October 20, 2010 | By

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The release of Don Macdonald’s Fido soundtrack as a downloadable album from Lionsgate Records (via iTunes) is a bit more important than a standard soundtrack album because it marks a rather rare occasion when an original score written by a Canadian composer for a Canadian film is commercially released.

It sounds like a ridiculous statement, but there’s never been a regular stream of commercially released score albums in Canada, and with the exception of Quebec, a province whose own film industry has remained prolific and more adept in promoting its productions through venues such as home video, prior LP and CD sales, most indigenous soundtracks just don’t get released.

Perhaps best known for scoring Hiro, Last Wedding, and the cult films Rollercoaster (1999) and Kissed, we interviewed Don Macdonald before the release of Fido, and the compser talks about his witty soundtrack, and some of the diverse projects he’s scored since the 1990s.



Mark R. Hasan : How did you first get into film scoring?

Don Macdonald : I was a composition major at the University of Victoria and took a course in the education department called MIDI Lab. It was in the early days (1985) of Digital Performer sequencing software, so I saw this whole world of film scoring as a new and exciting possibility. I got some footage of a Warren Miller ski movie from a friend who was the cameraman, and dove right in. It was awesome. I’d never had so much fun composing.

MRH : I noticed that you continue to work in TV and film, scoring documentaries and fiction works, and I wonder if you’ve found moving between genres and formats has sharpened your scoring skills over the years, and improved your abilities to tackle any subject or unusual themes within a particular work?

DM : Absolutely. I really enjoy the challenge of trying to support images in a variety of genres. One of my favorite scores was for the short Shoes Off! in 2000. The score was wall to wall opera and it really gave me a chance to study some different orchestrational techniques, as well as delve into the land of Verdi , Puccini and Mozart.

It was a tonne of work but it managed to win the Cannes Film Festival that year, so it all paid off. I’ve also written a lot of groove music and jazz, and for the film Best Wishes Mason Chadwick (1995), I had a chance to write a whole score in the style of Juan Esquivel, this bizarre Mexican composer, using a 20 piece salsa band. That was a real highlight.

MRH : Was it partly because of your diverse background that you were approached to score Fido ?

DM : I think having diversity did play a role, since this score really called for everything, including romance, humor, action and horror. Previous to Fido I’d done my turn at each of these. We had to convince Lions Gate that I was the right one for the job. Also, I’d worked with the director, Andrew Currie, in his first feature, Mile Zero (2001). He had a great deal of trust in me and contacted me long before the film went to camera.

MRH : I gather Fido is less of a formal zombie film, and more of a social satire that’s been transplanted into a fifties environment. I still haven’t seen the film, but I take it the emphasis isn’t completely on gore, and more on the many conflicts and subtext that run through the story of domesticated zombies.

DM : Andrew Currie describes Fido as a film for film lovers. It pays homage to many of the classic films while delving into social satire, horror and comedy. The gore is definitely there but it’s not self-serving or gratuitous.

One of my favorite scenes which sort of sums up the movie is when the mother, Helen, in her Sunday best, is being attacked by a crazed zombie walking his dog. This girlscout blows away the zombie and blood gets spattered all over the white picket fence. It’s gory, but gory and sweet and innocent all at the same time. Twisted and beautiful…. Can you tell I like dark films?

MRH : Was there a particular sound the filmmakers wanted you to follow, or were you given a great deal of freedom to come up with the score’s melodic orchestral design?

DM : I was given a lot of freedom and Andrew was really supportive of my choices from the onset. I wrote a lot of demo cues just based on the script about 6 months before Fido began shooting. It was a real luxury since our deadlines are usually so condensed.

MRH : To my ears, the score seems to deliberately evoke some stylistic conventions of the mid- to late-fifties, particularly some melodic sweeps (“Timmy in the Park” recalls Nino Rota’s lush romanticism of the era); doses of Americana (as in “The Meadow” cue); and what seem to be nods to Bernard Herrmann (“The Brothers Attack” recalls the composer’s 3-note theme fromMysterious Island, while “Zombie Troubles” and “Mr. Henderson Taken” remind me of an eerie 2-note slide Herrmann used in the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone.)

DM : It was definitely the stylistic conventions that I was most interested in rather than the music from specific films. I listened to a lot of 50’s soundtracks and watched old television commercials and even old educational movies for schools.

Even before a note of music was written I knew that Timmy and Fido’s idyllic world would be based on the Americana of Aaron Copeland; Bill the father is such a nitwit that he deserved the playful and innocent Bassoon of “Leave it to Beaver”; and the horror elements would receive a lot of the dark low brass and woodwind orchestrations reminiscent of Bernard Hermann.

