Tales from the black side

'An interview with Danny Elfman'
by Doug Adams
Film score monthly, vol.2, no.4, 1997.06
There is a decided advantage to existing in the printed medium, in that it does away with our human foibles. Our stammering and bobbling of words is exorcised in deference to the smooth machine-like flow of simple letters on a page. Of course, there are times when that's an advantage. However, there are other times when this impersonal communication can do us an incredible disservice.
Danny Elfman's print interviews have always conveyed a sense of his intelligence, of his being well- and sometimes out-spoken, but they cannot begin to illustrate the conviction with which he makes his points. When he talks about scoring the Mars Attacks! flying saucers, you can hear the irrepressible smile in his voice. When he talks about the way he uses the orchestra, the words start to come faster and begin spilling into one another as containing his enthusiasm becomes increasingly difficult. And when he talks about the woes of the industry, his tone takes on an acidic gravity that shows how deeply offended he is to see something that he loves being disgraced.
It is this sincerity, manifested in his music, that makes Danny Elfman the seminal composer he is today. Whatever the project is, he seems to be lurking behind every note he writes; he genuinely means them. He is not some fly-by- night music factory looking to make a quick buck before his limited scope goes out of vogue. He is a composer who carefully considers every factor that goes into his work and labors tirelessly to achieve his goals. He represents a great deal of that which is good about film music today.
Doug Adams: You had an incredibly busy year last year in '96.
Danny Elfman: Oh yeah.
DA: If I had asked you a few years ago if you'd be doing five projects a year, you think you'd be saying yes to that?
DE: No, I always said two, and for one year I thought it'd be interesting to just be a film composer and see what it felt like. And, hence '96.
DA: So does that mean in '97 you're going to be dividing yourself a little more?
DE: Absolutely, back to two. This was like a one-time-only thing. It started kind of accidentally in the sense that Mars Attacks! and Mission: Impossible both happened in last-minute, round-about ways. And I'd already committed to a couple of other films. So, rather than be dishonorable, I said, "Well, okay, so maybe that's what fate has in store for me," to do these five films. Kind of actually six, ending on Men in Black.
DA: Did you start that in '96?
DE: Very loosely, yeah. So, if you count Freeway, that would have been like a six-film stretch. Even though it started kind of in late January and ended in March, or whatever. That was like a 15-month period with six films in a row, which I'd never done. I've never even barely done two films in a row.
DA: Was that pretty exhausting?
DE: Yeah, it was very exhausting and, although I really liked doing a number of the projects and directors, and etc., etc., I knew about half-way through that I would never be doing that again. It's just not me. I really am happy as a part-time film composer, not a full-time film composer.
DA: What are you going to do with the other part-time now that Oingo Boingo is retired?
DE: Oh really, what I've been looking forward to diving into the rest of this year, [is] back into script- writing. I'm happiest when I'm doing that, right now.
DA: Great. Do you have a favorite of your output last year?
DE: Well, it's hard to pick favorites. Especially, you know, you don't want to pick favorite children. But, of course doing Tim's film is always going to be the most pleasure. Let me just put it that way. So, without drawing favorites one way or the other, getting back with him and doing Mars Attacks! was certainly a special treat. You know, when I'm scoring Tim's films it kind of doesn't feel like work in a weird way. I sit here going, "God, I'm getting paid for this? It's so much fun!" It's like too much fun to be considered work.
DA: That sounds like a good job.
DE: Even though it is still technically long hours and a lot of work, just because of our history it was really fun. It kind of brought us back to—it was really very much like when I was doing Beetlejuice, I felt the same way. It was just kind of like, "Hey, we're together again. This is the way it should be. It's really fun." And it had the vibe. Very much that kind of nostalgic feeling of when I'd worked on Beetlejuice.
DA: It seems like a lot of the work you did last year, and I mean this in a complimentary way, was dipping into our subconscious to redefine something that we already have a familiarity with. Like, Mission: Impossible was the new setting for the Schifrin melodies at times, Mars Attacks! takes that Bernard Herrmann Day the Earth Stood Still sound with the sci-fi correlation, and it makes it even more effective when you skew those notions. So, here's the question: how does your job differ when you're doing some of the reconstructed, or maybe deconstructed scores compared to doing something like Beetlejuice where there isn't really—I mean with the exception of the violin theme we don't have a lot of preconceived music/drama associations going into Beetlejuice.
