Interview with Chanda Dancy

(Composer Chanda Dancy, photo by Sven Doornkaat)

The sight of flight, particularly with vintage airplanes, often inspires composers to reach out for balletic inspiration – treating aircraft not so much as mechanical constructions but as birds dancing in the sky, taking in all of God’s creation with their acrobatic swoops, gliding and dives ending just above the surface. And then there’s the personification of planes as dealing death, most often for the side of right. It’s music that as much about manliness as it is flag waving militarism, the air gloriously weighted with brass, driving percussion and trumpeting valor. In the annals of film scores that convey both aspects, Chanda Dancy’s impressive soundtrack for “Devotion’s” becomes the heart of two wingmen whose fateful battle is built up to in the face of the equal enemy of racism.

A USC grad who’d soon jet to an auspicious start with numerous shorts and suspenseful indies often featuring women in peril, Dancy was equally talented in showing off her skills with violin, keyboards and vocals for the alt. arena with Modern Time Machines. Knowing how to compose as well as create and mix sound effects, Dancy was particularly suited to craft a score that could cut through the roar of war engines to hear the real-life emotion that conveys “Devotion’s” joy and peril of flight. Her strikingly powerful themes and rhythm cross old school symphonic writing with cutting edge sampling and electronics ,brings vibrancy to the unbreakable bond between pilots Jesse Brown (Johnathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glenn Powell), a relationship forged in dealing with prejudice that ultimately shows its valor and dexterity in the skies above Korea’s Chosin Reservoir.

“Devotion” Soundtrack on Lakeshore Records

Impressively made by director J.D. Dillard (“Sleight”), “Devotion” pays tribute to his own airman father and the generations of black pilots before him that paved a way forward, all while saluting two pilots put to an unimaginable test of friendship, For Dancy, “Devotion” signals a deserved promotion with one of the year’s top rank dramatic scores. It’s a talent for history makers that will also be heard in this Christmas’ Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” marking a one-two musical sortie for a composer who’s now deservedly jetting skyward in Hollywood with a firm grip the emotional controls. 

Chanda at the Sundance Institute

Tell us about what led you into a musical career and to film scoring?

My mother’s mother was a classical musician, so I always grew up surrounded by the sounds of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin, just to name a few. She first taught me piano at around 3 or 4 years old, and I then started playing violin at around 8 after falling in love with a “Sesame Street” segment of Itzhak Perlman playing! I started composing for my middle school orchestra at around 12 years of age, and never stopped composing since then. I decided in high school that I wanted to be a composer, although I had no clue how to make that happen! So I went to a tiny yet attentive university (Houston Baptist University) for violin performance and music theory/composition, and while there, discovered that one could actually have a career as a composer in film scoring! So, I approached my composition professor, who also happened to be the Dean of the school of music, and together we created a custom film scoring course for me in which I directed a short film, scored it and presented it to the whole school. 

Coincidentally, our choir director was best friends with the one and only Morten Lauridsen, and we invited him to our school for a big choir showcase event. I knew that Lauridsen was a co-founder of the USC Film Scoring program, and I really wanted to go there, so I asked my professors if I could have a meeting with Mr. Lauridsen to show him my film and my score. So, that meeting happened, and Mr. Lauridsen said right there that he would recommend me for the program! Around the same time, I also entered the BMI Pete Carpenter Film Scoring Fellowship competition, and was a winner, so I left everything behind in Houston, Texas and moved to L.A. to intern with Mike Post for the fellowship and then attend the USC Film scoring program, and the rest is history.

As you scored films you also worked as a sound designer/ editor, and now have your own sound company CYD Post. What insight did that give you?

After graduating USC, I became friends with an awesome sound designer who also attended USC. I worked for his company as an assistant sound editor and learned the ropes of sound design while there. It was a killer experience, and definitely influenced my composing in that I learned there that you can create music with any sound, just by using a mic and ProTools. It opened up a whole new world of music experimentation that I combined with my foundation as a classical composer.

You worked on quite a few female-centric thrillers like “Fatal Getaway,” “Killer Cove” and “Pregnant and Alone” in your prolific rise up the ranks. What were those experiences like, and how do you think they made you grow as a composer?

