Danny Elfman's big adventure continues in Sleepy Hollow
Interviewed by Bryan Lanser and Kevin Monahan of E-MU, with special thanks
to Erin Anderson for setting things up and the great lunch.
We met with Danny Elfman at his home studio in the hills above Malibu, just
as he was preparing to score the latest Tim Burton film, Legend of Sleepy
Hollow that will hit the screens this fall...
Bryan Lanser (BL): Do you mind telling us a little more
about Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the new Tim Burton film you're working
Danny Elfman (DE): Sure, well, Legend of Sleepy Hollow
is kind of like my fun for the year. It is more Tim Burton madness in the best
sense of the word. Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci play the love interests.
It's very much like a Big Hammer (a famous British horror film company) horror
film and of course I grew up loving those and Tim did too. About a month or
so ago I visited the set and Christopher Lee (sinister star of countless British
horror films) was there playing a small part in the film. What a thrill to actually
meet him. Through Tim I've gotten to meet some wonderful heroes, including Vincent
Price before he died...
Kevin Monahan (KM): You've done a lot of work with Tim
DE: This is actually my eighth film with Tim, as well
as two TV shows. It started with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure so his first
film was also my first film.
BL: So you've both kind of risen through the ranks together?
DE: Yeah - Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was my
first orchestral score back in 1985. I still can't believe it's been that long!
BL: It's been a whirlwind, hasn't it?
DE: Yeah, considering that for 10 or 12 out of the past 15 years, I was only
composing half the year. It was my part-time job because of the band (Oingo
BL: Did you ever plan to get into film composition or did you just happen into
DE: I just happened into it, literally, with Pee Wee's
BL: Do you miss the rock and roll world at all?
DE: Well, yes and no. I mean, I don't miss the big shows, the big stages, the
big Halloween extravaganzas and the three hour marathons. That was really brutal
with having to go into training just to be able to survive the show. I'd like
to perform again, just on a smaller scale.
BL: Have you ever thought about doing stage shows of orchestrations
you've done? Or musical theater? Seems like theater would be a great outlet
for you and I'm a bit surprised you haven't done "Edward Scissorhands
- The Musical"...
DE: Musical theater? Writing for theater, definitely.
In fact I'm talking to a really wonderful choreographer right now about doing
a ballet, which if it happens, will be based on Edward Scissorhands.
That'd be really fun - to turn those themes into a full-blown ballet.
KM: Aren't you going back to New York soon? When do they
finish shooting Legend of Sleep Hollow?
DE: The shooting is all done and they already have the first rough cut, so
I'll be diving right in.
BL: For background, do you mind explaining how the whole
process works? What kind of timeline is there? How do you go about preparing
to score a film, and where do you draw your inspiration?
DE: It usually starts off with a call from my agent. Or, maybe I'll get
a call from Tim or another director and we'll arrange a meeting. Usually that's
the first step. And in the case of Tim's movies it is usually pretty early in
the process, even before they start shooting. So typically it would be a "sometime
next year" kinda thing. Other times, the film is already shooting or sometimes
they're even finished before I get the call.
So the process works pretty much like this: I get a script, meet the director,
we talk, see what we think of each other, I get their ideas, and if we seem
to click, then we'll try to put together a deal.
BL: How important is the chemistry between you and the
director? And you personally believing in the project? Do you really have to
be excited about it?
DE: Usually it's the vibe from the director, because very often if the movie
hasn't been shot yet, you really don't know what it's going to be. You can read
the script, but you still may not get a good feel for it. Musically speaking,
the film can turn into a hundred different things between the first script that
you read and the final product that gets released. You have to just hope for
the best. If it's someone you know, you go on the basis of their other work.
Very often I am more likely to choose a film based on just getting a good feeling
from the director than anything else.
Oftentimes it will be based on relationships like with Sam Raimi, Gus Van Sant,
or Tim where they'll call and I already know I like working with them. With
all of them, I'll just say "Yes!", no matter what it is.
BL: Could you put a timeline on that? Does it take a couple of weeks?
DE: There are two stages: meeting with the director, then calling my agent
and saying "I feel pretty good about this".The second stage is putting
it all together as far as scheduling is concerned. Often there will be huge
haggling and it won't even be over money - it will be over tying down the exact
dates of when they need the score and working that around my commitments to
other projects. Before letting it fall apart, we'll all look at the schedule
together, and sometimes they'll say one date, but I'll think it is more likely
to be a different date, because schedules have a way of moving alot. You have
to be very cautious about taking or not taking a movie. You really have to have
a good feel as to whether they'll stay on schedule or move.
