Danny Elfman Revisits the Planet of the apes
Composer Danny Elfman and director Tim Burton have collaborated nearly consistently since the director’s first feature film, Pee-wee's big adventure, in 1985. Elfman, who gained popularity as one of the members of the eclectic rock group Oingo Boingo, had started to compose films in 1980 with The forbidden zone. His acquaintance with Burton resulted in his first orchestral score with Pee-wee.
Elfman went on to become one of a rare group of popular musicians who have succeeded in the complex world of film music. Even though the world of symphonic film composing was a new one professionally, Elfman had grown up with a love for movies and the movie music of Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann—and the Warner Bros cartoon music of Carl Stalling. “Even as a rock and roll artist, I came out of musical theater, and those roots were helpful,” Elfman said. “All during the ‘70s, until I started the band, I didn’t listen to any rock and roll, so I don’t consider that a strong part of my musical roots. In fact, the only reason we started the band in ’79 was because we detested contemporary music in the ‘70s!”
Elfman’s liking of Rota’s Fellini music and 1950-ish Hollywood film music found a bombastic home in the Pee-wee score and solidified his association with Burton, who brought him along to score his Alfred Hitchcock presents episode, “The Jar.” Elfman went on to score big with Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman returns, Edward Scissorhands, Mars attacks! and Sleepy Hollow. In fact, Ed Wood (composed by Cronenberg mainstay Howard Shore) is the only Burton film not scored by Elfman.
This month, Elfman’s collaboration with Burton reached a new mark with the director's stylistic take on Planet of the apes. A consistent percussive rhythm holds much of Elfman's tempestuous score together, with bursts of horns and winds heightening the fast tempo. Elfman's action music is terrifically dissonant, but without ranging out of control. Much of the intricacy of his efforts are obscured amid the picture's sound effects, but on CD the effect is truly amazing; the clacks and whisks and rumbles and rings and whatnot of Elfman's drums and sticks and cymbals and bells create a miasmic and claustrophobic sound design that envelopes the listener and creates the mood of charging, equine apes almost as well as Burton's visualizations do.
Shortly prior to the film’s opening, entertainment news web site, Inside.com, posted an interesting report on July 17th that “studio executives are said to have requested significant changes in composer Danny Elfman's score. Honchos asked the longtime Burton collaborator to make the music more ‘heroic’ sounding, says one source. They wanted to be able to sell the film as a sci-fi GLADIATOR.” This rumor soon circulated throughout the Internet, prompting plenty of conjecture and controversy among newsgroups and film music email list-servers. But Elfman was quick to point out to Cinescape and other investigators that the rumor was quite untrue.
“That never happened,” said Elfman. “These things are always
very amusing, where something starts and it can't stop. It's probably somebody
says something to somebody and it spreads like wildfire. The irony of that story
on Planet of the apes is that I was actually holding evenings for additional
sessions, because I was expecting to have to re-score stuff, not because of
conceptual problems, but because of technical dilemmas. As the film gets edited
and all the effects are coming in and changing up to the last second, very often
we have to re-score something to try to comfort it, and I didn't have to use
one of those dates! There was absolutely no re-scoring and I got nothing from
Fox but big smiles while scoring was going on.”
Coming into the film, Elfman initially had a degree of trepidationbut
not so much because of the classic stature of the original 1968 Franklin Schaffner
film and its equally classic Jerry Goldsmith score, which remains one of the
most inventive compositions in science fiction film music history. As it turns
out, Elfman was not that familiar with the original Apes film or its
score, so competing with an acknowledged masterpiece was not a real concern
“The only trepidation I had is that I didn’t know this film very well,” he said. “I saw it once when it came out when I was a kid, and I never saw it again. I actually wasn't a big fan.”
When Burton brought him into the new POTA, Elfman picked up the original Apes on DVD to reacquaint himself with the film and its music. That gave him some reassurance that the approach he had in mind wasn’t in conflict with what Goldsmith had done 33 years earlier.
“I had been more concerned that the score was going to be more of a traditional, very aggressive Jerry Goldsmith score, which he does so brilliantly,” Elfman said. “The fact that it was such an ethereal, otherworldly score, immediately eased all problems I may have had, because I saw that there was not going to be any overlap. I would have been more concerned, if his score was more traditional and aggressive, of what to avoid, so as to not cross over or step on his toes. So it really became very easy once I watched the movie again and heard that the score was such a beautiful odd, dissonant piece of work. I felt, clearly, this is a completely different animal - no pun intended! And having just seen a rough cut of the film, I knew it was going to be very big, aggressive, muscular, kind of tribal, driving score.”