DE: Oh see, first off you gotta realize—everything for me is a reconstruction or deconstruction. I would actually say deconstruction. Mission: Impossible would be the exception. That would be a reconstruction- deconstruction. Because, I'm always tapping into my 12-year-old mind-set when I'm scoring. You know, everybody does. That's the whole thing. Every time I hear a score, if you look deep enough, you may not find a deconstruction of an earlier film, but you'll find a deconstruction of Mahler, or you'll find a deconstruction of Korngold, or you'll find a deconstruction of—it varies—Bartók. You understand what I'm saying?
DA: Yeah, yeah.
DE: So, depending on how you look at it, every time I hear something I'm going, "Oh, this is an interesting deconstruction of a Bartók concerto that I heard a long time ago." "This is interesting deconstruction of something I'm sure that's bringing Max Steiner or Korngold to mind." Or in one famous score this last year, it certainly brought to mind classic Maurice Jarre. And whether it's intentional or not—who knows? But, with me, I'm so often tapping into sitting at that little table with Prokofiev, and Bernard Herrmann, and Nino Rota, that I feel like nodding to them all the time.
The unusual thing this year was that I did Mission: Impossible, which was revolving [around] nodding to someone who was alive. So that was the unusual thing. That's something I've never done consciously. In other words, all my conversations with my musical idols are always with ghosts. They're all dead! And this was very peculiar, because here I was very consciously making a nod to someone who was very much alive and kicking. And that, actually, was one of the most challenging scores I think I've ever done, because of that.
DA: Did you ever get feedback from him about the score?
DE: Not until it was all done. But, the fact that I had to do this very aggressive, big score in a very short time, and knowing that in the beginning, middle, and end would be this very, very famous theme, but I still had to weave a score around it and make it work as a score was really challenging. Because, during the scoring I never wanted to stray too far. I would try and go, "How many bars has it been?" You know, every now and then I would try and make a nod back to that period to kind of remind us where we were coming from. But, I didn't want to stay there too long. [I wanted the audience] to think that, "But, that's not where we are, now we've moved on again."
So, it was really a jigsaw puzzle where, okay I had these landmarks: beginning, middle, end. Now in between there are 62 more minutes. And in those 62 more minutes, paced every so often, I wanted to make sure I put a little piece of the puzzle here, here, here, here. Just to constantly—even if it's only for three seconds at a time, or two seconds, or five seconds, remind us from whence we came. And it was very difficult trying to keep a balance between the two eras and the two mind-sets. Not to mention the fact that I had to come up with stuff that Brian De Palma could sing—hum—and not have the luxury of a main title with which to establish it. That was really a bitch. I don't think I've ever not had a main title. And to not have the main title and still have him (10 minutes, 15 minutes into the score) knowing where the melodies are going was hard. The beauty of a main title is that you establish your main theme and maybe a bit of your secondary theme. You plant the seed that you're going to go water later in the score. And so, having that removed just made it so much more difficult. I had to just plant those in very subtle ways. That's a real important thing for me. By 15 or 30 minutes in if you can't tell where a melody's going once you start hearing it, then you didn't do your job right. Even if it's totally unconscious. You hear the beginning of a melody, you should kind of know it's going to lead down this path. It should start feeling like a friend, like familiar.
So, that was really tough, that kind of jigsaw puzzle. Really, it was the toughest score since, and this might sound odd, Nightmare Before Christmas. That also was a huge jigsaw puzzle, because there were ten songs and the score had to constantly be leading into the next song, so when the next song started it was already being implied. And then scored into the next song—there were almost no breaks. Having ten melodies was also a huge challenge, because I usually have three—sometimes just one or two, but often three that I'm using.
So, Mission: Impossible really took a lot of concentration, let me put it that way. On the other extreme, Mars Attacks! was very relaxing in the sense that when I saw the rough cut, and I saw the early version of the saucer main titles, I heard it right there. First time seeing anything, there are the saucers and I hear the main title in my head. I just remember thinking, "Oh man, this is going to be fun!"
DA: It came out pretty nice! I thought that '96 was a real year of growth for you, musically speaking. There seemed to be a real progression in your style—it moved forward a lot. For example, before it seemed like you were often more melodically oriented. That's not to say that you're not coming up with melodies now, but it seems like there's a lot more emphasis put on texture than you would find before.
DE: A lot depends on the film, though. The more cartoony the film, the more you rely on melody in a very simple way. In other words, in a Batman (with the exception of where it is now!) or a Dick Tracy, what we were trying to do was more in the classical genres. You have identifiable melodies that are very simple and that can be expressed in only a few notes. The goal in Batman was to have a theme that if I only have two bars to play it, I can state it really quickly and move on, and there's no doubt in your mind that the Batman theme just played.