KM: Do any stay on schedule?
DE: Never! (laughs). That's not true, some do... more don't. Certain things
like the scale of the film will give you an idea of whether they'll stay on
schedule. If it's a summer or Christmas release for example, it is much more
likely to stay on schedule because the summer release depends on hitting a certain
date. Whereas if its the kind of movie that is going to come out in the fall,
then they tend to have more leeway. You can tell if they're behind in their
shooting, or they got started late, then they're probably going to be so many
BL: Does that become a problem for you? Do you have several projects going
DE: I try to have them be serial, one right after the other.
BL: So if one film falls behind schedule then it potentially could conflict
with the start date for the next one...
DE: Exactly. It's always an up / back struggle with the dates. You'd be surprised
how much energy goes into attempting to work out schedules.
BL: I can imagine. Doing a film seems like a logistical nightmare - there's
so much that can go wrong. So assuming you reached a deal, and everyone is in
agreement that everything's going to work out...
DE: Then you just wait!
BL: So you're in a holding pattern until they say "It's
time"? At what point do they re-involve you?
DE: Well they usually know in advance that they're scheduled to finish
on such and such a date, and X number of weeks after that you're going to start.
They'll have a schedule with dates for the rough cut, director's cut, previews,
final cuts. Somewhere between the rough cut and the director's cut I usually
come on board, and the first part of the scoring process is watching the film
and coming up with ideas...
BL: Now is that pretty much left to your own devices or does the director
sit by your side and say, "Make sure there's a French horn theme going
on during this person's scene..."?
DE: Not a French horn theme, but they'll tell me their
concerns. We'll go over the film. They'll tell me, "I am really concerned
about this section - I want to make sure to play this big" or "I really
would like to make sure you don't play this big", or "I really think
something romantic should come in here". That's when I find out how they
feel about the film.
BL: In an emotional sense or musical sense?
DE: Emotional. Well sometimes it's musical, but it always works better when
they talk emotionally - I try to convince them not to speak musically. I just
try to find out how they feel about it, what their concerns are, where there
might be an area of the film that they feel really needs help. You'll want to
have identified these areas so that you can plan a theme and build it during
the course of the film, so when the big scene comes up at the end it can pay
off. You also need to get a feel for whether the director likes over-statement
or under-statement, because some really go one direction and some go the other.
BL: So when do you get a chance to see what you are supposed to be scoring?
DE: That's usually a couple of weeks to a month or so after they finish shooting.
BL: Then how much time do they typically give you to work your magic, before
they expect to have the score?
DE: It can be anywhere between four and twelve weeks.
BL: Four to twelve WEEKS? For a complete score?
DE: Depends on the film, and how big the film is, and what their schedule is...6
weeks is pretty average, pretty typical.
BL: How can you work under deadlines like that, knowing that you need to come
up with inspiration?
DE: I don't know, I just know that if you can't do that, you can't be a film
composer. (Laughs) That's that bottom line. You have to get inspired, on deadline,
BL: Do you think that's a unique gift or do you think it's an acquired skill?
DE: I think it's something you either can or can't do.
BL: Why do think you can do it?
DE: I don't know! I mean, Igor Stravinsky was offered
a film score and he said it would take him a year. They said, "You don't
have a year". He said "Well how can you possibly do anything legitimate
in less than that amount of time?" On the other extreme, you've got people
stepping into films that have already been scored, meaning they have mere weeks
to re-score them, the most famous one is Jerry Goldsmith on Chinatown. Two weeks
or something like that. Mission Impossible was a very tough score and
I barely had four weeks on that because it was a re-score. So you just have
to lock into a frame of mind and, in my case, be prepared to give up almost
all extraneous life activities.
BL: So you just lock yourself into a studio and go for it?
DE: Yeah. I'll essentially live and breathe that film for that period of time.
BL: Do you ever get to the point where you are working
on a score under deadline, but you really like the picture and want to take
3 more weeks to really do it right? Does your Muse ever get in the way of getting
it done on time?
DE: The Muse never gets in the way. Sometimes you have to ask for more
time and it's usually because the film is changing and you're trying to keep
up with it, eventually you go, "Look, we're not going to make it."
Between the writing, the changes, the previews and all the notes that are coming
in - sometimes I'll literally beg for three more days. You'll never get 3 more
Sometimes, there's enough room in their post schedule to give you a week. There
is a film I did recently where I begged for 2 -3 days and they squeezed it in.