Those films were great experiences in writing orchestral action/thriller scores on extremely tight deadlines, and with extremely light budgets! I had to be able to pull off really engaging scores using orchestral samples with my own string playing overdubbed, as well as lean on my experience playing in an indie rock band to create scores that blend the orchestra with swirling guitars, synths and experimental sounds. I believe that it was the best preparation for me to take on bigger projects, such as “The Defeated.”

“Devotion” is a major level up for you. How did the movie come your way?

My agent, Kevin Korn, introduced me to his friends at Black Label Media. Black Label was looking for a composer for “Devotion,” and sent me the script and asked me to demo. I sent them some of the cues I wrote for “The Defeated” among others, and got a meeting with director J.D. Dillard, and was hired shortly thereafter!

“Devotion” director J.D. Dillard

Talk about your collaboration with J.D. With his dad being a military pilot, did it bring any extra level of insight as to what he wanted your score needed to accomplish?

J.D. wanted a score that combined several elements: an emotional core, sweeping themes with a big orchestra, a very masculine sound, and a marriage of the old and new, meaning combining a traditional orchestral score with modern sounds/synths/sensibilities to create something that sounds familiar but fresh. In some specific instances, J.D. sent me some sound files of plane sounds. One of the files was the sound of a Corsair doing a “dive whistle.” This was a very distinct and famous sound that these planes made, and I recreated that sound using the orchestra in the battle scene “Sortie.” I also recreated various plane engine sounds using brass, as well as used some actual plane sounds that were recorded on set in combination with some of my synths. Overall, it was an amazing collaboration that I feel was truly meant for me.

Did you find inspiration in any military and air-driven scores for “Devotion?”

J.D. actually didn’t use any temp score and specifically told me that he didn’t want this to sound like another “Saving Private Ryan,” or anything traditional like that. He wanted me to do my own complete take on “Devotion,” so I really leaned on my own sensibilities, and I was more influenced by classical composers such as Bela Bartok, Dmitri Shostakovich, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Arvo Part, and jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, Gunther Schuller and Vince Mendoza, and EDM music styles like Future Bass and Gabber.

“Devotion” is an impressively thematic and melodic score, particularly in the way they interplay and change feeling. Could you talk about the central motifs here?

The main themes are Jesse’s Theme (hero theme), heard in the opening cue, Daisy’s Theme (love theme), as heard in “A Gift for Daisy,” Tom’s Theme (friendship theme) as heard in “Be There for Them,” Procedure Theme (the awesome wonders of the VFA 32 at the top of their game) as heard in “Procedure,” and the Devotion Theme (spiritual hymn of what it means to be a man) as heard in “Measure of A Man.” All of these themes are tonally related and can play against each other as counterpoint. Think of it as if each theme was a different opera singer and all of their parts sing together in one big aria – that is the interplay that we wanted to achieve. So when an important character moment happens on screen, or even multiple character moments, the themes can play seamlessly either in succession or combined.

Jonathan Majors as Jesse Brown

“Devotion” begins with the joy of flight as opposed to its life and death stakes. Talk about conveying that balletic sense of exhilaration here from takeoff to landing.

The second cue of the film, “The Lighthouse,” is definitely all about the joy of flight and it’s from Jesse’s perspective. So we hear Jesse’s theme dominating, and also accompanied by the Procedure Theme. J.D. wanted a very masculine sound in this cue, so we have blasting low brass and perpetual motion strings and winds with soaring themes to give this feeling of exhilarating flight in a really loud and fast machine. After the climax of the cue, we settle into an ethereal afterglow, so to speak, with a synth that brings us back down to Earth.

How did you want to get across the idea of patriotism that drives the characters?

So the idea of patriotism is actually intertwined with the ideal of Love and Devotion. The heart of everything in this film is love. Love for family, love for friends, love for country and performing a lifetime of showing up when you are needed. So patriotism is really everything that the characters love – the very things worth standing up and fighting for. Jesse stands up for Daisy, Daisy stands up for Jesse, Tom stands up for Daisy and Jesse, and they all stand up for country and each other in spite of any obstacles that may arise.

Tell us about capturing Jesse’s determination in the face of the racism he has to battle.

