The Open Road: Danny Elfman, on KCRW

Interviewed by Gary Calamar
Audio source:
Radio dialogue transcribed by Bluntinstrument (a real stinker because Elfman is here speaking at top speed in complex, sometimes unending sentences. This may not be an easy read!)
CALAMAR: Danny Elfman is certainly one of today's most innovative and successful creators of movie music, from his early days fronting the L.A. band Oingo Boingo to his work on the films Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, not to mention The Simpsons - Danny Elfman has left his delightful and distinctive mark. The award-winning composer, song writer, has recently completed work on his eleventh film with Tim Burton - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is out now. Danny came by the studios at KCRW and The Open Road recently to talk about where he came from and where he is going.
[Calamar introduces Charlie clip: main title theme]
CALAMAR: Welcome, Danny Elfman to The Open Road on KCRW.
ELFMAN: Thanks for having me.
CALAMAR: My pleasure. My congratulations on the beautiful work on CatF - I thought it was truly magnificent - I saw the movie and I was completely blown away.
ELFMAN: Oh wow. Well.. that's.. caught me off-guard there.
CALAMAR: And the music was certainly a very major part of that.
ELFMAN: [I though you were going to] bring in a very heavy sharp-edged critique-
ELFMAN -ripping me apart there. Wasn't expecting a compliment.
CALAMAR: We're going to work our way up to that. I'm trying to [snip] lure you into submission then hit ya hard.
ELFMAN: Good plan!
CALAMAR: Yes, so, CatF, I guess this is, what, the eleventh collaboration with Tim Burton?
ELFMAN: You know, I've heard that in several interviews this week but I haven't actually printed out a list and counted, so I'm just going to trust that that's the correct number.
CALAMAR: Well that's what your publicist is putting out.
ELFMAN[?]: [Sarcastic] Oh well, they're never wrong!
CALAMAR: Right [laughs]. Well when I think one of the great filmmaker-composer teams/partnerships that have gone on through the history of film - I mean I don't want to embarrass you because I know some of these might be your favourites, but of course Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann comes to mind.
ELFMAN: Well that's the big one.
CALAMAR: But others, well, Steven Spielberg and John Williams.
ELFMAN: That's a big one.
CALAMAR: That's worked very well, they have something new out now. Fellini / Nino Rota.
ELFMAN: That's a big one. Well, two of the three were big inspirations for just even starting, because Bernard Herrmann was my... I would say that I only became a fan of composing because of Bernard Herrmann. It was when I was about eleven, either eleven or twelve, and then became a composer because I was a fan. So I inadvertantly owe it to Herrmann. And then Nino Rota would be like second, right behind, because those two guys have this incredible range, and in the range of what they did are my favourite scores. [snip] Those are the big two, and if I was going to give you ten top scores - which I couldn't do, but if I were - I'm sure at least four or five would have their names next to it [sic.].
CALAMAR: I mean would you say Bernard Herrmann is sort of like the Beatles of film composing? It seems like whenever I'm in a conversation or reading - I've spoken to Elmer Bernstein - and everyone puts him a little bit higher than everybody else.
ELFMAN: Well yeah, that is exactly correct. To me he's the Beatles, because as a kid I grew up on those Harryhausen science fiction great movies in the Sixties, and if I saw two names, it was going to be a better movie - one was Harryhausen, one was Herrmann - those are the two H's. So any time I saw credits coming on, either one of those najmes would get me excited. It was a great era to grow up watching science fiction and fantasy, and the funny thing about it is that one never knew if the movie was just released or not, you know, because they released a double bill at our local theatre every single weekend - two movies, fresh, every weekend.
CALAMAR: Is this in Los Angeles?
ELFMAN: Baldwin Hills, right here in Los Angeles. And so the movie that really caught my attention was The Day the Earth Stood Still. I thought.. this was the first time I noticed film music.