I just finished it in time. After you do it a lot, you get a pretty good feel
for how much you can write in a day and I'll take whatever they can give me:
24 hours? I'll take it!
BL: Are you able to achieve the same writing pace from
project to project? Can you write so many minutes of music per shift or however
long you work at a time?
DE: It is usually pretty consistent. I usually start out kinda slow and end
up really fast. I usually have a big chart in front of me and it'll have the
number of all the cues that I've got to write, and their time. I'll X them off
as I go and at the top of the chart I'll have the number of days left. I can
constantly look and see: "I've got 20 days and have 45 minutes (of score)
to write, I'm okay". Or "I've got 15 days and 30 minutes, I'm okay".
But if I've got 15 days and 60 minutes; I'll go, "I'M NOT OKAY!".
(All laugh) It's a constant reminder of whether I'm on schedule, or behind schedule,
or ahead of schedule. Although in doing 35 films I can remember being ahead
of schedule maybe twice!
BL: Do you find it hard to move between the creative role and the more logistical
aspects of the project management role?
DE: No, that is part of the job. It's just a regular thing. I'll spend a lot
of the day talking on the phone and there's always lots of logistics: talking
with the orchestrator, with the contractors about the players, with the post-supervisor
about the studio. You know, "Can we get this room?", or "Can
we get this engineer?" Lots of stuff. Or the score originally called for
six French horns, now we need eight for two sessions, and we can't get these
guys, they're in another session, you're losing your concert master on Tuesday's
session, so who can we get to cover?
BL: Do you usually use the same players and the same engineers?
DE: I always try to keep as much consistency as I can,
but that can be very difficult too. I'm also trying to guess way in advance
what I will need for an orchestra before I've written very much music. So there
might be a 65-75 minute score, I've only written 8 minutes of music, but I've
got to put in an orchestra call. At that point I'll have to guess how much of
the score requires an A (bigger) orchestra and how much requires a B (smaller)
orchestra and how much ensemble. Sometimes I'll get down the line and things
will shift, so I'll call and try to finagle more or less. Or I'll need a choir
or a specific instrument part like a saw player or a Theremin player or....
BL: So what is your typical day?
DE: I tend to do more of my actual writing at night since the days just get
taken up with logistical bullshit. Daytime is bullshit, nighttime things get
quieter, and I can get more writing done. I usually get up at 9:30 or 10 AM.
I try to start writing by 2 PM, if I can. I usually go from 2 PM - 2 AM. I'll
take breaks, so it's not solid, you know. I start and stop all the time. I'll
be working really intensely on a cue and I reach the point where I know I have
to walk away from it for 15 minutes, so I'll come upstairs, watch a little TV,
get some coffee or something, just walk around, give myself 15 - 20 minutes,
and then go back down and listen to it again so I can hear it fresh. You have
to do that a lot.
BL: Do you have any scores that you are particularly proud of?
DE: I think I'm proud of everything I've done, particularly:
Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands,
and of course Nightmare Before Christmas I'm very proud of - that was
BL: You sang some vocals in that, didn't you?
DE: Yeah, I was singing the main part (Jack) and a bunch of the little parts,
switching off voices.
I really liked doing Midnight Run, and Dolores Claiborne
was really challenging - I liked doing the Gus Van Sant films To Die For
and Good Will Hunting. I really liked the way they came out.
BL: Is there anybody that you particularly look up to? Do you have any idols?
DE: I still believe that the old school guys tend to be
more talented than the new school guys, as a general rule. My heroes are all
dead: Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Taxi Driver)
Nino Rota (La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 81/2, Godfather
Pt II), Max Steiner (The Informer, Gone With The Wind, The
Treasure of Sierra Madre), Franz Waxman (The Blue Angel, Sunset
Boulevard, A Place In the Sun, Rear Window), Erich Korngold
(Midsummer's Night Dream, Anthony Adverse, The Adventures of
Robin Hood). I don't think anybody working today can hold a candle to just
about any of those guys.
BL: Why do you think that is?
DE: I don't know! They come from the old tradition of
composing which is very beautiful. Some of them were just incredible. Bernard
Herrmann, I think was a genius- just incredible. Nino Rota was also a genius.
And the people today I really like are Elmer Bernstein (The Ten Commandments,
To Kill A Mockingbird, True Grit, Animal House), Jerry
Goldsmith (Patton, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, The
Omen) and Ennio Morricone (Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad,
and the Ugly, The Mission, Cinema Paradiso), so again they
tend to be the older guys. I still think they're the best, and of course John
Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Schindler's
List) - he really helped to re-open the door of orchestral composition for
BL: I've heard it said that orchestral film composition is really modern classical
music - the only classical music most people are exposed to...