Dick Tracy was exactly the same way. In a more melancholy way, Darkman was still essentially a sad comic [book] and had a theme that could be played very simply. Obviously, in a Sommersby, or Dolores Claiborne, you don't need to state what you need to state that simply. You're not prone to suddenly stating the character's theme for four seconds and then moving on. You just don't do that in that type of film.
So I think it was more [a case] of having different kinds of films to work on this year that were less cartoon-based in their approach. The Korngold style—which is the model for so much action and/or cartoony stuff—does that so cleanly and simply. You see the hero, you state the theme, you move on. And you have to be able to state it very quickly and clearly—certainly before Korngold there are operas that are the same thing.
DA: Yeah, the whole leitmotif thing.
DE: And I'm sure that's where the whole concept arrived from. And Korngold certainly—not only Korngold, of course, but he comes to mind as such a clear model for that type of score for all of us. It just makes sense. You want to have moments where you splash your bit of a theme over a gesture and then move on, and it's so fun to do that. So, Extreme Measures and Frighteners and Mission: Impossible and Freeway—these were not these kind of films. They weren't hero-oriented. Actually, I would say Men in Black would be the closest to that type of score in the sense that we see the guys walking and there's like a motif. I'm not doing a hero theme. We're avoiding that type of gesture, so there's more like a little thing that happens whenever we see them.
DA: It's that bass line, right?
DE: Yeah, exactly. So, that was closest, conceptually, to that type of score that you're talking about. You've got a little thing and every time you see the guys you hear that thing. And Mars Attacks!, I think, [starts laughing] was not exactly a heroic film!
DA: Probably not.
DE: I mean, the only heroes in the movie were the Martians. So, they were the only ones that got a theme. It was all about them. [starts laughing again] They were like the little anti-heroes! And I tried to give two sides to their thematic entity: The march, the kind of Russian, Prokofiev side of the Martians which states the oncoming of the ships; and the theremin thing which was clearly more the sci-fi, as you called it, the Day the Earth Stood Still-type thing. Which it is. I mean, I went and listened to Day the Earth Stood Still to make sure. Sometimes I do something and I need to hear the source and go, "God, have I just done that?" And it's really tricky, especially when you're dealing with the theremin. You start doing an octave on a theremin and it's like, "Whoa! I better put on Lost Weekend" and then just go quick and [check]. It's so identifiable.
DA: Did you use a real theremin for that or was it a synthesizer version?
DE: Actually, it was a combination of three things: There was a real theremin, there was an ondes martenot—which we found actually did what we needed it to do more easily than the theremin—and there were theremin samples that I did, which I got right in tune! And since there was so much of this octave line, I had some samples that I used. Originally, I just laid them down as temps to play the music for Tim. About half of what I laid down as a temp ended up in the score, often mixed with the ondes martenot, using that sound. So there's kind of a combination of stuff, because the ondes could play any melody we wanted it to play really well, and then the theremin had more nastiness in the sound.

Dissonance and Percussion

DA: It also seemed that during '96 (and again this might be a result of the projects), you've embraced dissonance a little more than perhaps in the past.
DE: Oh I love dissonance, though! That was the pleasure of Dolores Claiborne. That's why I was in such heaven doing that score.
DA: How do you approach your dissonance when you're composing? It doesn't sound like anything so mathematical like twelve-tone or anything like that.
DE: No, I haven't a clue [about twelve-tone composition]! I'm going to get like a bunch of letters about that. Every time I say something like that I get this huge backlash.
DA: [kidding] Well, I'll just take it out.
DE: No! Fuck them. I don't give a fuck. I don't have a clue.
DA: Well, that's good. That's why it sounds like your dissonance and not someone else's.
DE: Yeah. I mean, what twelve-tone music is all about, in an analytical sense, I would have no clue. So, I'm probably going to get a lot of [various dumb-guy/hick voices], "Yep! Mm-hm, see! No clue!" But, it's true, I don't. I just love dissonance and for me it's all based on improvisation. I'm sitting at a piano and I hit tones and harmonics and it pleases me.
DA: It sounds like a lot of it is layering things that would be tonal by themselves. A lot of set-one-key- against-another. Not, exactly bitonal type of stuff...
