Adventure in weird sound
'An Interview with Danny Elfman'
By Joyce J. Jorgenson
E-mu Systems, Inc., 1996
Having traveled an unorthodox path from Oingo Boingo to a spot at the top of
today's film scoring pantheon, composer Danny Elfman braces for his next Mission: Impossible.
When Danny Elfman's compositional talents were enlisted for Pee-wee's big adventure in 1985, little did anyone know that the lighthearted, carnivalesque
music he created for the motion picture would lead to a serious film scoring
career and a long-standing association with director Tim Burton.
But after that initial foray into the realm of sound-for-picture, Elfman went
on to create multi-layered compositions rich in texture, drama, and ambience
for the Burton-directed Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman (for which
he received a Grammy for Best Original Score), Batman returns, Nightmare before Christmas, and some 17 other feature films outside of the Burton stable culminating
in the recent release of Mission: Impossible.
Quirky and eccentric by mainstream definitions, Elfman is infused with a fascination
for Gothic horror and the macabre which is tempered by a heightened sense of
the fantastic. His distinctive musical style, pasticcio of wide-ranging and
diverse influences from around the globe, defines a unique genre of its own
first expressed in the early 70s with The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo,12-member
avant-garde musical/theatre troupe, and through the 80s with the rock band known
simply as Oingo Boingo.
Now, with Oingo Boingo joining the ranks of the gone-but-hardly
forgotten, Elfman has been free to direct most of his energy into motion pictures
and television. Among the most recent projects springing forth from his studio
besides Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible are scores for Taylor Hackford's
Dolores Claiborne, Gus Van Sant's To die for (starring Nicole
Kidman), and The Hughes Brothers' Dead presidents. Works scheduled to
appear in the near future bearing Elfman's handiwork include The frighteners,
Michael Apted's Extreme measures, and the new Burton production called
Mars attacks!. Away from the silver screen, he is also currently developing
a live-action musical fantasy called Little demons.
Brash and self-effacing all at once, Elfman speaks freely on studio techniques,
action films, his love of percussion, and the director/composer relationship.
Located in his studio while exploring new realms of sampled sounds, the following
insights into his work and personality were captured in dialog expressly for
As a composer, do you typically get involved in a film from the very outset?
The nightmare before Christmas was the only project I ever worked on where
I actually was involved from the very beginning. (usually the work begins with
the film's first rough cut.)
Do you normally work with anyone other than the director?
In 23 out of the 24 films I've worked on, I really had very little contact
with anybody but the director.
Batman was an exception where a producer was actually
present, and that was because everyone was skeptical of my abilitiesI'd
never done an action film before. So I understand why they would be leery, especially
with a humongous picture like Batman. Up until then, all I had essentially
done was comedy.
In light of Batman's success, were you encouraged to score more action films?
I went on to do two or three more over a couple of years after Batman, then
decided that I wouldn't do action films anymore because I felt that the music
is usually much buried.
What made you want to work on Mission: Impossible?
I hoped that Mission: Impossible would be the exception, which it was.
What set it apart?
Brian DePalma is a very unique filmmaker. He deals with music in very provocative
ways, so I had been interested in meeting and working with him. I figured that
since it was his movie, it wouldn't be pressed from the standard action mold.
He was promising something unusual, and I wanted to find out what it was. If
most other action directors had been associated with it and I'd gotten the call,
I wouldn't have even considered it.
As far as action films go, were you satisfied with it?
I am satisfied with the way they dealt with the music in the
film. If I have a choice of two movies, I will take the one that I feel I can
contribute the most to through my music. At the end of the day, I'm only satisfied
if I come away feeling like I really added something to the movieI just
want to make a difference with the music.
Do any of the films you've worked on stand out as being personally special?
Hard to say. If I were to choose an overall favorite, it would
probably be Edward Scissorhands. But there are sections in a number of
films that are also my favorites, so it gets kind of spread out. Some films
contain a specific scene or area where I really got to cut loose, or got to
do something I've never done before, and I find that very rewarding.
Are you given unlimited creative freedom in these projects? How would you describe
the director-composer relationship?
