Danny Elfman: Schizophrenic
Last year, the American Composers Orchestra asked Danny Elfman to write an
evening of music for them to perform at Carnegie Hall, and the result was Serenada
Schizophrana, six dense, broadly-reaching movements, Elfman's first orchestral
work not written for a film.
When he's firing on all cylinders, Elfman is a great film composer. His detractors
accuse him of pastiche, but there's a fine line between a lazy allusion and
inspired re-imagination, and Elfman's best scores accomplish the latter. His
haunting theme for Edward Scissorhands is largely responsible for creating
the sense of mystery and wonder that's critical to a fairy tale about a gentle,
pale faced, blade fingered near-mute, maybe more so than director Tim Burton's
His score for Batman manages to combine the hero's acute melancholia,
Gotham's gothic grandeur, and the action's urgent march into a few elegant strains.
As proof of the music's effect, I'll point out that when roller coaster designers
Bolliger & Mabillard unveiled their amazing new design for an inverted roller
coaster at Six Flags Great America in 1992, the music heard by riders as they
boarded the train in a simulation of the Batcave greatly enhanced the anticipation
and fear of what they were about to experience. Repeat: Elfman's music enhanced
the experience of a roller coaster.
(At the time, Six Flags was owned by Time-Warner, the studio
that produced Batman; when rival Paramount tried to duplicate the ride's
success at their park in Northern California, with a Top Gun-themed ride also
designed by B&M, the music and faux dialogue blasting across the "flight
deck" didn't do much to improve an otherwise excellent ride.)
And even Elfman's first feature film score, for Pee Wee's Big Adventure,
recasts Nino Rota's carnivalesque music for Fellini's 8 1/2 in the same
way that Pee Wee's star and writer, Paul Reubens, recasts the characters of
children's television: as a springboard. Fellini's film mixes dreams, memories,
and reality, but they're always bound together, the dreams helping to make sense
of the reality and vice versa. The character and music of Pee Wee, on
the other hand, have clear origins, but Reubens, Burton, Elfman, and co-writer
Phil Hartman show no interest in maintaining those ties. They let Pee Wee's
world drift to wild extremes, never looking back.
If some of Elfman's more recent scores have suffered by comparison to his best
work, it's a welcome surprise to see him branch out and try something a shade
more serious. The chaos of Serenada Schizophrana is Elfmanesque, no doubt,
and he playfully nods to his favorite classical and film composers, but his
music has more space to build, stretch out, and resolve itself when it's not
serving the needs of a film. His runways are longer, his plane is bigger, but
he still can't resist doing a few loops.
I recently talked with Elfman on the phone about the project, from conception
to performance to recording, about the differences of writing music for a film
and for a standalone concert, and about favorite classical composers.
Here's what he said.
Danny Elfman: You know, it was really as simple as getting a call and
I keep saying my best explanation for why I did it was the three words:
they asked me. It was this American Composers Orchestra, ACO, that plays at
Carnegie Hall every year and they called and asked, and I just kinda said, "Uhh,
OK." [There] really wasn't a terrible lot of thought that went into it
other than: challenge, haven't done it, just say Yes. The only part that was
different than what I had planned was, when I originally signed up, it was gonna
be for a second room at Carnegie underneath the main room. I get the names mixed
up. I can't remember whether Zankel Hall is the smaller room?
Robert Davis: Yeah, I don't know either. [It is.]
DE: It gets confusing to me, having been there only a total of two times
in my life.
RD: Would that mean a smaller orchestra then?
DE: Well yeah, it was a chamber orchestra, only 300 to 400 seats, and
that's when I jumped at the Yes, 'cause it sounds like off-the-radar, low-pressure
fun, you know? And what happened over the course of that year is our concert
got bounced upstairs. And then I did a little bit of an Uh-oh, now I'm starting
to feel some pressure.
RD: Had you done work at that point or you were still thinking?
DE: No, no, it wasit's kind of a silly long story. I was still
months away from beginning anything. It was just something on my calendar, but
also what coincidentally tipped me over the scale there was I happened to know,
right at that point, something that almost nobody else but my wife knew which
is that she was expecting a baby. And it happened to be the same week as our
scheduled concert at Carnegie. And I was starting to freak out, because obviously
I couldn't be in two places at the same time. And we weren't really telling
anybody yet. It was still very early, and you know how sometimes you want to
kind of wait a bit?
DE: So when the offer to bounce it upstairs came, it came with the caveat
that it move the schedule back a month, and once again I jumped at the chance.
But I wasn't thinkin' about the difference in what it was going to do to my
project. I was really just thinking about whew, off the hook. There's
no chance the baby is going to arrive a month late.