Once writing, I was careful to stay away from contemporary techniques because we really wanted the score to stay true to the period. Also, instrumentation was an important factor in determining the sound of the film; Fido takes place in the late 40’s, so I used a similar instrumentation to Citizen Kane (1941) for the Fido orchestra. This, along with the choice of chords, was probably what contributed most to Fido‘s “sound.”

MRH : In addition to Bernard Herrmann, are there other composers you regard as influential?

DM : The film composers I studied most for this film were Bernard Hermann, Eric Korngold, Nino Rota, Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone. Of course these guys all owe a dept of gratitude to Stravinsky, so I’d have to say Stravinsky as well. As far as most influential in general, I’d have a hard time. I listen to everything from Renaissance choral music to Jazz and Rock. I really love everything.

MRH : One of the toughest careers to pursue in Canada is writing and directing films, and I’m sure film composing is equally tough, given few native films enjoy screen time in theatrical venues. How hard has it been to establish yourself as a film composer, and do you find up-and-coming composers have more opportunities to hone their craft today?

DM : Well, I turned 40 last year so it’s been a while. It’s been a constant evolution though, and during that time I’ve had a lot of time to pursue many other musical avenues. I would say that newcomers to the industry have a pretty daunting task. Film composing has never been a job you can find in the classifieds. You’ve really got to want it, be talented, educated and lucky. I had a roommate in college who asked me to score his first feature, so I guess I was lucky. That being said, there are some exciting new avenues for a composer, such as video games.

MRH : Perhaps a major boon to anyone involved in films has been the documentary genre, itself deeply rooted in our film history. Had you always wanted to score feature films, or were you always intrigued by some of the myriad documentaries produced in Canada?

DM : I think I’ve always been driven to pursue features because I enjoy the long format and working with plot and character development, but I enjoy the less hectic schedule of documentaries.

Feature films, given the larger budgets, give you the opportunity to work with real players, so that’s a real thrill. Writing, orchestrating and conducting the orchestra is both exhausting and exhilarating, so I love that process. When you’re doing documentaries, it feels like in comparison everything is going in slow motion; you’re working with all your electronics and with the occasional live musician, but it’s not nearly as hectic. You also sometimes get to explore a style of music not normally found in a feature.

MRH : One project that stands out in your C.V. is the documentary The Life and Times of Arthur Erickson. How did you become involved with the project?

DM : My first contact with the director for that project came about because he was interested in talking to me about scoring his feature. The feature is still in the works, but in the meantime I’ve done two documentaries for him.

MRH : Composing music for an edifice might seem like a daunting task to some, but a building or subway station has its own character, and I wonder if you can describe what specific aspects inspired you? For example, did you first establish a musical picture for Erickson, and subsequently extract specific facets from his ‘musical portrait’ and apply them to certain creations?

DM : My musical style was dictated by the camera work and editing as well as Erickson’s architectural style. There is a lot of subtlety to his work. He really manages to create a structure that is in harmony with its surroundings, so this was my goal with the music. Much like Fido, I imposed theses compositional limitations on the score. Everything had to be based on harmonics. I used harmonics on bass and guitar and manipulated one note at time with delays, then combined these with long evolving drones that were created by singing harmonic overtones.

MRH : So little music by Canadian film composers exists on CD, even on a local level. As a contrast, Fido‘s score will be available on iTunes, and I’m curious if this might be the first step is getting some native music out there?

DM : We’ll see. There are some great Canadian writers that have carved out pretty auspicious careers in the industry – Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and Mychael Danna (Little Miss Sunshine) come to mind, but there are others. For me personally it would be nice to see my music reach a larger audience. The soundtrack for Fido is pretty unique, so hopefully it will catch on with score enthusiasts.

MRH : For a CD release, there’s a greater level of expenses, whereas a digital album is less costly to produce, and I wonder if that was a key reason for releasing the score online?

DM : Yes, I’m sure it was. It was Lions Gate’s choice. There is just so much music out there these days that I think everyone’s overwhelmed, and as a result people just don’t know what to buy. You’ve got to be able to present your material beyond just the music stores, so a CD somehow just doesn’t make financial sense unfortunately. I’m optimistic about Itunes as a digital delivery system, because your audience is really global. It seems like all corners of the globe are connected somehow to itunes, so there’s enormous potential there.

MRH : If the album is well-received by fans, would you consider releasing some of your prior scores in the near future?

DM : I’d love to. I’ve got some really diverse scores that would make interesting listening. The score to Mile Zero uses electronics and string quartet and is one of my favorites. I also just produced and arranged a debut album of ancient music from around the world for my wife Allison Girvan. She’s an incredible singer, so I’m hopeful that it will get out there because I think it’s really got a unique flavor.


. would like to thank Don Macdonald for this interview.

Visit Don’s wensite HERE!

Check out the Official FIDO site HERE!

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2007 by Mark R. Hasan


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