An Interview with Danny Elfman

By Andy Carvin
Andy Carvin: How did you originally become involved in music?
Danny Elfman: Well, I've never studied, and I've never had music lessons. I just grew up on what I grew up on. I was a movie fanatic as a kid -- I spent every weekend that I could at the movies. My exposure to musicals, unfortunately, is through the film versions of the Broadway musicals. I never saw a real Broadway musical, so I saw them on film. Eventually, I ended up falling into musical theater—a group in Paris called Le Grand Magique Circus. I toured with them and learned various musical instruments.
I then left and formed the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and began to pick up even more instruments. I've always had a fascination with old '30s jazz. I liked a lot of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Django Reinhardt, and I began transcribing that music. Whatever I learned about notation, I learned from my necessity to write down the music for my ensemble. So that started to roll on itself. Then, I started a rock band. I left it all behind me, until Tim Burton dragged me kicking and screaming into Pee Wee's Big Adventure in '85.
AC: "Dragged kicking and screaming?"
Elfman: Well, it was like if I were a big fan of marathon races. You're standing at the side of the road, there's the runners, there's more runners, somebody's got a baton, and they fall dead right at your feet. Just as they're about to die, they reach up and say, "Take it," and I go, "But I can't! I was never trained for this." But you pick up the baton and start running, dressed in full street clothes, and after a couple of miles, you're going, "Hey, I like this! I'm gonna keep doing this!" And then, suddenly, you've become a fairly famous marathon runner because of that accident. That's essentially how I feel. It was an accident, yet it was something that I had admired and loved for years. It's not like I was starting cold, but I was starting as a fan.
AC: So what was your connection with Tim Burton?
Elfman: I had no connection with Tim. I had never met him before the interview for Pee Wee. He called me for an interview and I didn't know why.
I don't know how someone could see this rock band and think, "This dude could do my orchestral film score." It defies logic, as far as I'm concerned. It's one of the great mysteries of my life—I would never have had the guts to ask someone with my background to do that job. And when I did it, I fully expected to screw it up. I figured, "Okay, I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do what they want me to do, but I'm gonna mess up a perfectly good film, I'm gonna wreck it, and I'm gonna come limping back to rock 'n' roll with my tale between my legs, saying, 'See? Rock 'n' rollers should never do orchestral film scores.'" But I loved it.
I realized I was really good at catching timings. The mechanics of working a film score around the image was very easy for me. I was able to instinctively find every tempo for every piece of footage I saw. When I heard the first cue for Pee Wee's bike race, I became addicted for life. I had never heard anything sound so big. The orchestra sounds so much bigger than a rock band. It's not so much that it sounds louder—it sounds bigger and fuller. So that was it, that was my fix. I think I knew right at that moment that I was hooked to orchestral composition.
AC: Now that the film is finished, do you feel that the character of Jack Skellington is more of your own, or Tim's?
Elfman: Well, it evolved. In the course of creating the character and the songs, I began to write from my own perspective, anyhow. I mean, for me to write about Halloween—it's always been my favorite night of the year. I've always been immersed in Halloween imagery, so this didn't take a huge stretch. So once I fell into the character and began singing the songs as I created them, it became clear that I really wanted to do it.
We actually went through a process—after I'd written the 10 songs -- that laid out the story. Tim and I went into the studio and we did demos of every song. Picture it—me, actually singing every part (laughs), except for Sally's part, because I couldn't do all that in falsetto. It was an all-night session, when we demoed up all the voices for every song.
AC: That session would be a real trip to listen to.
Elfman: Believe it or not, some of those demos of me singing Jack actually ended up in the movie. When I finally decided, "Yes, I'm doing the part," I went back to sing them for real, but we evidently decided on the original, more spontaneous, performances.
AC: How did you match your voice with Chris Sarandon's speaking voice?
Elfman: It was easy for me, but it wasn't easy for him. I was actually a year and a half before him, so we basically had to find an actor who matched my voice. All the songs were already done. Normally, it's the other way around, but then, this is the reverse of a normal situation. Jack sings more than he speaks. Usually they'd find the actor and then someone to sing the songs. We already had Jack singing six songs, so they needed an actor to match my voice. So the dilemma was for him—it was no sweat for me.
AC: Some people have described Nightmare as a modern operetta. Would you say that's accurate?
