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 way.
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 theater?
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 options open.
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