Subtitle: Danny Elfman talks about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride, and looks back on 20 years of collaboration with Tim Burton.
Interview by Doug Adams
Source: Film Score Magazine, 2005.07-08, pp.32-38
[p.34] Danny Elfman is as busy as ever right now - perhaps even busier. And as much as he may need a vacation, his crazy workload sure makes for interesting conversations, as Doug Adams found out recently...
FSM: I know you've got the big push for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory coming up right now, but I was hoping we could talk both about that and Corpse Bride since they're both Tim Burton scores with some songs and so on.
Danny Elfman: Back to back, yep!
FSM: Yeah, sounds like they're going to keep you jumping around for a couple of months.
DE: Well, not much longer. I only have five more weeks on Corpse Bride, then we go to London and record it.
FSM: When do you record?
DE: August 1st.
FSM: And when did you start work on Charlie?
DE: Both Charlie and Corpse Bride I began a year ago, because I had to have all the songs finished for both projects before they began shooting. It's weird because I feel like I've been on them both forever. I worked on and off on the songs for Charlie, set up a little studio in London and came out twice and worked with Tim, then got all the songs for Corpse Bride up and running. Then finally, that being done, I was able to take a little breather and then jump into this concert piece that I did--that was my non-film thing--and the I finished that and was right back into Charlie, scoring that. I finished scoring Charlie and went right into Corpse Bride, scoring it. So it's been real nutty!
FSM: Yeah, there hasn't been a lot of vacation time lately.
DE: No, I haven't had any time off since a year ago September!
FSM: Does that wear you down after a while or is it just the name of the game?
DE: Both. It wears me down and it's the name of the game. It goes with the territory, I guess.
FSM: You've got five songs in Charlie, is that right?
DE: Yeah. Each [Charlie and Corpse] originally had five songs in it, though at this point there are four of them in Corpse Bride. All five are still in Charlie.
FSM: Working on these simultaneously does there end up being a similarity of style, or are you having to jump back and forth between all these different ideas?
DE: No, I mean, Charlie was all pop. And Corpse Bride is more like Nightmare Before Christmas, orchestral songs with vocals. They're very, very different...fortunately. Corpse Bride is more—I don't know how toexplain it other than Nightmare-like.
FSM: Kind of back in that Kurt Weill type of territory?
DE: Yeah, -ish, I guess. It's the style of song where someone would sing with an orchestra. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the songs is just a silly little jingle, the "Welcome Song" that they play when they first come in. And the other songs are the Oompa-Loompas'. Those were big projects! They were really huge endeavors because each one was toincorporate a different pop style, as it were, but each one is to be sung by like a hundred voices, so it was really interesting. It was really, really fun doing all the voices.

Vocal EASE

FSM: You're all the Oompa-Loompa voices?
DE: Yeah!
FSM: Does that satiate the need for performing that Oingo Boingo was once the outlet for? Is this a new version of that?
DE: No, not really. It's not that kind of singing, you know? Each vocal part I did [for Charlie] was in groups of six and eight. It was just really fun. We'd talk about going to a certain style and I'd take the lyrics and start improvising. Then I just started laying on tracks and tracks of vocals. I developed this technique where, for every group of six or eight vocals I'd put down, I would process three or four of them to various degrees and slightly Munchkin-ize it... but not too much. I thought it was really funny that, even though every Oompa-Loompa looks exactly the same, some of them have very high voices and some of them have low voices. But there's a homogeny about it, because they're all my voice, which normally I would not do.
In Corpse Bride, or in Nightmare, if I have group vocals I'll ensemble four, five or six people and we'll just sing parts, then switch and sing them again and sing them again. So we may end up with 40 parts, but there are five of us doing them. It's intentional to make it more of a group. With Charlie, because they're all cloned Oompa-Loompas, I thought having them all be my own voice would give a slightly homogenus quality, which, as opposed to being bad for this, would be good. So, it was pretty wild. Parts on top of parts. Every now and then my wife would come down and check on me and make sure I wasn't going insane because she'd hear me screaming falsetto stuff and doing chanting and loud low Hoo-has! and Heys! and all this stuff. I was just down in my basement [p.35] going nuts!
FSM: You're doing each one of the songs in a different style?
