A Master of Movie Music: Composer likes to score both blockbusters, low-budgets

By Tim Clodfelter, JournalNow, NW Carolina, USA
Source: http://www.journalnow.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WSJ/MGArticle/WSJ_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1173351567079&path=rss
Danny Elfman has come to think of writing film scores as something akin to solving a math equation.
"Everything has to fit together - and you don't know how at first," he said. "Then you get one piece and the whole picture becomes clear."
Elfman - who composed the scores of Batman, Spider-Man and many other hit movies - was in town last weekend to speak at the N.C. School of the Arts graduation. But he also took time to talk with an audience at the school after the screening of a documentary on film composers.
Elfman got his start in film composing in 1985, when director Tim Burton asked him to write the music for Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Since then he has worked on nearly all of Burton's films, including Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes. He also provided vocals in three of Burton's movies, performing the lead character's singing voice in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the jazzy skeleton Bonejangles in The Corpse Bride.
His other scores have included such mainstream films as Dick Tracy and Men in Black; such cult favorites as Army of Darkness and Freeway; and TV theme songs for The Simpsons, Desperate Housewives, Tales From the Crypt and more.
When he began composing for films, Elfman studied the elaborate scores of classic movies, including those by his personal favorite, Bernard Herrmann, who was best known for fantasy scores and for Hitchcock thrillers. Elfman also studied ballet music and classical compositions. "I have a fondness for the Russian composers," he said. "There's definitely something that takes me back to the melancholy music of my ancestors."
Elfman said he tends to start with the opening title song and go from there. "I always tackle the biggest pieces first," he said. "I need to feel out the toughest sections first, and know how things are going to go from there."
His work hasn't always been appreciated by the studios. The 1990 score for Edward Scissorhands is now acclaimed, but the studio hated it. They threatened to replace the score altogether, Elfman said, but ultimately decided - based on test screenings - that the movie itself was going to be such a flop it was a lost cause anyhow. The movie, which cost $20 million, went on to earn more than $56 million at the box office and become a hit on home video.
Elfman stays busy - as a composer, he can do three to five movies in one year. Even though there aren't many prominent film composers, it can be a very competitive field. Elfman describes the relationships among modern film composers as "very contentious."
"We're like a lot of aggressive male dogs in a dog park," he said. "There's a lot of grousing about other people's work."
They also don't mingle that much. In his 22 years in Hollywood, he said, he has talked with only about half a dozen other composers, and has never spoken with such prominent fellow composers as James Horner and John Williams. But when he got started in the business, there was a lot of support from the "old guard." When Elfman lost the Oscar for 1989's Batman, he got a cryptic telegram saying "You was robbed - Hank." Asking around, he found out that the telegram had come from Henry Mancini.
Elfman approaches his movie scores with an eye toward the movie in its entirety rather than focusing on a few key scenes. "Some directors forget that it's one movie, not 150 little moments," he said. Digital editing, in which directors can drop a few frames here or there, makes it that much harder to create a cohesive score. "It's a much more challenging business now than it used to be," he said.
As much as he enjoys doing film scores, he finds them frequently to be a struggle.
"There's so much heartache and heartbreak," he said. "You're totally at the whim of the director. There are so many movies that feel like you're in a battlefield."
Elfman is currently working on several projects, including a documentary by filmmaker Errol Morris about Abu Ghraib; a ballet with choreographer Twyla Tharp; and the score for a drama called In Bloom.
Elfman's favorite work tends to be on low-budget movies and eclectic projects. "If you want to do interesting work, you do it where there is no money," he said.
Before his film career, Elfman was the front man of the influential '80s New Wave band Oingo Boingo, which was known for such catchy songs as "Weird Science" and "Dead Man's Party."
His visit to the arts school was prompted by his relationship with Chancellor John Mauceri, who recorded Elfman's concert Serenada Schizophrena in 2005. Elfman also composed an overture for Mauceri's final concerts as the director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra last year.
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