One on one

Penelope Spheeris and Danny Elfman
American film magazine, 1991.02
The director and the film composer, rebels who jumped from rock to film, swap trailblazing tales—her rise from "The Decline", his Mystic Knights and Tim Burton days.
When punk took over at the end of the '70s, Los Angeles was shaken by unmusical bands whose real art forms included self-mutilation, demonic yelling, drug-induced vandalism and musical annihilation. As the decade turned, no artist—in music, fashion or film—could ignore the movement.
Penelope Spheeris, recently out of the UCLA film school, documented the debauchery with unflinching immediacy, her camera penetrating the Los Angeles scene like a safety pin through cheek flesh. She called her film, aptly, The Decline of Western Civilization. It was released in 1981.
While Spheeris rolled, Danny Elfman rocked. A few months after the release of Decline, Elfman and the members of his band, Oingo Boingo, released their first album, Only a Lad. Their sound was wholly original: Elfman picked up on the themes of punk—self-destruction and rebellious spunk—but added a black humor that frequently confronted death. The rocker entered the film world when director Tim Burton saw his own tarantella style in Elfman's music and gave him his first movie assignment with Pee-wee's big adventure. Burton and Elfman have since paired up on several projects, including Beetlejuice, Batman, and, most recently, Edward Scissorhands. Elfman also wrote the brooding theme for HBO's Tales from the Crypt. Despite having climbed to the top among film composers, Elfman continues to perform with Oingo Boingo. A compilation of his music for film and TV, Music for a Darkened Theatre had recently been released.
Spheeris, too, prefers to mix careers, crossing over from the recording industry to film, from directing documentaries (including a follow-up to Decline, The Metal Years) to directing features (Suburbia, The Boys Next Door, Dudes) from story editor on Rosanne to writing her own sitcom, which she's now trying to get green-lighted. Recently, Spheeris joined two other filmmakers, Danna Deich and Joan Micklin Silver, in directing HBO's Prison Stories: Women on the Inside, a three-part project set to air this winter.
The two met at Elfman's Topanga Canyon home. Sitting in a living room filled with objects of death—Day of the Dead figures, a real shrunken head from Peru, the entombed remains of Elfman's long-gone dog—they talked about rock and roll, film composing and their shared fascination with horror movies.
Spheeris: So many performers want to score films. And I think many could do it well. Are you glad that you've made the transition? Or would you rather still be just performing?
Elfman: Well, I'd love to see the band obtain success, because they're family. I've never had any desire to be a star. What I love about being successful as a film composer is anonymity. So if I could really pick my ultimate state, that would be it—unrecognizable while successful.
Spheeris: All those kids in The Metal Years wouldn't agree with you, obviously, about the stardom. I have great respect for your attitude about it, but what I find sad is that so many people chase after the stardom, and it's such a dead-end street.
Elfman: Absolutely. You know, I could feel like a star here in Los Angeles, on the West Coast. I'm recognized all the time. I'm hassled frequently. I've always felt that there's nothing positive about stardom at all. With the exception of, occasionally, getting a better label in a restaurant. [laughter]
Spheeris: Having done those movies, I know a lot of these kids are still trying to make it. I get calls from them, and they say, How come we don't get signed? How come we're not famous? How come we're not rich? And I say, How come you're not writing a song right now? You know, they don't do it for the reason of creating. They don't do it for the reason that they're driven as artists; they do it for other reasons. Obviously, you don't. I'm curious, at which level do you get involved with a movie? Do you get involved at the script level? Or do you sit down once there's a cut?
Elfman: I will read the script, but I won't hear any music. I respond visually. Even though I'll be sent scripts early on, I can't say—other than my own curiosity of, Is this going to be an interesting project?— that it has any effect whatsoever on what I write. It's not until the rough cut that I become engaged on a musical level.
Spheeris: But you must read the script, because you have to make a commitment to do the project.
Elfman: I can't tell from a script whether the movie will lend itself to an interesting score. A script is primarily the dialogue. All of the composer's best moments are between that dialogue, when the character is acting without words.
Spheeris: If Tim Burton said, I want to do a movie about a mud slide, would you want to be involved?
Elfman: Well, I know Tim well enough to know that if he made a movie about a mud slide, it would have some wonderful, peculiar quality, and I would probably fall in love with it. Last year, I sought out Clive Barker and Sam Raimi—they didn't come to me—because I wanted very much to work with them, since I love horror. I did Nightbreed for Clive and Darkman for Sam. I grew up being a horror and fantasy fan. So I've returned to the genre that inspired me in the first place. I just love that genre.
Spheeris: Yeah, me too. My favorite is Henry:Portrait of a Serial Killer. Have you seen that?