So that just kind of took that off. And then as it got closer I decided I better
go to New York and see Carnegie Hall. I'd never been there. So I flew out there
and this was my biggest mistake for my project because now I know that I'm in
the big hall and I kinda know what that means. And I'm starting to kind of feel
the essence of
Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall,
you know, with a big echo like a voice saying, "You're playing Carnegie
Hall." It sounded like the Wizard of Oz voice.
And when I actually walked around the lobby and saw the original manuscript
that they had on their walls of the great composers, I felt like rather than
inspiring me it had a catatonia-producing effect, because it occurred to me
that I was in the playground of the big boys. And I just wanted to do a little
So I went home and now I was supposed to start work and I found for the first
really three or four weeks, I did almost nothing. I just sat there in a stupor
going, "I can't write like Shostakovich. I can't write like Prokofiev.
What the fuck am I doing here, and how did I get here?" And I was like
angry at myself for putting myself in that position. And then I kind of snapped
out of it.
You know, fortunately, in my job I'm used to working extremely intensely in
the last second under a lot of pressure. In fact that's kind of all I've ever
known, as all film composers do. That's actually one of the main characteristics
you have to be adept at is functioning in that environment to carry on in that
RD: Because you're working after they've finished everything, finished
cutting the film together, typically, right?
DE: Yeah, we're at the very end. You know, there's 10 weeks to final
dub the film and we're coming in, out of the blue, and we have to create, and
I have to work with quota of music per day. It's a forced discipline, and I'm
not sure that I ever would have gotten anything done if I didn't have a deadline.
I mean honestly I'd probably still be working on Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
And so, I think that kind of burned-in discipline that's so embedded now in
my brain 'cause I'm a lazy person naturally it just kinda kicked
in. The switch went off, which is: Get your ass going. You know, you're on a
deadline. There's gonna be a show one way or another.
"The Two Composers That Live in My Head"
Or: "Wish I Could Do That for Another 30 Bars"
DE: So when that happened I just started moving and then once I started
moving I gave myself an exercise to do. For two weeks I wrote a theme or piece
of music actually I should just say I made myself write a piece of music,
whether thematic or not every day.
And at the end of two weeks I looked at what I had come up with. I had fourteen
pieces of music. And then I just kind of jumped into the ones that seemed more
promising and then I found that I had eight or nine pieces and then seven pieces
and they were starting to now evolve and take off. And then what happened, really
over the course of about six weeks, was six of the movements began growing,
and they even began kind of sitting next to each other in a certain order. And
I couldn't figure out why, so I just kept going because I was curious.
And I kept figuring, well, I'm going to have to lose 2 or 3 of these and then
I'll take some of the others and make them connect. I'll do variations. That
was always what I intended to do because that's what I do in film. You come
up with, say, it could be two or it could be four main themes, and you do constant
variations. The process of doing a film score is very much tied to what one
might do in a certain style of 19th century, or early 20th century symphonic
composition, or perhaps a ballet or something, where you're taking themes and
you're carrying them from one moment to the next, and I just found myself at
the end of those weeks going, "I don't know what these have to do with
each other and none of them seem to be wanting to die."
And I finally just said, "I really don't want to kill any of these they
just somehow" It occurred to me that what I was having happen was
a little internal battle between the two composers that live in my head, one
which would like to be taken a little more seriously and the other which wants
to be taken anything but seriously. And they were kind of duking it out. Each
movement was a response to another movement they were fighting for space and
then I kind of determined that, well, that's what this exercise was for me.
There's some bizarre logic to why these pieces exist in the same, uh, suite
it wasn't a symphony, it wasn't a concerto, I didn't know what it was
but that's what it was.
So, you know, another thing I've kind of learned over the years, I suppose,
is just go with my instincts and not question them, and my instincts led me
to a strange place that I didn't expect to be.
RD: Do you compose on a piano?
DE: Yeah, well electronic piano. I'm not a pianist, so any keyboard
is fine for me, you know. As long as I have a keyboard in front of me, it could
be a Bosendorfer or a Casio, I mean honestly. I know that sounds weird, but
as long as I have keys in front of me I can usually get myself rolling. Unfortunately
I don't have the ability to write without a keyboard. I don't have solfege,
the talent of hearing the notes in my head knowing exactly what pitches they
are and writing them down. I have to be in front of some form of keyboard or
I'm fairly helpless.
RD: So as you're working through these and sort of feeling them out
and linking them together, are there visuals coming to your mind?
DE: No, no. Really Well, no that's not true. Only one, the one
that was the most amusing piece, which was certainly the fourth, uhh
RD: "The Quadruped Patrol?"
