[SoundCheck interview with Danny Elfman]
by John Schaefer
New York Public Radio, 2006.09.28
Transcribed from the audio by Bluntinstrument
JOHN SCHAEFER: This is SoundCheck, I'm John Schaefer. In the
past 20 years composer Danny Elfman has turned many small movies into big hits.
He's written scores for over a hundred films including nearly all of Tim Burton's
work, from Beetlejuice to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He's
also done the scores for Good Will Hunting and the Spider-man series.
He is the composer of TV series themes like Desperate Housewives and
The Simpsons, and he's been nominated for a slew of Oscars, Emmys and
other statues. Lately, though, he's turned to orchestral music - in the background
you're hearing Serenada Schizophrana, a concert work that's coming out
in a new recording next week. Danny Elfman joins us here in our studio today,
DANNY ELFMAN: Thank you very much.
JS: Now there plenty of straight-ahead classical composers who wrote, and wrote
well, for the movies, I mean virtually every major English composer of the 20th
century and Prokofiev and..
JS: ...and Korngold and Shostakovich and Philip Glass. And yet film music composers
seem to kind of be, in this country at least, sort-of grouped into a little
musical ghetto of their own. And .. it's sort of rare to have a composer who
is seen as a film composer given a commission to write a piece that's going
to be played by an orchestra in Carnegie Hall. How did that happen.
DE: Ahm, well. I don't know HOW it happened, I just know that
noone had ever asked me before, and when they did I just kindof thought, ah,
JS: [And] was it really that easy?
DE: When I first got the proposal it was because originally it wasn't going
to be for the main hall. It was going to be for the little room - I think a
3-400 seater underneath..
JS: Zankel Hall, right.
DE: Yes exactly. And that seemed like 'oh great, low pressure, off-the-radar,
it'll be a small orchestra, maybe a chamber orchestra, maybe I'll just do a
small ensemble piece'. I always say yes to a challenge, so - I was thinking:
small ensemble, small audence - fun! Great. An then I learned that we'd bee
bounced upstairs and then I started getting a little nervous.. so.. the worst
thing I did was fly out here and, like, actually go into the hall and look around
and look at the manuscript on the wall. And I found that to be .. paralysis-invoking,
because, you know, when you have to see manuscript of Prokofiev or Stravinsky
.. it's like no no no no, this is wrong, I'm in the pantheon of the gods and
I am but a gnat. Why would I be here. So I went home and for about four weeks
did virtually nothing but shake and shiver, try to figure out 'can I get out
of this?' and then I decided (as I have, you know, several times in my life)
[to] hell with it. I mean, the worst that can happen is that I make a fool out
of myself, and I've been doing that my whole life, so what am I afraid of?
JS: So you got out of the foetal position and you started composing.
DE: Yeah well I'm used to responding to deadlines. Essentially
it's like 'ah I have 10 weeks, I have to deliver a work' and since... I'm so
deadline-driven my whole life -I mean I'd still be working on Pee Wee's Big
Adventure if I didn't have a deadline.
JS: I mean but you had deadline buit you didn't have the kind of visual cues...
JS: ... the visual imagery that has driven so much of your film music.
DE: No no, I have the backburner emergency plan - was that I could always put
on a silent film and just start writing, but I said 'that's cheating', so I
put myself though an exercise. Um, two weeks I'm going to write a little piece
of music every day. And I did. I wrote fourteen pieces of music ranging from
about forty-five seconds to a couple of minutes. And at the end of that I started,
like, letting them develop, and fourteen became twelve became ten became eight,
and now six-seven of them were really starting to expand and not only expand
but present themselves in a certain order. And I said, 'I have to control this,
and clearly I'll lose half of it and get some thematic unity as I'm used to
doing (um) as a film composer - keep themes going...'
DE: And they just kept growing and they did not want to move. And finally I
said, 'Alright, I get it, this is six different things want to create this whole
it's a manowar, and its the result of two competing dislikeable composers who
live inside my head, each vying for airtime, and each movement is a reaction
to the one before it.'
