An Interview with Danny Elfman
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 theatera 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
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 lifeI 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 louderit 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 Halloweenit'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 processafter 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 itme, 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,
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 himit 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 writingI 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
proa real criticwho 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,
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 linksmaybe
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
othersthere are beautiful melodies in all of them. It's just that there's
something stylistically that's happened in recent yearsan 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
partiesthe 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