DE: Well, it is in a way. It sounds really stupid, I hate making cosmic comments like this but, I just let it do what it wants to do. I'm playing these things and then suddenly I'm clashing against something else and I'm going, "Why is this happening?" And my first reaction is, "Oh, I should clean it up, fix it." And then my second one is, "No. This feels to be where this thing wants to go." When I'm writing music, so much of the time I feel like I'm being pulled around by a big dog. I've got the dog on a leash and sometimes I'm leading this dog along just where I want it to go. And then sometimes the dog gets real big and starts yanking me. I think when I'm reacting the way I should be, I let the thing yank me around. Because it yanks me into places where I wouldn't go. And I look at it and go, "Oh! Thanks, boy! It's a strange place, but there had to be a reason why I went here, so I'm just going to leave it."
Steve [Bartek] and I talk about it a lot. There are pieces which are clearly supposed to be dissonant and there are pieces which are clearly supposed to be melodic. And [on] the in-between ones, he'll call me up and go (because he's doing the final orchestration), "Did you really want an A-sharp in bar 27? I just want to check that it wasn't a mistake." And I'll go back and I'll look and I'll go, "No, that's what I had. Do you think that that's... what's your opinion? I know it's odd, it's clashing. Clearly, we've got an A-sharp here in the trombones against an A-natural here in the second violins." And he'll go, "No, no." He's very good that way. Because sometimes I'll do stuff and I'll get a little insecure about it. Like, "This is going to sound weird when we do it. What do you think, should we fix it?" And he'll usually go, "No, no. It'll be interesting." "Yeah, yeah it'll be interesting. Okay, let's leave it."
DA: You said something interesting back there that sometimes you'll go through and say, "Oh wow, this is really clashing." Are you composing the separate lines one at a time or are you sitting down and using ten fingers all at once and then assigning, "Here's the string line, here's the brass line"?
DE: I do it both ways. It totally depends on the piece. In some types of music I'm working out all the chords one bar at a time—the whole structure, because it's about that. And there are other pieces which are really about—okay, the melody is going to start here and play through to here. The first thing I do is lay out that melody and figure out how it has to hold here and then finish to land here, because you know in advance you're going to want the melody to catch four things in the action. So, I'll just start laying out the melody exactly where I want it to fall. And then I'll go back and fill it out.
Whereas, in other pieces I'm really just going a couple bars at a time. I'm looking for a feel and I have to find what that feel is before I can move on from there. I'm not necessarily catching stuff in such a simple way—I don't need to. So, I'm going for something else. I'm just going to sit there like—"Where is it? Where is it?" It's buried in there somewhere until I find it, and then move on to the next couple of bars.
DA: It seems like you're doing, starting around the time of Dead Presidents, a lot more electronic integration. I know a lot of the percussion instruments you bring in end up being pre-recorded. Like, I know Men in Black had some bongo stuff that was electronic and not done live. Is that just another instance of leaving your temp in because it works so well, or...?
DE: No, I like to lay all the percussion in myself with the exception of cymbals, timpani, piatti, tam-tams. In other words, I do the real orchestral percussion live. So I use, very often, a relatively small percussion section with a big orchestra. There's nothing I have that could match the sound of real cymbals, gongs, timpani. Those are what they are. Chimes even. And snares, now it crosses the line. Sometimes I like them artificial and sometimes I like them real. And the reason is because sometimes I like a real close sound. And I like a very specific snare sound and I can't get that in the big room. I can't get that live and I don't have the time to take the tape, after I've finished recording it, into a little studio somewhere else where I can get a different kind of percussion sound.
But, when it comes to all the other little instruments, of which there's a lot in the stuff I've done the last couple of years, I do it all myself. Any time you hear tablas, bongos, little metal instruments, wood blocks, guiros, shakers, bowed gongs, bowed cymbals, timp rolls, struck piano strings, I just have a library of stuff that I've collected. In every score I try to lay down a few more sounds to add.
DA: Are you making your own samples?
DE: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I went through a thing last year where I started every movie by doing a sampling session. Specifically, I would get certain sounds that would be the center-point for that score. In Dead Presidents and Mission: Impossible it was a lot of little percussion. It's hard to hear unless you really broke it down, but sometimes there are like 10, 15 tracks of tiny sticks on the side of the snare drum and hitting little metal things lightly, finger cymbals. So, I can create these rhythmic patterns. To revolve [around] these rhythmic patterns, I'll lay them down first and make that part of what's driving the piece along, and I can't get that kind of sound in a live orchestra. There's just no way. When you're in a big room like at Sony or Todd-AO, it's all about air. It's about volume and openness. It's really hard to get eight guys to play eight little instruments very controlled, in a very precise way. [It] would be extremely difficult. And because I'm a percussionist by nature, I like doing the stuff myself. So, most of the percussion, other than the orchestral percussion, in the scores that you hear—the synths and the percussion I like doing. So basically, I just do all of them.