[music clip from Herrmann's score to The Day the Earth Stood Still]
ELFMAN: It really moved me, and I was aware that somebody did that music, it wasn't made by a machine or automatic. There was something there that caught my attention. I didn't learn 'till later that the movie was actually released the year before I was born, so how I saw it in the theatre when I was eleven I don't know - but maybe just in those days .. every ten years or so they put the movies out again.
CALAMAR: [Talking over Elfman] The budget double feature.
ELFMAN: Exactly.
CALAMAR: Well, getting to your collaboration with Tim Burton (I mean), it's just such an amazing pairing. Your sensibilities seem to compliment each other so well.
ELFMAN: It's at the same time very very simple and very very complicated. It's like a true disfunctional family in the best sense of the word. Nothing's ever straight-road or straight-line working with Tim - it's always round-about - and oddly after 20 years and 11 films it hasn't gotten any easier. So everybody thinks after 20 years it must be real easy - you have (like) magic sign language with each other... naw. Nothing magic!
CALAMAR: Has he done many films with other composers?
ELFMAN: Well, we (err... we) had one period when we didn't speak to each other for almost two years.
CALAMAR: Care to elaborate on that?
ELFMAN: Well we joked, always, that we'd end up like Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock.
CALAMAR: I didn't know how their relationship ended. [Blunt comment: Ignoramus!!]
ELFMAN: Oh it ended very badly. Big disagreement on a score - Torn Curtain as a matter of fact - and they never spoke to each other again. And it was a great tragedy for the fans of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock's work, and even though Herrmann, I believe, tried to approach him years later, Hitchcock never forgave him. And (you know) we sometimes would say [mumbles: Bernard Herrmann] and in fact we did. And it was just one of those things. So in hindsight now looking back over 20 years ago, with our personalities, [the] two of us were both hot-blooded, and we're both committed to what we do. Innevitably there had to be an explosion somewhere - there's just no way - the two of us working together over a long period of time. So now it seems, in hindsight, correct, that it had to happen somewhere, it did, and luckily we were able to put back the pieces, and have had no problems since then. So I think it was just over a .. now I can say - cause we just hit the 20 year mark - that it was probably a healthy thing that was unfortunate but needed to happen, and since it did I think if anything things have been a little bit clearer and simpler between us. I'm always aware of like - once you go through something like that you go: I'm never going to let that.. that reeeally sucked, and I'm not going to let that happen again because I know how much it sucked. And you can only know that by having experienced something like that.
CALAMAR: Well, certainly to our benefit as well, you guys have patched things up. Now he has said that he was not a huge fan of the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie.
ELFMAN: [Not?] a popular thing to say...
CALAMAR: Yeah, he said he was a big fan of the book or course [but] he was not a big fan of the film, the '71 film. Were you a fan of it? I assume you've seen it back in the day?
ELFMAN: Err, I saw it somewhere down the line. I didn't see it as a kid - what year was it out?
CALAMAR: I believe it was '71.
ELFMAN: Yeah, you see, in '71 I had no interest in anything like that. In '71, that was my year of going everynight - if I wasn't waiting a table - ... Between '71 and '72 I was in Africa; I got back, and for the next 8 years I was waiting tables [while we were] rehearsing at a theatre group performing on the streets, and any night I wasn't working I was at The Fox, Venice with the [Newart?] here in Los Angeles - the [Newart?] is still there, the Fox Venice isn't anymore - and they would play two different movies every night of the week, so I was soaking up all the early Hitchcock that I'd missed as a kid, 'cause I couldn't see Hitchcock's movies when I was a kid. My mum wouldn't let me.. (you know) I missed Psycho and was very upset.. and then [Kinosawa?] and Polanski and Truffeau and Mareau Bava and (you know) that wonderful sense of mixing it all up. And so that was that decade of my life - I was so uninterested in (like) a kids movie. So I must have seen it later, 'cause I did see it, but it didn't leave any impression on me at all. It was just (like) alright, a kids' movie, so I didn't really look at it until I got this job to do Charlie, and I went and I watched it to see what the original was, and I remember Gene Wilder, that was a standout performance, I kindof remember his part, and I remember the Oompa-Loompa song.. and I couldn't remember anything else. Then there were all these broadway songs, and.. [finds words].. I don't wanna put anybody down, [but] I'm not a fan of broadway. I took a lot of heat when I did Nightmare Before Christmas because there was a very intentional decision to not do anything that sounded like comtemporary broadway. I haven't liked anything on broadway that's come out in the last quarter century. So far as I'm concerned (you know) everything after West Side Story doesn't hold my attention. I'm not saying there's not good stuff, but it just doesn't interest me. My musical influences go way back to Kurt Weill, Gilbert & Sullivan, and with my kids growing up, early Rogers & Hammerstein and Rogers & Heart, which I came to really like - I used to start listening to Oklahoma! [and] stuff like that, which I never really knew. They did some great songs, and tonnes of 'em! So Willy Wonka had that kind of effect because it felt so much like a Broadway thing and I was so (kind of) not into Broadway - with the exception of the Oompa-Loompa tune.
