Interview with Danny Elfman
I was honored to speak with one of my favorite film music composers,
Danny Elfman, via telephone as he promoted the Sony Classical soundtrack release
of his score for Tim Burton's re-imagining of Planet of the Apes. Burton
asked Elfman for a melodic score with strong themes, and Elfman added a powerful
percussive edge to the sound. In addition to using a full orchestra, Elfman
laid down seventy-six percussion tracks, using his own eclectic collection of
percussion instruments from around the world.
Following is a transcript of our fifteen minute-long conversation. A portion
of the interview will be featured during a Filmscapes program focusing on recently
released film music. It's scheduled to air during the week of September sixteenth
through the twenty-second.
BARBARA HENDRICKSON: First I'd like to clarify something.
There's conflicting information on the internet regarding your place of birth.
Some sites list it as Amarillo, Texas, while others claim it's Los Angeles.
Could you set the record straight?
DANNY ELFMAN: [laughs] I was born in Los Angeles, but
I like the Amarillo story much better. I think where that came from is, you
know, doing albums for three different labels over fifteen, sixteen years, you
end up having to do a bio every year, and it just gets more and more boring.
By the time you've done like five or ten bios of your life, you just start making
up stuff, and for some reason, one out of fifteen or sixteen bios had that particular
crazy lie, because I lied about tons of stuff. After ten years it was all lies.
That one stuck and that's what's so funny. I mean it was something I just randomly
threw out to somebody one year: born in Amarillo, Texas, the son of a retired
Air Force colonel, traveled all around the countrywell, it was just a
joke. And because I was bored. The fact is, I was born in Los Angeles and my
parents were schoolteachers, and that's a lot less interesting.
BH: You've said that you can only write about two minutes
worth of music a day. How long did you spend writing the Planet of the Apes
DE: Well, I had about eight weeks which is not terrible,
.for a ninety-minute score it isn't luxurious, either. You know music,
like animation, you can only do so much per day and you know a ninety-minute
score is twice as much time as a 45 minute score, so the longer the score the
less time you get to experiment, and the more time you have to spend just nuts
and bolts writing it all down. But I knew this would be a tight schedule and
I've been on certainly other tight schedules, so I just had to be really really
disciplined on this one, and we all knew that none of us would be getting any
sleep the last three or four weeks of the movie, which pretty much came to fruition.
BH: Have you always personally handled most of the percussion
elements of your scores?
DE: Oh my god, I've been collecting percussion since I was eighteen. I've got
a huge collection of stuff. I traveled in West Africa when I was eighteen for
a year and I began sending back instruments. In my twenties I began building
percussion instruments and I built three ensembles for this musical theatrical
troupe that I played with in those years, so everything from kind of a homemade
gamelin, Indonesian orchestra
we built an entire ensemble of West African
baliphones, which is like xylophones
figured out a way, because they're
made with gourds, to build them with fiberglasshuge, bass baliphones,
and even a kitchen orchestra which had tuned pots and pans, miners' pans, measuring
cups, and even a thing called a Schlitzceleste, which was tuned overturned beer
cans. There was a point in my life where I thought that I might strive to become
a modern-day Harry Parch, who was a very eccentric percussion composer many
years ago who built his own instruments and had to devise ways to write for
his microtonal music. So, percussion has always been my first love, and when
I get to use it, I do, and in fact, the synthesizers and percussion in all my
scores is pretty much my personal contribution. So I'm used to doing this, but
usually it might be twenty percent of a particular score might be my own percussion
sounds. In a score like Planet of the Apes it was almost with the orchestra
BH: So you've performed a lot of the percussion elements
on your scores yourself, going all the way back to your first score for Pee-Wee's
DE: Pee-Wee Herman, we didn't really use anyit was
all orchestral, believe it or not. There were a few synthesizers and things
like that. I'm not sure at what point I started laying down my own percussion
tracks, but it was somewhere in those first few years, where, because I had
all the stuff, and I thought oh, that would be fun to use that or this or something
else, and then I just started using it more and more.
BH: Did the time you spent travelling in Africa have any
influence on the tribal-sounding rhythms that are prevalent in the Planet
of the Apes score?
DE: Well, I think it was a huge influence on me. It's
where I was actually influenced to want to be a musician, was when I was in
Africa. But the kind of driving, percussive elements in Planet I don't think
was directly influenced by any particular African music, but that type of hard-driving
percussion is just something that has always been a part of me. And clearly,
the roots go back toI mean, my roots are so scattered, but part of them
certainly go back to that year in Mali, in West Africa.
BH: I've heard that you came down with malaria while you
were there. Was that a pretty bad experience?
DE: Oh, no, malaria was nothing. Through those travels,
I had malaria three times. That was like
we looked at malaria like we
do the flu. I got much worse things than malaria. The thing that almost killed
me, I don't even know what it was, but my life was saved by a German doctor
who was traveling through the village in either Senegal or Gambia, actually,
in West Africa, and luckily he had a lot of penicillin with him and gave me
a huge dose and saved me, because I was failing from something, which I'll never
know what it is. At the end of the trip, when I crossed through central Africa
to Uganda, and by the time I got to Kenya I realized that I did have hepatitis,
and I think that kind of
I knew it for a month or two, and I think it kept
me moving quickly through central Africa, where I really didn't want to collapse,
because it's pretty rough. By the time I found out I had hepatitis, I was already
in Nairobi, and they had hospitals. Where I was in Mali and West Africa, a hospital
was really like a place to go to die, it wasn't a place you go to get better.
BH: I've read that you listened to Bernard Herrmann's
score for The Day the Earth Stood Still when you were writing the score
for Mars Attacks. Did listening to Jerry Goldsmith's score for the 1968
version of Planet of the Apes give you inspiration, or is Burton's re-imagining
of the film so different that Goldsmith's techniques were irrelevant?