DE: "The Quadruped Patrol," which I think was in direct response
to how kind of serious the second movement was feeling that triggered the third
and fourth, but that one I really did picture in my head a big dog and a little
dog running around kind of creating havoc in the neighborhood. The rhythm of
the piece was like the trotting of a big dog followed by the quicker double-time
trotting of the small dog, his buddy.
RD: Are they your dogs?
DE: No, no, my dogs are two medium sized dogs.
DE: Neither one was present in this image. I have two Australian sheep
dogs, but [for] this I was picturing something like an Irish wolf hound and
a tiny terrier, so the idea was
[Off-interview:] This is hard to capture in text. Better to
listen to it: first Elfman
then the orchestra.
So, see what I mean?
RD: Yeah yeah.
DE: You know, you've got
step. step. step. step.
The gait of the big dog and quick little trot of the little one.
So that was honestly that was the only image. It was just funny when
I was working on it, but I had no other visual imagery in my head anywhere.
I really let them run amok, because that was the joy of it because I never get
to let my music run amok in a film. Well, I mean I do to a certain extent, but
if I have an idea, I can only express that idea until the scene changes, and
for many years I've just gotten used to, "Well, boy that was fun. I sure
wish I could do that for another 30 bars," but you can't because, you know,
you're following a movie, and so here I just let them rum amok.
[Off-interview insert:] Amok they run. Starting at Bernard
Herrmann's score for Psycho, the dogs run through what seems to be Rimsky-Korsakov's
"Flight of the Bumblebee", careen quickly off of Elfman's Batman
theme (listen to the horns at about a minute fifty, a clear wink perhaps
a neighbor has activated the Bat-Signal?), then plow through old man Orff's
massive hedge (it's no surprise that Elfman, whose use of choruses has become
a sort of signature, loves Carmina Burana) before slowing to a pant, covered
in lawn clippings and meringue, in under three minutes.
[DE cont'd:] So in a sense I feel like the first half, the beginning
of each cue, was this huge push to get them rolling, and then at a certain point
I was kind of jumping on and more or less going for the ride and just trying
to keep them from reeling out of control and crashing.
DE: So that was the fun part, and once I lost the intimidation of
just because I'm at Carnegie Hall doesn't mean it has to be a quote serious
work or has to be my magnum opus, you know. It's not gonna be my great piece,
my great work. I said, "Don't think like that. That's gonna kill you. Just
have fun." And then everything started clicking.
Give Up One of These Divisi
RD: Well I was glad to see your list of influences in the liner notes
[for the Serenada Schizophrana recording], because it does feel like
you're having fun with Bernard Herrmann and Carl Orff and sort of rolling them
into your own it's your own take on what they did.
DE: Yeah, it's like they were all present, you know, Herrmann and Orff
and Prokofiev. And Ellington. They were all getting their little moments and
those are all you know, that's the stuff that rolls around in my head.
There were a few moments where I felt Shostakovich's disapproving spirit hovering
above me. [laughs]
RD: Yeah, I was thinking that "I Forget" [the fifth movement]
almost feels like it transitions from the Carmina Burana to something
like the Jazz Suites, or like a mournful take on the Jazz Suites it seemed like
[Off-interview insert:] Five illustrative clips. Begin with
Orff's Carmina Burana and Dmitri
Shostakovich's Jazz Suite 2, Waltz 2. Elfman's fifth movement from Serenada
Schizophrana, "I Forget," seems to bring the two together, as hard
as that is to imagine. Listen to a clip
from early in the piece and another
from later. The transition recalls Elfman's own beautiful waltz, the Edward
Scissorhands theme, with his trademark choral melisma.
DE: Well to be honest the Jazz Suites are one of the things that helped
get me out of that frame of mind that was holding me back, because I happened
to put those on you're talking about the Shostakovich Jazz Suites?
RD: Yeah, yeah.
DE: and hearing the kind of playfulness of those was a really
good reminder for me that if somebody as heavy and incredible as Shostakovich
could allow himself to be whimsical, you know, I certainly can. And there's
all kinds of fun crazy little moments in there, and so that was kind of a reminder
just to enjoy it and be myself and not think about the fact that you
know, I'm not gonna be writing a symphony on the scope of Shostakovich, and
don't try to because that will destroy you.
RD: So you compose on piano and you're hearing this in your head...
it must be a real thrill to suddenly hear it from an orchestra.
DE: Well it was actually something of a terror, because another kind
of bizarre offshoot of being a film composer is that I'm used to hearing things
really played correctly and then having more time to work it out. In other words
I'm used to making a lot of changes when I hear the music and especially
because I tend to write kind of chaotic stuff often and with everything
but the second movement, I really had to hear it to know whether certain things
were gonna work or not.