DE: That's true.
KM: It sounds like you have a good thing going with Tim Burton? Something exceptional?
DE: Yeah it is, because Tim will allow me to do my work. If you're a good composer,
writing a good score isn't necessarily that hard. But convincing the director
to allow you to write a good score can be as much work as writing it - convincing
them to let go of something they've got stuck in their brains, or let go of
their fears, or of wanting to play something so safe that you end up doing nothing.
Sometimes I'll hear scores from other composers, really talented people, and
I'll think: "What a weak score". I'll know it's not the composer,
I know their work enough to tell this isn't the composer's instincts, this is
the director who beat this out of the composer. I'll feel really bad for the
person without even knowing the story behind it, and if I do get the story behind
it, it will be pretty close to what I had imagined. There is a certain point
where they're going to get their way and you can fight and fight, or kick and
scream but eventually they'll wear you down and get their way. Sometimes, by
the time I am done with a movie, I feel that I'm the highest paid wallpaper
hanger on the planet earth, essentially hanging musical wallpaper that does
absolutely nothing and there's nothing you can do about it.
BL: Don't directors realize that trusting the talent they hire is how they'll
ensure their success?
DE: Really smart directors who are confident tend to hire people and let them
do what it is they're good at, and don't try to micro-manage them.
KM: Sounds like a familiar story, it happens in corporations too...
DE: Personality has a lot to do with it, it's very valuable for the composer
to come across directors who are confident and allow you to do your work. That
doesn't mean everybody will love everything I do. Even working with Gus or Sam,
as wonderful as they are in terms of allowing me a really long leash, that doesn't
mean that I don't have to adjust things for them. But it's the difference between
being allowed to come up with something that I feel went along the lines of
my instincts and adjusting it - fine-tuning it - to their tastes, instead of
being forced to go in a direction that's really against what my instincts are
telling me. If I have to go against my instincts it's really hard...
BL: It must be tough when you're forced to compromise...
DE: Yeah, I can never let it go - I can never get to
the point where I can just forget about it. It's really easy to get cynical
in composing and just say, "Well, that's what they want, that's what they
get". But if your name is on it and that means something to you in terms
of your work, then it's hard to let that go and have that out there. We don't
have the "Alan Smithee" defense where if a studio screws up a film
to the point where the director hates it, then he has the right to put the name
"Alan Smithee" on it. That's guaranteed by the terms of their Guild.
It's not their movie anymore, it's an Alan Smithee film, the most prolific director
KM: Has it happened in recent times? I can't recall seeing that on any
DE: Well it is not quite as common in major films.
BL: Do the studios hedge their bets to make sure their
investment pays off?
DE: What happens is the threat will be there, and you will hear the director
walked off and said to take his name off the film, but by the end they'll have
to negotiate a compromise. "OK, I'll put my name on but only if this scene
goes back" or whatever.
BL: Can't composers do the same?
DE: But composers have no Guild!
BL: Right. But isn't there at least a society? Don't you guys talk?
BL: Composers never get together and hang out?
DE: No! To my knowledge we are the only "un-guilded" part of the
entire process... No union, no guild.
DE: Because they hate each other and you'll never get them together in a room!
And a composer's strike?? I mean, composers are all barracudas and if some composers
ever got together and tried to hold out for anything, there would be these barracudas
quickly ready to snap up the work. There would be no solidarity. I've been in
and around film and film makers (for a long time), and many of my friends are
writers, directors, and editors. I have never seen any part of it that is nasty
as the composing side.
BL: That surprises me.
DE: It's a back biting business and a very small club. I suppose that composers
are somewhat unique, like actors, in their ability to do many projects - to
grab up what another composer might think is all the good work. So everybody
feels that they are being cheated out of their place, and somebody that doesn't
deserve it has blocked their way into a director's heart. They're not all that
way, yet as a general rule of thumb it is very odd. There are composers that
I've met and I like. I've only met half a dozen composers ever, really.
BL: You're kidding!
DE: Yeah, in terms of talking and sharing stories. I've sat down on occasion
with Basil Poledouris who is a wonderful guy, and Alan Silvestri who's a really
good guy, and Jerry Goldsmith, too. It's always wonderful to hear that somebody
has the same problems that you do. But there really is little solidarity. You
can probably pick 20 names and they probably do 90% of the major films in Hollywood.