DE: Yeah, each of the songs takes on a different genre, so to speak. The first one, "Augustus Gloop," is somewhat in the style of a Bollywood musical number. But like in a Bollywood music, which Tim and I are both fans of, we really got into the idea of "Let's make each one a different style." Bollywood musicals often do that. Each time it has a song it will be a different style. The idea here being we just never know where they're coming from next, rather than doing four variations of the same theme.
FSM: Is there any material in common or are they completely different tunes each time out?
DE: I tried to give them little links. There's an Oompa-Loompa style of chanting, which comes in and out. And there's a melody that I used in "Augustus Gloop" that, in the second song ("Veruca Salt," which is kind of like hippie psychedelia '60s), there's a sitar/flute solo in the middle, and I used the same melody for that. So I would come back to little things that tied them together, but all in all, they're their own entities.
The third song I did was "Mike Teavee." And of course Mike Teavee is this frenetic, rock'n'roll MTV kid, so I gave him a reall frenetic rock tune with shades of Queen and hair bands with a bit of heavy metal. The last one I wrote, I though, "Okay, we've got three. I need one more." I though going into a '70s funk would be the appropriate thing for "Violet Beauregard." I'm really dying to know how the world is going to receive Charlie.
FSM: Are you worried they're too in love with the old one?
DE: No. Look, any time you do something like this, there's just no way to tell how people are going to react. It's a weird movie! None of Tim's movies are ever the kind of movies that are just surefire, "Oh yeah! This has big hit written all over it!" [Laughs] I didn't think Batman was going to do well when it came out. When I was working on Batman it was so dark and so weird lookin—there were scenes that were so dark I could barely score them because I could hardly see what was on the screen! And for that point in time, that was now what screamed blockbuster. I thought it would be a big cult hit. I didn't know that it was going to do the business that it did. So, you never know. But Charlie is a really unusual movie. Johnny Depp, who I think is brilliant in this, his character is really odd. It's the kind of thing that it's just hard to tell how people are going to react. Some peope are going to go, "Aaaah, he's too weird looking!" You know, I don't know. And it's not like it's an action movie, you know what I mean, so... It's really, in the end just a charming little story. It'll be interesting. I think it's really good. I'm really proud of it. But I don't know how the world will react.
FSM: I think we're anxious!
DE: Yeah, but you know, you should get them to send you an advance copy. Warner Brother should be able to do that for you.
FSM: Well, they sent me two copies of Batman Begins, so I should offer to trade.
DE: Two copies!
FSM: Yeah, it just kept showing up. There was a delivery man on my doorstep every morning.
DE: I haven't seen that yet, how is it?
FSM: the movie's pretty good.
DE: I ran into Hans while he was doing it and he was very funny. He was like [German accent], "You want to do some cues, too?" [Laughs]
FSM: [Laughs]
DE: I said, "No Hans, I'm busy!"


FSM: Before they start shooting, obviously the songs have to be put together. Do you fully produce them before they get into filming?
DE: They have to be finished, but they were finished demos with finished vocals. I went back later when I went to score the movie and replaced the demo guitars with other guitars. I was playing some of the guitar parts on synth guitar, and that kind of thing. I'd replace sample drums with [real] drums. It's very much like how I work with any of my demos for the cues. I always, on every cue for the movie, have a finished demo with everything complete. But in this case everything was complete with the final voices so they were able to do the songs. And I would replace guitar, bass and drums later with real guitar, bass and drums.
FSM: So comparing how Charlie's songs work against something more in the Nightmare mold, there are self-contained songs more than narrative songs that have to move you through plot material?
DE: Exactly. There are right out of the book. In the book there;s no singing other than the Oompa-Loompas, and it's never clear whether they're doing songs or chants. The Oompa-Loompas would come out and give this morality tale to each of the kids that meet their demise. Because, ultimately, that's what Dahl was doing in the book. It was about bad kids and what happens to bad kids! Charlie is the only kid thatreally isn't too bad, and he gets rewarded. Augustus Gloop is a glutton, so the Oompa-Loompas come out and sing a song about what happens to gluttons. And Veruca Salt is a little spoiled brat, so they sing about who spoils them and what happens to you when you get spoiled. You end up in the garbage heap just like her, she goes down the garbage shoot. For Mike Teavee they basically sing a song in the book (or a chant), lambasting television and how harmful it is. It keeps kids from [p.36] having imaginations and reading. So each song is basically a little morality tale in a weird way, both singing about what just happened to that kid and why that stuff happens to kids like that. That's what Roald Dahl was doing and, even though stylistically we went in all these crazy musical zones, that's what we were doing with the songs in the movie.
