Among the black-clad movie superheroes this year, the most impressive just be a wizened, real-life woman who goes up time and again against the sinister forces trying to take down her motherland. No injury can stop this iconic figure as her quest for justice faces increasingly diminished odds, a drive that’s endeared Ruth Bader Ginsburg more than ever to the fans who’ve watched her moving, life-spanning documentary “RGB.” But what might just provide to be the most empowering delight to Ginsberg’s admirers is to see her embodied in biopic form as a sensual, smart and vivacious woman who takes on the oppressively judicial overlords with the case that puts her on the legal map with “On the Basis of Sex.”
Mimi Leder, who blazed her own trail as the first woman to direct a mega-action picture with “The Peacemaker,” takes an equally powerful approach to fighting the good fight – her real world warrior embodied on screen by Felicity Jones, who last showed her biopic strength as Stephen Hawking’s first wife Jane in “The Theory of Everything.” As her Ruth Bader Ginsburg presents her case as an equal legal eagle to her beloved husband Marty (Arnie Hammer) and a force to be reckoned with government determined to keep an unjust status quo, “Life of Pi’s” Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna is sure to be at her inspirational side to hold the true cinematic life legal briefs.
Certainly no stranger to the genre in scoring such figures as the writers Truman “Capote,” “Antwone Fisher” and Stephen “Shattered” Glass to Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane (“Moneyball”), Danna is one composer who knows how to play Hollywood’s particular form of reality. With delicacy and determination, Danna’s tender emotion and heroic, drum-rolling marches makes Ruth Bader Ginsberg come to life. It’s a strongly thematic approach that will no doubt have Ginsberg’s admirers cheering, while helping the film win over new converts to one of the last Supreme Court justices standing as steadfast as a rock for the kind of human rights that once-upon-a-time Democracy stood for. Like the best Hollywood scoring documentarians, this Canadian’s accomplishment with “On the Basis of Sex” is more rousingly important than ever in making audiences identify with a public figure as an emotionally identifiable human being, one who’s more thoughtfully vibrant than ever.
How familiar were you with the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg before “On the Basis of Sex?”
Not very. The documentary “RGB” had not come out yet. Obviously I knew who she was, but I didn’t really know her place in history like I do now. “RGB” was a film I found to be both interesting and inspiring film, I felt like I learned something about America I didn’t know before. Now I’m very excited about our film coming out. I wish that it were out already, because the more people that see “On the Basis of Sex” the better I’ll feel about it!
How did you get the assignment?
I believe Mimi Leder temped in my music from “Moneyball,” and “Capote” for the preview version, so she felt that I was the right composer for this, especially because “On the Basis of Sex” is a dialogue heavy film. It’s a courtroom drama with a lot of intellectual concepts and arguments gong on in it. So Mimi wanted someone to be restrained in those areas, yet to also be able to move forward when the drama needs a shot of adrenaline.
Once you got the film, did you do a deep dive into who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was?
Because this film’s ideas are laid out right there, I didn’t really need to do. I waited to watch “RGB” once I had finished “On the Basis of Sex.”
Where did the score’s “military” sound come from?
The film has two opposing camps. There’s the older white male institutions – the people who had inherited the laws of the constitution and want to keep out those who oppose their views. Then there’s the other side with Ruth and her husband Marty being a team in the groundbreaking movement opposed to the older white male institutions. But Ruth and Marty are the “true” America opposed to the males trying to hold onto the original American values that don’t exist any more. It’s Ruth and Marty who are able to change and evolve with the times. But that’s the thing that makes America great, and continue to be great. So we wanted to give Ruth the American anthem sound that you might normally give to the old conservative institution. We turn that musical cliché on its head by giving that approach to Ruth right from the very beginning, because it matches her ideas and the energy of who she is.
Some listeners might even regard that approach as a “Star Trek” one in how it captures a captain boldly going into the future.
Well, there is a sense that of American fearlessness in how she pushes boundaries – the kind of anthemic American melody where it’s trying to break through that glass ceiling, trying to expand where it’s being contained. There are those kinds of themes being built into those anthems throughout the score.
For those who have a grandmotherly view of Ruth from “RGB,” “On the Basis of Sex” conveys sensuality about Ruth that viewers might not expect.
Ruth is an attractive woman who has this energy about her, which is a beautiful way they start off the film. The music had to reflect that, so we needed some soft romantic piano composition cues for that romantic side of her life.
A big part of the film is about Ruth’s relationship with Marty and her daughter. What was it like to “speak” for her emotions?