Elfman: Well, yes and no. In my opinion, it's more of an old-style musical. In an operetta, like Sweeney Todd, if you aren't familiar with it, the songs are like opera. But in an old-style musical, if you stopped one song at a time and said, "Can you sing me each song, one at a time?", you could. I did the same thing while writing—I sang each song to my seven-year-old, Mali, and she had to approve each one. If she couldn't sing it back to me, it didn't get submitted. And this is a kid who at seven can sing all the songs in West Side Story and Oklahoma!, and can handle The King and I pretty well. So I was dealing with a seven-year-old pro—a real critic—who was absolutely brutally honest with me.
For me, it's not an opera, in the sense that I'm not dealing with anything non-melodic or atonal, even vaguely. It's really more of an old-time musical, in the sense that you have these individual songs, yet still tell most of the story. I don't think it's anything different than what Rodgers and Hammerstein did for many years. It's just something you don't see anymore.
AC: What was it like writing your first musical?
Elfman: When I began this as a musical, my desire was instantaneous. I am not a fan of contemporary musicals. This is hard to say, here in New York, in particular, but I am not a fan of contemporary Broadway. But I do love the older, classic styles, so my attempt was to go against the tide -- and it's a very popular tide at the moment -- and try to create something which was strictly not a contemporary, Broadway-style musical.
I told Disney going in: "There will be no pop single. I want every song to feel like it's timeless, and not of today." And they said, "Fine, great. This is going to be a unique thing. Go ahead and do what you do."
AC: But what about "What's This?" Everyone was humming it as we left the theatre.
Elfman: But it's not a pop song, in the sense that when I listen to musicals, I'm aware of where there is, suddenly, a 1989 or '91 or '92 pop song put into the context of a musical, specifically to pick up radio play. That's something that personally offends me.
AC: And if one evolves. . .
Elfman: Whatever evolves, evolves. You know, a musical should have songs you can remember. When West Side Story came out, the music was considered way too complicated and out there, and that there were too many songs, but they were wrong about that. It really got a lot of criticism.
When you see a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, like when I see Oklahoma! or The King and I, there's all kinds of different stuff, and after my first viewing, there's only snippets of melodies in my mind. But it's after two or three time, I start to hone in on specific songs. The beauty of it is that there's so much melodic material, spread out throughout them. I really love that. So that's where I find my inspiration -- Kurt Weill, classic Rodgers and Hammerstein, a little bit of Gilbert and Sullivan.
AC: So you don't feel any connection to the modern composers, like Tim Rice or Andrew Lloyd Webber?
Elfman: No, not to me. I would rather die than bring in a drum set in the middle of a song. A melody is a melody, but presentation is another story. I very consciously would not bring in electric bass or drums. Many of these things I hear in these contemporary musicals are an attempt to bring melodies into the current style of modern rock and pop. That is something which I really, really don't like. So, melodically you may find links—maybe so, since so many of their songs are rooted in the past. But stylistically, mine are all orchestral, and there are no exceptions to that.
I'm not going to put down Les Miserables, or any of these others—there are beautiful melodies in all of them. It's just that there's something stylistically that's happened in recent years—an attempt to make these songs more palatable to typical radio listeners, by pop-izing these possibly classic melodies, and making them more like rock.
AC: It's a little ironic that the lead man of a rock band can cut on these musicals.
Elfman: But I don't have anything to prove. I don't want to make songs fit into the present. I'd rather spend my time thinking, "God, was this written in the '30s, the '40s, etc." The '30s to the '60s was the classic golden era of musicals, and my inspiration all comes from that.
AC: So in today's modern kid world of Barney and Mortal Kombat, how well do you think Nightmare will fare?
Elfman: My feeling is that whether it's immediate, or whether it's over a period of time, when kids get exposed to it, they're going to love it. As the footage started coming in, I would play it for my daughter and her friends. It became the most requested piece of footage at their slumber parties—the latest Nightmare piece. And these are little girls, mind you. I thought this was more geared toward little boys. I think that everything Tim does appeals, against conventional wisdom, to the imagination of kids, and this film, more than most. No how long it'll take to get discovered, I don't know, but I have done extensive market testing of my own, with a group of seven to ten-year-old girls (laughs).
AC: They must have been a great source of feedback.
Elfman: To me, I was really interested if my seven-year-old, Mali, could sing my songs back to me. I knew my 14-year-old, Lola, could, but her interests were already getting into alternative rock. She liked it, but it wasn't Jane's Addiction. She's into her Nirvana phase now.
AC: What will you do when Mali gets older?
Elfman: She's gonna start demanding executive producer credit and a chunk out of my profits. "Look. You got that one free, Dad. From here on out, the honeymoon's over." (laughs)
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