I basically took all the lyrics directly from the book with a little bit of adaptation. The one I had to change the most was "Violet Beauregard" because in the book they sing about "a girl" who chews gum all day long. It's done third person, which was kind of a problem. I had to make it about her, so that it was Violet's song. So, I changed it from third person to first person. But it's still 90 percent Roald Dahl.
I'm more used to doing plot-oriented stuff, like in Corpse. That's more the kind of song I'm used to writing. Charlie was very different. And Charlie had the lyrics basically provided for me, so it was much different. I had to go through tons of lyrics and pick the few that would make a shorter song. The chants in the book are long. If I used all the lyrics, each song would have been about 10 minutes long. Making them two-and-a-half minute songs with repetitions in them, I would really only be able to use a little bit of the lyrics. I was weeding through [t]he book and underlining this line and that line and saying, "Oh yeah, I like this bit here and I like that bit there," and coming up with melodies, then just having fun with all these vocals and parts and laying down all the instruments. It was just very different. Rather than being there with all the orchestral sounds I'm used to working with I actually had my guitar out and I was playing in with my sample drums. It was so, so different.
FSM: Back when you were doing Nightmare you often talked about how threading songs through the score and back and forth was like putting a big puzzle together. Is that the case again with Charlie and Corpse Bride, are they moving back and forth between the worlds of score and song where material is shared?
DE: No, in Charlie the songs drop in out of the blue each time. There's no lead in or lead out at all, and they're not part of the score. The songs in Charlie always feel like they're coming from left field. Corpse Bride is closer to Nightmare, but Nightmare had 10 songs, so it became a big jigsaw puzzle. With only four songs in Corpse Bride, there's much less weaving. Really one of the songs is the beginning of the movie, one is the very end of the movie. There are only two songs in the middle, so it's much less of a challenge that way.
FSM: You're singing one of the songs in Corpse Bride as well, right?
DE: Yeah, I got a really fun one in Corpse Bride! It's called "Remains of the day," and it's from a character who's a skeleton called Bonejangles.
FSM: That sounds right up your alley!
DE: Yeah, actually is was kind of rough for me because it was a kind of a voice that... You know, Jack Skellington I could sing all day long. Bonejangles had a rougher voice and [I] didn't want to sing it. I really wanted to bring in somebody with a rougher voice than mine. We had a lot of auditions both in England and in new York. I actually recorded three people. I put a lot of time into trying to get somebody else's voice on to this! And in the end Tim said, "Look, can you just do it, please?" So I went in and redid in from my demo. It was a tough one. It was the kind of part that I'd sing it for 15 minutes and I'd be coughing. My throat was really hurting after singing Bonejangles! It was a mega-sore throat all night long both nights. I had to do it twice.
FSM: Do you have to do any dialogue, or just the singing?
DE: Just a little, fortunately!
FSM: Are you able to talk about the titles of the other songs yet, or it it too early?
DE: The first one is called "According to Plan." That's sung by the hour parents of the two young people who are about to get married—Victor and Victoria. That's the story. It's about these two youngsters that are in an arranged marriage, and it begins with a song from both sets of parents singing their version of the upcoming marriage. One of them is nouveau riche who are marrying into a family name and they're very excited about it. Victoria's parents are miserably marrying into a low-class family. They're old money, but they're broke. It's a three-part song, and it ends with both sets of parents who are about to meet for the first time. It was really fun because there was such good talent on it. Tracey Ullman was one of the mothers. Joanna Lumley was the other mother. She's a British actress from Absolutely Fabulous. albert Finney was one of the fathers and a really funny British comedian named Paul Whitehouse was the other. Getting to work with all four of them was a blast. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Corpse Bride and she sings a song called "Tears to shed." So I got Helena to sing for the first time, and she did a really good job. And the last song is the big finale piece where the whole cast sings. It's called "The wedding finale."

Bury the DEAD

FSM: Do you have the spector of Nightmare watching over your shoulder during all of this since that's become such a seminal piece over the past decade?