Jesse must fight both an external and internal battle. Externally, he has to constantly prove his worth to doubtful onlookers in his everyday existence as a Black man. Internally, he has to battle with his own self-doubt, and the way he does that is to desensitize himself from all of the hateful words he has ever heard. In one pivotal scene, Jesse stares in the mirror and repeats to himself these hateful words in as menacing a way as he could muster. It is an unsettling and powerful scene. Musically, this internal battle is interpreted by way of very unsettling experimental sounds using synths, an electric bass, a Telecaster, and my violin and cello routed through a guitar pedal board. We wanted the sound to come from nothing and grow and grow to be almost painful as we watch Jesse deal with his pain, and then subside as we see him coming out of this battle and get ready to face the outside world once again.

Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Columbia Pictures’ DEVOTION.

How did you want to play the bond between Jesse and Tom, especially given that Jesse is hesitant at first to accept his wingman’s friendship?

In the beginning, Tom doesn’t really have a theme just yet. Everything musically was from Jesse’s perspective until their bond started to form when Tom visits Jesse’s home. As Tom is leaving after chatting with Daisy and playing with their toddler, Pam, we finally hear the fullness of the Friendship Theme. This theme evolves as their relationship evolves to show the tension between them in Cannes after the bar fight, and into a spiritual like elegy in “Be There for Them” in the last cue of the film.

Was it difficult to achieve a level of deep emotion between these men that wouldn’t get too melodramatic?

Surprisingly it wasn’t difficult at all! Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell had such great chemistry on screen, and off screen, that the true emotion was not hard to find. That’s a testament to these great actors and J.D.’s great directing!

Was percussion and brass a natural when it came to “Devotion,” and how did you want to get your own violin pedigree into the score as well?

To create the masculinity of the score, percussion and brass were, indeed, paramount, in addition to a big meaty string and wind core. As far as my own aesthetic as a violinist, I always feel that having a giant string section with interlocking counterpoint holding down the fort is the best foundation. I also played some solo viola and cello parts in some of the cues.

When you’re dealing with historical films, how important is it for the music to stay contemporary relevant and fresh while still getting “old fashioned” ideals and musical impact across – especially when it comes to your effectively base-y sampling and electronic effects here?

Essentially, J.D. and I wanted the score to sound like a classic Hollywood score but with a tasteful underlayer of contemporary elements. For example, our piano sound in some cues is a combination of an acoustic piano, and a synthesizer to give the overall sound of “affected tradition”. In the cue “The Lighthouse” we hear low synths combined with the low brass to give that bottom a heavier and more machine-like quality, along with a bouncing synth bass line emulating perpetual motion. All of these modern elements had to be balanced correctly with the classic orchestra to create something that is authentic to the period and timeless yet have a nod to our modern sensibilities.

Talk about your period-centric jazz in the visit to Cannes.

The jazz/big band cues we hear in Cannes were definitely of the period. These are pre-1950’s style songs with French influence. Specifically, I was inspired by Dizzy Gillespie, and Django Reinhardt in these cues.

“Devotion” takes its time getting you to the ultimate Korean conflict. Was it important for the score to keep driving the film to that destination?

I think it was most important to take the viewer along the journey of the evolution of Jesse and Tom’s friendship. That is the true heart and meaning of the film, especially noting that it is specifically called “Devotion!” One has to understand how this devotion developed, so the journey to the Korean War and the actual test of devotion is paramount, and the evolution of the character themes over this journey was an important device.

How did you want to musically “track” the air battles, and how important was finding the balance between action and emotion in them?

The air battles were all about driving rhythm while being conscious of important sound FX. Only when the onscreen drama calls for it does an emotional use of themes in the brass section come in, with the strings and winds functioning as an intricate rhythmic foundation.

Though there’s a lot of spectacular real aerial footage in “Devotion,” there’s also an effective share of CGI. Given those finished shots might have arrived late in the process, how much of your own imagination did you put into the aerial sequences?

This was definitely a factor – one of the aerial battles I scored to the dailies and pre-viz. But after a few versions with more and more VFX and SFX, that cue evolved into the version you hear today, which is a whole lot less melody and more supporting rhythms than version 1.

Did you want to give any Oriental flavor to the Korean War sequences, as well as capture the hellish coldness of the Chosin Reservoir where the action mainly takes place?

