Danny Elfman: Schizophrenic

Interviewed by Robert Davis
Errata. Posted 2006.11.05
Source: http://www.erratamag.com/archives/2006/11/danny_elfman_sc.html
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 visual design.
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 was—it'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?
RD: Right.
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 thing.
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 profession.
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.
RD: Ah.
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
bomp bompa-bomp-bompa-bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp
[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.
RD: Yeah.
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 to me.
[Off-interview insert:] Five illustrative clips. Begin with Carl 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 of us.
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, North

DE: And it was very surreal. I had never heard any of my work performed orchestrally.
RD: Oh really. Never?
DE: On a concert stage, no. I mean I've only heard my work performed in the studios.
RD: Right.
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?
RD: Yeah.
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 it harder.
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, eye-opening experience.
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 film music.
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, you know?
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.
DE: What?
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.
DE: Thanks.
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