DA: Are you playing any of that in live or are you just sequencing everything?
DE: Well, the percussion stuff, if it's a rhythmic piece like Mission: Impossible or Dead Presidents, it's all being sequenced because it's all supposed to sound like a constant tika-tika-tika-tika... you know, whatever sound, with two or three things playing counterpoint against it. And with a lot of the gamelan stuff that I like using also. I like creating these rhythmic patterns. These interlocking rhythmic things are really fun. There was a time, years ago, where I dreamt of following in the footsteps of Harry Partch. And if I didn't become a composer, that's probably where I would've tried to have gone. Me and a guy who used to be in Oingo Boingo, Leon Schneiderman, we used to spend days and days and days building percussion instruments. So, I've got a huge collection of stuff. Bass marimbas, I've got more West African baliphones than you'd know what to do with. I've got two complete gamelans.
DA: Oh really? That's huge.
DE: Yeah, I know. I've got so many storage rooms! I have a complete Balinese gamelan commissioned for me by one of the great old gamelan makers, before he died. I wanted to get it before he died. He was getting old and there weren't many people doing it about ten years ago. I've gotten a smaller Javanese gamelan since then. And I still have my boxes of ground-down aluminum bars because we made a whole gamelan before I got the real gamelan. So, I have a complete aluminum, ground gamelan. That's just something that's always been fun for me, so I've gotten more into it lately.
To me the fun of having sequencers is that I can lay down these complex percussion things that would be very difficult to do. Or certainly I would need time—which I would love to have but there almost never is on a film—to just spend a week with a roomful of guys laying down these patterns. I think that's one of the reasons I've been trying to build my own studio for the last couple of years, just so I could spend more time goofing around on my own clock, as it were, with my own percussion.

Protecting Edward: The Nissan Ads

DA: Do you still list Edward Scissorhands as among your favorite of your own pieces?
DE: Oh yeah. Yes, definitely.
DA: One of the Nissan ads you did last year had a real Edward Scissorhands feel to it.
DE: Well, there was a situation. I had a funny feeling about that, but what it comes down to is this: they're going to take what they're going to take. I've got no less than three lawsuits going for other commercials from last year.
DA: I heard a little bit about that.
DE: Yeah. And most of them I'll lose. They're really hard to win, these things—to pursue them. They're very slippery. They're very difficult. The studios own the music and they'll never participate. They don't care who uses what when it comes to orchestral music. So I've learned in the past, if a company approaches me and they want something like this, or something like that that I've done and I turn them down, they're going to do it anyhow. [laughs] And most likely, there's nothing I can do about it. I'll go after them and maybe I'll get some kind of settlement, maybe I won't.
This was a case where I was interested in doing the ads and, especially for one of them, they wanted something Edward-like. I told myself, "If I don't, I'm still gonna hear it. So I might as well do it." Because, I know this sounds crazy, I protected the part of the theme that I didn't want to hear in the ad. And I allowed myself to delve into the other side. You know, there are two sides to Edward's theme. One is the fairy-tale theme.
DA: That's the celeste theme that opens?
DE: Yeah, the celeste theme. So, that's where I played a little closely to, and maybe a little too closely to. If so, then I did a disservice to myself and I'll regret it for the rest of my life. What can I say? But, at the same time, I was protecting the choral theme—which is to me the heart of the score—and making sure that that was never approached or touched. So I worked that out of it, and kind of danced around the celeste fairy-tale bit.
It's still too early for me to tell how hard I'm going to kick myself over it. I've gotten some nasty letters and I kind of have to sit there and agree with them and go, "Yeah. I probably shouldn't have done that."
DA: Well, you've got a valid answer for why you did it.
DE: Yeah, I'm still rationalizing, though. I don't know, it's like sometimes it's so hard to make these calls: which is the best thing to do? Which is actually protecting something that I've done more: doing it or not doing it? But, that was my reasoning, at that time. In a weird way, I was kind of controlling to what degree this musical piece is delved into or not. Because, you know, I heard real-close Edward and Beetlejuice rip-offs in other ads I didn't have anything to do with.
DA: There was a Nightmare one out there, too.
DE: Oh, I know.
DA: Pizza Hut or something.
DE: Yeah, I heard about that. I never saw it. But, someone called me.
DA: Oh, it would have blown your mind. It was like two notes off.
DE: I know, but that's the whole point. It's worse when I hear it done through some commercial writer. Then I feel totally trespassed upon. I turn on the TV and there it is. And I get really angry. So, I guess I'm real possessive of my themes. I probably shouldn't be.