DE: I don't know... Not really. I never listen to anything that I've ever done, so nothing hangs over my shoulder too much. I never play my stuff except when being absolutely forced. You know, if somebody forces me to put something on I will. But, overall, I almost never go back unless I'm doing some kind of compilation CD or something. The two that I did, those were the first times I'd listened to any of that stuff. Once I write it and record it and produce it and sign off on the CD, I usually never listen to it again.
FSM: Is that a form of modesty or are you just sick of dealing with it at that point?
DE: I don't know! I honestly don't. It's almost like i put it away. You know, I never listened to an Oingo Boingo album after I recorded it. Listening to it for months and months and working on the songs and rehearsing them and producing them and recording and mixing...once I approve the final mastered ref, I don't think I ever listened to one album again. I'm funny that way, I don't lnow why. I just never have a desire to listen to anything I've ever done.
FSM: Well, I guess it's a good thing that other people do!
DE: [Laughs] Yeah, well fortunately sometimes! I just never find myself going, "I really want to hear this thing i did."
FSM: I know you've got a couple of projects in the works, right?
DE: Yeah, it's weird. I hate getting booked in advance. This is one of my little Nightmares! If it happens then I find myself, "Oh my God, I'm booked a year in advance!" and I get really depressed. [p.37]
FSM: Really?
DE: Yeah, something happens to me when I'm charted out too far into the future that just leaves me deflated and miserable. I always like having options open. But last year I suddenly found myself going, "Oh my God, I've got four movies back to back and this concert piece," and I just went into meltdown misery. But I got over it and got to work! I'm halfway through the five projects now. I'm finishing number three so I'm getting more optimistic. Because, you know, when you look at five projects down the road it just seems too hard. Too impossible!
FSM: That's a lot of music!
DE: Yeah, it's like, "This is going to kill me! This will kill me, I won't survive this!" And now as I'm into number three, I'm going, "You know what, I may actually just survive this." But after a short break I go into Charlotte's Web. I wrote a song for them, too, in the Middle of Charlie! a little lullaby. It was funny because I wrote it for them—it's sung on camera by several of the actresses over different time periods of their lives—and I forgot about it. and I got a call from Australia as I'm about to leave the next day for England and am just finishing the score, frantically, for Charlie. I got this call saying, "Danny, you never sent us the production track to sing to, and we're shooting that scene in 20 minutes!"
FSM: [Laughs] Oops!
DE: [Laughs] I said, "Oh my God!" and I had to stop what I was doing, get on the phone with two of the actresses, figure out what keys they could sing in over the phone, and quickly got together a piano guide of the piece. I needed to make sure that they were singing in some key and I was going to have to put instruments to it later. I posted it on a server and they were avle to download it and rush it onto the set just in time! So Charlotte's Web is coming up at the end of the year and I'm looking forward to it. Then I'm doing a Disney animation called A Day With Wilbur Smith Robinson. That will be my first project like that, a big animation thing. I'm not doing songs for that! [Laughs]
FSM: Wasn't there some talk of doing a ballet version of Edward Scissorhands?
DE: Yeah, unfortunately I won't be involved with that. That's happening right now as we speak, but I'm doing Corpse Bride, and sometimes that's just the way it goes.
FSM: Will they be using your pre-existing music, or do you even know?
DE: I have no idea what they're doing. I'd already written 14 minutes of music for them three years ago, and I don't know if they're taking some of that or adapting stuff. I have no idea. All I know is that it doesn't involve me.
And I hope, somewhere in the middle of all this, I might get a chance, somewhere, to record the concerto that I wrote for Carnegie Hall.
FSM: Oh great. I heard a bit of that on NPR and it sounded incredible.
DE: Well, thany you. It wouldbe nice to know that I didn't work for three months just for one night. [Laughs]
FSM: The Nightmare of the concert hall composer, right?
DE: Yeah, yeah. That's the weirdest thing in the world. I described it to a friend that it's like working your ass off around the close for a Broadway show that's going to open, play one night and close!
FSM: I hope it comes together.
DE: Well, it's difficult. It may or may not, but with any luck, maybe at some point between this stuff I'll be out somewhere doing a bit of that. That's my life! That's 2006.
FSM: I guess it is sort of depressing to chart out an entire year of your life.
