Composer Mychael Danna Adds Multi-Cultural Musical Colors to ‘Stillwater’ Score

·3-min read

A central theme in Tom McCarthy’s film “Stillwater,” reaching theaters this weekend, is that of culture clash: Oklahoman Bill Baker (Matt Damon) in southern France, visiting his imprisoned daughter (Abigail Breslin) and becoming involved with a French theater actress (Camille Cottin).

That idea extended to the music, composed by Oscar winner Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”). Danna, whose specialty has long been the authentic application of world-music sounds into film scores, was an obvious choice “because it takes place in Marseille, which is a kind of multi-cultural melting pot,” he says.

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The challenge, however, was McCarthy’s direction that the music be “not too specific, culturally, but just the right amount of flavor — something you don’t notice, you just feel.” The intention, Danna says, was for the viewer to experience Marseille and its people “through Bill’s eyes.”

Baker’s middle-American roots suggested country flavors, so Danna assembled a band with electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums, but with the direction that he didn’t want “a full Southern country accent.” Similarly, he wanted to convey the colors of Marseille music – with its heavily North African influences – by adding such unusual stringed instruments as the bowed Persian kamanche, the plucked Persian lavta and the Middle Eastern oud and qanun. Darbuka drums add another regional touch.

Most of these, however, are subtly mixed with a 44-piece string section, recorded at London’s Abbey Road. Most audible in the score is the more familiar, and decidedly European, sound of the mandolin, played by Danna’s brother (and fellow film composer) Jeff Danna.

The primary sound of the “Stillwater” score is that of piano and strings, which provide “a neutral shade” for the story, which involves Baker’s search for a mysterious witness who might provide an alibi for his daughter, convicted of the murder of her college roommate. The addition of electronics is “another Marseille influence,” Danna pointed out.

The composer wrote themes for Baker and for his daughter Alison, but a surprisingly prominent one belongs to the actress’s 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), who plays an unexpectedly key role in the film’s climax. It’s a charming, lighthearted piano piece that Danna describes as “the most French of anything” in the score.

Danna worked closely with McCarthy, although the two only met once, before the pandemic hit early last year. “I’ve literally never been in a room with him since,” Danna says. “We’ve spent a lot of time together on Zoom.”

He describes the director as “a very methodical and careful artist” who, although in New York during post-production, participated in the remote recording sessions as Danna recorded the band in L.A., the strings in London, and the various instrumental soloists in their home studios. “I have to say, it worked really well,” Danna says of the long-distance, multiple-location process. “It’s just a whole lot less fun.”

Back Lot Music will release the soundtrack, out now. Variety previews this track, “Swimming at Les Calanques”:

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