Epic can be low-key
Musician. Composer. Tearjerker.
John McMillan’s IMDb profile checks all the boxes for a BuzzFeed-style list of big action scenes: 40 episodes of Hawaii Five-0, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World. But his most gripping—and emotional—work appears as a composer credit at the very bottom of his profile.
John says putting together the haunting notes for a CBC documentary about Canada’s organ-donation crisis is one of the most important things he’s ever done.
“I’ve worked on amazing shows and recorded with incredible orchestras,” says John of the years he spent in Los Angeles working with big names in film composition, including Brian Tyler and Hans Zimmer. “Composing for an episode of The Nature of Things called ‘Vital Bonds’ definitely wasn’t the biggest or flashiest project I’ve worked on, but for me it trumps anything else.”
“ It’s about writing the music that speaks most clearly to the scene and is in service to the film. A lot of the time less is more.”
John’s soft, low notes written for violin, viola, cello and bass raise goosebumps as they carry viewers through heart-wrenching stories of how a decision made by one family in a time of incredible grief can lead to another family’s immense relief.
“Action movies, TV episodes and video games often use music to inject anxiety, to move the story along and to add tension,” says John. “But this piece wasn’t about fake characters. These stories were about real people—families losing loved ones and parents waiting for their two-week-old little girl to get a heart. The music needed to stay out of the way as much as possible.”
Writing a great musical score, John explains, isn’t always about creating an incredible piece of music.
“It’s about writing the music that speaks most clearly to the scene and is in service to the film. A lot of the time less is more—you don't need to fill out every single gap in the soundscape.”
But there are definitely times when you need to lean in as a composer and tap into emotions that will make people feel and connect with what is happening on screen.
“There’s a gut-wrenching moment in ‘Vital Bonds’ when a mother says goodbye to her son for the last time before his body is wheeled away to donate his organs,” says John. “It’s such a difficult thing to watch, and at the same time a really important thing to see. That’s the moment where I felt that the music needed to step in and support that part of the story. I think organ donors and their families are all heroes, I really do.”
John McMillan is an alumnus of the Music program and a faculty member in the Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Music program. Learn more at MacEwan.ca/Music.