‘Migration’ Composer John Powell On Creating An Evolving Theme For A Hero’s Journey

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For Migration, composer John Powell was tasked with creating a theme for a reluctant hero that evolves throughout his journey. Written and directed by Benjamin Renner, Migration follows a family of ducks on a new journey. Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) is a mallard who is content with never leaving the safety of his pond, until his wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks) convinces him that their children need to see the world. Setting their sights on Jamaica, Mack takes his family on a trip south that quickly goes wrong. As they overcome new challenges and meet new friends, the family discovers they are capable of much more than they thought. As Mack’s attitude towards migrating changes throughout the film, Powell’s theme for the character became grander to match his growth.

DEADLINE: How does the score change as the ducks travel through New York and on their way to Jamaica?

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JOHN POWELL: One of the things I did right at the very beginning was write the theme for Mack. I wrote a tune that quite deliberately went down, which you don’t do for a hero’s theme, and then it didn’t go anywhere. That was a very deliberate decision, and then also a tune for the rest of the family. In particular, Pam, the wife, did exactly the opposite, so that was always opening up and reaching. Once I had those thematic materials applied to the fabric of the characters, it was really just a question of making sure that that material was used for each scenario. As they travel, and the trip expanded the horizons of Mack in particular, his tune became sort of bigger and grander and then becomes a hero tune. It starts as a tune that doesn’t want to be a hero, but by Jamaica a lot of the tunes have been loosened into their most joyful selves.

DEADLINE: Were there specific instruments that you wanted to use for this film?

POWELL: In talking to Benjamin, it turns out that he’s actually a huge classical music fan. So I think maybe I got the gig when I said, “Everything anybody ever needs to know about scoring is all is written into Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’.” One of the interesting things about “Peter and the Wolf” is the duck, which is an oboe. It is a wonderful sort of picture of a very anxious duck. We were all influenced hugely by that piece, so there are some little references including an overuse of the oboe and especially the neurotic oboe for Mack.

When you get to New York, it’s not New York as we know it. It’s not jazz, it’s not Broadway, none of that. It’s this giant alien metropolis that you come into in a foggy scene, and it’s chaos and it’s dangerous. I used all sorts of very strange voices. One thing in particular as well, for the head of the pigeons, most of that’s me on a Kora, which is an African harp with a slide. It’s like a metal bar and you can just zoom it up and down, and it made some really strange, odd sounds and somehow that fit her character.

It’s very hard to say why things work, basically you just play around a lot with everything you can. And then in play, you suddenly see things attach themselves and a lot of stuff falls to the wayside. As long as you can wrap it inside of all the necessary narrative writing that you’re doing with the orchestra, and it doesn’t seem too out of place, then I’ll use anything. And I have.

DEADLINE: What were some of the biggest challenges for you on this project?

POWELL: The challenges and the highlights are the same, which is trying to get any characters to fly. With ducks, obviously they’re not having trouble with it, but I think the thing about flying is that it’s a joy in the film for the characters to be traveling. One of the things that we do in the film is we make sure we put you there with their elation, the ecstatic feeling that they get from flight, so that is always the challenge. The biggest joy for me is to somehow represent how we feel as humans about the idea of flight, and there’s a few beautiful scenes in the movie that really had to be good.

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