"Danny Elfman Exposed"
Subtitle: Composer discusses groupies and his ongoing collaborations
with Tim Burton
by Spence D.
IGN Filmforce, 2005.10.06
After having contributed music to over 100 film and television projects it's
easy to forget that Danny Elfman was once the manic, fiery orange haired frontman
for Los Angeles based over-the-top, eclectic pop combo Oingo Boingo. For those
concerned with timelines, Elfman gradually began trading in his former lifestyle
as a wild and rambunctious post modern punk when around 1985 when he was commissioned
by friend Tim Burton to score Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Granted it would
be another 10 years before he fully retired from the Boingo recording and touring
maelstrom, but still to this day Elfman is perhaps the most famous pop musician
to make the switch from the sweat soaked live stage to the austerity of the
home studio and soundstage. Funny thing though, most folks haven't a clue about
Elfman's past. "Most places I go people will say 'You were in a band? What
was the name of the band?' I'll go 'Oingo Boingo' to which they'll give me kind
of a blank stare and go 'Oh
heh-heh-heh, that's amusing.'"
Whether or not folks know or care that Elfman had another musical life outside
his more well known, and perhaps even more conventional, current tenure as one
of Hollywood's most prolific scorer, it's true. And given the stark contrast
between the worlds of popular music and film composition, one can't help but
wonder which realm offers up the better groupies. Elfman laughs at the query,
"Since a composer has no groupies, I'd have to say Oingo Boingo."
Which is to say that the possibility of there being any crazed Danny Elfman
film score groupies lurking about in the shadows is pretty damn slim. "Well
maybe there are, but I haven't met any of them," he offers up. "Then
on the other hand I don't make it easy for those types to meet me, I'm sure.
I live pretty privately, let's say. So I've not yet met a film score groupie.
If they're out there, then we're keeping ourselves all well hidden from each
Back to the rock and roll connection, and yes there is a connection especially
since so many of the postmodern film composersTyler Bates, Graeme Revell,
even Howard Shore and Hans Zimmerhave pop music backgrounds lurking in
their past. What exactly is the allure that rockers feel toward film composition
and why would they want to make the shift? "Well I didn't want to or ask,"
Elfman says at first a bit enigmatically. "I hadn't even considered it.
It just happened. I am to film music
the best analogy I can come up with
is somebody who is a basketball fan, as if Jack Nicholson, who is a big fan
of the sport, suddenly got thrown the ball and [the coach yells] 'You're in,
go!' I was a huge film fan and film music fan and I was very proud of the fact
that as a young man that I could hear scores and be able to identify who was
Max Steiner and who was Corngold, and was this a Tiomkin score, and could this
be Alex North and usually get it right. So I was deeply into film and film music,
but doing it was something that didn't really cross my mind until Tim asked
me to score Pee Wee's Big Adventure and I thought he was crazy. That
life of growing up on film and film music was my education and I guess that's
how I developed my film music instincts and I learned that I had instincts.
So I really was a fan pulled into the sport."
Still there is a world of difference between the two musical arenas. Boingo
was part of the sweaty, gritty, touring-your-ass-off rock and roll spectrum
of experience, whereas film composition is more of a solitary, lonely existence
fraught with hours upon hours bent over a computer putting notes together that
will enhance a 90-minute + visual endeavor. The intensity levels would seem
to be vastly different from one another, but Elfman would beg to differ, ever-so-slightly.
"I love the intensity of it," he says. "You know, I dedicated
myself for the first seven, eight years
there's no way for me to explain
how hard I worked at learning how to do what I do. I literally gave up having
any semblance of a life for more than seven years, until I settled down a bit.
My first 20 scores, I was working ferociously and I was forcing myself to write
every note down, even though I didn't have to. I was convinced that was the
proper way to do it and that I'd get something out of it. I'm not sorry I did,
but it was hard. It was like slipping into boot camp and having it be boot camp
in the middle of Baghdad.
"The work was so hard; my days were like 15, 16 hours long. And I was
absolutely dedicated in my mind to not become what I call a 'rock composer,'
meaning a composer that basically just writes melodies and depends on other
composers/arrangers to actually turn it into film score. I refused to be that
and that basically tripled my daily work load. Having come from a band I was
so sensitive about that, that I absolutely vowed that that would not become
me. That was always hanging over me like a pitchfork driving me on, not wanting
to be conceived as that, so to speak. It's an intensity that's purely mental.