[Sound clip of original Oompa-Loompa song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory]
CALAMAR: We are here with Danny Elfman on "The Open Road". You had mentioned the original Oompa-Loompa songs - song, I should say - and then there's obviously some new songs in this new movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and this was (sort of) a slightly different approach from (you know) your normal score that you write for the film. These roles (sort of) based on other genres of music and maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you and, I assume, Tim [mumbles about influence].. how these songs came about. And I believe they are featureing your own vocals.
ELFMAN: Yeah [mumbles], I didn't know how to approach it. I was (like) we're going to have these songs, we're not using the original stuff, we don't want to sound like Broadway. What are we going to do? Well, Tim's first impulse was Bollywood, and that had an immediate "yes" for me, 'cause we're both fans of Bollywood musicals. I'm actually a fan of Bollywood musicals because of Tim, and it was at a birthday party of his, years ago, where he had two indian dancers lipsinking to these Bollywood numbers, and there was one piece of music that came on that caught my attention so strongly that within six months I was on a plane for Bombay - with these two dancers. [Laughs] and went all round India, but also got to sit in on some sessions there: I always wanted to see how they were recorded, what the sessions looked like, and, um, so...
CALAMAR: Bollywood films are generally huge productions...
ELFMAN: Huge productions, and every film has (like) a half a dozen or more songs. And so I began working on what became Augustus Gloop, inspired by the feel of a Bollywood (kindof) extravaganza. So... and I came up with some motifs, and I thought, okay, there's a kind of Oompa-Loompa thing and a little bit of a chant getting in and out of it so that's something I could use, and originally I thought, perhaps now they'll all be variations on that same theme. And now, having worked quite a bit of time on figuring out not only how to do the thing and Augustus Gloop, the first song, but how they should sound and recording the vocals because I did it all at home, and just kindof improvised these things and played the parts and just laid down a whole bunch of vocals and the process of laying them down I experiemented with (okay) pitching up a few.. if I pitch too many it's the Munchkins (okay), so I wanna (like) record every harmony... I came up with a formula for recording every part in groups of six, six of every voice, and out of those six I would take two of 'em and I would change the fromix[?], which is kindof a Munchkinizing process, and then two of them and shift them just a little, and then leave the other voices untouched. [19'00"] And so I (kind of) developed a formula of what became the Oompa-Loompa singing, although that would vary song-by-song. But I also was able to sell to Tim with Augustus Gloop that, amongst the Oompa Loompa's, who are all identical-looking ('cause they're all played by the same actor, Deep Roy), some would have high voices and some would have low - we'd have tenors and baritones, because it just made it more fun.
