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
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
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
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 toit
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 reallyI 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 realizeeverything 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 ofit variesBartók. 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 notwho 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 constantlyeven 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 singhumand 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 songthere were almost
no breaks. Having ten melodies was also a huge challenge, because I usually
have threesometimes 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 styleit
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
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 stylewhich
is the model for so much action and/or cartoony stuffdoes 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 clearlycertainly 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 certainlynot 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 Freewaythese
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 martenotwhich we found actually did what we needed
it to do more easily than the thereminand 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
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 timethe whole structure, because
it's about that. And there are other pieces which are really aboutokay,
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 wayI 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,
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
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 hearthe 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 timewhich
I would love to have but there almost never is on a filmto 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 thingsto
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 themewhich is to me the heart of the
scoreand 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 materialthat 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
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 likeit 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 thereall 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 overfeel 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 inI'm trying to think of other
directors with a similar senseDavid 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 likeyou 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
DE: I would hope. I mean, I would love toin 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
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 goesyou 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
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 filmsand 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,
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 groovea 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
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.
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.
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.