I usually have a lot of freedom but I'm always working with the director. First,
we meet and talk about the movie. There's the spotting session where we go over
every scene and the director tell's me where he or she hears music and I try
to get an idea about what they are going for, what their concerns are, and what
they intend a certain scene to do. Sometimes it's not clear when you first see
it. For instance, do you want to direct the audience this way or this way? So
I'll keep all that in mind when I'm writing. Maybe because of the way a scene's
shot or because something wasn't clear, the music can help clear it up. It can
also direct the audience's attention to create elements of deception, surprise,
understatement, or overstatement. Most importantly, the music conveys what the
characters are feeling or thinking. My job, as a composer, is to translate these
impulses into sound.
You basically prepare most of your scores in your own studio. Describe the
process and what equipment you work with if you would please...
Well, my console is an analog 32-input Soundcraft T12, no automation or anything
fancy. I don't do any mixing in my studio, only composing. I work with a number
of samplers and synthesizers which I break into two groups. I use the first
group for building an orchestral mock-up. These mock-ups are what I'll play
for a director to give him an idea of my direction. To provide quick, easy access
to a number of sounds for these mock-ups, I use a lot of E-mu Proteus devices:
the Proteus I, II, III, as well as several Roland samplers, and most recently,
the Ultra Proteus. Beyond the mock-up stage, I utilize a second group of instruments
for the parts which will actual stay in the final score. Primary among this
collection are three of E-mu's Emulator IV samplers. The power of these EIVs
allows me to work from a library of samples I've recorded, usually specific
for the film I'm working on. I love having 128 megabytes of memory on each sampler.
When I show up on orchestra day, I might have anywhere between 2 and 20 tracks
of percussion instruments with me.
During the orchestral sessions, how do you sync your samples with the live
For bringing my material to an orchestral session, I use Performer software
from Mark of the Unicorn, which is a MIDI sequencer package. While the orchestra's
playing, the music editor simultaneously sends out the click track to the orchestra
along with SMPTE from the tape we're scoring to. The SMPTE will lock with my
computer and the orchestra, then I'll hear all my sampled drums and weird sounds.
My weird sounds are basically all those that an orchestra can't play. If I want
a real bass drum sound for example, I'll write it for the orchestra. Sometimes,
however, I'll want a sound like that bass drum to be purposely "de-tuned"
from the orchestra, and then I'll have it played from my EIV section.
Mission: Impossible's chest-pounding score resonates throughout
the entire film. How did you come up with that sound?
I recorded these big Japanese taiko drums which I used a lot
of for that film, even in Lalo Schiffrin's wonderful theme song in the beginning.
These drums propel the rhythm and give it this big ooompfff. I also recorded
a lot of snare samples and different percussion things that I thought would
work or be applicable, along with some break drums being hit with metal hammers
and what not. That score stands in direct contrast to the one I created for
Dead presidents, which utilizes a palette of much more subtle rhythmic
sounds like tiny sticks playing on metal stands or the sides of a tympany or
cymbals, and fast rolls, and very small, strange kinds of sounds which I could
make rhythmic frameworks out of and overlay with the orchestra.
Is it common for you to begin with this framework of percussion and then build
the entire score from that point?
Half the Dead presidents score consists of percussion sounds that I sampled
and then created these rhythmic frameworks out of for the orchestra to play
on top of. On Frighteners, the movie I just finished, I wanted to revolve around
these harpsichord sounds, so I did a session where I just banged on piano keys
with hammers and metal rods, and I obtained this hybrid sound which was kind
of like a cross between a harpsichord and a out-of-tune clavinette. That was
a very twisted little sound. I used it in the theme, as well as throughout the
entire score. For each movie, I'll take this library of sounds that I have,
listen to them, and then I'll do a session or two where I come up with new sounds
expressly for that movie and no other.
What single composer, if any, had the most influence over your musical development?
Harry Partch was an amazing man who built an incredible orchestra of instruments.
Had I not taken the path I ultimately chose beginning with The Mystic Knights
of the Oingo Boingo, then that's who I wanted to be, another Harry Partch. (born
in 1901, Partch started composing when he was 14. At 29, he basically tore up
all he'd ever written and began building his own instruments for intonation
in a 43-tone scale. Made entirely of natural materials and using no electricity,
his own creations included elongated violas and guitars. Aside from his own
instruments, Partch also favored the 72-string kithera--an ancient Greek lyre--and
giant bamboo reeds called boos. Until his death in 1974, Partch flatly rejected
the idea that music should reflect the times, preferring instead to transcend
Later, when you started writing music for film, did you receive a lot of direction
from other film composers?
My mentor, my idol, is Bernard Herrmann, who always used orchestral instruments
in very inventive ways. He wasn't afraid to use very peculiar, interesting ideas
to get the sounds he wanted. I'm sure if Bernard were alive today, he'd have
all kinds of strange sounds he'd be creating with orchestras. In my opinion,
he was absolutely fearless.
Percussion is definitely a big part of your musical roots which goes back to
your earlier studies of African and Indonesian music.
I love percussion, I've collected percussion instruments from all over the
world all my life. I am good at Indonesian gamelan from Java and Bali, and I
have a huge collection from both, plus I'm fairly skilled at West African drumming.
New doors opened up for me with the dawn of samplers, because it allowed me
to indulge my passion for percussion even further. For example, I have a West
African balafon, which sort of resembles a xylophone in concept. It has very,
very delicate gourds which resonate to produce sounds, and if you move them
around, or anything breaks, you're screwed. So, when samplers first came out,
I immediately sampled my balafon so I could take the sound anywhere and not
worry about accidentally destroying the instrument. I made that sample with
one of the first Emulators back in the 80s. I have been addicted to the technology
From a percussion standpoint, would I be safe in assuming that action films
would be more accommodating than a romantic comedy?
Without a doubt, an action film, with its aggressive score, can thrive on percussion.
To be successful, however, you have to be inventive, therefore there are certain
things I avoid, like using a rock rhythm section to imply energy. That's the
easy cheap way because you can do it with any drum machine. I understand why
composers do it. If for no other reason, you can score the film in three days,
and make a lot of money doing it. But it's not very inventive. If I'm going
to use percussion, I want to use a lot of sounds that don't feel like they're
coming off drum machines. Creating a palette of sounds for a movie is part of
trying to bring something original to that movie.
Once you create all of your sounds, how do you save them?
I used to save everything on floppies in the old days. Then technology marched
on and we started carrying around hard drives, and then optical drives. I still
have one of the original 300 megabyte Pinnacle opticals. It's huge. You can
relive the entire history of storage mediums if you look around my studio. Fortunately
for us, things are becoming smaller, faster, and better all of the time. I mean,
my first optical drive looked like a small washing machine or microwave.
One last question: What's the most adversarial aspect within the director/composer
I'd have to divide that into two categories. The first is the
occasionally exhausting process of discovering what a director responds to.
Sometimes a director will start a project not knowing what they want, but simply
knowing what they don't want, and the composer has to cover a lot of territory
before they strike a gold veinand tap into their director's sensibility.
Second, sometimes a director wants a composer to go with a direction which goes
against the composer's instincts. That's probably the hardest thing to deal
with. A director may become very attached to a piece of music that they placed
in their temp score and will want the composer to recreate it. The composer
has to walk a fine line between their desire to please the director and their
desire to maintain their artistic integrity. In these highly plagiaristic times,
that's become particularly acute. Only several times in my career have I had
to say no to a director about a musical direction. But sometimes, if you want
your work to be original, that's what you have to do. I have a simpler way of
dealing with the problem of temp scores, I try not to listen to them at all.
How do you get away with that?
By telling the director that I don't want to listen to it, and if they're attached
to a piece of music that's in the temp by another composer, that they ought
to just hire that composer.
That's pretty frank...
That's the trickiest situation that I run into these days and there's no easy
answer, in general, with how to deal with a director's desires. I've been lucky
up to this point in my career, so far as that I've never had a score thrown
out. Although, I'm sure it will happen to me someday.
That happens to everybody eventually. The bottom line is...one has to be true
to one's own vision.