[Music clip from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "Augustus Gloop"]

ELFMAN:Ah, that's when Tim came in and said, no, now for the next song we're going to do Verruca: whole different direction! And again his basic impulses are all coming from Bollywood (because) but now we're not doing a Bollywood style of song but it's like.. you know how in some of these musicals you never know where each song's coming from somewhere else. [sic.]. This one sounds like it could be Beach Boys, this one ('s like a) sounds like it could be Abba, this one sounds like it could be a 70's ballad or something.. um, alright! - and I warned him: I said this is really risky, 'cause if we do a different style for each song, there's not going to be that one get-in-your-head memorable theme like (you know) in the original, and that's the law of musicals. [As Burton:] I don't care, I don't care, we'll do it - they'll be unified by the sound of the voices. And once again I was (like), alright, let's go, so we'd talk about it and he had this (kind of) concept of .. oh, his first things was (like) Mamas and the Papas meets Abba, and I'm (like), well why don't we have Mamas and the Papas meets Abba meets The Birds meets The Association! And hence Verruca starts.
[Music clip from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "Verruca Salt"]
ELFMAN: [25'10"] So now I'm starting to really have fun. Because now I'm not only going in these different directions - I'm improvising each song not knowing what the next section's going to be and recording all these voices - but I'm starting to hear myelf singing in all these weird tones, like these voices that I never get to sing (and like)... There was a point in Verruca where I started busting up: I couldn't finish the song 'cause I was listening back to this verse I just sang and I'd go "oh my god, I'm The Association!", and I'm singing in the voice, just the sound, I'm taking on this quality of Cherish or one of those Association songs which I hadn't listened to since.. I must have been ten or something. And I downloaded (quickly) some tunes from iTunes and [said] "yeah, that's what it is" - how weird is that? And it was really funny because I'm doing all this in my basement with a hand-held mic and I'm not expecting anything to stay - they're just demos for Tim to listen to, and then I started flying back and forth from London and working with him and he was much more involved with these songs than he normally would be. On Nightmare and on the songs for The Corpse Bride that I'd just finished also for him, he tells me the story, the idea, and I go off, write the song, come back and play it for him and he'll give me his notes and thoughts.. And here he really wanted to get into the middle of it, so it was really like we were just goofing off and having fun, and every so often I'd go "Are you suure? You want to go for this? Alright! If you're game I'm game, but we're going to catch a lot of s**t [beeped out] I promise you (people) we're going to get crucified - but I'm game. I'm having so much fun." [And then] there were points where, on Mike Tee-Vee once again I'm suddenly, I don't know, am I the Beach Boys or am I the Beatles/Abbey Road doing the Beach Boys, I can't even tell right now, but wife would come down. She'd hear me singing through this grill between my basement and the living room upstairs you could hear a little bit and I think she was getting a little worried here and there 'cause she could hear me doing falsetto voices.. chanting, so at one moment I'm doing everything in 6 and 8 groups so you'd hear me maybe for an hour just going [low vocals growling] and then suddenly I'm going [high voice we-oh-we-oh-we] and I think she was (like) really starting to go "Alright, you know, he's losing it-
CALAMAR: He's flipped.
ELFMAN: -he's flipped."
[Music clip from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "Mike Tee-Vee"]
ELFMAN: And then the fourth song, finally, okay, we did 60's kindof psychedelia acoustic, we did the Bollywood pop extravaganza, and we did the Mike Tee-Vee.. we knew.. he said right off the bat.. Mike Tee-Vee's gotta be (like) the rock thing, Queen meets God-knows-what.. but, um great.. rock opera. The fourth one we didn't have a style so it was (like we were).. country and western? Nononono, we're not doing country-western. Surf... hmm maybe surf lounge, toyed with and then I said no-no, [slowly for effect:] 70s blaxploitation.
[Music clip from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "Violet Beauregarde"]
CALAMAR: We're here on The Open Road - I'm here with Danny Elfman, talking about CatF and many other of his illustrious scores. Why don't we go back to the beginning? I guess was it.. it was Tim was the first.. well.. tell em about that. I know you worked with your brother at some point and I guess the Tim Burton collaboration came along a little bit later.
ELFMAN: Yeah. When I was still with the Mystic Knights, the theatrical troupe-
CALAMAR: The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
ELFMAN: -it gets confusing because Oingo Boingo then became a rock band in the '80s.. up until 1980, '79 I guess, it was a musical cabaret.. thing. So I call them the Mystic Knights to differentiate 'cause it's really confusing: 12 people, each of them played 3 instruments - it was not a rock band, there was nothing contemporary in it at all. And my brother who founded the Mystic Knights, he went off to do a film called Forbidden Zone, and so I did that score with the Mystic Knights in the sense that it was the twelve of us playing it, and it was synchronized to film but it wasn't like i was writing out a film score. But it was the first time putting music to film nonetheless.
CALAMAR: And this was something you hadn't really been trained for as far as putting music to film or..
ELFMAN: No, on that one in particular I was just winging it and.. you know, I was just coming up with tunes and moreorless making them fit. And there were a couple of songs, so doing the songs was easy, 'cause that's what I did for the Mystic Knights all the time, so it was just like doing a Mystic Knights kindof thing and putting it in the film. One was a Cab Calloway thindof a thing, and we did early Cab Calloway/Duke Ellington tracks and Jango Rhinehart in the Mystic Knights. That was kindof my roots - playing, transcribing that stuff - and that's where I learned to write, was doing those old transcriptions.
CALAMAR: [interrupting] It's funny how some people gravitate to music that's well before their time, and most people just listen to what's on the radio and pop music and TV and things like that, but people like yourself, and me to a certain degree, and a lot of other music lovers, just really sortof gravitate to some sort of different era.
ELFMAN: Yeah, once you (kinda) open up... I look at music and musical eras like food (you know). You grow up on hamburgers and hotdogs and whatever it is you're used to and pizza and whatever you're around, and at a certain age, if you're lucky, all of a sudden you realise there is tonnes of things.. and if you have the right attitude about it, they're all really good. And suddenly (you know) you want Thai food and you want Indian food, you want Spanish food, you want French food, and you know some people never can do that. Other people, some when they're teenage or young adult, something flips in their head and you decide something's good unless proven wrong as opposed to the other way round, and it's the same with music. Once you (kindof) realise that - ohmygod I've grown up on the pop music I've been hearing but there's music from the last century that's really good. There's stuff all over the place, and all over the world! And once you make that leap, then you become hungry and you find things and so (you know, um) I found myself hooked on 30's jazz, gypsy music, Bela Bartok, Prokofiev.. the same year I was in High School (I think my first year in High School), so I got to write all these different styles and all the stuff, so in my brother's film I did a little of this and a little of that, but wasn't really synchronizing it in the way that you would legitimately, but it still was an experience. And then.. nothing happened, nobody called me! I didn't get any jobs, but I started a band and I forgot all about that stuff, I forgot all about writing music, I forgot about putting notes on paper. I just started thinking about (you know) being on stage and energy and being in a "ska band" and having fun and sweating and all that kinda joy. And then, five years later, I get a call from this kid, Tim Burton, and Paul Rubens, who was Pee-Wee Herman. And i had seen Paul in LA in a troupe called The Groundlings and I saw him do his first incarnation of Pee-Wee Herman as a character in The Groundlings, and I thought he was amazing, I thought he was brilliant. He did half a dozen other characters too - that was (like) one of his characters.. and so I went to meet them (kindof) skeptically, like, why are you needing me? They said "well, we both are aware of your music" - Tim was aware of Oingo Boingo and Paul was a fan of Forbidden Zone. And so my name came up and they were kind of like trying to find who should do the movie.. and I just like.. let's take a meeting with him. And the first day I said "why me?". And..[mumbles].. "you know, we think you can do this maybe". I go "I don't think so, I don't think I can". But (you know) I saw the movie and it was fun and I got a feel for it. I went home and I wrote a demo. I spent a day. I did a demo of a piece that stuck in my head on the way home and I sent it out to them and never expected to hear anything. It was a week or two later and I get a call. I got the job.
ELFMAN: My first reaction is "tell 'em no".
CALAMAR: [Laughs]
ELFMAN: My manager [said] "why"? I said, "'cause I.. they're really nice guys and it's a good film, and I don't want to be responsible for f***ing [beep inserted to programme] up their film and that's what I'm going to do. If they hire me (you know) it's just there's no way I'm going to pull it off. They have too much faith in me and I'm not equiped for this." And he said "Then you call and tell them - I've been working on this for two weeks. And they just said yes. And I'm not going to tell them that." So I thought on it long and hard that night, and I finally decided: what have I got to lose? They want to take the risk. If I wreck their film it's on their shoulders.
