Inside Elfman's World
It's a Dead Man's Party, as lead singer of Boingo and film
composer extraordinaire Danny Elfman sheds this mortal coil to create
a horror fantasy of his own.
by Francesca Cappucci
Home Theater Technology, 1995.09
It's probably safe to say there's no one quite like Danny Elfman,
either personally or professionally. And although many, when they
hear his name, think of Boingo and "Dead Man's Party," at least as
many will recall the innumerable popular scores he's produced - for
everything from The Simpsons to Nightmare Before
Christmas. As a rule, if it's offbeat, off-color, or off-center,
the "Elf-Man" has scored it, making a trademark along the way of his
own macabre world of fantasy and horror.
Even his home reflects his emerging persona as the Edgar Allen Poe
of contemporary music. Hung with skull masks from the Dia de Los
Muertos festival in Mexico, primitive art, swords and daggers,
his walls offer testimony to his creative fascination with the rich
and strange, suggesting the visual eccentricities of Nightmare
Before Christmas. Although Elfman is quick to point out that he
had nothing to do with the film's images, which were strictly
director Tim Burton's Vision, he concedes that he and Burton "had a
lot in common in terms of imagery. It was second nature to work on
something from Halloween Land."
As he embarks on a new career as a film director. however, Elfman
will have the opportunity to project some imagery of his own onto the
silver screen with his current project - a musical film entitled
Little Demons. We sat down with him, among his goblins and
ghouls, and probed for more info on both this work-in-progress and
his future plans.
HTT: Tell us about the Cannes Film Festival, where you were
recently promoting your current film project.
DE: Little Demons is a live-action musical that I
originally wrote a couple of years ago for Jeffrey Katzenberg over at
Disney. But he left just as I was finishing it, so Fine Line has it
now. Also, it was the opening of To Die For, Gus Van Sant's
film that I scored. So I kind of overlapped the two. It was fun.
Little Demons is my third Script. I was basically trying to
explain what the tone and feel of it is, my whole vision.
HTT: You've made so many transitions in your career now,
from composing scores to writing films. Did working with talented
people like Tim Burton give you the courage to "cross the fence"?
DE: Clearly, being around filmmakers has given me a lot of
confidence. When I was 18, that's what I wanted to do. It never even
occurred to me to become a composer or even to be in music. My goal
was to become an editor, a cinematographer - something in that realm,
leaning toward perhaps becoming a director one day. So it was always
the visual medium that interested me. Music was a complete accident.
HTT: Your entire musical career seemed to fall into place.
Was it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time?
DE: Every success story has a
being-in-the-right-place-the-right-time thing, no matter who it is. I
didn't have a plan, so I don't know how it happened. I had chances to
compose pop scores, being a rock/pop artist. This was before I did
Pee Wee's Big Adventure, but I always turned them down. I
hated contemporary scoring. and I really didn't want to do that. So
in retrospect, it was probably the best thing I could have done.
Because if I had started doing pop score, maybe I wouldn't have been
offered an orchestral score. I held out for what I wanted to do, and
then something came along out of the blue that I thought. "Oh yeah,
this is the kind of thing I like to do." I taught myself notation
when I was in the predecessor to Boingo, The Mystic Knights, which
was a theatrical troup that became a musical theatrical troop. I
ended up being the musical director, because no one else could. And I
ended up writing music that was too complicated to sing. So when I
got Pee Wee's Big Adventure, I thought, "Just go back to what
you were doing with The Mystic Knights, but take it another step." I
didn't pay any attention to what comedies were being scored like in
1985. I wanted to make it feel like it was scored in 1955 or
something. For whatever reason, it stood out and immediately
attracted a lot of attention and just kick-started this whole career.
HTT: In entertainment, it seems like the biggest successes
are accidents. The projects that are over-thought never seem to have
the magic. Is that how your own film projects come about?
