ll say, “What are you doing today?” and he’ll say, “I’m gonna do 5m5” and I’ll say, “Ok. I’ll do 6m1.” Then we’ll start those cues off using the pool of themes we’ve gotten and we’ll be trading them back and forth and the next day he’ll call and say, “Hey. Check out my 5m5.”
SK: That’s fascinating. JD: It sort of seems to work, but again it doesn’t seem that unusual to us until we talk to other people and they sort of go, “You know, that’s really pretty weird” [laughs]. Yeah, and then we go, “Oh? I guess so.” It’s a pretty natural thing for us.
SK: Do you have experience collaborating with composers other than your brother? JD: Yes…not to that extent, though. Not really, no. I’ve worked with people who work under me…who I might get to flush a scene out or something like that on a very tight deadline. Now that I think of it, in the sense that Myke and I work together, no.
SK: You mentioned earlier about your software program. What do you use? JD: Oh, we use Logic Audio.
SK: In FRACTURE there are electronic and acoustic elements in the score. Are both of you fluent working with either element or did one have a specialty above the other? JD: No. In film scoring now you don’t really have to go back and forth between both worlds. All those electronic sounds came from both of us at various points and then of course, we traded them back and forth. It’s pretty even that way. You have to be able to be that flexible.
SK: Every composer when they’re about to start on a film score, always has an entry point into the picture. What would you say was your entry point into FRACTURE? JD: I would say there was two entry points for FRACTURE starting with the two main characters because it’s obviously a chess match between Gosling’s and Hopkins’ characters. That was the in for us. We thought we should start with these two guys as points of reference because obviously we’re going to have slightly different sounds for each of them and those are the two sounds that are going to start to wrap around each other as the story progresses. If you look at that opening sequence with the rube – that’s the name of that machine – it’s a beautifully shot sequence by Kramer Morgenthau. It says elegance. It says complexity. It’s cold. It already said a lot of things with no music playing. Greg was introducing the film with a very tight focus on who Crawford (Hopkins’ character) was. It just seemed to say who this guy is and so we immediately started to make the music elegant, beautiful, complex, but cold. You know, this guy [laughs]…he’s more than a little dark. Then the other point of reference was Gosling’s character, Willy Beachum. He was clearly moving forward from the moment he comes on camera. There’s a lot of activity going on there. He’s fidgety, cocky, an upwardly mobile guy. We thought he needs a slightly different set of colors. It was like a two-pronged attack that we started with those guys and that was the in.
SK: I’m a big fan of clever spotting in films which you’d find numerous examples of throughout the 60’s and an through the 80’s, but I think over time this clever use of spotting has behind a little bit and now we get much more textbook spotting decisions. Wherever we think the music should be it’s usually there. FRACTURE on the other hand, had some very clever moments were there wasn’t music and also some clever entrances to the music. One moment that comes to mind early in the film is when Beachum first goes to the courtroom and the judge asks him, “It’s your call, Mr. Beachum.” He looks at Anthony Hopkins, thinks, and then the music comes in. JD: Right.
SK: It’s really effective – it’s subtle, it doesn’t slap you in the face when you’re watching it yet it eludes to suggestion that his brain is ticking and the race is one. Can you elaborate a little bit on your spotting decisions and philosophy overall concerning when and where music should be. JD: Well, you basically nailed everything that scene and the spotting was about at that moment. It’s very much just the way you said it. It was the beginning of the match. The “game was afoot” as Holmes and Watson used to say. Greg (Hoblit, the director) and David (Rosenbloom, the film editor) knew their film well and were open to any ideas we had and we just went through the film and tried to be tasteful and support the performances and the story – which is a real pleasure with performances like these.
SK: The whole score itself surprised me. I hadn’t heard too much about the film before I went to see it. I didn’t have any expectations. I really appreciated the low-key, backseat style approach to scoring the picture. However there are two key moments where the music is as loud and as powerful as it can be. There’s also a very complimentary moment where all the sound effects and dialogue are stripped away leaving the bare music exposed. Given the low-key approach to the score overall was there ever a concern that these two powerful moments would outdo the narrative? JD: Anytime you’re scoring dialogue it’s a slightly different set of rules. You have to be very careful to avoid distracting from or obscuring the words and ideas that are being delivered on the screen. At the same time you need to do whatever it is the music is supposed to do in that scene and not just put some kind of wallpapery mush behind it. You’re trying to write something that is thematic and powerful, yet subdued and sitting back. There’s a little bit of a balance going on. Greg’s films seem to be those kind of films where people are talking and people are thinking and thus the audience is thinking. They’re not forty-minutes of car chases. It’s just part of how he makes his films. I think it’s great. I love it! It just meat that we had to sort of think carefully about colors. Sometimes we’ll think about the timbre of an actor’s voice and say, “Well, he speaks in this particular range. We better be careful with bassoon and cello.” So it can be right down to the coloration of the orchestration itself.
SK: Were there any elements outside of the film that influenced your score? JD: They didn’t tell us to listen to anything, if that’s what you mean. You mean a temp or something?
SK: Maybe but not necessarily. Were there any other outside influences that might have affected the film? JD: The only thing we talked about was a classic approach. They talked about it being a neo-noir film which it sort of is. So we talked a lot about being elegant and classic. As soon as you say “classic” it’s going to bring up a host of golden age films of this genre and were fine with it sitting in that place and maybe sounding a little dated…I don’t know if I should say dated or at least referring to things from the past. We didn’t want to reference anything specifically that’s for sure. But yeah, the whole idea is that it sounds kind of Hitchcock-ian or Orsen Wells or something like that. That was OK. We didn’t mind it. We thought the film warranted it.
SK: That’s where I was heading. I think the film does take a – again, Hitchcock comes to mind – low-key dramatic approach. However, I thought the music was refreshingly modern. I could hear that you weren’t trying to duplicate a sound but rather an approach. JD: Exactly. Yeah, people haven’t come up to us and said, “Oh, boy. It’s really old school” or “It’s really vintage,” but if you listen, there’s hints of timeless colors and ideas from that school of cinema, I suppose.
SK: Is there going to be a score release? JD: iTunes has it. That’s what New Line did, they put it on iTunes. I don’t know if anybody even goes and buys film music on iTunes [laughs], but we were happy that they were going to do it.
SK: What is next for you and Mychael either together or individually? JD: We don’t actually have anything lined up right now. He’s going to Europe [laughs] for awhile. He’s on vacation. I’m wrapping up a few small things and in talks about things that are more solvent for a few months from now. So there’s nothing right on the front burner right now.
SK: Would you work with Mychael again? JD: Oh, absolutely. There are a couple of films out there that people are considering us as a pair on. We would do more. Absolutely. You can count on that.
SK: If somebody was interested in you and hired you, would you either work with him on the side or ask to bring him in? JD: The filmmaker would have to want that to happen. If it seemed like something that was appropriate, yeah. Absolutely no problem with that. We can work either way, so…just whatever logistics and the scenario and the filmmakers – however all that adds up, we can do it.
SK: Well Jeff, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to hearing more work from you in the future. JD: Thank you.

On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News, I’d like to thank Jeff for taking the time to talk with us. I’d also like to thank Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.


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