DE: Yeah, it's weird, it takes me right up to spring 2006. Early summer, really. I score Wilbur Robinson until May of 2006. Yeah... Strange! Then I plan to do nothing!
FSM: Take some time off?
DE: YEah, definitely take some time off. or switch to some other.. [laughs self-effacingly] I'm sure something's going to come along that will excite me...unfortunately. Or I'll get roped into something that I haven't even heard of, I'm sure. But I at least like to know that there is a possibility of something coming along that I haven't heard of.

The Year AHEAD

FSM: Well it's great from out perspective that you have a lot of things on your table right now.
DE: Well, thanks. It'll be interesting. Charlotte's Web and Wilbur Robinson are both going to be different, interesting things for me. I've never worked in that genre of the big computer animation style [as Robinson will be]. The only animation I've ever done has been these stop-motion Tim Burton things. That's a whole different kind of animal. Working in the way that they do, those movies are completely different. It's the homegrown way of working. So I'm thinking that will be really interesting. And I'm really hoping that Charlotte's Web comes out well because it's such a great story.
FSM: Sure, it's a classic.
DE: And I'm so happy to have swapped spiders! [Laughs]
FSM: [Laughs]
Bluntinstrument: You aren't supposed to enjoy these things, FSM. Get on and do some work!
DE: And I also think it's pretty ironic, you know? I've switched to a kinder, gentler spider.
FSM: I hope they're kinder to your work, too!
DE: Well, it's impossible not to me!
FSM: Yeah, that was sort of a train wreck, no pun intended.
DE: No, no. That was as bad as it gets. But, what's also pretty funny is that there is a singing black widow spider in Corpse Bride. And what are the chances of doing two movies back to back with talking spiders?
FSM: It's some sort of an argument for karma right there!
DE: I know! That's a weird one! I mean, I'm going from a talking spider to a talking spider. The only different is that in Corpse Bride the spider has the advantage of having eyelashes and can blink! That's the black widow in The Corpse Bride. I'm really dying to see how they pull the spider together for Charlotte's's obviously not going to have eyelashes. [Laughs]
FSM: That would be somewhat disturbing.
DE: Yeah! That's the beauty of puppet animation, that you can put in blinking eyelashes on your spiders, on all six of their eyes like this one has. And in the context of the world they live in, it doesn't seem at all unusual.
FSM: Sure why not?
DE: There's actually a whole chorale, a song I wrote for Corpse Bride of singing spider.
FSM: Really?
DE: Oh yeah, yeah! The spider tailors, they're the ones that have to weave the wedding suit for Victor. And they sing this big song while they're weaving away.
FSM: How many spiders do you have to write for?
DE: I'll probably use about 25 women's voices. It's really fun! It's very Gilbert and Sullivant this bit. This particular song has these two big chorales. One of them is the singing spiders, and the other is the soldier skeletons singing their big hurrah. It'll be fun! [p.38]


FSM: You've got two Burton films coing out this year and, of course, that's one of film's big collaborations of what's now going on two decades. There's such a distinct mood for the work between you and him. Even though it's always different each time out, there are certain consistencies that remind us that it's from that world. Is it tough to retain what's unique about that collaboration, but still say, "Okay, this project stands on its own terms and we have to do something that's appropriate for this project each time out"? It see,s like such a balancing act, but it's never failed to work out. Every score for a Tim Turton film feels like a score for a Tim Burton film, and yet really doesn't feel like the last one, the one before or the next one.
DE: Every one of his films is a new challenge—none of them easy. People always say, "You've worked together so many times, it must be really easy." And I try to explain, it's really not. We've got to go through a process every time. He's just as nervous about each film he does, and I'm just as intent on trying to nail it. Sometimes his films will even be harder than others'. They're difficult films, they're odd. The tone is unusual and capturing the tone of his films can be really challenging. Every film is hard. Every film is a challenge. But sometimes you're working on a film and the tone is easy to nail. For Tim's films the tone is never easy to nail. It's always a tightrope. You can get too sentimental too quickly. You can get too quirky. You can get too dark. You can get too light. And trying to find balance on his films is really tricky. Tim is not the easiest guy to work with. He has very specific ideas. And like I said, very often we have to go through a journey together—a process at the beginning of things. It's like "Oh my God, we're never going to find what this is!" I'm going to go crazy. And then, suddenly, it just clicks and we're fine. It's funny, and as many times as we go through it--like starting recording the first day on Charlie, I was as nervous as on any score I've ever done.