DE: I enjoyed writing the music to Nightmare Before
Christmas so much that I wrote two more musicals right after it,
back to back. And Little Demons is one of them. And then I
began a non-musical project, which was actually the one I wanted to
direct, a ghost story called Julian. But it's a very
difficult, odd tale, and it's the kind of movie that can't be made on
a shoe string, making it hard to get backing. And suddenly Little
Demons came forward, and I ended up just going with it. I didn't
write it for myself In fact Katzenberg - when I pitched it to him two
and a half years ago - said, "You know, you should direct it." I
said, "No, no - I've got another project I want to direct." But that
was before I had written the script. Once I was in the process of
writing the script on a scene-by-scene basis I got much closer to it,
and I started to think I probably could direct it. Although I can't
imagine that I'll do as well as the really good directors - I could
never hope to be a Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese or Coppolla - on the
other hand, the other 95 percent I look at and think, "I couldn't
have done a worse job."
HTT: In terms of your decision to pursue film, was the
success of Nightmare pivotal for you?
DE: No. In fact, I didn't think Nightmare was going
to do well at all. Before it came out, it looked like it was going to
be disastrous. It looked really weird, and the initial previews went
poorly. Disney really pulled back a lot. The difference in promotion
for Nightmare, which only really started weeks before it came
out, and Pocahontas, where you see full-page ads six months before it
comes out, is humongous. And I think it was motivated by poor
reviews, which said kids wouldn't like it. But I knew that they
would. But I also knew that it wouldn't preview well, because I
worked on a lot of Tim's movies, many of which haven't previewed
well. My theory is that unusual movies don't. It was a very ambitious
project. It's so ambitious visually in terms of what they were trying
to create - as well as musically, in terms of putting 11 songs in
instead of five and making it more like an opera, where so much of
the story is told in music. there were so many things that we were
shooting for that had no precedent, because it wasn't following any
existing animated musical.
HTT: At a time when most considered the musical a dead
genre, it was wonderful that you were able to resuscitate it in that
DE: Well, that is what Tim and I really wanted to do. Right
from the beginning, neither of us was a fan of contemporary musicals.
We desired to do something that was not of this era - a little more
timeless. Most musicals today are inspired by Broadway, and I wanted
to do something that did not feel like that. But doing that meant
that it was going to have huge commercial obstacles. There would be
no bowing down to the pop tastes that make your hit single. Because
none of the musicals that I like has one song where they break style
and suddenly go into a hit single. The Rogers and Hammerstein stuff,
Iike Oklahoma, it's all consistent.
HTT: Now that you are getting completely involved in
filmmaking, how do you feel about the new advances in terms of home
DE: For me, it's one big plus and minus simultaneously. On
the one hand, I'm a big fan of having home theater. I have a little
home theater - an 8-foot screen and a projector and a nice sound
system. It's great that I can get better sound in my little home
theater than I can get in most [commercial] theaters. When you are a
composer, you are very aware of this. You go into a normal theater
and listen to the sound, and it is so atrocious. I can get much
better sound at home, and so can anybody else for a relatively small
investment. It's the next best thing to being in a good theater.
There is still nothing like seeing a movie in a theater the way it
was intended to be seen. Often, I ask people. "Did you see the film?"
and they say, "Yeah, I saw the film," but what they really meant to
say is they rented the video. That is a totally different experience.
I'm just hoping more theaters get competitive with home-theater
technology, and that more people start to go after that really big
feel - the big screen and big sound - that you can't get off the
television set. In my new studio, I'm trying to figure out a way to
build a 35mm projector room so I can do that. It looks so much
better, and there is something about being in front of a much wider,
bigger screen and experiencing a film on a different level.
HTT: So now your primary focus is to get your own movies
out, and to emerge as a director. Does this mean Boingo is over?
DE: I can't say. Never say never. Right now, I would say
Boingo is on hiatus. I'm not making any comments right now, because I
want to see what comes into focus for the rest of the year. I'm real
anxious to do some non-Boingo recording of ideas I have in the back
of my head. But whether or not I'll also end up with material that I
think should be for Boingo, I don't know. I'm just leaving all of my