Elfman: Oh! I'm just dying to see it. No pun intended. I thought the Boys Next Door was scarier than a lot of slick horror movies today, for the same reason that the first Hills Have Eyes was scary to me, and the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre was scary to me—because there was a sense of realism about it. Although Boys Next Door wasn't done in that style, and I am not comparing you to Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper, but a scary story can be scarier if it is real.
Spheeris: I have a question for you: Why do you still perform? I mean, you don't have to.
Elfman: Well, the two things are not related at all. If I was just a film composer, I'd be very unhappy. It's very, very intense work, especially the kinds of movies I do. I get much too close to the projects. I end up cruising for a bruising every time I do a film. I set myself up for a massive disappointment if it doesn't come out just the way I want it to. I have no doubt that I'd be suicidal very quickly. I need to do something else to break it up. Also the work is so hard. I work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, when I'm scoring. And to be able to go back and write songs is my vacation. That's what I'm doing now, until probably April.
Spheeris: I could never perform. I could never stand up on a stage. When I have to go in front of an audience or do something at a dinner or give an award, I am scared to death. I don't know how performers do it. I am fine on the set. I feel very comfortable. You know, with 40 guys— running around telling them what to do and when to do it, and I am just one pushy bitch. I think it is because I am an oldest child. I always had to be in charge. I am very comfortable with that, but as far as standing up onstage, forget it. So you look forward to this period of time?
Elfman: Yeah, I'm under no pressure, there's no deadline. There's no $30 to 50 million movie whose entire release is dependent on me finishing the score on time. And if I'm not careful, I fuck things up. Especially being the last link in a long chain on a production that was probably already running behind schedule before I started. It happens all the time. Dick Tracy is a good example. Commonly, the writing goes a little longer than planned. The shooting always goes a little longer than planned. The editing goes a little longer than planned. So what looked like a leisurely period of time gets knocked down to a bare minimum number of days in which to write [the score]. And, again, the genre has a lot to do with it. Writing a 70-minute score for this genre is an enormous amount of work. Darkman, Batman, Nightbreed were all 70-plus scores.
Spheeris: Next thing you know, you'll have a second unit going.
Elfman: I wish. That's the one thing that's impossible. Actually, there is one time that I've come as close as you would come to a second unit. On Darkman, I knew up-front, because the movie got pushed back so far, that I could not finish the score. The editing went so long, and the release date was coming up so close, and we had spotted approximately 75 minutes of score. And I knew that I cannot write more than two minutes a day, if I write for 12 hours. I felt like I was going to be about seven minutes short. And I told them up-front, I said, I'm going to hire a composer friend of mine, Jonathan Shephard {Blackjack's note:the person who typed this up for the issue didn't hear right, the dude Danny is talking about is Jonathan Sheffer.}, to pick up four or five minutes..
Spheeris: A second unit.
Elfman: Not much music, just enough to take the pressure off so I could concentrate on the rest. It worked out beautifully, especially because he did action music, which, after Batman and Nightbreed, I was getting tired of.
Spheeris: [laughing] And got rid of all those helicopter and car chases!
Elfman: Amen! What is it like when you're arranging second unit? Every director I know has a second unit.
Spheeris: I have the best second-unit story. Once I was shooting on that film Carrie Fisher was in, Hollywood Vice Squad, for [producer] Sandy Howard, and we were shooting in the old Brown Derby this big fight sequence. I did the fight sequence and I knew that I had to do more, but I had to get the rest of the day done. So I went to my next room over there, and I'm shooting that one, and then I hear someone go, Action. And I'm going, Wait a minute, I'm the director here, who's calling action? And Sandy Howard had gotten his own second unit together and was over there shooting.
Elfman: Oh, my God. So you didn't know there was going to be a second unit?
Spheeris: I didn't know. I don't think Tim Burton would have those problems. I don't have them anymore, because I wouldn't stand for it. I don't like shooting all the action, just like you don't like scoring the action. It's some gratuitous thing that, I guess, because Rocky movies have done so well, we have to have.
Elfman: Ironically, I like scoring action, because I think I do it well. But when you hear it buried under sound effects, the joy disappears.
Spheeris: What do you do if you very much disagree with the director? The director says, I don't think it's right for this scene. And you really disagree with him, what do you do?