FSM: Really?
DE: Yeah! Queasy nervous. But then something happened between day one and day two and all of a sudden the whole vibe of the room changed. Suddenly it's like, "This is going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine." And then Tim just gets funny and silly and he starts joking. But it can be very intense up until the last moment. Then suddenly something happens, like a switch flips somewhere and we're having a really good time. But it can stay really intense right up until the 11th hour with Tim. It's an astonishing thing. Maybe it's an area where we're both similar, but I don't think either of us is ever so confident of our own work. I never feel cocky about my work with him. I'm always unsure of it right up until the 11th hour. And sometimes beyond that! When I wrote Edward Scissorhands I thought maybe I'd fucked it up. I've always got this feeling that, "Maybe I'm fucking this up!" [Laughs] I've had that ever since Pee-wee's Big Adventure. And I've never been to a point where I just go [swaggering cocksure voice], "Hey, I got this baby nailed!" You know?
FSM: Mmm-hm.
DE: And Tim is never that way about his own movies. Ive never heard him say sanything cocky. The most confident, cocky thing I've ever heard him say about his own movie is, "I think it came out okay." So, I don't think we ever, either of us, totally feel, "Oh yeah, got this baby nailed!" It never happens.
FSM: Well, maybe that's what keeps you pushing to do something different each time out, or really fine tune things.
DE: I don't know, I don't know. It's funny, even after 20 years, when I'm going to play him his first presentation, I'm still fretting for days beforehand. I'm totally nervous about it. I'll joke with Tim about it. I say, "Tim, this is nuts. This is, what, our 11th time and our 18th year, and I was still up all last night." He's like, "Just... I don't... Play it, just play it! Push the button! Where's the button!" And I'm trying to give him disclaimers before he hears the first piece. I'm like, "Just remember that this..." "Play it, just play it!!" [Laughs] It's just like being on Pee-wee's Big Adventure!
FSM: Has he ever rejected a concept wholesale? Just said, "We're going the wrong way, let's start from scratch"? Or is it just a paranoia at this point?
DE: Yes and no. In the end, almost everything I've ever come up with has been fine, but very often the first presentation, tonally, he doesn't understand it and wants to go in a different direction for the title. Big Fish, Charlie, on both of them a lot of what I played at first presentation nded up in the movie, but didn't end up becoming the main theme. Both of them had that similarity, what became the main theme evolved out of the work after going down a road a bit. I played Tim a bunch of music for Charlie, but my first idea for a main title didn't connect at all. Now, it ended up that that idea because a theme for Willy Wonka throughout the movie. But for the title he wanted something very energetic and I was imagining something more dreamy. And there was this other piece in there and he was like, "That one! That one! Can you work out that one?" And I started working and, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! I get it, I get it!" So I use him as a sounding board, and I start getting this enthusiasm and then it starts making sense to me. Then I'll start sending stuff back to him, and then back to me and back to him. After three or four times of bouncing back, then I'll start getting excited and I'm catching on. It was the same on Big Fish, where out of these other thematic pieces evolved this piece that, "There it is, that's the titles." So it wasn't there right in the beginning, automatically.
I've written music that wholesale had nothing to do with the movie. But, it doesn't always end up having the function that I thought it would. Because I'm never sure in the beginning either. I'm just looking at it and coming up with lots of ideas, and I depend on him to feed back a sensibility. It's hard to explain. It's out own weird collaboration. So, I take detours that I would not be expecting to take over the course of the process, and yet as we get further down the road from my initial instincts and impulses--"Ah, here is where this sticks. Oh, this fits here. Now it's making sense. Now it's all starting to fit together. And this [p.39] theme relates to that theme and now I understand why." Often in the beginning I don't understand why.
Playing ALONG
FSM: Is that type of back and forth unique to your work with Tim Burton? I mean, there must be a form of that with everyone.
DE: More or less that's how it works with everybody. Obviously directors have a say and they get involved. You play them stuff and you get their response and you go from there. With Tim and me it's just a little more of a winding road getting to a certain spot. It's different with every director. Every director has their own process. Tim has his process.