And the orchestration, sometimes I have an idea in my head of doing this with
the woodwinds or how many divisi I could break the strings into, and then when
I hear it I'll go, you know, this line is just too weak, I have to give up one
of these divisi, I've got the strings fragmented into too many parts, and I
don't have enough strength at the top so I'll have to give up the second violins
doing this other You know, I have to make adjustments like that. Or these
celli are just not carrying. Maybe I've gotta quickly add some bassoons. It's
that type of thing that I'm used to having the ability to do, and here I didn't.
And it was a huge shock to learn in the classical world how few rehearsals
they have, and I didn't know. Nobody told me, so I got there and suddenly there
was no time to work anything out, so I spent like three days before the show
frantically trying to listen back to a cassette recording in my hotel room trying
to make adjustments.
I don't think that [conductor] Steven Sloane and the America Composers Orchestra
knew what a complicated piece I was going to deliver, and I didn't know how
little time they had. So the first rehearsal I think was a huge shock for both
Eventually it did come together but really by the skin of our teeth. It was
a great education because I've learned that is the way it works in that world.
They don't have the luxury of lots of rehearsal time. And it was really, really
difficult. I mean [after] the first rehearsal, I was so despondent I almost
got on a plane and went home, but Steven assured me, he said, "Believe
me, I know it seems like it's not together yet, but they'll pull together for
the performance," and for the most part they did.
Why Film Scoring Sounds the Way It Does: Steiner, Korngold, Waxman, Tiomkin,
DE: And it was very surreal. I had never heard any of my work performed
RD: Oh really. Never?
DE: On a concert stage, no. I mean I've only heard my work performed
in the studios.
DE: So it was pretty wild, and it wasn't until we recorded it [at the
Fox Scoring Stage in Los Angeles, with conductor John Mauceri] really that I
was able to actually hear everything, and then I did attempt to make a lot of
corrections. If nothing else, I mean, bad notes slip in there, sometimes my
fault, sometimes it could be from the copyist or anywhere down the line. When
you have a really dense piece
As somebody pointed out to me, the composers in the early 20th century whose
works I was inspired by, they weren't recorded after one performance.
RD: That's true.
DE: They often weren't recorded even the same decade they were written
frequently you know?
DE: Leastwise if they were in their lifetime at all! So there was more
time for a composer to hear their work and perhaps make adjustments than, you
know, a couple of rehearsals, a performance and then bang we're into recording,
so it was pretty intense. It was a great education for me. I learned a lot.
I know a lot more about the realistic, oh, I guess the reality of a concert
orchestra, and if I was writing another commission again what I could or could
not reasonably expect them to pull off in how much time.
RD: They're probably used to picking up things quickly but maybe not
as the music is changing, I don't know.
DE: Well I think the thing that was off-putting about Serenada Schizophrana
is that each movement I think there's a tone that carries between the
first and the sixth movement, that's at least in the same relative tone orchestrally,
but the other ones are really going all different directions, and that makes
You know, if all the movements were at least in the same tone or a certain
type of writing, a certain type of orchestra, just getting through one movement
helps them in another movement, and here it wasn't. So I think it just made
it much more difficult, and it's not something I was considering when I was
writing it, but in the end, you know, it was great. It was just a real wonderful,
RD: Have you been interested in orchestral music your whole life?
DE: No, no I well interested as a listener, yeah. But not
RD: That's what I mean, just enjoyment.
DE: Well my whole life meaning from a teenager, from about 17. I was
mainly a film music fan. Most of my orchestral knowledge comes from film music.
So I have second hand orchestral influences.
RD: It's kind of ironic that you were able to explore a lot of those
film orchestral influences on this project that isn't directly film related.
I guess because maybe you had more freedom but also it's hard to imagine one
single film score that has Herrman and all these other guys in it, but you were
able to do that here.
DE: Well that's true. And it was really mixed up. You know, at the same
time that I was really into film music I was deeply in love with the music of
Prokofiev and Stravinsky, so I did have influence I think it was when
I was 16 or 17 I first heard [Stravinsky's] Rite of Spring, the Firebird Concerto,
and it kind of turned my whole world upside down and that began really a love
of the Eastern European and Russian composers in particular. Bartók.
Of course Prokofiev became my instant favorite and it makes sense. I mean his
music was very visual. I listen to his music and I can almost hear film music.
In a weird way some of Stravinski's too and even Shostakovich at moments. I
listen to it and I feel like I'm hearing a part of some score that never existed.