CALAMAR: You've warned them.
ELFMAN: I've warned them. They went in warned. And that little demo became the main titles to.. the movie.
[Music clip from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure: "Main titles"]
ELFMAN: And that movie was an incredible eduction, 'cause now I'm writing for orchestra - I had to remember how to write again because it had been four or five years since I'd put a note down. And I'd had no formal training even when I was writing for the Mystic Knights - I taught myself to write, so it's not like I was fluent. And I just had to pick it up and start blazing through the staves. It's like, "Alright, take a deep breath. It all starts with middle-C, right here. And just go from there." and (um) I learned how to time scenes. And because it was a comedy and I was catching all the action.. it was this wonderful eduction, 'cause by the time I was done with Pee-Wee I knew that I could hit anything anywhere in film any time. I learned that I could do it real easily. I had a knack for finding the rhythm of a scene, and catching whatever I wanted to catch. And then once I started figuring that out it was like, "This is really fun! I like doing this." And that kindof kicked off my whole career. Fortunately it was just one of those weird things. Lucky, because (you know) talent only goes so far, and that's a fact, and you still have to have a lucky break and be at the right place at the right time. It doesn't matter how much talent you got, if you're not at the right place at the right time, you don't get a lucky break, and any success story you hear, someone's going to just go, "There's a lucky break." And mine was being at that exact moment, and electing to do that kind of a score that wasn't like other contemporary comedies.
CALAMAR: Well, certainly an inspired combination of you and Tim Burton and Paul Reubins, plus all of you guys just sort of starting out (I guess) at that time - I know obviously you'd done a lot of things, but your first orchestral film score...
ELFMAN: It was my first feature film, my first orchestral score...
CALAMAR: Was that Tim's first film?
ELFMAN: Tim's first feature film. He'd done these two brilliant short films, and Pee-Wee was his first time.. So really.. You knwo what's really weird: all of us, without knowing it, I think, crossed paths in Cal Arts years earlier.
CALAMAR: We are here talking with Danny Elfman about his film scores. He was a rock star, film composer, Grammy winner. he is all of those things and more, I assume. You mentioned the main title that you did for Pee-Wee was as you did a demo. In general, what are you trying to do when you put main title theme together?
ELFMAN: Well I didn't realise it then but really what I'm trying to do depends on the film (but). Very often I'll put a tonne of work into the main title because I want the main title to give us the tone of the movie that we're about to see, and sometimes that tone that I'm trying to bring us into may not even happen for another half an hour or forty-five minutes, maybe not until halfway into the film, but that's a lesson I learned very early on. It was on Beetlejuice actually. Here was a title sequence that was flying over a miniature city and I believe in their temp score they had kindof of a.. music that sounded like flying music, and I think that was what everybody was expecting me to do, but I knew that Beetlejuice didn't enter the screen for a long time, a while - the beginning of the movie's very deceptive, and then suddenly Beetlejuice appears and it's a different movie - and I felt that regardless of what I was seeing in the titles, I wanted to take the audience for a ride that was going to tell them, "It may take a few minutes, it may take a while, but THIS is going to happen to you, this is what you're in for, this is the rollercoaster.
CALAMAR: Let's listen to the main titles from Beetlejuice.
[Music clip from Beetlejuice: "Main titles"]
CALAMAR: We're here with Danny Elfman. That was music from the Beetlejuice soundtrack - the main title theme. Batman. You won a Grammy for this score, and I guess a lot of the notes on that.. that was a very Wagnerian score.
ELFMAN: If it was Wagnerian, which I've been told), I never listened to Wagner but I did listen to a lot of Korngold and Waxman, and I'm told that they were very influenced by Wagner...
CALAMAR: Gotcha.
ELFMAN: So I have a lot of classical influences but not necessarily from the composer but from the film composer who was inspired by that composer.