[Music has been playing quietly in the background]
JS: So this movement is called 'I forget'.. you do have this kind of musical
split-personality going in the composition process of the piece, hence the title
Serenada Schizophrana. [taling to us:] My guest is Danny Elfman, here's some
of the music.
[Music takes to the fore at ca.5'30"]
JS: Some music from the Serenada Schizophrana which is kindof a six-part suite
DE: Correct, with a bonus track. [Laughs]
JS: ...with a bonus track, by my guest Danny Elfman. You mentioned you have
these sortof two competing composers locked inside your head. You know Robert
Schumann referred to the two sides of his split personality, you know, Florestan
and Eusebius - I think those are the two names - one being sortof this really
romantic emotionl character, and the other being a more classical and reserved
sort of person.
DE: I didn't know that. This is the same thing.
JS: Well, let's hope you don't end up like Schumann did though.
DE: I let's hope not. Buit definitely one of them likes to think of himself
as more serious and romantic and under control; and the other one just likes
to mess up everything, that's the musical messer. And it's present all the time.
JS: Now that's gotta actually serve you pretty well in the world
of film music where it seems like so many composers build upon a shared vocabulary
with ther film composers, and that voice saying lets mess this up a little buit,
you know, that must give your music a little bit of an edge that sets it apart
DE: Well I don't really know... I'm the worst judge of my own music and probably
my harshest critic - I've never been totally happy with anything I've written
- but I think maybe the messer-upper keeps things a little more interesting
or from taking myself too seriously too much, and I think what allowed me to
write this piece was.. no longer worrying about "this is my great work!".
This isn't my great work. I listened to Shostakovich's jazz suites before I
started and I said he had fun with this.
DE: He was being irreverent. Why don't I be just myself and not worry about
this being [deep voice] my great work [/deep voice]. It's just a piece of music.
I think it's kind of interesting and fun and I accomplished some things I went
after and didn't accomplished others that I would have liked to have, but that's
the same with everything that I do, and once I got going it got to be great
JS: Well now I mentioned at the beginning of the segment, you know, you've
done all these film scores and TV themes and stuff like that, but the fact is,
most of us who know your name from long ago know it from the rock world with
your band Oingo Boingo. That is kindof a strange transition as well.
DE: Ya. (That was a very....)
JS: The funny thing is that we have this 1994 record called 'Boingo' by your
band and as you listen to this excerpt which is called 'Insanity' and seems
to be thematically related to the Serenada Schizophrana, it seems to have a
lot of the... it's almost like a preparatory sketch in a sense. I mean here
you've got the kids chorus, you've got the horns, the orchestral horns going
and stuff. Let's give a listen - this is a 1994 piece by Danny Elfman and the
band Oingo Boingo.
[clip from 'Insanity']
JS: Alright so even Danny Elfman, even with your rock band, the orchestral
forces, the kind of cinematic horns, the children's choir adding perhaps a disquieting
note to this whole thing. It's called 'Insanity' and it really does seem like
it wasn't such a big leap to go from this to the current orchestral music or
the film scores?
DE: Well, yeah, but you have to take that in context. That was the last album
of a ten year overlapping.
DE: 'Cause it was a huge leap in 1985 when I began to split half
my year into writing-producing-touring for Oingo Boingo and trying to sneak
in two film scores, one or two a year if I could, because I had my first door
opened with Pee Wee's Big Adventure and I loved it so much that I didn't
want to close the door but I didn't want to give up the band for that. So for
ten years I kept them both alive, and in that last album, before Boingo left,
I did bring in orchestra and some of these things but it wasn't common to Oingo
Boingo: that was the first and only time I used orchestra. So I think if you
look at the body of like ten albums of work of Oingo Boingo and listen [for]
orchestra you're not going to hear a lot of overlap, 'cause was pretty kindof
crazy intense sca-driven - you know my motivation to wanting to be in a band
was just "I want to be in a sca band". Now Boingo became more diverse
than just a sca band but that all I wanted to do when I started.
JS: So you like this kindof pre-reggae Jamaican music sound and..