Elfman: Part of being a successful film composer is being able to second-guess what a director means, 'cause they'll start talking to me in abstract terms. Sometimes, they'll start talking to me in musical terms, and I'll say, No, no, stop. Just give me your personal impressions. Scissorhands was so fun to score. The most joy that I've had since Beetlejuice. Just because the score really had a story that was right there. It was very clear. No action sequences. Again, that was the genre that I thought, Never! If you asked me, after I did Pee-wee, What kind of movies could you do, can't you do? I would say, Well, I wouldn't have a clue how to score an action movie or a romantic movie. And then, I find myself doing both. Now I really enjoy romantic scoring, if I can get corny, if it's melodramatic, if it can be in a classic, noncontemporary sense that I really like. My favorite parts of Darkman and Scissorhands were the more romantic elements of them. And Dick Tracy, too. In fact, that's what attracted me to it...It's so funny, I find myself now really enjoying writing this kind of grand, classical, romantic style that I thought would be the furthest from my instincts, and loving it. Any movie recorded before the '60s—any great old movie— the dialogue and the music is everything. I really hate sound effects. I am sorry. I am totally old-fashioned in my approach to music. I love the way they used to make films. The dialogue, the picture, gave you what was happening; the music gave you the emotion and what the characters were thinking. Now, in most movies, orchestral music is very thin, it sounds shrill. Occasionally, it will pop through. There are directors who still fight for music, but I think they are far in the minority. It is much easier to let sound effects carry the movie. Audiences are used to that. It is easier to get a thrill simply with loud noises. Let me ask you a question: How did you switch from the recording industry to film?
Spheeris: Well, I have always been a film person. I mean, I graduated from UCLA with a master's degree in film production. I always was, you know, a music fan. It was my escape. If I had problems, I would go listen to music, and my problems would go away. I only became interested in working in the record business because an executive somewhere said, You know so much about this new music, why don't we have you be the genius to find the new bands?
Elfman: Were you putting your film career on hold to do this?
Spheeris: No, as a patter of fact, I was developing various features and doing television, too, with the HBO thing, videos, etc.
Elfman: So you intended to keep them still simultaneously going.
Spheeris: Kind of like your career. I was a story editor on Rosanne for a while. I was part of the old regime.
Elfman: Well, that must have been interesting.
Spheeris: Yeah, that's a good, safe word. I thought I knew about life in Hollywood until I went to work on Rosanne. Then I got a taste of the real deal. When things got really interesting in there—scary was what it was because of the politics—I just sat in my room and wrote feature scripts. And I came up with a great one. I was totally intrigued by that format, the sitcom, and I still would like to do a sitcom about kids in a band. Sometimes I really do enjoy, like you do, moving around in these various kinds of roles—A and R, story editor and directing—and I know a lot about the production of music now because I actually did sign a band and went through the whole production of the album. It is good to move around and do these various things, but then you have to decide, well, now maybe I should just be focusing my attention on one thing, on directing. But it's just not as gratifying that way, so you just have to go for it.
Elfman: But it is wonderful switching sides.
Spheeris: Yeah, it is actually a blessing. Not to be religious about it, but I feel really fortunate. Have you ever been inspired to write a script?
Elfman: I am working now on my first treatment.
Spheeris: You are branching out now as scriptwriter. That's great.
Elfman: Well, actually, it is because I want to direct. I would like, just once, to see something through top to bottom and score my own film. I have been watching from afar for the last couple of years and slowly growing more confident in my ability to do that, with the right type of situation. I don't want to be a director for a living, but I do want to direct this one story. When I told Tim what I wanted to do, he gave me the best advice, because I came from no training as a composer, and Tim came untrained as a director. I said, Well, how do you tell them exactly what lens to use? Because that would be the thing that would scare me the most. And he said, that's why you hire a cinematographer. His advice to me was, the most important thing is to have clarity with what you want to put on the screen.
Spheeris: Clarity meaning vision?
Elfman: Yes, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that's how I became a film composer. It's clarity—I know musically exactly what I want to say. If I take the time, I can get it on music paper.
Spheeris: I have a different opinion from Tim's, I guess, because I do understand the technical aspects of filmmaking. I think it might even come from being a woman, and being even more insecure about being a director. Because if you say you are going to be a director, it is like saying, OK, I am going to be God here for a while, you know, and that is a really big thing to assert yourself that much. So I purposefully learned all the technical aspects...
Elfman: I understand what you're saying. I would love to go back in time right now and go back to music school and learn the proper technique of doing everything that I do. It would make my life easier, and I would be able to write faster, if I had a couple years, or half a dozen years, of the technique that I never gained. Even though I do it, I know I could do it quicker. And it's incorrect to say that Tim doesn't know this stuff. He went in with an extremely clear idea of what he wanted to do. We both learned by doing.
Spheeris: You know the best reason for knowing that stuff? Because if you ask for something as the director, and a technician says they can't do it, if you know how it is done, then....
Elfman: I couldn't agree more. I mean, I am not anti-studying or anti-technique. I have gotten in enormous arguments with a local music magazine while they were doing a feature on me. I mean, many "schooled" people hate my guts.
Spheeris: I was going to say, can you imagine how you would feel if you were going to school for five years and not being able to pull it off, and there is Danny, he has no schooling, and look at what he has done?
Elfman: It is much more accepted from a director than from a composer. So many directors come from other sides. They come from being a script writer, an actor, an editor,
Spheeris: Or the best, producer.