And out of those 20, 12 of them are doing an even larger share. It's not a very
BL: The obligatory question for people who aspire to be film composers: What
recommendations would you give them?
DE: Nothing. There's nothing they could ever do except for to stick it out.
I never tried to become a film composer, which is one of the reasons I'm so
detested as a film composer. There are people who have tried their whole life,
studying to become that one thing. I've never taken a music lesson, never studied
anything. I've always believed in hard work. I'm self-taught and that's just
the way I am. I'll take the hardest way around anything, and I can't sit down
and read a manual. I just can't do it. I'll put in hard work figuring stuff
BL: But isn't that in essence a form of advice: Learn by doing?
DE: No, I would advise for anyone who wants to get into
it to learn by studying, because having more to rely on as a knowledge base
is good. I wish I could go back pre-1985 when I got Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
and magically pick up 5 years of musical training. That would have helped my
first three, four, five years of my work. If I would have had it, I don't think
it would have hurt me. I didn't have it because I was in a rock band, I was
more interested in theater, things like that - I wanted to make films! I was
much more interested in writing and directing films than composing...
BL: So formal training isn't a liability, is it?
DE: I don't think it is bad to have training, I think that training is great.
On the other hand there is no training I think that will really help you become
a composer. You can train to become a musician, and being a good musician is
going to be a great tool for a composer, but I don't believe that writing school
could ever make a writer a writer, or a composing school could ever make a composer
a composer. Either you can write or you can't write a novel, you can either
compose or you can't compose original music. You can learn a lot of tools, but
that other part of it has to be in you. I'm a natural composer, I didn't have
tools, I had to learn the tools.
BL: But one skill you can acquire, and one seems to be a gift from God. Why
is it that some people are able to write and have important things to say, and
some people can't?
DE: Being a good listener and a good observer is important. Most good writers
I'm aware of may or may not have a lot of formal training, but they read other
people's work, get inspired, and develop their own ideas based on the novels
they've read. I am the same way as a composer, I listen really well. I've been
paying attention to film music since I was 11 or 12. So I think the ability
to listen, and then to know what moves you or what doesn't and why it does or
doesn't is very important. I think writing and composing are really the same
thing in the sense that you develop a point of view based on what you listen
to in the same way a writer will develop their point of view based on what they've
KM: Why did you get asked to work on Pee-Wee's Big
DE: Because Tim Burton knew of Oingo Boingo and said "I
think you can do it - I think you have something in you." That was an intuitive
thing. Five years earlier Paul Rubens had seen a film I did for my brother with
the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, the old theatrical group incarnation. We
had put music to this cult film called Forbidden Zone. Paul was a fan
of Forbidden Zone, and he told me later that he always had it in his head that
whoever did the music for Forbidden Zone was who he really wanted to do Pee-Wee's
Big Adventure. So I think it was kinda like their coming up with a list of people
and my name came up on both lists. They called me up for a meeting, and I asked
the question that I still ask frequently which is: "Why me?" We really
hit it off at the meeting so I went home and did a demo, put it on tape, and
sent it to them. I never expected to get a call back - never thought I would
hear any more about it. A week or two later, Paul called and said I got the
BL: I really love the Oingo Boingo stuff. There's a lot going on and it's not
a trivial 1-4-5 rock n' roll band. There was scoring for brass, and some very
sophisticated arrangements, so in a way it seems like you've been naturally
preparing yourself for more elaborate orchestrations all along...
DE: More so in The Mystic Knights, not the Oingo Boingo
band. In the Mystic Knights I taught myself to write, I taught myself to transcribe
and notate, and if anything that's where my training came from because I was
writing not for 75 pieces, but for 12 pieces, and that can be harder. I ended
up with the last composition I wrote for them which was a very ambitious 5 minute
composition for the entire ensemble. It was called the 'Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto
#1 1/2' and we performed it for a couple of years. That was the first time I
really committed myself to a full composition with counterpoint, and all the
parts. It was kinda inspired by Le Historie De Solidat by Stravinsky,
and Prokofiev, like mixing all my inspirations; Nino Rota and Stravinsky were
all mushed together in this crazy composition.
BL: Was it ever recorded?
DE: No, but just the discipline it took to conceive it
and write it all down ended up being my training, so when I started 6-7 years
later to write Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, I had to remember when I panicked:
"Okay, how did you write the 'Boingo Piano Concerto #1 1/2', just remember
what you did because it is the same thing; the only difference is, instead of
one instrument playing this part, there might be twelve." You know, if
you can write for twelve pieces, theoretically it is not that big of a creative
jump to write for a whole orchestra."
BL: How do you use E-MU gear in your work and why did you choose E-MU?
DE: Well there are two levels: One is I started using
E-MU's samplers very early on. We had the first Emulator keyboard / sampler
in 1981. On our second album we heard about it and got one, so there is a piece
called the "Cry of the Vato". Of course, we did the first thing you
do when you get your first sampler: I screamed, and the drummer screamed. With
those two samples we did a composition, added a full rhythm section, and it
began from there. For a while, in Oingo Boingo, we didn't use that many samplers.
We had the Emulator and we had some synths. But it wasn't until later on when
we started getting much more elaborate - that was the point where I was composing
The second level was the need to do film composition which requires you to hear
an orchestra while you're composing. For this, the Proteus' were perfect, and
I got the Proteus' to do my mockups, because you always have to do a mockup
for the director.
BL: Have you heard about Proteus 2000?
DE: Yup, I've got one. I haven't used it a lot yet because the film I just
finished needed samplers. In fact, I've had essentially every sampler in my
arsenal going full blast on the last couple of films! I wasn't using the Proteus'
as much because in different kinds of films you use different tools. But through
the years I've gone from the EIII to the EIIIX, to a second EIIIX to the third
EIIIX to the one E-IV to the two E-IVs, and you start filling them all up.
BL: What do you think of the new Emulator 4 Ultra?
DE: I love it!
BL: Have you fooled around with Beat Munging at all?
DE: No, I haven't done that yet - I am still using it in its purest sense.
But I love the agility and the speed and just the way it lays out. You know,
the screen and the dimming down, spinning down the drive - all these things
that it does works perfectly for a composer who keeps their gear on 24 hours
BL: Especially if you use them in your studio near you...
DE: Yeah, with the older samplers I had to dismantle the drives and get the
fans to quiet down. The E4 Ultra is a real fast, real quiet instrument.
BL: Do you do all your work here and then take master tapes with you to the
DE: Not at all - it's all live, all done with MOTU Performer, and I have a
second ensemble, a second Emulator rig, that exactly duplicates my studio but
it's all in racks with a patchbay.
BL: Where do you keep your second Emulator rig?
DE: Sometimes it's in storage, sometimes it lives in the annex (the little
house next door). If I am doing work on it I'll bring it into my home studio,
and sometimes it just stays in storage until I do a session. I was starting
to haul so much of my gear around when I was scoring Mission Impossible that
it got out of hand. I was renting things, and bringing in additional samplers
and then having to rework cues, and dragging everything up and back. I decided
I'd never do that again and invested a lot of money from the next movie to get
a rig together. So now all I really do is bring a couple disks, and everything
that I am working on in my home studio will run live with the orchestra.
There was a long period where I had a 24 track and I'd pre-lay everything.
But pre-lay is horrible because you can't change anything and I have to lay
down all the clicks. It's really a bad way to work. If you have to do a pickup
at bar 27, what are you supposed to do? What really works better is that the
whole rig is playing live with the orchestra, and if we decide a certain section
isn't hitting something quite right the director says, "Can that hit be
5 frames earlier?" then we can make that adjustment in the timing, and
all the sequencers just immediately adjust, and adjust the click for the orchestra.
Or we might even lose a bar, and change the whole arrangement on the spot -
it gives us total flexibility.
So then we'll have all my percussion that plays along with the orchestra. Most
of the percussion on most of my scores is sampled - a lot of guitars, a lot
of percussion. It's always just been that way. It's really hard to get good
percussion sounds live; I mean not orchestral percussion, I do real timpani
and piatti (cymbals) and stuff like that. But when it comes to hand drums and
ethnic drums, small things, glasses, bowed things, plucked things... You'll
spend 15 minutes miking some little instrument while the whole orchestra is
sitting there on the clock. It's insane! So, I'm just very much into doing all
that myself, and having control over it.
BL: Can you point to any scores where the Emulator 4 really sticks out?
DE: In movies like Mission Impossible, and Dead
Presidents, half the score is coming out of the Emulator 4s.
BL: And all the percussion?
DE: Yeah exactly, any percussive-driven stuff. A Simple
Plan, a film I did last year with Sam Raimi was as much or more samples
as it was live orchestra because I was using a lot of detuned piano. A lot of
piano stuff you hear had very specific quarter tone detunings coming off the
Emulator, and all the banjo work is coming out of the Emulator.
KM: What about Psycho? You used the samplers to do all the mockups to demo
the score, right?
DE: Yeah, exactly, but we wanted that to be very real.
The only thing I used that was synthetic in Psycho was reinforcing a
little bit of pizz. That's the most minimal use of synthetic that I have ever
done. Little bits of pizzicato reinforcement, that if I took it out, you wouldn't
notice it at first, you would kinda have to listen. Even the snap bass was all
real because we wanted it to be very organic. In Anywhere but Here, which I
just finished, and A Civil Action -- an enormous amount of stuff that is just
samples, synthetics. Primal Instinct, which just came out, all the African stuff
- which is quite a bit - is from the Emulators.
BL: So in your scores, it sounds like the Emulator is an essential tool. Do
you rely on a lot of other technology? Are you constantly buying new toys for
DE: No, every couple of years, I'll look to see what's out there. The coolest
new toy I got this year was a guitar synthesizer, which really helped me a lot
on Anywhere But Here --being able to use pedals to get different tunings on
a live guitar. I also use ProTools. That is about it.
I'm a gadget freak, just not with synths. I'm probably more
of a gadget freak when it comes to video cameras and computers than I am about
music tools. I try to keep my ProTools and Performer up to date as much as possible.
And like every other annoyed person out there, I've switched my ProTools three
times in the last two years in order to keep up the system. With software based
products, you really have to actively stay on top of them to keep them current.
I also get the latest software for the samplers that I use. That is more important
to me, because I use one sampler really extensively over a long period of time
so I always try to stay on top of the software for it. So if anything, that
is the thing I am most active, staying on top of software. But I'm not quick
to pick up new toys, necessarily, because the way I work works well with what
I have, and the pleasure of scoring is working with the live orchestra and all
the percussion stuff, because I love percussion.
Samplers are perfect for ex-percussionists like me. In a sense
that was my first love musically, and it all evolved from there. There was a
point where I actually dreamed of becoming an ethnomusicologist. I spent a year
in West Africa, and I studied (in fact it's the only thing I've ever studied
musically) Gamelan - Javanese and Balinese Gamelan.
BL: Cool. I didn't know that.
DE: So for things like that, Emulators are perfect because you can't drag around
a Gamelan or African string instruments where you spend 6 hours tuning the thing...
BL: Plus there is a lot of specific technique required... like Tabla - its
a life study.
DE: Yeah, exactly, so it's perfect if you love, like I do, having a library
of sounds available. I just love having a large library of sounds.
And I'm always looking for certain things. If I hear that E-MU is coming out
with something that increases this, or gives me more of that, I want be the
first one to have it. But I'm usually the last one to get a new synthesizer.
I will get a new synthesizer that everyone is talking about, but they've been
talking about it for 2 years.
BL: Do you mix different MIDI instruments together?
DE: Oh yeah - I'll mix together a lot of Proteus stuff, or use the Roland library
- the orchestral library is still very useful.
BL: Have you listened to the Miroslav library?
DE: I have but I find it generally too strident. I like individual sounds but
when I start playing chords it starts getting real shrill, really intense, really
quick. I would kill to get a library with soft, small ensembles.
KM: What is your preferred way of controlling string sounds?
DE: With the mod wheel, and you bring up the volume. It's really the most useful
of all orchestral expressions. When you have a crescendo built into a chord,
even with the best sample in the world, its hard to find something to use it
in. Because you need to have your own crescendos, just where it is played, as
opposed to having something you can hold soft for a minute if you want, and
then suddenly swell.
BL: What are you actually doing during a scoring session? You hire a conductor
to conduct the score, and... ?
DE: Conducting for film scoring is actually a very technical job. People really
get confused about that because in a Symphony orchestra the conductor is interpreting
the piece. The conductor really is the director. But in a film score the conductor
is really just moving things along very efficiently.
BL: Do you ever conduct?
DE: No, I never conduct because the conductor's job for me is answering many
questions all at once as quickly as possible, and then to keep things moving.
They're really a facilitator, and what makes a good conductor is the ability
to move really quickly and answer 20 questions at the same time, which I could
never do! I never had that ability, and if 20 hands pop up...
BL: So are you there with the director working out stylistic things?
DE: Yeah, I'm listening in the booth, which is where I prefer to listen anyway
because I am hearing closer to the way it's going to sound. In the room it is
a wonderful sound, but you really aren't hearing the balance in a real sense.
BL: So, the director will be next to you pointing out the things that he wants
DE: Yeah, usually I am sitting right there and making notes and I'm watching
the picture too, which is really important for me. So I've got the music in
front of me, but I really have my eyes glued to the picture and I'm just following
along in the music enough to mark the spots where something needs to be brought
back or checked for mistakes.