Honestly, seven hours in front of an orchestra is more exhausting than performing
a grueling, physical three-hour show."
Hard work and the apparent lack of groupies aside, Elfman's main artistic paramour
over the years has been the aforementioned Tim Burton. Their collaborative efforts
have made them a tag team of visual and sonic eccentricity that has managed
to infiltrate and influence not only Hollywood, but the pop cultural zeitgeist
with passion and fervor. Their latest project, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride,
marks the 11th time they have collaborated together. Contrary to what one might
be led to believe, however, the two have not reached a level of intuition that
allows for them to read one another's mind. "No." The answer is clipped
and matter-of-fact, but by no means curt. After a brief pause, Elfman picks
back up on the rift, explaining "People think we have some telepathy, but
it really isn't. There are certain things we know about each other that is comforting.
He knows at the end of the day, even if we're going through a really tough time
trying to figure out 'What is this movie and what kind of music is gonna work?',
that we're gonna get there. And I know with Tim I can try certain kinds of things
that other directors may shoot down and say 'That's ridiculous!' and Tim won't.
So I might be bolder in terms of what I might present. But there's no magic.
Sometimes it goes down easier and sometimes we have to take a real journey together
and it's tough.
"For various reasons, I never really know what to expect. Big Fish
and Charlie [and the Chocolate Factory] were really hard movies
and those were my ninth and 10th movies with him. We really had to go through
a lot of work together to nail it. I worked my ass off on those films, it was
very tough. I was very happy with both of them, but it was very tough. Sometimes
with Tim there's a process of playing a lot of stuff and it's overwhelming and
then breaking it down to certain elements and then making those elements really
clear and expanding them in scenes and then you can understand it and grasp
it and then I can take off from there. But he's got to go on a journey to get
it, too, what I'm doing. Now there are directors out there that I've worked
with who I just write the cue and they practically sign off on it immediately,
they just go 'Brilliant!' Tim is not a pushover. As well as we know each other,
he can be very, very, very specific and tricky and difficult in terms of nailing
down a theme that will get us on the same page together. So it's not as easy
as people think. Although sometimes it is."
Okay, how can cranking out scores back-to-back, as in the case of Charlie
and Corpse Bride be easy? "I did Charlie and Corpse Bride
back-to-back on top of each other and Charlie was a real struggle. I
got way behind. I barely thought I wasn't gonna finish that score. And Corpse
Bride went down just smooth as silk. It just flowed out, every cue I wrote just
'Bang!', you know? And I ended up finishing almost a week ahead of schedule.
It can be kid of random in that sense. I started Corpse Bride going 'Oh my God!
I'm going to die, I'm so exhausted from Charlie.' And it just went down
real easy. There was a point he came in and I played him three or four cues,
he just basically approved them all, and I asked him if he was feeling okay.
'Tim, it's not this easy. What's going on?'" Elfman laughs jovially.
With all of the potential mayhem, sleep deprivation, and trickiness involved,
what is it that continues to motivate Danny Elfman, the thing that causes him
to awaken each afternoon (he's an avowed late night lurker, doing his best work
in the wee hours of the morning while regular 9-to-5 folks are still happily
ensconced in dreamland) refreshed, invigorated, and ready to score? "Really
the thing that motivates me are those momentssometimes they happen more
frequently than other timesthose moments where I'm sitting in front of
the orchestra and I get a cue right, it comes out right. You know, after struggling
with the dynamics and the problems I might be having with it, where it was in
my head and the way the orchestra is playing it and for various reasons its
not quite sounding right, not as I imagined it and then I've got to start changing
stuff very quickly, adding stuff, taking stuff out, and then suddenly it's right
and it's doing something that I maybe have never done before or never done something
quite like it before. Those are the moments that fuel me on. That feeling of
'Oh my God! I actually got it right. That actually came out okay.'" Elfman
laughs as he finishes this thought and it's the resonant, comfortable laugh
of a man who truly does enjoy what he does for a living, groupies or not.