Oscars: Two Sets of Composer Brothers Competing With (and Against) Each Other

Mychael and Jeff Danna -working together in the studio - Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of Cassandra Church

Rupert Gregson-Williams ('Hacksaw Ridge') and Harry Gregson-Williams ('Live by Night') have yet to collaborate, while Mychael and Jeff Danna ('Storks,' 'Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk') have been working together for 25 years.

Hollywood dynasties aren't news even in the world of film scoring; the Newman family boasts everyone from legendary Alfred Newman to contemporary composers Thomas, David and Randy. And this year, two sets of brothers are well positioned for Oscar consideration. Rupert Gregson-Williams scored Mel Gibson's harrowing, uplifting war movie Hacksaw Ridge, and his older brother Harry Gregson-Williams worked on Ben Affleck's upcoming period gangster epic, Live by Night. For Rupert's first collaboration with Gibson, the director contacted him after being impressed by his work on The Legend of Tarzan. "We tended not to talk in terms of music, it was more in terms of the story," says Rupert of working with Gibson on musically defining the movie's hero, conscientious World War II objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). "He wasn't a conventional hero, it was all to do with his spirit."

Harry says Affleck takes a similar approach. "He's quite musical, although he doesn't necessarily speak in musical terms. He pounces on something he likes as opposed to pouncing on something he doesn't like."

Harry and Rupert both studied music at Cambridge. "We had this parallel life; I don't think our parents said, 'Look, we'll just have Rupert do exactly what Harry does,' " says Rupert. And although the brothers have written and recorded music together for fun, they have yet to collaborate. "But it's something we've talked about."

Mychael and Jeff Danna, on the other hand, have been working on scores together for 25 years while also pursuing separate careers. They joined forces this year for the animated feature Storks and Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Mychael has won an Oscar — for Lee's The Life of Pi — so why risk sharing another with his brother? "Our parents always taught us to share," laughs Mychael. "I brought Jeff on and said it was a guitar-based score, and I wanted to work with my brother, and Ang said yes."

The Danna brothers have worked out an effective collaboration process through the years. "We'll look through the film and figure out what the cornerstones are thematically — this character needs a theme, this setting needs something, and we'll spot it and lay out a map and just divide it up," explains Jeff. "I'll say, 'I'll take her theme,' and he'll say, 'I'll take his theme,' and we'll just start."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.