"Onetime street musician sets the tone for Hollywood "
Subtitle: Toronto - Movies are like music to musician-composer
Danny Elfman's ears.
by Duane Dudek (Journal Sentinel film critic)
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2005.10.05
"My education in film music came from watching tons of films," said
Elfman, whose works range from the themes to TV shows like The Simpsons
and Desperate Housewives to the elaborate scores for Tim Burton's
Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also directed
Elfman, a Los Angeles native, has been the de facto house composer
for Burton since 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which was the first
real film for each.
"I had done a late-night cult movie with my brother (director
Richard Elfman) called Forbidden Zone, and Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee
Herman) was a fan of that. And Tim used to see the band," Danny Elfman
said, referring to Oingo Boingo, the late 1970s and '80s pop act known for its
conceptual performances, and of which Elfman was a founder. "And my name
came up between them. I wrote a theme, did a demo and sent it off to them. Two
weeks later, I got a call saying I'd been hired.
"That little demo I wrote became the main title of the motion picture,
and that started everything."
Besides working with Burton on two Batman films, Sleepy
Hollow,Big Fish and Mars Attacks! Elfman has scored dozens
of films, including Hulk, Spider-Man, Men in Black, Chicago
and Good Will Hunting.
Last month, he won an Emmy for his music for the main title sequence
for Desperate Housewives.
And it all happened by accident.
"I was the non-musician among my friends in high school" and never
took a music lesson, said Elfman during an interview at the Toronto International
Film Festival. But he picked up a violin and had been playing for about four
months when his older brother recruited him to join an avant-garde theatrical
"It was a ragtag street ensemble," Danny Elfman recalled. "Literally,
we'd pass the hat. I learned how to breathe fire. I learned to play the trombone.
I was a street musician for years."
Later, he became the troupe's musical director.
While this presented practical experience, his real musical education began
While other kids were listening to pop music, he "became obsessed"
with Igor Stravinsky and Miles Davis. At one point, Elfman said, "I wouldn't
listen to music that was recorded after 1935."
He also became infatuated with what he called the "secondhand classical
music" being recycled through film scores.
Local repertory theaters would play two movies every night of
the week and, as a result, Elfman said, "I saw hundreds and hundreds of
movies. And I listened. I got to the point where I could recognize, 'That's
a Max Steiner (Casablanca) score, that's (Dimitri) Tiomkin (High Noon),
Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard), that's (Jerry) Goldsmith. (Chinatown).'
I've loved Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) since I was 12.
"People ask me if my musical influences are Wagner or Mahler and I go,
'No, Goldsmith.' And that's how I became a composer. I was a fan who got pulled
into the race."
Some movie buffs seek out directors; Elfman kept his eyes open for work by
his favorite motion picture composers.
"I noticed Bernard Herrmann's name on The Day the Earth
Stood Still. And from that day on, when I saw his name, I knew something
special was going on. I was in tune enough to know that someone wrote the music
and if it was this person it was going to be a special movie."
If Elfman's most fortuitous professional relationship is with Burton, it also
can be his most demanding.
Typically, Elfman will be asked to look at a rough cut of a nearly assembled
film before composing the score.
"I try to keep myself as blank and as unprepared as possible until that
moment," Elfman said. "I have to get my head into his head because
it's not strictly about my own tastes and instincts. It's a collaboration."
But since the live-action Charlie and the stop-action-animated
Corpse Bride both contain elaborate musical sequences, the songs had
to be finished long before filming began. Plus, both movies began production
the same day.
"It was very schizophrenic," Elfman said of the process.
In the case of Corpse Bride, he had to compose a piano
theme so that a character's fingers could be animated playing it, and later
this became "the theme that carries the movie."
Other songs in the film contain crucial bits of narrative information, meaning
Elfman was formulating plot points before the screenplay was written.
Yet, he said, of all the "laborious projects I've done,
slaving away in a single room, 16 hours a day for three months for things that
have come and gone," Elfman's most enduring work may be something he spent
a single day on: the theme for The Simpsons.
"There's some weird poetic justice there," he said. "It was
And because at the time the Fox network was not in as many markets as other
networks, his compensation for the song is 10% of what it regularly would be.
"It was a very sweet deal," Elfman lamented. "But
not for us. For them."