Danny Elfman Exclusive Interview Alice in Wonderland -
Talks WOLFMAN, Composing, More
If youve seen a few Tim Burton movies, youve definitely heard the
music of Danny Elfman. Thats because with the exception of just a few
titles, Danny Elfman has been the one composing the music. Heres some
of the films theyve done together: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
Big Fish, Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks,
Batman, Pee-wees Big Adventure, and would could forget Beetle
Anyway, with Tim Burtons Alice in Wonderland opening
this weekend, I had the chance to sit down with this great composer to talk
about his latest score. Of course we also talked about how his collaboration
with Burton really works, how he picks what projects he works on (hes
done over 70 movies!), what really happened on Wolfman, how he writes
music, and so much more. If youre a fan of Danny Elfmans, I promise
youll love this interview. As always, you can either read the transcript
or listen to the audio of the interview after the jump.
Finally, a small scoop from our interview. While Gus Van Sants
latest project is listed as untitled on IMDb, Elfman called it Restless
when he was talking about it. Perhaps thats the final title? Hit the jump
for the interview:
The full transcript [of the audio interview] is below.
Collider: Are you at the point when you work with Tim that you
sort of dont even talk to each other? That you sort of just, you know,
he like looks at you and with a look he can sort of tell you a lot of stuff?
Danny: Well, the answer to that question is yes but we
never did talk about the movies. So in a way its no different than on
Pee Wee. We never really
he doesnt like to talk about the movies.
Its the quickest spotting session; you know what a spotting session is?
Im not familiar with a spotting session.
Danny: A spotting session is where you sit with the director and the editor
and you break down all the cues-the musical cues-in the movie. You go through
every scene and you talk about music should start here, what they want it to
do, where the music might come out. And at the very longest, I wont say
which director; Ive had spotting sessions go 2 days. With Tim, Ive
never had a spotting session go much over 2 hours. He doesnt want to talk
about it. And is there body language? In deed theres body language. Usually
its his head in his hands shaking his head as if hes just been stabbed
in the heart. Thats the bad body expression when I play a piece of music.
The good one is a kind of a slight nodding of the head.
Danny: And thats a good one. We like that. But its all just reaction
to music. So we just talk about well do music, here, here, here, here
and here. Dont talk about it very much. If he has some concerns about
the film he might tell me what they are, but its all going to be later
when Im writing a lot of music and hes responding to the music,
thats where our communication is. And even then it tends to be non-verbal,
but through his reactions I can hone in on what hes looking for.
Im curious, how is it with you getting ready for the
project? I know you mentioned downstairs in the press conference that you will
go on-set and draw inspiration and how on this picture there was nothing to
really draw inspiration from as it was mostly green-screened. Im curious
where the creation process for you as a composer is? How early
in the process it is? And if you could just talk about the way you write music?
Danny: Well, it begins when I see footage on the screen.
Even when I went and saw the Gotham set and they were only halfway done with
Batman, but they showed me 10 minutes of footage. And seeing an image
on the screen is where it begins. I wasnt kidding when I said virtually
on any film anything Ive done before that has never made it into the movie.
All early preparation has been for naught. Every idea Ive ever had from
a script, not a single one has survived. So I now take completely the opposite
approach. Before Im going to see the first footage, and it doesnt
matter if whether its 10 or 15 minutes of a film or the whole film, Im
going to just try to blank my mind out of any preconceived musical ideas I might
have carried with me. And the less I have preconceived, the better off I am.
I am curious about your writing process. Are you
familiar with writers but Im not really familiar with how composers work.
Do you say for example walk around with a tape recorder and you might hum something?
Or are you very much I need to be in a specific location and thats where
Im writing my music?
Danny: Well, its both. Im definitely looking
at image and getting first impulses down. And then walking away and coming back
and more impulses and then I listen to what I just did. I have a technique that
Ive used for a long time, which is I look at the film, I get an idea,
I start to play it and I start to lay more parts on and lay more parts on until
Ive gotten maybe several minutes or more of a scene composed. And I do
all the orchestration everything until it sounds complete. And at the point
where Im feeling pretty decently happy with it, I walk away, do something
else, watch some TV or anything else and come back in and start from scratch
without listening to what Ive just done. And the idea is to try to take
any scene that has any importance, Im going to approach it 3, 4, maybe
half a dozen times. And then Ill go back and listen to everything I just
did. Now that Ive got 3 or 4 completely different things, Ill listen
to it and go oh, yeah. That doesnt work. Hmm, this is interesting. Im
going to start now and do variations on this. That one is interesting too but
maybe not for this spot. I dont know why Im interested in it but
Im going to keep this one alive. And so at that point some die and get
kicked out. Some I keep alive and carry on. And of the ones that seem interesting,
even if theyre in very different directions, Ill play them all for
Tim because I really want to get his reaction. Because very frequently Ill
have 3-4 pieces of music for a single scene and Ill tell Tim, Ill
say I dont actually yet have an opinion about which I really prefer.
