Interview with Danny Elfman

Classical KCSC/KBCW website, 2001.07.20
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 country—well, 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 score?
DE: Well, I had about eight weeks which is not terrible, but….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 fiberglass—huge, 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 fifty-fifty.
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 Big Adventure?
DE: Pee-Wee Herman, we didn't really use any—it 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 to—I 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 away—I 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 score—you 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 don’t 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 hook—the 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, armor—this 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 to jail…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 your time!
DE: Thank you very much. The pleasure is mine.
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