Self-made composer Elfman scores big

Interviewed by Jim Beckerman
Source: [thanks to reza]
Danny Elfman, who wrote 50 film scores with no formal musical training, is a little like the proverbial bumblebee—non-aerodynamic, according to the laws of nature—who flew because nobody told him he couldn't.
Only in Elfman's case, lots of people told him.
"I was just scorned," says Elfman, the one-time rock musician who came seemingly out of nowhere in 1985 to delightfully score Pee-wee's Big Adventure and went on to create the soundtracks to Beetlejuice, the Batman and Spider-Man movies, The Simpsons TV show, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and much else.
For "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," the whimsically macabre puppet film about the forced marriage of a stiff 19th century youth and a very lively corpse, Elfman outdid himself with a score that references Gilbert and Sullivan on the one hand and 1930s jazz on the other.
Now that he's done it, perhaps it's time for his critics in Hollywood to concede that he just might be able to.
"Look at it this way," says the Grammy-winning Elfman. "I came from a rock band, I came out of nowhere and announced in interviews that I was self-taught. And in music, self-taught is really bad. In this world [film music], completely. In classical and orchestral music, you're supposed to go to Berklee and Juilliard for 10 or 15 years. In defense of my detractors, any time I hear about somebody from rock or pop scoring a film, I assume automatically that they're humming a melody and having somebody else do the work."
For years, rumors circulated that Elfman couldn't read music, didn't score his own films, perhaps even had someone else write the melodies.
To set the record straight again—he's fielded this question many times—Elfman can both read and write music. He notated all of his first 25 scores by hand. (He now takes advantage of computer notation software, but so does almost everyone else.)
But it is true that his musical training consisted mostly of 16 years in the cult band Oingo Boingo (as leader, songwriter and rhythm guitarist) and before that some scoring work for a theater troupe. And it's true that, to this day, he's not a great sight reader.
"The fact is, I only read as fast as I write," he says. "I taught myself to write without ever having learned to read. My handicap is, if you took someone who is illiterate who taught themselves to write without reading, and they could only read as fast as they wrote, they ... would ... talk … this … slow."
For "Corpse Bride," his 12th film with his friend and mentor Burton, he drew on his youthful affection for G&S patter songs and Cotton Club-era jazz in the phantasmagoric "Bonejangles" number.
Jazz and operetta are not, he says, tastes acquired in childhood (first in Amarillo, Texas, and then Los Angeles) but things he latched onto later as an itinerant theater person and musician, traipsing through France and Africa.
"I don't think any music influenced me before I was 17," says Elfman, 52. "Before that, I just listened to the same thing any kid would have listened to. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix. None of those things influenced what I was going to get into."
His big influences as a film composer are Bernard Herrmann (composer for Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock) and Nino Rota, whose circus-like themes for Federico Fellini films are echoed in "Pee-wee" and "Beetlejuice." But his interests also extend to Sergei Prokofiev, Kurt Weill and - notably in the case of Corpse Bride - Gilbert and Sullivan.
The running joke in Corpse Bride is that the corpses in the underworld are far livelier than the stiff, repressed Victorians in the land of the living. That gave Elfman his musical cue.
"When we talked about the score, [Burton] said that whenever we're in the land of the living, we should keep it very repressed," Elfman says. "Think of 'tick, tock, tick, tock.' And when we're underground, anything goes."
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