While Mychael Danna already has an Oscar, an Emmy and a Golden Globe on his coat, there’s something else he considers equally precious.
It’s a collection of letters he received from various space agencies. The letters are over 50 years old and are answers to questions about astronomy that Danna sent them when he was 10 years old. That’s how old he was when the first moon landing happened in 1969.
Now, 53 years later, the Winnipeg-born, Burlington, Ont.-raised music composer is nominated for another Emmy. This time it’s alongside Harry Gregson-Williams in the Outstanding Musical 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 spaceflight in 2020 under the direction of Elon Musk and his SpaceX team.
“It made me smile to think that I came in a big circle here,” Danna said in an exclusive interview from her home in Los Angeles. “When I was 10, the two most important things in my life were space and synthesizers, both of which were launched at the same watershed moment.”
Danna has always had stars in her eyes. Besides his early love of astronomy, he was also composer-in-residence at the McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto from 1987 to 1991.
Along with her love of the sky, the invention of the Moog synthesizer, first sold in 1964, had a profound influence on Danna’s career.
“At 10 and 11, music and space were the two most exciting things for me.”
His passion for music led Danna to the University of Toronto where he earned his Bachelor of Music degree in 1986. Much like method actors who become completely immersed in the characters they play, the musician says growing up at Toronto was crucial in developing his ability to listen.
“You are what you heard and you are where you were, 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, if I remember correctly.”
Danna said the program, featuring artists from around the world, exposed him to music he might not otherwise have known.
“Toronto, certainly at the time, was thriving as a multicultural center with an emphasis on the cultural part of that. Here there were so many opportunities to hear music from so many different places.
It was also during her post-secondary studies that Danna met future principal (and U of T fellow) Atom Egoyan. The pair’s immediate connection has led Danna to score all of Egoyan’s films since “Family Viewing” in 1987. Cultivating close relationships and collaborations with the filmmakers is what Danna believes to be the essence of her success.
“The choice (of the composer of the music for a film) belongs to the director. The director makes a movie in his head and it’s usually the one that’s often linked to another movie. Then these films that influence them, they will look at the score and wonder who is responsible for it.
One of the relationships Danna may have had was with director Ang Lee. The pair began discussing “Life of Pi” five years before the epic production of the film began. The music for the film (which tells the story of a young Indian who is shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a tiger) was entirely composed by Danna. He received an Oscar for his work in 2013.
“The thing about ‘Life of Pi’ was you could feel it and you could feel it early on. It was the right score and the right movie for that exact moment. It’s a person on a boat during the three quarters of a film without saying anything.The music does a lot of work.
It’s a hit Danna hopes to replicate at the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards this Saturday. Win or lose, he doesn’t think he’ll ever achieve EGOT status, the distinction of winning the four major awards in American entertainment: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
“I have no intention of winning a Tony or a Grammy. Frankly, there are so many Grammy categories that if I ever wanted one, I could probably spend a year and work really hard in one of them. these obscure categories. I grew up in Burlington, Ontario. I thought being a history teacher and playing electronic music by myself at night would be a great way to spend a life. In fact, I probably planned my career for not winning awards.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION