Danny Elfman's big adventure continues in Sleepy Hollow

By Bryan Lanser and Kevin Monahan
E-mu, ca.1999 (unverified)
Source: http://www.emu.com/artist/d_elfman/elfman_intrview.html (no longer available)
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 on?
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 Burton...
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 Boingo).
BL: Did you ever plan to get into film composition or did you just happen into it?
DE: I just happened into it, literally, with Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
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 weeks late.
BL: Does that become a problem for you? Do you have several projects going at once?
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, under pressure.
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 weeks.

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 very hard.
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 us all.
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 there is.

KM: Has it happened in recent times? I can't recall seeing that on any major releases....
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?
DE: No.
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.
BL: Why?
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 big club!
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 out.
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 read.
KM: Why did you get asked to work on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure?
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 job.
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 already.

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 a day.
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 scoring stage?
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 your studio?
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 fixed?
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 chakras aligned?
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 that be?
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 way out?
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 with that.
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 childhood nightmare)...
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...