There is a Ruth and Marty theme. It’s not a love theme per se because it’s deeper than that. It’s a partner theme that’s warm, one that we didn’t want to push it into cornball territory. We were careful to make it super classy, like she is. Ruth’s well educated when it comes to classical music, and a big lover of opera. We wanted to use instruments that reflected that “audio” part of her life. It’s also a score that helps Ruth find confidence that starts with her as a young woman, who’s super bright and excels in school. But it still takes her a while to get her real world chops to go up against these institutions that have been around for 200 years.
Having scored your share of biopics, what lessons have you learned in this genre and how do they apply here?
Whenever I am in an airport, I always look for a biography book to read. They’re a reflection of ourselves, how we are born into our place how we react to it all and how we learn from it. I find biographies more amazing than fiction, and more interesting to work on as a composer.
You have also done your fair share of courtroom dramas, with “Fracture” (along with brother Jeff) as a prime example. What have you learned about playing trials?
This film’s trial is about idea versus Idea. Much of the time we avoided those courtroom scenes, because they were so compelling that they didn’t need any score. Audiences know how to feel in those moments, though there were instances where we did want to musically punctuate their drama.
One scene that moved me to tears has what might be the best time jump cut since “2001.” What was it like scoring that moment?
It’s a moment for restraint. I musically built the emotion up to it so I could sit back and give people the space where they would have that “Aha” moment. It’s really powerful and emotional because you watch this film and you know intellectually that it’s about a real human being that’s walking around this earth. But when you have that moment in the film, it really lands, in a way that super effective. It was something that didn’t need any musical push for. It just needed preparation.
Given that you’re a guy scoring a movie about a woman was there an extra weight on your shoulders to get it right?
That thought never crossed my mind. My job as a composer is to empathize the emotion no matter what the sex of the characters are, I have to get into their place and try to feel it and score it. I don’t have to be black or white or female or anything to feel the emotions of someone, it’s part of what a composer does.
How did being a Canadian play into your view of a film that dealt with a time when you felt there was hope for change in America’s Supreme Court?
I am a proud American citizen now. I truly believe that this is the greatest country that has ever existed. Part of why it’s a great country is what’s portrayed in this film – this ability to evolve, to change with the spirit of the people. Canada is a wonderful place, but it’s a conservative country. America is the opposite of that. It may be all over that place at times, but it can still be the guiding light of the free world. I love both countries, but they are two different things.
“On the Basis of Sex” is getting the release accorded to an Oscar hopeful. As an award- winning composer for “Life of Pi,” how has an Academy Award changed your life?
Up to that point I had fun playing in my own sandbox and thinking that nobody was paying attention to me. That gave me a sense of freedom in both here and Canada to do my own thing because there was never really a spotlight on me. After that Oscar, my perspective changed and it took a couple of years to shake that off. I still am going to do my own thing and make my own decisions, but winning sort of froze me for a while which made me self-conscientious. But this film for me is very gratifying, and I am very proud to be part of it.
In a country of some people who feel that democracy on its way out, do you hope that this movie has the power to change minds? Or are we now too far gone for a film like this to have some kind of effect?
I still have optimism, I really do. I think that what’s happening now is a learning experience for America. I believe that America can turn the wheel back to the center of the road. But it’s a dark time and the system got tested here to an extreme. I don’t believe that we’re doomed, but we need to be vigilant – voting is not just a hobby, it’s something that you need to take seriously. I have faith, I have kids and I see how they are growing up, I feel that we are going to be just fine.
I believe that “On the Basis of Sex” will play everywhere. It’s not a blue state film. It’s a film about America and deals with an issue that’s a very important part of American history. It’s not pushing any buttons where it’s going to be offensive. It’s a story of how America and the law work. Though it paints a picture of the old guard, I was careful not to make them musical villains with black hats and moustaches, because they have their views of what America should be. We point out that America isn’t about that anymore. It’s an argument between two sides that’s handled in a very compassionate way, and it was a lightbulb moment for me to have that moment of clarity. As a viewer, you have that clarity as well – that society changes on its own and the law catches up. This film will remind us that democracy still works, even in the darkest of times. Now that the Kavanaugh hearing had happened, I do feel that this film needs to be seen, especially in this current political climate.
Have you gotten a chance to meet Ruth yet?
She lives on the opposite coast, so she did not attend the premiere at the American Film Institute. But then, she has an important job, so I won’t hold it against her. We don’t want her to leave her job on account of a film.
If you got to meet her what would you say to her? And what do you hope that Ruth thinks about your score?
I would be nervous to meet Ruth, because she really loves great music. So I was very self-conscious when I was composing this, I tried to keep my standards high and keep the score classy!
“On the Basis of Sex” opens this Christmas, with Mychael Dana’s score available on Sony Masterworks HERE
Listen to Mychael Danna’s scores HERE
Visit Mychael Danna’s website HERE
Special thanks to Alexander Portillo for his interview transcription