I can see them all working in a different way. And then now hes
going to get involved and go, Oh, oh no, no, no. Ah, that one! That one.
I dont know why.
And then I start doing elaborate, elaborate, elaborate variations and variations
and then slowly I start to fall into okay, I understand now. This is a
theme and this is a theme and this theme follows this character. This theme
follows this feeling. So sometimes a theme follows a feeling not a character.
And thats my lack of technique/technique of how I do it because theres
no science to it. Its just really try a lot of stuff and then if possible
try something you like and once you start to like it slap yourself in the face,
erase it and try something different.
With Alice in Wonderland vs. the other many projects youve
worked on, was this more of a challenge for you with the fact that so much was
coming together in post-production at the end? And that maybe some of the footage
wasnt done until very recently? Or could you talk about the challenge
of this project vs. the others?
Danny: Well that was a huge challenge but only because that was a big challenge
for Tim. Tims used to having everything in camera. There are very few
directors who would actually build a chocolate waterfall and a chocolate river
that a boat could actually row through. Most directors would do that with CG.
That would be done after that. Tim built it. He likes it in-camera.
He likes to see in the frame what youre going to see on the screen. Maybe
add a little elaboration here and there but very little in the dozen or so films
Ive worked in, very, very little isnt there in the beginning. So
for him, it was a wildly different experience because there was nothing there.
There was an actor in front of a green-screen. And he was freaked out. So him
being freaked out made it crazy for me. The process for me of not seeing the
backgrounds and footage isnt difficult because Ive done that a lot.
Fortunately for Tim
.he used to joke Tim was my first film, my 5th, my
10th and my 15th. And he would joke, he says Youre doing 4 films
between each of my films. I go, Ive got to learn more so I
can do a better job on your films. So Ive done a lot with green-screen
green-screen motion capture but with things unfinished and it doesnt bother
me. Im okay with that but he was
it was driving him insane. His insanity
gets passed down to me, so I was then going insane, because my experience with
Tim will just simply follow his state of mind, completely.
Im curious how long it typically takes you beginning to end on a project?
Is it 4 months? Is it 6 months? And could you talk about how much time you spent
Danny: Well I like to have 12 weeks on a film. I dont
always get it. I mean, it can be as little as 5 weeks, you know, on Mission
Impossible and Hulk and movies where Im stepping in late. And
I think the most Ive ever had was 4 months. But I like to have, you know,
at least 10-12 weeks to write a score. And then, of course, theres time
going into recording and mixing because Im there for all the mixing of
the score and the producing. So that could add another week or two and then
finally the soundtrack album editing. But I look at them more or less as 3 month
Is there one score that youve done that you were really rushed on that
you felt wow, this really turned out a lot better than I expected?
Danny: Well, yeah..I never feel that anything turned out
better than I expected on any film. I usually dont even know how I feel
about the score until later. But theres certainly huge challenges as I
just mentioned Hulk. Id stepped into where
Ive done 5 or 6
films where I was replacing a score. And there was 106 minutes or 108 minutes
maybe 112 and 5 weeks top to bottom. And that I took on strictly
as a challenge to see if I could do it. Well, I shouldnt say strictly,
I did it because I loved Ang. But rather than saying Ang I love you but this
is impossible. I took that more of I wonder if this is possible. I wonder how
much I could write in this amount of time. And so, that was the most like a
compressed time period Id ever had because that much music really needs
more time and the action music is very slow to write to boot. I mean slower
than non-active music, you know, action scenes. Its amazing how many hours
you can spend and finish a sequence of events and then go wow, how much music
did I just finish. And you go, My God, 22 seconds? I just feel like I
wrote 3 minutes because you know youre catching everything in these
so intricate. And there was a lot of that. So that was like the climbing Everest
film. But every film is a different experience and I just had to know if I could
do it. And I still kind of do any kind of acrobatics or stunt or go to war with
Ang, you know, theres certain people that just kind of make you want to
do that for them. And you know for Tim, that goes without saying. Whatever amount
of time I have with him, Ill use it. He has me completely and totally
and I kind of cherish that time. Its special when Im starting one
of Tims films its kind of like special time. And Ill try to
have as few distractions in my life as I can.
Im curious what your criteria is for picking projects that are not Tim
Burton and Ang Lee? What gravitates you or what makes you want to do a certain
project and what do you have coming up? What other scores are on your agenda?