We definitely wanted to stay faaaar away from stereotypes. The hell of war is universal – there was no need to do an “Asian” version of war or a “Black” version of emotional drama. The score is cosmopolitan in that regard. 

There’s a sense of heroism that comes with any war film dealing with “our boys.” How important was that here, and did the stalemate of a “forgotten” war and Jesse’s fate play into how big you wanted to make those statements?

I believe the focus was more on what it means to be someone who could be counted on no matter what. That is truly what a hero is, so the music seeks to exalt this ideal overall.

Talk about scoring Tom’s attempted rescue of Jesse, and the realization that sets in that he won’t be able to save him.

We wanted to stay as transparent and atmospheric as possible to allow the audience to really experience the sounds of the real world, and only when Tom and Jesse get a glimmer of hope when the rescue helicopter appears, do we start to hear movement in the score. This hope grows and culminates in Tom attempting to free Jesse from the plane, where we hear the “Devotion Theme”, as Tom shows the ultimate form of heroism: risking his life and giving his all for a dear friend. Then the bottom drops out. The theme abruptly stops, and all that is left are mournful sighs in the strings once Tom realizes he can’t save Jesse. It’s an absolutely gutting scene.

“Devotion” records it chorus

Tell us about the use of vocals here, from the moving elegy for Jesse to the “humming” over the main theme. 

This cue “Accepting What We Can’t Accept” is essentially a requiem mass for Jesse. The lyrics are quite literally “Dona eis requiem” (“Jesus, Merciful Lord, let them rest in peace”) – “Libera Me” (“Save me”) from traditional Latin requiem mass text. We hear Jesse’s theme played in the brass, with the body of the orchestra in sustained notes ever rising and growing throughout, with the mournful choir voices singing the requiem. We wanted this to be a powerful honoring of Jesse Brown, not just in the movie, but also in real life. Over the ending cue “Be There for Them”, we again hear the choir in transparent vowels as they sing both Jesse and Tom’s theme, signaling the everlasting friendship that these men had and that their families continue to have to this very day.

What were the covid challenges of “Devotion’s” score?

It was very scary trying to record just when a big COVID wave was about to start. We recorded in Nashville for 8 days in the fall of 2021, and essentially just had to hope that no one got sick! We tested every day and wore masks, so there were, fortunately, no incidents that caused any problems. We were lucky!

Your next big film is the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” What was it like to score a film about an iconic singer where the music would literally have to dance with hugely popular songs?

I like how you said, “literally have to dance”, because that was certainly a thematic device used in the score – specifically a waltz. Fortunately, Whitney’s songs are so larger than life and almost cinematic on their own, it was relatively easy to Waltz between them, so to speak! The director, Kasi Lemmons, and I wanted a grand sweeping old Hollywood score with all of the glitter and glamour that Whitney had. It was an honor and a beautiful experience!

When you’re scoring a film that deals with real people who made tremendous sacrifices, let alone a major “black” film, does that put an extra weight on you to live up to those bigger responsibilities?

I certainly take the task extremely seriously! These are people that lived – our own heroes, and I wanted to revere their legacies with a genuine bearing of my soul in the form of music. I hope that my love and admiration for them shows in the work I have made in their honor.

What’s ahead for you?

Quite a few projects entitled “NDA 1,” “NDA 2” and “NDA 3”! LOL!   

How do you hope that the score to “Devotion” pays tribute to Jesse and Tom? And do you think that scoring a film like this further levels the playing field for female composers being able to land male-driven films like this which have no small amount of action?

Like I mentioned before, I want to truly honor our real-life heroes by expressing my genuine love and admiration for them via the best way I know how: with a grand and sweeping orchestra that expresses the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the journeys of their lives. I do hope that more women composers will be seen as what we fundamentally are: composers. There is no limit on who can do action scores, or hero scores, or emotional scores, and so on and so forth. A composer understands this: we manipulate sound waves in an infinite fashion to help the audience feel empathy. I truly believe the ability to do just that has no gender – it is a universal human instinct and should be recognized as such.

See “Devotion” in theaters, with Chanda Dancy’s score available on Lakeshore Records HERE

Visit Chanda Dancy’s website HERE

Special thanks to Kyrie Hood, Kevin Korn, Yefan Zhang