To get a handle on Planet of the apes and the type of music it needed, Elfman followed his usual technique of finding pivotal scenes and trying out his musical notions against them, to see if the aggressive, percussively driving score he had in mind was really going to work.
“Once I have my themes laid out, I need to see how they are going
to break down, and the only way to do that is to apply them to some critical
scenes,” said Elfman. “If I feel that it's going to work for these scenes, then
I'm covered. Then I'll go back to the start and work chronologically through
the rest of the movie. But I have to hit the major points and I have to feel
real confident that, melodically, I know now how these things could fit togetherthis
piece can turn this direction or that direction if I wanted to.”
Once he’s established his primary musical and thematic architecture and he’s identified the pieces he’s going to use, Elfman then starts at the beginning and lets the music lead him. “Very often, then, the melodies and bits will do things totally unexpected,” the composer said. “I don't fight it, I let the music lead me along.”
What scenes did he key in on with POTA? “One was a big battle sequence at the end,” Elfman said. “Another was a scene where the evil general is preparing for battle and the army has to come to arms, and the other was the hunt scene early on, where the humans are being hunted.” Those sequences became the score’s essential core, allowing Elfman to expand the music into the scenes before and after and make it work for the whole film. Elfman also played a softer side for the dramatic scenes. There was also another scene, between Mark Wahlberg's character and the sympathetic ape Ari (played by Helena Bonham Carter), which Elfman played up early on.
An interesting thing happened when the soundtrack, released on Sony Classical, was prepared. Due to its release schedule, it had to be completed before Elfman was done scoring the film, which resulted in several cues for the end of the film not being included on the CD, even though the gist of the score is present on the Sony CD. Sony executives, realizing the film score wasn’t completely finished, asked Elfman to elaborate on what he had composed and “come up with a few things for the album inspired by the movie.” Elfman complied by expanding cues, such as the “Main Title” and “The Hunt,” nearly doubling them in length for the soundtrack, and composing three new cues, “Main Title Deconstruction,” “Apes Suite No. 1” and “Apes Suite No. 2” which were based on material composed for the movie.
“At that point, I was two-thirds of the way done with the score, so it's not like I didn't know what the score was,” said Elfman. “But I was now imagining writing for scenes that didn't really exist, writing from my own internal perspective.”
As it turned out, Tim Burton became so enamored of “Apes Suite No. 2” that he actually cut it into the movie, and this “inspired by the score” cue, through a unique kind of reverse engineering, became part of the film score. “That was amazing,” said Elfman. “It worked, with only a few little tweaks, almost perfectly to an action sequence. So I almost can't believe I didn't write it for that scene! I had just come up with something that we all really liked, and it ended up as part of the score!
“This was the first time anybody's ever asked me and allowed me to have fun with a soundtrack in that way,” he continued. “I only wish that I had more time to do more experimental pieces, because, as a composer, what's more fun that that? Taking a main title and deconstructing it, turning it around backwards and turning it in like a dub mix of a deconstruction, it's tremendous fun for me. It was very creative and I enjoyed it. I wish I could do that stuff more often!”
With POTA under his belt and his baton, Elfman is going
on to compose a balletof all thingswith British choreographer Matthew
Bourne, based onof all thingsEdward Scissorhands. “It's my
first ballet,” Elfman grinned. “God knows if I'll survive it! We're both trying
to figure out, ‘How do we begin?’”
Elfman is also completing a script (not surprisingly, a “really, really twisted script”), hoping to add writing and directing to his Hollywood scorecard. In January, Elfman will reunite with director Sam Raimi (for whom he composed Darkman and A simple plan) when he begins scoring Spider-man. The film is already sparking some interest, with as many fans wondering what Elfman is going to do with the music as they are wondering how Raimi will handle the heroic webslinger on screen.
“I've already been down that road with Batman,” Elfman
said. “You know, whether it is Planet of the apes, Batman, or
Spider-man, you can't worry about what hard-core genre fans are going
to perceive of what you do or don't do. You have to take everything for what
it isthe movie will be what it will be, and I'll do the best I can with
Elfman is also up for scoring Men in black 2, as well as The red dragon (prequel to Silence of the lambs) for Rush hour director Brett Ratner, both due out next year. But at last word these hadn’t been officially signed yet.
“I'm attempting to only do two films a year again, which is what I did for most of my composing career,” Elfman said. “It's a little tricky getting that and all the other stuff that I want to do.”