Danny: Well theres 2 primary things that attract
let me see if its 2. One is its a director I want to work
with and it doesnt matter what the movie is. When Ang called, when Gus
Van Sant called, there are directors who I get a call and its like the
movie theyre doing is kind of irrelevant. Its kind of what Johnny
was saying in the press conference, like what about playing the Hatter? He says
Id have played Alice. It doesnt matter. Well thats
how I feel very often. Its like I get a call from a certain director its
like Guermo Del Toro
alright no, I would not necessarily have gone for
a sequel to a film that I didnt do the first one for but its Guermo.
I dont care. I want to work with Guermo. And so sometimes its the
director. Timur Bekmambetov you know, its like I probably would have done
anything if Timur, whatever the film was, I would have been interested in it,
the fact that it was Timur because I was a big fan of movies. Big fan of Gus
movies, Timurs movies, of Guermos movies. Sometimes its a
director or Im not quite sure but something seems interesting about the
project. Sometimes its the fact that theres something about the
project seems like it would be fun or interesting or challenging. And sometimes,
in fact frequently, it ends up being something where Ive never done that
before. Thats a really big one. For example, when I asked originally
didnt end up doing the movie
but I was asked
He wanted to do a movie for the Invasion. It was all atmospheric. Electronic
and atmospheric. No orchestra. I was immediately attracted to that. First off
hed done a wonderful movie but I was attracted to the fact that he wanted
Now, it ended up going in a different direction and I had to
leave, but when somebody gives me something
you know when Pete Berg approached
me for The Kingdom, it was like lets use guitars. Lets see
what we can score with guitars. Dont even need an orchestra. Great. Lets
do something with a string quartet. All percussion. Anything that sounds like
ooh, thats interesting, that can catch my attention and make me decide
to do the film. So theres all kinds of different things. Sometimes a movie
is just fun. I mean, my attraction to the Wolfman was simply because
I grew up on the Wolfman and monsters. Okay, theres the hook. So theres
a number of things that can hook me. It could the subject matter. It can be
a nostalgic attachment to something from the past. It could be the director.
It could be something about it that enables me to do something that Im
not used to doing or havent done as much of or maybe havent even
done at all before. And all of these things are kind of hooks for me. And, occasionally,
its just like Ill bet this will be fun. And it depends on what I
just finished. If I finished something really heavy, something fun seems really
the Green Hornet we just talked about. Michel Gondry. Its like I wouldnt
be normally looking for another action film of another action hero, but its
Michel Gondry. Ive got to work with Michele. Ive got to meet Michele.
And so sometimes itll be direct response to what I just finished. I finished
something serious, I want to do something fun. I finished something really silly,
I want to do something serious. And whatever Ive done Im always
yearning to do the opposite or as close to it the next.
Clean the palate.
So besides Green Hornet is that the only thing youre on?
Danny: No, Im on Restless of Gus Van Sants
right now, even before Green Hornet with Mia. I just told Mia, I said
Im just going from you to you right now and shes the
star of Gus movie.
Totally. I know I have to wrap with you. I could ask you more
questions for example on Wolfman but I will leave it alone and say thank you.
Danny: Oh you just have one question for Wolfman.
Im just curious what like from an outsider it looked to me like Universal
I mean being blunt about this, just was what the fuck went on with
that movie and Universal? And I felt that like there was a lot of stuff that
was going on behind the scenes. What was your kind of
looking on it now,
its been a least a few months, Im just curious what sort of
you want to talk about it at all? Like all that stuff? Or do you want to sort
of leave it alone?
Danny: Well, let me just do the short version. I mean,
it was a troubled project from early on once I came on the film. But Joe Johnston
was such a great standup guy. He wanted a score that was atmospheric and stylish
and narrative and I wrote a score that was all those things. Now, unfortunately
then the movie got extended many, many months and when a movie get extended
many months theres a lot of messing around that goes on with it. But in
the end, Joe was still a great guy and I just tried to support him because at
a certain point a film can be like a battlefield. It could like a battleground.
And you just try to keep your head down, keep your flak jacket on and try not
to get taken down by friendly fire or unfriendly fire. But in the end, as a
composer, were still kind of like a captain serving at the
to support our general and the director is the general. And sometimes on a film
you just become taken with the fact that, all right this is as rough as it gets,
but Im going to support my general and Im going to do the very best
I can for him because hes a good general and I like him, you know? And
that was the case with Wolfman. Lot of stuff happened. My score got thrown
out. My score got thrown back in again. It was out, it was in. But throughout
all the thick and thin of it, Joe was fighting the whole time to try to keep
his original integrity there as best I could and I felt like whatever I could
do to help him out. Hes a standup guy. A lot of people in that position
would have just rolled over and said, okay give me rock and roll, you know,
instead of orchestra. John never did. He just never let up. So hes a good
guy. Very difficult project but some of them are.
I have to wrap with you. Im going to say thank you.