Michael Andrews knew Jim Juvonen from way back. Juvonen knew that his friend was a name to watch and was an interesting musician and writer who could bring something to the movie. Michael had co-scored the Ben Stiller movie Zero Effect with The Greyboy Allstars, and worked on the music for hip TV show Freaks And Geeks. But he had never done a score entirely on his own. In early 2000, Juvonen gave Michael a copy of the script for the as-yet-unmade Donnie Darko. As had happened across Hollywood, Michael was blown away by Richard Kelly’s idea. “Everyone knew Donnie Darko was going to be a cool movie,” Michael recalls. “Everyone knew it was interesting.” Kelly, for his part, was aware of Michael’s work with The Greyboy Allstars, a soul-jazz-funk band based in California. He also knew that Michael made music under the name Elgin Park (his nom-de-guitar in the Allstars). Michael hadn’t mentioned was an in-demand songwriter and producer who had worked with Brendan Benson and DJ Greyboy as well as producing both Gary Jules albums. Debutant director and debutant solo soundtrack composer decided to collaborate.
Kelly gave Michael a two-and-half-hour version of Donnie Darko and Michael began writing. He wrote the opening track, Carpathian Ridge. In the completed film, this would be a jaw-dropping first moment: a lifeless body on a high, winding road, the sun coming up, keyboards delicately breaking like over the dawn landscape, fingers of piano drifting down the mountain. Magical stuff.
Michael relocated from San Diego to LA to do the bulk of the work. He wanted to be close to Kelly. Nearly every night from October to December 2000, the filmmaker would come over to Michael’s little home studio to brainstorm. Slowly, music emerged. Like the film, it was evocative and otherworldly, full of open-ended intrigue, but not airy-fairy or vague. “The film was also pretty low budget so my portion of the money was pretty thin. I couldn’t hire anybody, it was just me. I played everything: piano, mellotron, mini marimba, xylophone, ukelele, organ. I also brought in two female vocalists, Sam Shelton and Tory Haberman. But no guitar ‘cause Richard said no guitars or drums; he just wasn’t into it. I was down with that - I’ve played guitar my whole life.” So Middlesex Times has pizzicato strings and ethereal flute. Liquid Spear Waltz, one of the first things Michael ever wrote on piano, is a dainty, smiley number, reflecting Donnie’s bemusement in the film at seeing shafts of light exiting people’s bellies. Throughout, sweeps of female backing vocals embellish Donnie’s gently off-kilter daydreams, while recurring mordant stabs of strings and synthesiser throbs reinforce the increasingly fatalistic terror of his nightmares. “I come from a songwriting background so those little instrumental themes are little songs. I wrote four or five little ditties in the same character. I really wanted to bring an added emotional depth to the movie. Bring a little more warmth, but still maintain a mystery.”
When Donnie Darko opened in the US it died at the box office but slowly became a modern cult hit. Cinema-lovers’ obsession with this grim fairy tale/art thriller extended to an enthusiasm for the soundtrack. In the absence of a Soundtrack album, a friend of Michael’s, Andy Factor, released the score including “Mad World” on his upstart label, Everloving Records. Then Donnie Darko opened in Europe and received a completely different reception. Hailed as one of the best films of the year, Donnie Darko grossed more at the UK box office alone than in the whole of the US. The score, due to legal issues, remained extremely difficult to track down outside of the U.S. Now, with Donnie Darko one of the top selling DVDs of 2003, a British label has come to the rescue. They heard Mad World, loved the film, and hunted down the music.
“Films that assume cult status - they ask questions instead of answer them, and that’s one thing Donnie Darko does,” says Michael. “And it has an incredible look to it, a richness and colour. And Rich wrote a great script and made an incredible directorial debut. We had a unique vibe, referential but also new. For both of us it was our first film, so maybe there was a naivety that manifested itself as something original.”
As for Mad World, Michael Andrews said they could have done any number
of songs from Tears For Fears’ album The Hurting. But in the end
Mad World, from the title down, was the one. “That self-absorbed
adolescent angst, all sad and morose – it was perfect for that climactic
moment in the film.”
MICHAEL ANDREWS and GARY JULES
In late-2000 Michael was working on a soundtrack for an independent film. Like many of his favourite soundtrack composers John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin he used the ‘trick’ of incorporating a song into his instrumental score. The song he chose was Mad World. He sang the song to the producer, Nancy Juvonen, over the phone and she loved it and that’s how it all got started. Gary came down to Michael’s place and in an hour-and-a-half they recorded a demo version of the song, with Gary on vocals. Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly came over and loved it. Michael and Gary had nailed it in 90 minutes. From the bombastic synth-pop of Tears For Fears, they had fashioned a mesmerising, eerie, haunting lament.
While the film’s U.S. release was modestly received, Gary began performing the song on the local L.A. songwriter circuit to overwhelming response. They added the track to the already completed “Trading Snakeoil” album and local tastemaker, KCRW’s Nic Harcourt, took an interest.
The film found it’s success overseas and “Mad World” appeared on radio charts from Ireland to Israel.
Donnie Darko had its climactic song, and a modern cult was born around that little number. Three years on, that ad hoc demo is one of the most talked-about songs of the year. Fortunately for all those who’ve heard it pouring out of Radio One throughout November, or who consider Donnie Darko one of the greatest movies of the year, Mad World is finally available domestically, on CD.
In fact it appears on two very different but equally appropriate albums – both of which are released by Adventure/Sanctuary on 19 January 2004.
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