DA: Well, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes into that so you should retain some sort of ownership even if studios technically have it.
DE: I know. It's just hard. I wish the studios felt there was more value in these themes and these pieces of material—that they're worth protecting more. Because then it just wouldn't happen. If the studios cared, the stuff would be stopped in a second. In other words, because Morricone owns his own publishing, you never hear [sings The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ocarina part] in a commercial even though they'd all love to. Because you do it, you pay him. It's just that simple. They catch you, they come after you, they get you. Because he owns it. And if the studios did that once or twice on their own pieces, they would just stop. They would go, "Hey, wait. We can't just take this bit of this film score, or that score, or another film score." But, because they're allowed to, because the studios don't care, they take way-too-liberal liberties with whatever theme they're using as their temp, their model.
DA: Not a good sign.
DE: No, but it's the same with scores. You're allowed to rip-off another score so close that it's ridiculous. In my opinion [it's ridiculous], how closely one can just rip-off a score that happened a year or two earlier.
DA: Any come to mind?
DE: No, I don't even want to go there. But, it astounds me. I go, "What? They just don't care. Wow, so clearly this piece is taken from such-and-such a score that somebody did." And nobody at the studios seems to mind, or care.
DA: Or notice.
DE: Or notice, yeah.

Danny the Collaborator

DA: You've said it's important for you to get inside the head of the directors you work with so you can see a project through their eyes. How important is it for you to retain your identity? How much of a chameleon can you be before you undermine your own individuality?
DE: Well, there's a point where we all have lines that we can't cross. I'm trying to interpret the film through the director's head, but it all comes out through me. So, a composer is kind of like a psychic medium. They're holding their seance and trying to tap into the director's spirit. But, it's still coming out through their mouth when they speak. So, obviously my scores sound like my scores, but I'm trying to interpret the film through the director as much as I can. Sometimes you get real close, sometimes you don't. Sometimes they drive you crazy.
But, I think every composer does that. That's a big part of the job. You have to write a good score that you feel good about. At least, you're supposed to. But, if the director hates it, it ain't going to be in the movie! So, it becomes an exercise in futility if you write something that does not express the film as the director wishes. It's still their ball game. It's their show. I think any successful composer learns how to dance around the director's impulses.
DA: You're also one of the few composers who will dare to score some of these wordy dialogue scenes. Do you ever have a hard time convincing directors that this can be done effectively without just laying in drones? And how do you go about grabbing the drama so well without drawing attention away from the dialogue?
DE: Well, I don't know. Very often, it's the other way around. I'm trying to talk the director out of having music.
DA: In the dialogue scenes or just in general?
DE: I think that most scores have too much music. And I think today 80, 90% of the films done in Hollywood are over-scored. There's a point where if a director wants music in the scene I'll go, "I might advise against it." But if they say, "No, no I really think I need it," well then, I'll just try to do the best I can and make it work. So, it's very rare that I'm trying to talk a director into having music, especially in a dialogue scene. There are always the scenes where it's very obvious. The action or a certain thing is happening, there's no or very little dialogue and you go, "Well, clearly the music goes here." And there are a bunch of other scenes where it's not so clear. Sometimes we'll end up, "Well, let's score it. But, if you don't use it, my feelings won't be hurt. We'll just see how it goes." Most often the music does end up in the movie, and sometimes there's a point where I wish that it wasn't, just because I think the score would be more effective if there was less of it. But, again, that's not my call.
DA: Well, even something like—it was in Mission: Impossible last summer. It was before the fish tank blew up. That scene in the diner.
DE: That was fun! That was fun!
DA: That's a dialogue-thick scene, but you still have the cool string effects going under there—all these glissandos. How do you make that so dramatically effective while we never stop listening to what they were talking about?
DE: Well, that was real difficult because Brian clearly wanted music there. That wasn't an experiment, "let's see what happens"—that was more like, "I want music to really play the weirdness, to make the uneasiness of Tom Cruise's character get more and more apparent, to get to the point where it feels like he's just going to topple over—feel nauseous or something." So I was trying to create a nauseous texture that was building underneath and growing and growing as it became apparent how his whole head was being turned upside-down, basically, in that scene. Everything he thought was one way was about to turn backwards on him. And the scene was shot in this great way that I really liked. It had this uneasiness, this claustrophobia. Everything got very close and skewed and angled and I just went with Brian, really. Ultimately, I always try to go with what I'm seeing. What Brian laid out was something that felt really uneasy and bordering on feeling like I was on a boat or something. So I went with that feeling.
