Keeping score: Danny Elfman and Michel Cusson love shaping how we relate to the silver screen

by John Griffin
The Gazette [Montreal], 2006.01.28
If you're a sports fan, or savour the art of the TV beer ad, you may remember this spot from the recent holiday season.
Two guys are outside in a snowstorm. They're digging frantically in the snow. Something terrible must have happened because the accompanying orchestral soundtrack is emotionally urgent and fraught with impending doom.
Is a child missing? Has a brave rescue dog been caught in an avalanche?
Our heroes make a discovery. It's a case of cold ones. Miraculously, they're not frozen. Back in the house, packed with anxious revellers, one wise soul wonders who put on the downer music. He changes the tunes, and gets the party started.
Californian Danny Elfman and Montrealer Michel Cusson know the power of music as a communicator of great joy and bottomless sorrow. Both compose music for film and TV, and both come from a pop background - Elfman with the 1980s ska band Oingo Boingo, and Cusson with the Quebec jazz-rock fusion group Uzeb of the same era.
Now they bring skills from their performance days to the studio, shaping how we relate to the images on the big and small screen, and making a very good living in the process.
Elfman is one of the world's hottest movie composers. His most recent work with director Tim Burton, on his films Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, contributed to their substantial international theatrical success, and to Charlie's current strength in the home DVD market (Corpse Bride will be released on Tuesday.)
He could have retired years ago simply on the proceeds from creating the original theme music for The Simpsons. But Elfman has worked continuously, adding music and songs to films like Beetle Juice, Good Will Hunting, Batman Returns, Spy Kids, Chicago and the Spider-Man series. Coming from a pop background, it's like he had something to prove.
"When I made the jump to film, I had to unlearn everything I'd done with Oingo Boingo and go back to the beginning," an animated Elfman said during the promotion rounds for Corpse Bride's theatrical release.
"I've really had three careers. The first was with a musical theatrical troupe called the Mystic Knights. I did that for seven years and taught myself to notate and write primitive compositions. Then I decided I wanted to be in a ska band and abandoned all that. There's no point writing anything down for a song. You take a guitar, figure out the chords, and go.
"Then I had the opportunity to write for (1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure), and I had to go back to where I left off. It wasn't easy. It's not like I was ever musically proficient! I was self-taught. Never took a lesson on anything."
With Pee-wee, Elfman had to make a huge decision. "Would I do it rock 'n' roll style, write melodies and turn them over to an arranger to turn into score? Or should I bite the bullet and do the actual scoring?"
Being a self-described glutton for punishment, Elfman chomped hard, and committed himself to "seven days a week, 16-hour days for the next 10 years and 20 films doing just that, writing every note down."
Even after notational software had improved to the point where Elfman could have abandoned quill and ink, he persevered. He calls it his decade-long blackout. "If I wasn't touring or writing, I was scoring. I worked from the moment I woke up to 2 a.m. in the morning."
He's long since moved to computer notation, but Elfman doesn't consider those days wasted. "It's purer, in a way. I learned a lot. Though kids are composing digitally in their basements now, it's important to understand the roots of the form."
There was another reason for Elfman's bloody-minded commitment to the old ways. He didn't want to be accused of being one of those former pop people that conventionally schooled composers call "hummers." "But I was anyway!"
Michel Cusson didn't face quite the same rigours, partly because he was a known star and respected musician in the place where he began his second career - Montreal.
"Uzeb was a great laboratory for me musically," said Cusson from his home studio in the South Shore after the release of the film Maurice Richard last month. "That period of my life allowed me to push the boundaries every night.
"But in the late 1980s I found myself wanting to go further than Uzeb. I wrote most of the band's music, but as part of a three-piece, sometimes I felt limited. I wanted something different, bigger, more attuned to the world."
"Uzeb (and an early 1990s band he formed called Wild Unit) finished, and I spread the word in Montreal I wanted to work in film. Friends took a chance on me in 1991 and offered the score to L'Automne sauvage."
Be careful what you wish for. "It was a nightmare. Not because of the project but because I had to teach myself everything. There weren't the computer tools there are now, and I spent a lot of time in my home studio, I can tell you."
In the process, Cusson fell in love with composing for film, and developed habits that continue to this day.
"I'm happy about my decision to change jobs. Composers like to experiment, and soundtracks for film are the perfect medium. There are always surprises when you're searching for the right emotion, the right instruments, the right harmony."
Cusson cited Maurice Richard, where it fell to him to provide the emotional depth the legendary Canadiens' star seldom showed the world.
In Roy Dupuis's expert portrayal, Richard's coal-black eyes revealed little of the turmoil raging inside the red-white-and blue jersey. Cusson's score connected the sympathetic dots between Dupuis's authentically withdrawn performance and the audience. "Everyone knows what a great, passionate hockey player the Rocket was," Cusson explained. "I wanted to communicate his emotions.
"I cannot tell you how excited I am to be doing what I'm doing. I'm not exaggerating when I say I'm as passionate about this work as I was about Uzeb in the early 1980s. I'm like a kid, learning something new every day."
And like Elfman, Cusson is working every day.
"I have my own studio at home, so I save travel time. I don't sleep much - I think it's a waste of time. I see my family (Cusson has a wife and five daughters), but the rest of the time I work. And I love it."
Cusson writes for television and film. He's orchestrated international live multimedia spectacles like the horse opera Cavalia, and Ulalena, a show that runs twice a day on the island of Maui in Hawaii. And he's currently shuttling between the South Shore and China, where he's putting together the music for an extravaganza with the Shanghai Circus World.
"I can't say no when the projects are interesting."
Elfman would understand those sentiments to the letter.
"I've been called a workaholic," he revealed. (The Internet Movie Database lists 128 entries in Elfman's TV and film score projects alone.) "Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, I get lots of requests and can't say no. That's me. I'm just a guy who can't say no."
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