Interview: Composer Chanda Dancy Talks Scoring ‘Devotion’

Scoring the film Devotion should require lots of emotional impact, as it chronicles how Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) became friends during the Korean War and, ultimately, heroes. In wanting to work on Devotion, composer Chanda Dancy said that the story drew her the most:

“When I first read the script, and I’ve said this like a million times, but it’s very true, I ugly cried. It was so devastating but, at the same time, really uplifting. The whole point of Devotion is in its title: love and devotion for your friends, your family, and your country.”

On collaborating with filmmaker J.D. Dillard on the movie, Dancy talked about how the director did not want the score to sound too traditional:

“The first thing he said to me was, “I don’t want this to be a traditional war score. I don’t want this to be Saving Private Ryan,” which is the gold standard of war compositions. He also wanted the combination of the old and the new — an orchestral score but with modern touches that appeal to our modern sensibilities. And we went on from there.”

To achieve a fusion of both “old” and “new,” the composer talked about blending orchestra-style compositions with synthesizers and live sounds:

“To achieve the old style, we needed a giant orchestra doing grand sweeping and character themes that you remember. And then you have some of the modern elements through the use of synthesizers and the use of live sounds recorded on set. When they were filming, I had access to the dailies. The sound team was on set and sent me a whole folder of airplane sounds. I used some sounds of planes and morph them using Falcon and ProTools to create unique sounds to go with this grand, sweeping orchestra.”

On approaching the character themes of the film, Dancy explained that it was the first thing she wrote for the film:

“The first cue I wrote was to the script even before they started filming. Jesse has a theme, and Tom has a theme, which is the friendship theme. Daisy has a theme, which is the love theme. The fighting 32s also has a theme, which is the patriotism theme. We then have the Devotion theme, called Measure of a Man. One of the keys is called Measure of a Man, where Tom purposefully crashes his plane. You start from the themes, the characters take a journey, and the musical themes take a journey along with the characters. Using those themes was easier to go from start to finish.”

In approaching the action scenes and balancing out the music with the film’s sound design, Dancy talked about numerous challenges that arose in scoring the film’s latter half:

“I first have to point out where the big character bits are going to be because that’s where you’re going to put your character themes, and it has to be in the scene where you’re not competing with a bunch of sound effects. It has to be a dramatic point of view, specifically. Once you map that out, we can make some cool orchestral sounds and pump the heartbeat. But you have to be aware of the sound effects.

When I was scoring the film, none of the sound effects were done, but I did have temporary sound effects and my imagination. So you’re like, “OK, there’s going to be a really big explosion, so there’s no reason for me to write anything when the explosion happens. Maybe I’ll score something right up to the explosion. Then the sound effects do their own thing. There are parts where bombs go off everywhere. You can’t do much there, so it’s more about rhythm underneath the bombs and gun sounds. It was a challenge, but not too bad.”

In establishing some emotional tension throughout the score, J.D. Dillard gave the composer important notes about how the score should be:

“J.D. and I specifically spoke about that. He said to me multiple times, “Chanda, hit them. This is the roadmap. You want them to be scared, and then you want them to have hope, to think that Tom will be able to get him out. That hope will be dashed, and I want that to happen musically.” The easiest thing to approach that was to play the character theme. While Tom is banging on the side of the plane to try and get Jesse out, the sweeping Measure of a Man theme is soaring. So you’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, he’s going to be able to do it.” But once he snaps out of it and realizes it’s a fruitless endeavor, the music just goes silent.”

The movie takes a drastic change of tone when the characters take a pit stop at Cannes and meet actress Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan). In composing the score for the Cannes sequence, Dancy took inspiration from Jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie:

“One of the bigger pieces was the big band piece when Jesse first says, “I’ll take your bets, come on, let’s go,” and they all go to the casino. I was studying the popular artists of that time. Dizzy Gillespie was huge at that time. And I thought doing an homage to Dizzy Gillespie was perfect. Even inside the conceit of the casino, there are a few pieces that are very much like Django Reinhardt in spirit. It’s completely different from the rest of the score and time period. It was cool and refreshing to be with Elizabeth Taylor and doing Django Reinhardt and Dizzy Gillespie music.”

Dancy also worked on I Wanna Dance With Somebody with director Kasi Lemmons, which releases in theatres on December 23, described by the composer as “a completely different type of score from Devotion. It was fun to stretch my legs in different directions for both films, and I’m so excited for people to finally see it!”

Devotion is now playing in theatres everywhere.

[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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