Though he now lives in Dallas, Texas, Daniel Hart has left an indelible imprint on the Triangle. From 2002 to 2009, he lived in Chapel Hill and crafted gorgeous songs with his band The Physics of Meaning; you can hear his deft violin work on records by Mount Moriah, Megafaun, Annuals, and The Rosebuds, to name just a few. His more recent work has included composing music for ads and short films, but this year Hart found himself tasked with a huge new project: writing the score for Disney's reboot of the 1977 movie Pete's Dragon, which hits theaters across the country this weekend. Hart discussed his new chapter of work and managing his biggest undertaking to date.
INDY: How did you first get approached to do this score? That seems like a pretty enormous project.
DANIEL HART: Yeah, it's the biggest film that I've ever written music for. It's the fourth film on which the director and I have collaborated together. David Lowery and I have worked on every other film of his, and that was the reason that I ended up working on this one. It took a bit of convincing to get me the job, because that's a big risk, basically, that Disney took, hiring a composer who had never done a film of this size or scope. We had done two feature films together, and a short film.
How big was the ensemble with which you recorded?
There was a ninety-four-seat orchestra, a thirty-two-person choir, and then we had various soloists, which we recorded separately. We were there in London and I was sitting in the control booth, watching the orchestra get everything together. Part of my job while I was there was to produce those sessions, so the orchestra would play the music that I had written, and I would give them feedback, see if we needed to make changes to what was actually written in the sheet music. Sometimes you just don't know what it's going to sound like until you actually get there, and then maybe some changes need to be made. During that process, I was working with this orchestra, and I felt like it was going really well. In one of the breaks, one of the heads of music at Disney turned to me and he asked me what was the biggest ensemble I had worked with before this. I thought about it for a second and I realized that the biggest group of musicians I had worked with on a film before Pete's Dragon was six people at a time.
When did you begin work on composing the score?
Mid-January. I left from L.A. in January, and I worked basically nonstop for about four months. We went to London in May to record the orchestra, and then I came back to L.A. after that to edit and mix everything into the film, to make sure what we had recorded in London turned out the way that we wanted it to turn out.
What was your schedule like? Did you have to put other projects on hold?
I did have to put other projects on hold. I was working on the second album for Dark Rooms, my band, when I got the call. We had been working on recording it in December and January. So I had to just sort of stop doing that completely, and then we had a European tour scheduled for the spring as well, which I ended up having to cancel in order to do this. We are currently rescheduling for October and November. My basic schedule was seven days a week, on average, eleven to twelve hours a day. I think most people who work on films of this size have a team of people working with them—assistants, people helping with various aspects of the project, but it was just me. I was just doing everything. I think at one point the music editor on the film was encouraging me to hire someone, to bring someone out, but I felt there wasn't enough time to really work someone up to the process. Because I'd never worked with other people before, I'd always just done everything myself in the films that I've done. I felt that that would take more time than it would help decrease my workload.
How do you approach writing for a band versus writing scores?
A film, my job is to help tell someone else's story, help realize someone else's vision. There are already immediate parameters put in place as to what kind of music to be used. In the stuff that I'm working on for Dark Rooms, I can basically tell any story with any instruments I want, in any way, shape or form. On the one hand that's very freeing, on the other it's very daunting, because at least with these films, there's some limitations that mean that you can narrow down choices to be made. But if you can make any choice at there with any instrument out there, and most of it's available all the time, then how do you decide what to do?
Were you a fan of the original movie?
I watched the original as a kid, I remember that I liked it but I don't really have any memory of the actual film. Since I got the job working on Pete's Dragon, I've talked to a lot of friends about it, and I'd say the majority of my friends saw that movie as a kid and really loved it, and often will sing me some of the songs from the original film. But it wasn't like that for me. I had some idea, but I have no memory of it really, and I thought it would be best if I did not go back and watch it before working on this new version. The new version and the old version don't have a whole lot in common in terms of anything beyond the fact that there's a boy named Pete and the fact that there's a dragon.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dancing with Dragons"