FSM: From a musical point of view, do you feel that there is a certain—I'm not sure how to phrase this—a certain sound to the was you approach his films, but that makes it sound like they're all the same. But in your opinion are there any sort of through-lines of, "I tend to use these types of gestures in Tim's pictures," or anything like that?
DE: No, not really. [Long pause] I don't think so. Or let me put it this way, if there are, they're not conscious. I'm sure there are. He's the same person and I'm the same person. We don't really become different people.
FSM: Well right, you can't change your fingerprints. But speaking of which, it seems that very often you work with directors that have a very personalized style to their work. There's something consistently unique to them throughout their pictures. Is that something that's important to you when choosing projects you want to be involved with, that you can kind of see the artist in the art?
DE: No, not really. When I choose a film to work on, I sometimes choose it by the director, like they've done something interesting and I'll try and take a chance with them on another film. Sometimes it's by a particular project, the script looks interesting and I'm like, "Wow, I hope they pull it off. There could be interesting music here." I never know. When you're a composer coming into projects, you never know what you're going to get. You have to be really optimistic because it's just a total mystery what something's going to be. We very rarely get a chance to see the movie first and decide. I mean, occasionally we do, but not very often. And so, I try to get a feeling when I meet a director and talk with them, that they're going to let me do something good. Because not all directors will let you. I need to get that vibe from them, that they're not going to force me into something that they've already got in their head. If they seem really anal retentive, that'll be a real bad sign! That's a sign to avoid. You just try to feel out certain things, like how confident are they? What are their musical tastes? With most directors you just get a feeling like, "This is a potentially interesting project, I like them personally," and you hope they come up with a sensibility that will allow you to do a decent job... The worst thing in the world is to get into bed with somebody who's an anal retentive personality who will get attached to something and not let it go.
FSM: Try to make you recreate instead of create?
DE: Exactly. That's my only real fear of getting into a project that that will happen. Because that's where I get all miserable. Of course, there's always the fear that the person will make a horrible movie! [Laughs] And when that happens, that happens. No composer is immune from that when you take a project a year in advance. But when you work with somebody repeatedly you at least know, okay, there's a sensibility there that always, if they make a decent movie, is going to allow me to do something interesting. There's that little bit of relief you get when you repeat work with somebody. No matter what they do or don't do—because you never know--they'll allow me to try to do something interesting. They won't try to micromanage me into some kind of horrible, miserable state. So, no matter who it is, those are the things that you try to feel out and look for. Certainly my situation with Tim is unique, we're gone 20 years--this year is our 20th year...
FSM: That's hard to believe...
DE: ... I still never know what he's going to do. He's always going to pull surprises on me. Whatever he does, he's going to allow me to do something interesting in there. And even though we'll sometimes get into these little nitpicky fights about a cue doing this as apposed to that, or playing this chord or that chord... and we will, we'll squabble like an old married couple sometimes over a chord or 16 bars of something here or there! I'll go, "Ah, he's driving me nuts!" But that's on a moment-to-moment basis. On the overall perspective, he's definitely going to allow me to express something interesting, and he's going to give me something really interesting. Our sensibilities are close enough, you know. We grew up on a lot of the same stuff and I appreciate where he's coming from. We have a lot of the same influences. So we may dig in our heels and we may squabble over things like that, but the hearts of our sensibilities are close enough that I'm never going to have to go to someplace that I dread. Let me put it that way. He'll never force me into something that is totally against my instincts. And in the end, I've never been unhappy with the work. Even the most frustrating jobs where I've gone into areas that I didn't expect to go, and I've felt like maybe he was driving me nuts in the middle of it, I've never, at the end of the score, not said, "I really like the way this came out."
FSM: And that's kind of the ultimate statement, isn't it?
DE: Yes. In the end, no matter what process I had to go through, I'll listen to it and think, "I'm really happy with the way that this came out. Even that cue that we fought about—that I went and rewrote or changed—I think I like it even more." That's what you hope for. You might talk to me in the middle of the score and I might be pulling my hair out over something, but then I'll listen to it in context with everything else and it's very rare for me not to go, "You know, that really wasn't a bad idea he had." So that's really it boiled down to its essence. It's a process that's sometimes painful, but I've never been unhappy with the results.
FSM: Well, let's hope you guys can keep it going for another 20 years.
DE: [Teasing laughter] Well, you never know!...
Back to The Elfman Zone