DA: A lot of your scores go for the "feel" immediately. Maybe the arc of the story is an application of that. That's why I think your scores work so well in Tim Burton's films: the underlying themes are often more important than the specific story.
DE: Oh, the tone. In Tim's films the tone is the most important thing that the score can do. In any unusual film, finding the tone makes such a big difference. In Tim's films, more than most, if you miss the tone, you don't get the film. You have to nail the right tone because sometimes when you just see his films cold, you're not quite sure. It's the same in—I'm trying to think of other directors with a similar sense—David Lynch's films, Tim's films, some of Cronenberg's stuff. Nailing the tone helps you get into the film so much. Because... I don't know how to explain it. If you have the wrong tone, suddenly the same scene seems like, "Why are they acting this way?" But, if the tone is correct you go, "Oh okay, I'll just go with this."
DA: So, a lot of times it's more obliquely than directly what the film's about?
DE: Yeah. In other words, sometimes, by creating a sense of whimsy under a scene it makes you go, "Okay, they're talking about something deadly serious, but yet, it's whimsical. And I know that because the music is telling me this." To Die For was very much that way. Without the music it was kind of hard to tell. People were very confused whether you're allowed to laugh at the stuff that was happening. And the challenge there with the music was to create kind of a dark, whimsical tone and make it clear right from the get-go that it's okay to have fun with this film. Yeah, it's about a murderer, but it's okay to have a bit of fun with it at her expense. So, it was real critical to nail the tone to make that clear. There was the sense of, am I seeing a thriller? What is this?
The Big Filter of Film
DA: If you could make a living writing orchestral music without having to put it into films, how attractive would that be? Or is the film composition aspect of it what's so appealing?
DE: Well, for me, I would have to say I might do some stuff, but it's the film that's appealing. I was raised on film. My musical experience is all via film, it's not from classical music. I think that's one of the things that has always put me in kind of an odd niche. It's that all of my understanding of orchestral music is via film, not via classical music like it's supposed to be. To me it's the same, it doesn't make any difference. I've never understood why it's any different to be inspired by Bernard Herrmann as opposed to Wagner or whomever. They're both composers and they're both geniuses. And what difference does it make whether it's Shostakovich or Franz Waxman?
Very often a lot of the things I've picked up are, in fact, filtered through film composition via other classical music. But, I don't even know where the source came from. I got a lot of Wagner comments after Batman came out, and I never listened to Wagner. I'd listened to a lot of film music so I think I probably heard a lot of Wagner via '30s, '40s, and '50s film composers, of whom I listened to a lot. So, orchestral music and film have always been very much tied together. I don't see myself necessarily having a burning desire to write a symphony.
DA: You said that most of the music you've heard is, like you said, Wagner via film music. Do you think we're ever going to get to the point where film music is not via something else, where it's strictly reinventing itself?
DE: But, it's always reinventing itself. The whole point is that the classical composers we're talking about were also reinventing themselves. Don't you think that any 20th century or late 19th century composer is doing the same thing? They were reinventing things that inspired them.
DA: There are some people within the last half a century that are kind of jumping out on their own. People like—you ever heard any of Penderecki's stuff?
DE: Oh, yes, clearly.
DA: I mean, stuff like that where you don't have something else that you're basing it on. Do you think film music's going to get to that point where it's strictly experimental?
DE: I would hope. I mean, I would love to—in the right context. It's hard to get a film, you know... you need a very special film to be able to get that experimental. But, I would love to see that happen. I would love the opportunity to be more experimental than I am.
DA: What would you do?
DE: Well, who knows? Anything. But, the hard part is having a film where you can be very experimental based on no familiar form and not draw a lot of attention to yourself outside of the film. I suppose that's the beauty of writing a concerto or a symphony. And maybe that's what I'll have to do. But, when you're laying in music behind a film, you always have to harness yourself against the images. You can't totally ignore it and step outside going, "Okay, yeah. I'm just going to do stuff that I want to do that has nothing to do with what's going to happen in the film." That still has to be there. And so, it's kind of an interesting question you brought up. Because, on the one hand, yeah, it'd be lovely. I certainly don't see that happening. In fact, I see the opposite happening.
DA: That it's going back more into being influenced by other things?
DE: No, I see it becoming a self-derivative machine. That things are derivative on top of derivative on top of derivative with such frequency that by the time something's six-months old, it's already fair game for it to start consuming itself and chopping itself into bits that are just going to be spit out again immediately. If there was any trend in the last ten years that I pick up in film music, it's that things are getting self-derivative so quickly and plagiaristic so quickly that there aren't any rules anymore. That's always been my complaint, but I see it getting worse and worse.