DE: No. [laughs] No, that's wrong. I've often used The
Day the Earth Stood Still as the first score I ever noticed, so that was
like a key moment for me, because I was a kid, and it must have been a re-release
of the movie, because it actually came out the year I was born. I couldn't have
seen it at two months old. But I remember seeing it at about eleven, and noticing
for the first time film music
ten or eleven years old, and the name that
went with it, which is Bernard Herrmann. So, it was a real important moment,
because at that point on, I kept noticing his name in all my favorite films,
and I was aware of an individual as a creator of music in a film, as opposed
to something that just appeared magically. But, I wasn't really listening to
it at any point in recent history for anything specific. Yeah, I mean, I listened
to it [Goldsmith's score] and watched the movie because I hadn't seen it since
it came out. When I was actually on my way back from having met with Tim about
the movie, I really just wanted to know if there was anything I should avoid,
more than anything else, and I was relieved when I saw the movie that the score
was so ethereal and otherworldly and dissonant, and it was such a wonderful,
unique score. But I was relieved that it was miles awayI think I would
have been more concerned, had Jerry written one of his wonderful, big orchestral,
propulsive high-energy scores, which you know he's so brilliant at. There would
probably have been more crossover and I might have been looking for things to
not step into, that would have been creating too much of a similarity. But,
fortunately for me, this was a very very unique and different type of score
that he wrote for the original, which meant that I just didn't have to worry
about a thing, because I knew that I was going to write a big, blustery scoreyou
know, it was going to be a humongous thing. I didn't know if it was going to
be seventy-five, eighty, or ninety minutes, but I knew it was going to be big,
long, and very very aggressive and percussive, just based on the film that I
had just seen. And in many ways, a much more traditional, old-fashioned score
than the score he wrote thirty-plus years ago.
BH: You've said that when you start to work on a score,
you meet with the director to discuss ideas and develop themes. Did you watch
any of the filming before you started to form concrete ideas for the score?
DE: Well, he always has me down to the set at least once.
I usually come down somewhere along the middle, and kind of just sit it and
watch a little bit for the fun of it, just to get a feel for the vibe, but I
dont really start seriously until he's got a rough cut, which means, you
know, an assembly of the movie even though it's not quite finished, but it's
enough to get the tone, because it's only seeing it on the screen that will
give me the feel, the tone, of what it is. The script never really tells me
that, and even sitting on the set and seeing one scene shot over and over won't
tell me that. It's the pacing and the feel and the lighting and the acting and
everything all mixed together which will give me the tone.
BH: Your score for Planet of the Apes is unique
in its use of percussion and synthesized elements, in addition to an expanded
brass section. What elements of the film prompted your choice of instruments?
DE: Well, I always look for a hookthe first thing
that grabs me in a film, and then go from there. For example, in Batman, it
was really the shadows and the architecture that really grabbed me and gave
me the tone of the movie first, and the first theme. In Planet of the Apes,
it was really the armies and the first thing that I locked into was ape armies
on the move, preparing to move, preparing for battle, armorthis very kind
of aggressive, military side of these apes. And, then I went from there. So
all of the first music I wrote for Tim, when I played him my first presentation,
all ended up being marches. [laughs] Ape marches!
BH: From what I've seen of the movie, I think your score
perfectly fits the visuals. Do you have any comment on the rumor that studio
executives asked you to make significant changes to your score?
DE: I can't even for the life of me figure out where something
like that would come from. I was actually prepared to make changes in the score.
We held extra nights open just in case, because we knew we were up against it
and at the last second, so we held emergency dates just in case we had to redo
something, and we didn't have to redo anything. In fact, I was amazed that we
didn't, even just on the basis of having to redo cues just to conform to the
picture which was changing very rapidly as all the effects shots were coming
in just at the last second, and that's kind of normal to have to do that. So
yeah, the big surprise to me was that even for technical reasons we didn't re-score
a single cue.
[I started to ask a question about the party he throws for his
friends and family when he begins working on a score, but was told I only had
time for one more question. So I switched gears and asked about the ballet version
of Edward Scissorhands.]
DE: Well, I'm about to start on that, and by the way,
the party that I throw for my friends to say goodbye is when I'm about to go
into lock-down, as I call it, because when I start working, I don't go out for
maybe two months-plus, sometimes up to three months. It's kind of like going
I look at it in my mind I'm going to jail. At any rate, you know
what I mean, it's like San Quentin, here I come! Granted, it's a little more
attractive where I live than San Quentin, but psychologically it's the same
thing. Coming up after Planet of the Apes, when I come home from a little bit
of a vacation, I'm going to start working with Matthew Bourne on his ballet
of Edward Scissorhands, which will probably take up to six, nine months.
I don't know how long it's going to take to write. I've never done it before,
and he's never done an original, so I think we're both kind of feeling out how
do we begin, what's the first thing you do? And it's going to be quite an interesting
process, because even though I'm using some of the themes from Edward,
it has to feel like an original ballet from the ground up.
BH: Will the ballet only be performed in large cities
like New York and Los Angeles?
DE: Oh no, he tours all of his productions. I became aware
of his work through Swan Lake and Cinderella, which were absolutely
incredible re-imagined versions of the original pieces, and then he's doing
Carmen right now, but it always starts in London and then eventually will tour
different cities, hopefully come to New York. It always comes to Los Angeles
and certain other cities. New York is a little rough on him, for some reason.
I think they're a little bit hardcore about their ballet being pure, and Matthew
Bourne's ballet is far from pure. I think it's fantastic, and I've always been
a big fan of his. So with any luck, it will come together.
BH: It's been an honor speaking with you. Thank you for
DE: Thank you very much. The pleasure is mine.