[Music clip from Batman: "Main titles"]
CALAMAR: We're here talking with Danny Elfman. We talked a lot about these Tim Burton films - obviously Tim Burton is not the only director I feel that you've worked with. How do you pick projects? I mean obviously there are certain directors that you've worked with and will continue to work with, but.. you have any kindof criteria that you use, or is it that you're moved by the script, or usually get in at the script level?
ELFMAN: It depends. It all.. they're all different. Sometimes there'll be a script and I go "Well, this has the potential. (You know) I don't know, I don't know this director, his work that well, but I'll take a chance." You're always throwing dice, being an actor or a composer, you're signing on early. Sometimes I'm seeing a finished film: sometimes I get a call and the movie's done, and I can actually see it and make a decision, but rarely. And sometimes it's a director: I'll see a movie and I'll call my agent and I'll go, "This guy.. okay I just saw a movie called Evil Dead.. Sam Raimi.. just seen some movie called Heavenly Creatures.. Peter Jackson.. If they call, it's an automatic "yes". I just saw a movie called Drugstore Cowboy - if Gus Van Sant calls, it's an automatic..". So there's an automatic "yes" list based on these really unusual standout films. And so no matter what it is.. and then I ended up working with each of them. But I didn't care what the movie was. It was just (like) based on what they had done I was willing to throw the dice with them. And you never know - sometimes movies come out great and sometimes they come out terrible. And people sometimes come up to me afterwards, say, "What got you to do that film?!" And I'll always tell them the same thing: "Nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie."
CALAMAR: [Laughs]. Let me write that down.
ELFMAN: Yup, there's always some point early on [when] there's a lot of people hoping.. you've gotta get this blind optimism. My wife's an actress and she's had the exact same experience [as] me. She's done a lot of films - some of them came out good, some of them came out really bad, and you just go in with this hope that all these different elements are gonna pull together, almost by magic. Because it's not just the script, it's not just the director, it's not just the director of photography, it's not just the actor and the chemistry and the chemistry between all these parties, and a studio letting something go without chopping it up and putting it out as a different film altogether, the budget imploding halfway through. There's a million things that can trip up a film and keep them from becoming what you were hoping they would, and anytime a movie gets made and comes out [just how you] thought it was gonna happen, it's a small miracle. So you go into these things going, "I'm gonna throw the dice and hope that it comes out like I hope it will."
CALAMAR: M-hm. Well, switching over to the small screen - another very inspired pairing - Danny Elfman and Bart Simpson.
ELFMAN: That was a fluke! I mean, that was (like, etc.) another really amazing coincidence. I didn't think anybody would ever see The Simpsons. I did it for no money - I mean I got some minimum payment, but it wasn't anything really - and it was just for fun. I met Matt, and we talked, and he showed me the pencil sketches, and it was just like a pencil animation of the opening sequence, and it looked reallt retro. And I said, "If you want something retro, I'm the guy. If you want something... I hate contemporary television themes (you know). They all sound like bad adult contemporary pop tunes without vocals, or sometimes with vocals, but they're always just off to me." And he says, "Oh, no no no. I want something retro." "What I hear," I said, "is something that sounds like (you know) Hanna Barbera that was never used - it was like a Hanna Barbera piece that didn't exist, but right from then." And, err, "Great, great." I wrote it in a day. I recorded it in a day. And it's followed me [laughs as he talks] .. I mean if I died right now, that's probably what they'd put on my tombstone.
[Music clip from The Simpsons: "Main titles"]
ELFMAN: So, it was kind of like this weird thing, the "who would ever guess". I didn't think it would make it through its first season, it was so weird. And (er, you know) you do a TV thing like that [and] you think "It's fun, I'm just doing it because it's fun."
CALAMAR: Um, were talking here with Danny Elfman on The Open Road, 88.9 KCRW. Now you started out in a, as you mention, a rock band, Oingo Boingo.
ELFMAN: Theatre, I started out in the theatre.
CALAMAR: Oh right. [Where were you this last half hour?!]