BL: So how long will the scoring sessions usually last?
DE: 3 days, maybe 6 days...
BL: That must be really intense.
DE: REALLY intense, and again that is why I'd never try to conduct. That would
guarantee I would get half as much done...
BL: How do you stay healthy? I know that's a little personal, but with that
much stress in your life and that little sleep...
DE: I don't get that little sleep. I sleep late, I usually get 7 hours of sleep.
I am not one of those people who can function on 4 hours sleep. And stress you
just get used to dealing with.
BL: Do you actively try to manage it? Do you do tai chi or yoga or have your
DE: Nope, I don't have anything like that. I hate jogging. I work out a couple
days each week, but that's strictly for vanity and has nothing to do with staying
healthy or balanced. (laughs)
BL: If you could play any instrument that you don't currently play, what would
DE: The instrument that has always amazed me the most
is the piano. First off, it's the most useful instrument for a composer. Most
of my day is writing on the piano, so if I could go back and change anything
in my life, I would start piano lessons at age one! I wouldn't even wait 'til
I was two. I would be on piano before I could walk or talk.
But there's nothing that I can do about that, I'm never going to be a pianist,
or at least a pianist worth a damn. It's just a fact. The only instruments that
I ever did play were violin, trombone, lots of mallet instruments, and guitar.
Not that any of these are of any use for me as a composer...
BL: Now, you can't really say that! You know how a brass
instrument actually reacts...
DE: The way I played the trombone did not tell you how a brass instrument reacts!
And the way I played the violin told me even less! I was really playing some
pretty crazy stuff on it, I never played legitimately...
BL: But you learned to read through that, right?
DE: I learned to read through writing, I never read music when I played instruments.
BL: Is that right?
DE: Oh yeah! I would learn how to play a Stefan Grapelli violin for the old
group by listening. I would write down piano solos, like a Duke Ellington piano
solo, because we used some of that stuff, but I would never play it. I learned
to write before ever having to learn to read, so I'm really backwards that way.
My reading is as fast as my writing, so it is incredibly slow. I really have
to write first, but at that point I taught myself to write and had never read.
BL: What about required listening? The time has come for us to leave for the
desert island; if you had a chance to grab 5 CD's what would you grab on your
DE: I can't do that, I've tried. I can tell you something right now, it would
be different tomorrow. I really don't know.
BL: Do you listen to all types of music? Country? Contemporary?
DE: Not a lot of country, I listen to more classical old country; Hank Williams,
George Jones, Patsy Cline, and that would be kinda the same for jazz. I'm really
more into old jazz; Ellington, still I love. I am more excited by early pre-1940,
even in a way pre-1935 jazz. And I listen to lots of contemporary stuff. I'm
always listening and excited by what's going on right now. I listen to a lot
of Latin. I listen to a lot of African. And right now, Cuban. There's really
been a nice resurgence of Cuban thanks to Ry Cooder, who has had a lot to do
BL: It's a great style of music.
DE: I'm dying to go there, but just haven't done it yet, but I will!
BL: What are other questions that nobody ever asks you? Are there any things
you've wished you were asked and weren't?
DE: No, but I can think of things I'm glad I never was!
BL: Tell us about your interest in other cultures - other art forms. Is this
a big source of inspiration for you?
DE: Yeah, I have always been into that. Ever since I was a kid, really. I collect
Haitian art, Mexican art, South American art, and African stuff and as you can
see I have a Messed-up-doll collection that I am really proud of. (points to
various dolls on the adjacent table, most that look like survivors from previous
civilizations or had just been rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building)
BL: Pretty wild...
DE: There's many more. I like things that have juju. You know - vibe - things
that are old. It seems they know something you don't.
BL: Do you think that physical things can take on life-energy qualities?
DE: Absolutely, sure. Some dolls have lived through two generations, starting
out in a little nine year old girl's room, then the little girl grows up and
eventually dies, all the while the doll has been in that same house all those
years. They've got to pick up something...
BL: Maybe that's why they're so powerful an image in the horror film genre.
Nothing is more scary to me than a ventriloquist's dummy...
DE: Yeah, it's a really common fear. (Demonstrates a particularly bizarre and
scary looking doll which says, in a distinctly screechy voice: "Daddy,
I Love You - Daddy, I Love You" again and again, straight out of your worst
And so, as the film fades to black and Danny returns to his studio
to finish up work on his latest project, Kevin and Bryan quickly pack up and
leave, making sure that none of his dolls have followed them back to the car...