Of course I realize, well, that's why film scoring sounds the way it does, you
know. It's from that style of composition. The great [film] composers, Steiner
and Korngold and Waxman and Tiomkin, Alex North, this is the music they were
inspired from, and they were the ones that created the style of music that became
So, I'll tell a story that illustrates to me that there are such strong ties
between 20th century classical composition and film music, more so than I think
a lot of people who really study and understand the music believe, but I was
driving in the car listening to a classical music station and tuned into the
middle of a huge symphonic work which instantly said, This is a film score.
Because it was a station that would mix up film music with classical music.
But it was so visual and it was so it seemed so clearly some insane piece
of film music, the way it was lunging to and fro and the dynamics, that I sat
outside my door, I just sat there for a couple of minutes because I didn't want
to turn it off. I had to know who it was. Literally I was thinking, If this
is one of my contemporaries, I'm retiring right now, because I can't live with
writing this good compared to mine. This just takes it to a whole other level,
and I had to know who it was. Was it one of my contemporaries? One of the older
guys? [laughs] It would be easier to live with if it's one of the older guys,
In the end of course it turns out to be a Shostakovich symphony that I'd never
heard before. And I was incredibly relieved. I said, All right, I can get back
to work now. But it just felt for these few minutes like just some huge scene
in some movie that I just couldn't place and didn't know what it was, but this
music is so visual, I mean I was almost picturing what the scene was. What is
this scoring against?
RD: It makes you wonder if he had a couple of dogs in mind or something.
RD: It makes you wonder if he had something in mind, a couple of dogs
or who knows.
DE: Sorry. There's unfortunately a lawn mower outside my window.
Scoring for Animation
I wanted to ask Elfman about scoring animated films, or films with animated
elements. (He's no stranger to this world; his most-heard piece of music just
might be the theme for The Simpsons.) Although the score is typically
one of the last parts of a film to be finished, the same is true for animation
and special effects. So how do those final days work, as the stragglers cross
the finish line? How do the pieces come together? I asked him if animators ever
create animation for music that he has already written.
DE: Oh no, not at all. Charlotte's Web has CG animals. [Elfman just
finished scoring the live action version of Charlotte's Web. CG = computer
graphics.] It's a lot of real animals with moving mouths, and there's some CG,
but the pig is a real pig. The rat is not, so Templeton is CG.
[Off-interview:] It'll be hard to top Paul Lynde who voiced
Templeton in the original animated version.
RD: Who's the voice of Templeton?
DE: Steve Buscemi.
RD: Ah, that's a good choice.
DE: But Charlotte's Web was live so there was movie to look at.
When I was looking at it their mouths weren't moving, you know. You just see
a pig and [hear] a voice. By the end, the mouths are moving, but I'm in the
middle of a movie called Meet the Robinsons which is in fact an animation.
But I still can't score until they're done. They've been animating for a year
and a half or two years. They're not animating to my music, far from it.
You know, it's like I'm trying my best to fill in the blanks, score to them,
but there's holes 'cause they're finishing as I'm writing, so I'll be doing
a scene and suddenly I'll get storyboards for 15 seconds then back to animation,
and I'm just hoping that when these storyboards When the animation comes
in obviously we'll have to make adjustments. It's gonna be difficult, but that's
not that unusual. Any movie with a lot of CG effects, they tend to come in at
the last second, and the temporary areas where there was just like a blocked
out thing is never quite the same, so you have to make a lot of adjustments.
So, you know, it's hard.
A Million Ideas Already
Finally, I mentioned that I hoped he'd do another commission.
[Off-interview: Elfman's 8-minute piece entitled The Overeager
Overture was performed at the Hollywood Bowl on September 15, 2006. 41,000
people packed the Bowl over three nights to bid farewell to Mauceri. Variety
called Elfman's overture "half-hoedown/half-diabolical." And SoundtrackNet
noted that "this rodeo-styled burst of creativity and Americana was strongly
thematic, wildly imaginative, and superbly orchestrated by Steve Bartek."
DE: Yeah, yeah, I intend to, having done it now. In fact I just had
a short commission that premiered three weeks ago out in LA with John Mauceri
at the Hollywood Bowl for his farewell. He conducted [the recording of] the
Serenada and he asked me to write an overture for his farewell months and months
ago. So I did, and that was tons of fun. It was a lot simpler than Serenada
stuff. So that had its premiere, and maybe I'll get to record it some day.
But I want to do some more ambitious pieces for orchestra, different stuff,
move into different areas, and I would like at some point to write for a smaller
ensemble, the thing I was originally...
RD: Right, the lower room, yeah.
DE: I've got a million ideas of things already.
RD: Cool. Maybe it'll happen.