Meet The Robinsons - Danny Elfman

Video interview transcribed by Bluntinstrument with thanks to Degeneratelite for help and Reza for finding the video
Q. Particularly[?] at the beginning of the creative process, how do you really get started with a project like Meet The Robinsons?
Danny Elfman: Well, unlike a regular movie the only real difference is that I'm hired much earlier, so usually I come onto a film and within 3 or 6 months I'm up working on it. Here it was (like) a year and a half, almost 2 years early because obviously animation is a much much slower world than it takes to shoot a regular movie. So I met with them and they showed me the pictures and illustrations, and I saw that kind of future-retro look and I think that kindof hooked me. And then I'd always been apprehensive about doing animation - I'd never done one other than the stopmotion I'd done for Tim Burton - and I was always a little afraid of it, but I decided, alright, if I'm going to try one I'll try this. And I had the best time. So a year and a half, almost two years later they show up with the movie.
Q: Well in my mind I always pictured: you're creating your art to reflect what your seeing, but has it ever flowed back in the other direction? Do the animators ever make a decision or a change based on maybe something that you're doing musically?
DE: Well, um... not usually, because they've been animating for so long and then suddenly I'm delivering the music. I think at the very end, with the final edits are made, they'll be aware of the score, if it's a rhythmic sequence there's a few moments where there were some cuts made and the director had to look at what that would do to the music and make a few adjustments, but I would say 99% of the time it's a done deal when it's animation. ... In a regular movie, in the last several weeks they might make a hundred cuts after a preview before it gets released, and I've got to adjust things and everything's going to go crazy, but in animation it's a different process, it's more stable, less changes, less things getting moved around, and it's nice that way. For a musician it's nice that way.
Q: Yeah, when I talk to actors and directors about seeing the final product with an audience and their expectations and what they take away from audience reactions, are you in a similar place? If you actually go and see a movie where you've done the score or go to see a movie like Meet The Robinsons, are you anxious about how the audience, or are you anticipating how the audience might react to your work?
DE: No. Never think about it, and I have almost never got to see an audience react to my music until the premiere. You know you've got to realise the composers.. we're on at the very end, and by the time we've finished writing our score, that movie's coming out in 4 weeks. I mean it's really right at the very end. And so there's not much chance for anybody really to get too much chance to react to things. ... A little bit: I think they played it a few times. Certainly my big worry in this film was at the very end. The music's all done, finished, every note of it. Then John Lasseter's [executive producer] going to hear it for the first time, and he hasn't heard a single note, and that was the part where I was really petrified because after I've done all this work what if he hates it? What if he doesn't like the melodies, what if he doesn't like the theme? And so I got the call saying "John loved it, he's reallyreally happy".
Q: Has that ever happened to you where you've pretty much finished a project and some important decision maker has come and said "Jeez sorry I don't like this" - has that ever happened to you?
DE: It's happened to me once, where a producer heard the score at the end and I got word that they were going to throw the score out, and I said "oh my God I've never had a score thrown out" and I met with them and he explained, and I understood what he was talking about, and it was an interesting experience because I actually took just 4 cues. He felt that... it was a movie called Sommersby, and it was a romantic score, and the romantic theme just hadn't quite gotten under his skin and worked the way he hoped it would. And the way he explained it made sense to me. And I took 4 cues and I actually realised that I'd played these darker, instead of using this theme I should have used this theme, and I re-did - it was like one day - it was 4 pieces of music, and he loved the score. So sometimes it's an interesting thing, there's a tipping point where here's a person who's really not happy with it and with a little bit of adjustment there, and.. loved it. And so, that was a great experience, and as a fact I think he was right: his input was good input. I went in a certin direction. You know when you're a composer you're at a crossroads, constantly, this way or this way, this way or this way. You ever been in the optometrist's office? And they're.. "which lense? A or B? B. Ok, now, 1 or 2? 2." It's like that. Every single day, maybe ten times a day. You make a lot of choices. And then sometimes in hindsight you get somebody's reaction and you think about it, and if they're intelligent, and he was, in how they talk about it, I said 'that makes sense.' And I liked the score better after I made that adjustment. That's the only time I've really ever come across somebody at the very end hearing something and going ..[laughs] "no".
Q: I read from time to time about, like, screenwriters, they run into walls, they have the classic writer's block. Does that happen to Danny Elfman? Do you get..? Because your resume's huge, the films that you've worked on. Do you ever get to that point, where it's just like you're looking at the page, you're happy with it, it's not there, it's not coming?!
DE: Oh yeah, every movie where I have extra time I have writer's block up until the day when I don't have any extra time and then the writer' block goes away. We can't afford the luxury of writer's block. When you hit a mark, maybe I'll predetermine that I can't do the score in less than six weeks, and I hit that six week mark, if I feel like I've got writer's block I basically have to take a frying pan in the kitchen and bang myself on the head and go to work. It's like - no such luxury, I have to finish.
Q: Are there any key buttons in your personality or your life though [sic] where you know you can go and push it and that's going to get the creative juices flowing for yer?
DE: Well, I think that in order to be successful in my profession you have to be good under pressure. I think a lot of us have this simularity of being good in that final run in that deadline. I know that professional athletes very often, what makes them good is the ability under those last seconds of the game to be able to perform, and I think it's the same for a successful composer. There's going to be a point where it seems impossible and we always have to pull ourselves up somehow and, like, kick ourselves in the butt, and go. And it's real similar that way. So I think if we're designed to do well in this profession we have to have that ability, when the cock is really running out, we have to go into a really high gear.
Q: What did you start out musically? What was your first musical experience? What did you play first? What did you love first? What got you started.
DE: Erm, I was a late starter. I didn;t pick up my first instrument until I was 18. Didn't have any musical lessons. It's a weird story - I can't tell you the whole thing, it's too long. But the short end of it was I was going to go travel around the world and I wanted to learn an instrument, I wanted to take an instrument with me, and I picked a violin, and built a kindof a custom backpack - a friend of mine helped put it together for me, he knew how to sew. So I had, like a back strap and a violin, and I took this violin to Africa and I travelled around and I kinda learned it and I ended up kinda having a good ear, and I ended up getting hired by a French musical theatrical troupe, to tour with them, and that's the beginning of a long, crazy story.
Q: Fascinating.
DE: I became the fiddle player and I'd only been playing for four months.. by they.. French avant garde musical theatrical troupe .. and then proceeded travel around the world and took it with me and by the time I came home I got into musical theatre, and that was my original interest.
Q: Right, well, I've love to hear the rest of the story sometime, maybe we can hear it sometime, that would be great, thanks.
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