ELFMAN: Theatrical, musical theatrical ensemble.
CALAMAR: Well, I'm trying to get to the Oingo Boingo part of what I was going to say.
ELFMAN: And then Oingo Boingo - that was my second career.
CALAMAR: Gotcha, gotcha. So [incoherent mumble] is the band still together? I know you were doing Halloween shows..
ELFMAN: No, '95., That was the year.. Halloween '95 was our last show.
CALAMAR: Do you look back on those days fondly of playing the starward, with all of the voodoo and axe and the plimpsoles and doing the sort of L.A. (you know) local music scene. I know you obviously were bigger than that, but.. an especially big year...
ELFMAN: No-no, that was a large chunk of our coming out in L.A. was playing not particularly the starward, but we played the Whisky, and the Roxy and Madame Wong's, and the Country Club, and Perkin's Palace and Pasadena, and we played every other weekend. And we'd rotate the same clubs - it was really funny because we go into the club that the Voddo had been in before and the Go-Goes would now play where we'd just been playing, and Fear Oingo Boingo, X, The Go-Gos, Wall of Voodoo, Los Lobos, a couple [of] others, it seems like were just constantly (like) rotating around. But in particular it seemed like constantly switching stages with Wall of Voodoo, Fear, X, The Go-Goes. And it was interesting for the L.A. music scene taht all of us would be doing that because we have so little in common musically. It's not like we all represented any kind of movement at all, but we were the bands that were dominating the stages, and it was really fun. I miss those days (you know) - I have days that I miss and days that I dont miss, but the days that I miss the most were The Whiskey. Going between The Whiskey and Rocksey and all these clubs and (um) really hot and real sweaty and close up to the audience... and, yeah, that part of it kinda s...
[Music clip by Oingo Boingo: "Only a lad" (edited)]
CALAMAR: We're here with Danny Elfman. What's next? I'm sure you got a few projects lined up. I know you've got the other Tim Burton stop-action film coming out.
ELFMAN: I leave in three days...
CALAMAR: Oh really?
ELFMAN: record that. I just finished this.. hours ago. I just sent out the last cue (like) three hours ago, before showing up here.
CALAMAR: But that film's not coming out 'til later in the year, is it?
ELFMAN: No, it's not coming out 'til later in the year, but I just finished The Corpse Bride and I go on to do Charlotte's Web, and then i go on to do a Disney animated feature called A Day in the Life of Wilbur Robinson, so it's very weird - for two years all I'll have done is animated and/or children's or classic children's novels. It's all coincidental. And how weird is it that I would do two movies in a row with a talking spider?
CALAMAR: Very strange.
ELFMAN: .. Because there's a talking spider in Corpse Bride who does a song - who I recorded with Jane Horrocks, does the voice of the Spider in The Corpse Bride, a black widow who sings to Helena Bonham Carter - and of course Charlotte's Web.
CALAMAR: Charlotte, I understand, is a spider.
ELFMAN: Charlotte is a spider, and... just the chance, the thought of doing two movies back-to-back by coincidence with talking spiders... I mean, that's pretty strange. And it's also great that I'm doing two great children's (I mean) novels; (you know) Charlotte's Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are two really good books which I really enjoyed both of quite a bit, so I feel like it's an honour. I hope Charlotte's Web comes out as good to its book as I feel Charlie did, even though they added - they had to add a certain amount of stuff to Charlie - and everybody was up in arms about that - but otherwise it would be a very short movie. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a short book.
CALAMAR: M-hm. A little bit of a back-story.
ELFMAN: Yeah. So. But I think they were still very true to the tone and the feel, and so I hope Charlotte's Web does the same, and I can have my son at some point going [groaning noises] you're movie's on television again.
CALAMAR: Well, Danny Elfman, you've had a strange and amazing career and deservedly so. I appreciate you coming down here so much - I'm a huge fan myself. And my continued good luck to you, and ...
ELFMAN: Thank you.
CALAMAR: ... thanks again for coming down.
ELFMAN: I really enjoyed it.
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