I keep pointing this out, although it doesn't do any good: They didn't hire Max Steiner to do Alfred Newman. They didn't hire Bernard Herrmann to do Franz Waxman. They didn't hire Rózsa to do Newman. You hired a composer because you liked what their work was. And that's becoming almost unheard of now. Now it's like music-to-order. It's like you bring in a composer and cue-by-cue you could hear where the temp was coming from. It's going from Goldsmith to John Williams to Morricone to Tom Newman to Danny Elfman.
And anything goes—you steal cue-by-cue. This theme's coming from this composer, this theme's coming from that composer. It's like there are no boundaries anymore.
DA: Well, let me ask you one final question so we can end on an up-note.
DE: [laughs] I know, I keep turning it back! But, you were asking! Yeah, wouldn't it be lovely if it started leaning and requiring more originality as opposed to this kind of copy-on-demand that most Hollywood films—and I think it really is mostly within Hollywood...
DA: As opposed to independent stuff?
DE: Yeah, I think that there's a lot more freedom in the low budget, the independent films where, unfortunately, you don't have the money, necessarily, to get the orchestras in there to play a lot of stuff. But, you have a lot more freedom, very often.

Men in Black

DA: All right, my last question. I know you like to bring something new to the mix every time. Could you talk a little bit about what you're doing new in Men in Black?
DE: I don't know. I always hope that I am [doing something new], but maybe I'm not. I never really know if I am when I'm doing it. I'll know later. Men in Black is a real simple kind of thing. It's just like kind of a groove—a feel. I'm not sure whether that feel is original for me or not. It may sound like something I've done, maybe it doesn't. I don't know. I just saw the film. It's a tough film in the sense that there weren't many musical sequences. It was lots of short sequences, which for a composer is very difficult. Obviously, we all hope for five or six 10-minute cues instead of 60 one-minute cues. But, really it was finding a kind of a vibe and letting that vibe carry the movie. And did I bring anything new to the mix? I don't know.
There's kind of a cool feel that happens every now and then. I guess that feel is the thing that makes the score its own score. But, I don't know exactly what that is. So, it's hard for me to answer that question. I always hope that I could do something at least a little fresh. But, I'm not sitting there while I'm writing the score going, "Okay, what am I doing that's completely fresh for me?" I don't know. I just hope that that comes through somewhere in the mix. And obviously I'm going to be successful or not successful to different degrees, score by score. That's more like what I hope for. And whether I'll feel like I achieved that, I don't know until I get a little distance from it. I'll look back and I'd be better to answer that in about three months from now. Or when the movie comes out and I see it. I don't even know what it is yet. I've still been in the middle of it.
DA: Oh, really?
DE: Well, I only finished it last week.
DA: I didn't know that it was that recent.
DE: Yeah, well, it got stretched out. It was kind of odd that way. It got really stretched out and you finish writing, then you have a week of recording, then you have a week of mixing, then you mix the album stuff. You know, you're finishing the album mixes and they're already off doing the dub. And they're dubbing right now. So, I'll go hear it for the first time in about two weeks. Then, if you asked me, I might say, "Yeah, I think there's a little fresh stuff here and there and somewhere else," or I might go, "I have failed!" I don't know. I don't like to presume that I pull off something original every time I write a score.
DA: Well, I hope you enjoy it when you hear it.
DE: [laughs] I hope so too! It's really a scary moment. When I'm in the thick of it I don't quite know how it's going to turn out. Sometimes I'm doing stuff that is a little bit of an experiment for me. And I don't really know how it's going to end up. And in fact, half the time in scoring that's the way. I don't really know what's going to happen until I see it all put together and I kind of hope for the best. I say, "God, I hope that whatever-I-was-thinking works against the movie," and if it doesn't I'll leave town. I'll pack my bags and leave town. I've said that.
DA: Really?
DE: Yeah, more times than I'd care to think that I have, but it's true. "Yup, okay. If I fucked up on this one I'm packin' my bags and leavin' town."
DA: Well, it hasn't happened yet.
DE: Well, maybe I should, but I don't know! Maybe it's time for me to pack my bags and leave town.
DA: Nah.
DE: There's a lot of people out there who would be really pleased if I did.
DA: That's because you get a lot of good jobs. They want them.
DE: [laughs] Right, exactly. Open up a lot of doors for a lot of people.
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