Elfman: Or producer, but very few orchestral composers come from any of those other fields, and it is much more elitist. Nobody is giving Kevin Costner a ton of shit because he is an actor who became a director, like I get as a composer. Let me put it this way. I was stupid enough to be honest when I first started that I had never taken any music lessons. What really irks me is that people start rumors within the field. It is a generally accepted feeling within the music industry, of composers and would-be composers and wanna-be composers, that I don't write my own music, that I hire ghosts.
Spheeris: My God! That would really make me mad.
Elfman: My attitude is, look, I do what I do, and I work my ass off, and if you like it, great. If you don't, fuck you, but at least give me credit for doing my own work. The fact is, if I had done some more pop- oriented or synthesizer-oriented scores, nobody would have thought twice. It is because I entered the sacred territory of orchestral composition, of classically styled composition. Because I broke the taboo.
Spheeris: And that makes people mad, you think?
Elfman: It makes people very mad. I didn't stay on my side of the fence, and they don't accept the fact that it is possible to be self-taught.
Spheeris: That an underdog and a rebel kind of came to the top. That's great. I love that. What's wrong with that? That is what I'm planning on doing.
Elfman: You are doing it in a good way. You are doing it the same way Sam Raimi did it, which is starting with lower-budget stuff and honing your craft, and moving on to big-budget stuff, and being very knowledgeable as you go along. Which is a good way to do it.
Spheeris: My big gripe is that there are so many people who are directing, doing the films that they want to do, who came upon the situation simply by being born into the business. It is so easy for them. Unfortunately, a lot of those people have very limited life experience and so have very little to say. Unless you get struck from ray from heaven, you really have to have experienced some pretty heavy living to have something to say, or have gone through a lot of self-examination. A lot of them are pure lightweights. They can't even stay with the same therapist for a week. That is my big gripe.
Elfman: We both have had to fight for whatever recognition we both have. Nothing was handed to either of us on platters. In terms of paying dues, I ate shit for a dozen years.
Spheeris: That is a lot of shit, Danny.
Elfman: I know. I mean, I never earned $2,000 a year for a decade. And I never knew where my rent was coming from, and it didn't bother me. I started with Mystic knights, a musical theatrical ensemble, writing music, at the end of 1971. It wasn't until 1984 that I really started earning a living with Oingo Boingo.
Spheeris: That's what we have in common. We are rebels breaking in. you are in the mainstream at this point.
Elfman: That is what is so weird about me, is that I always considered myself, and I still do in my mind, an underdog, some type of offshoot from left field, not in the mainstream.
Spheeris: That's brilliant. That's why you could be doing what you are doing. let me ask you, How much control do you have about what music's going to go on the sound-track album, what parts of the score and what pieces of the source music?
Elfman: Total control. I've picked every selection. I've done most of the editing myself on all my sound-track albums. Most directors wouldn't want to get involved in that. You do, but most of them wouldn't know where to begin sifting through all that stuff. And there's always a lot of editing involved in a big score. But I think you're part of a small group—Jonathan Demme, yourself, and John Hughes....
Spheeris: It's an integral part of the film. I remember the very first time that I put a piece of music to film, it was astounding. I felt like my life had changed. If I could continue my career just making movies that had to do with the music, dramatic pieces that had to do with people who were musicians, because I understand their life-style and, hopefully, understand their music...I could just spend the rest of my life doing that, to incorporate music and film. But you can't make documentaries and make a living, so that's out. It's really hard to get a scripted piece about musicians produced as a feature film. Because there have been so many failures....I want to do The Decline of Eastern Civilization.
Elfman: Eastern civilization?
Spheeris: Go to the Far East and do a documentary about the music there. What I'm fascinated by is the sociological importance of it. Because over there, for example, if a kid is into rock and roll, heavy metal especially, they just disown them. It's like the breakdown of thousands of years of tradition.
Elfman: They disown them just as quickly here, even without thousands of years of tradition.....What draws you to these sorts of projects?
Spheeris: Well, I don't know, everyone always says it's rejected, alienated kids. I don't know if that's it, necessarily. I've been in analysis with the same shrink for about 12 years. i just like to understand what people's deep motivations are. And you know, the most gratifying moment that I've ever had in my career is when Suburbia came out. I got a letter from a father in Virginia, who said his daughter asked him to go see it with her, and they spoke for the first time in three years.
Elfman: That's fantastic.
Spheeris: Isn't that cool? If I can do that with my films, if I can create communication between people, that would be great. I mean, that's what I work have moments like that.
Elfman: Which is why I still stay in songwriting—to do that. You can reach people on a much more personal, direct level, telling lyrics in a song. Writing orchestral music for film, that's wonderful, but it doesn't reach people at that personal level, obviously.
Spheeris: You have to go for that. I mean, the money and the stardom and all that crap doesn't mean anything. You have to have those other sorts of moments.
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