Interview with Danny Elfman, composer

Cinemedia Promotions, 1999.03?
1. What attracted you to A Simple Plan?
[Director] Sam Raimi. I worked with him twice before and I just adore him. I just love him.
2. A Simple Plan is a more subtle score than some youíve written in the past, is that more difficult than a bombastic score?
Absolutely. Thereís nothing easier than being bombastic, which is exactly why I donít go for your standard action films. Anything works as long as itís big and loud. Bombastic is easy. I think a relatively talented 12-year old with a couple of good orchestrators could score most of the big mega-blockbusters that are out in the last couple of years.
3. What kind of instrumentation did you use for A Simple Plan?
Very often in a movie I design the score around a sound or sounds that I think will be unique to that picture. Certainly in a movie like A Simple Plan it needed some special or unique tones, the tone of the movie was very tricky. So there are 2 thematic areas, one of them was a flute ensemble. It was a fun orchestra for me to work with because there was really no brass, no percussion. It was just stings and flutes, lots of flutes, 9 of them, mostly alto and bass. That was kind of a fun different thing, very, very simple, sparse ensemble led by alto and bass flutes.
The other part of ii was these specially tuned pianos that I prepared before I started and specially tuned banjos so I worked the music around the sounds of these micro-tuned piano chords and special banjo samples that I did myself. I tried to make the heart of it. Starting with these two odd tonal groups, I started composing the score. It was really fun, different, very simple score, really, for A Simple Plan. I didnít mean it as a pun, it really was. A lot of people that work with me very frequently were very shocked when they came in the room, to see no brass or percussion.
4. Do you have much control over your score on a soundtrack album?
No, unless itís an album of the score, then I do. In an album like Good Will Hunting or Men in Black which is really an album of songs with a bit of score I donít really have much say, because itís not really about being a soundtrack, itís about marketing something to help promote the movie. So when an album, i.e. A Civil Action or A Simple Plan, is the score, then I produce the album.
5. Do you do most of your scoring in here (US) or abroad?
Iíve been scoring strictly here. Iíve done 34 films. Iíve done only 2 of them abroad, although the next 2 are, oddly enough. Not for union costs, because theyíre both British based productions. All the post is happening there. I prefer to score at home, not because they donít have excellent orchestras abroad, they do, Iíve got wonderful performances from London both times Iíve played there, but simply for the fact that itís much easier on me to be home. Close to all my own resources.
One thing I should point out is that I do a lot of the performing on my scores, which not everybodyís aware of. In A Simple Plan, A Civil Action, and (the upcoming) Instinct, anywhere between 20 and 40% of the music on any particular cue is coming from me. So that provides a difficulty in terms of leaving because it means I have to bring a lot of stuff with me. Iím running simultaneously with the orchestra, quite a bit of percussion. I donít run, as some people do, phony orchestra sounds, the strings are all strings, the brass is all brass, the woodwinds are all woodwinds. If you listen to the underlying texture beneath that there might be anywhere between 20-40 tracks of me playing percussion and odd string struck sounds, glass sounds, harmonic sounds sounds that I collect and use.
Pretty much any sound you hear in any of my scores, that isnít traditional orchestral instruments, is coming from my own performance. Because of that itís much easier for me to be close to my home. I donít pre-lay it on tape, so thereís a difficulty in terms of going oversees, how do I bring all these with me, because I want them all running live with the orchestra. It would be easy to pre-lay it on tape, but with it on tape you lose your ability to change a tempo or to catch something differently. If a director is sitting there going "I like it, but I really want it want to catch this thing earlier, I think weíre a little late on that," you canít do it if youíve pre-laid it. So I have everything running live with the orchestra, and it gives us the flexibility to speed up or slow down the tempo, or do anything more with it. With these next 2 projects Iím going to be bringing a lot of my equipment oversees. More than anything else thatís what keeps me, when I can, working close to home. And I literally might want to grab an instrument with a particular sound to redo something. If Iím oversees I canít do that because theyíre not traditional instruments, theyíre odd things, just my own stuff.
In A Simple Plan all of the re-tuned pianos, all of the banjos all of the strummed instruments, all of the glass all of the percussion, zithers, and hand drums, thereís a lot of stuff that you don knowitís there bit itís there, itís all my stuff. A Civil Action, all of the marimbas, all of the glass, lots of peculiar little instruments and organ type sounds, synth work is mine. In Instinct itís like a plethora of all of the xylophones, marimbas, thumb pianos and African instruments and drums. Thatís all my own stuff.
6. Who are some of your favourite directors to work with?
My only repeat directors would be Gus van Zant and Tim Burton and now Sam Raimi. I like working with all of them. They all give me a very long leash to work on, which is where Iím happiest.
7. So you donít come in and do films with 1-week turnarounds, where you donít know anything about the film going into it...
Some of their films will be tight turnarounds and some of them will be looser but itís more creatively they let me do my job. Itís just that simple. And many directors just donít have the ability to let you do that. Because they all have to control it so much that you canít really bring much to the party. All three of them allow me to bring something to their party.
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