DE: you know, I spent a year in West Africa when I was 18 and I came back and
I got into an avant garde musical theatrical troupe for 8 years, and when I
heard a sca come over from England - this pumped up reggae with bits of salsa,
it reminded me of the music I used to listen to in Africa called highlife. And
I said, 'I wanna do that. It has enough energy that I could do it.' I was pretty
manic and nothing was really catching my attention. When I heard this really
fast beat, that's it - that's what I want to do, and I just let the Mystic Knights
ended and Oingo Boingo the band started up.
JS: So actually, the Mystic Knights, this theatre thing came first.
JS: So did you have kind of musical training in part-writing, voice-leading,
orchestration and all that kind of stuff?
DE: Well I had to do everything in this troupe. That was my training.
And I would not have taken my first.. Pee Wee's Big Adventure when Tim
Burton came to me had I not had 8 years of street music experience. And I really
mean "street" because I built, with my brother, we built this ensemble
up, everybody had to play 3 instruments, we weren't proficient but we were crazy
and versatile, and I started writing material. And the last piece I wrote for
them was a thing called the Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto umber One-and-a-Half,
and it was a five-and-a-half minute, 12-piece, 12-part orchestration for...
inspired loosely by Kurt Weill and Le 'L'histoire du soldat' by Stravinsky and
a little bit of Prokofiev and all the things that I love. And so remembering
later how in 1985 when Tim came to me I had to go "Alright, when I wrote
that so-called piano concerto" - (which I am saying as a joke was called
a piano concerto..)
DE: I said, "It's been 7 years since I've written a note on paper, I have
to remember how did I do that?" Because I was writing Duke Ellington arrangements,
learning by transcribing music, and I went through a period where I taught myself
by listening and transcribing, but I had no training.
JS: So, what did Tim Burton hear that led him to you?
DE: Well, my whole life has been a series of bizarre coincidences.
Getting into music in the first place was a bizarre coincidence because I wasn't
in a musical family and I never played an instrument. But it happened, and..
I won't go into the whole thing because this interview's not long enough [laughs].
But in essence, at the end of the Mystic Knights, that theatre group, my brother
went and did a film, a cult film called Forbidden Zone. I wrote the music
and the Mystic Knights played it. Pee Wee Herrman aka Paul Ruben heard the Forbidden
Zone score and said, "Well if I ever do I movie I want to hire that
guy" and he made a note of my name. Now Tim hadn't seen the Forbidden
Zone but he used to come and see the band, Oingo Oingo.
DE: So they're talking about who do we hire who do we hire, my name came up,
and I swear it's true, when I met them both I just said "Why me?"
JS: [Laughter] And did they have an answer for you? I guess that was the answer.
DE: Tim just said, "I listened to your band. I just think you could do,
you know, other stuff..".
JS: Well man, you know some of the stuff you guys have done..
look the Nightmare Before Christmas, that's like a baroque oratorio.
It's almost completely sung - the music has this kindof neo-classical sensibility
and scoring to it - did you approach it as a film score? It seems like you and
Tim were really working to something a little different there.
DE: Well, we were trying to do something that was off the mark.
Tim had the idea for Nightmare. There wasn;t a script yet, but he had
all the drawings and he had the story in his head. And we decided let's start
with the songs, otherwise we're falling behind schedule. So we just worked together
for a month and I wrote all ten songs with Tim in 30 days. And the only concept
I had was that (and Tim agreed with) we didn't want anything to sound like it
could possibly have come from contemporary Broadway, in any way shape or form
a musical. And that all the references had to be archaic in some way. I wanted
the songs to have a timeless feel - is this from the forties? is this from the
twenties? is this from the sixties? when is this from? So I mixed up Kurt Weill
and Guilbert & Sullivan and vintage Rogers & Hammerstein which were
all big for me - especially the Guilbert & Sullivan and Kurt Weill - and
out came Nightmare. And so we weren't after a specific goal other than
not wanting any song to sound like you might have heard this on Broadway, so
it was kindof an anti-Broadway statement... and I knew that would catch lots
of flack, and MAN did it ever.
JS: Oh but man did you succeed. In doing what you set out to do.
DE: Well I got my worst reviews of my life for that work.
JS: Danny Elfman is my guest. His new CD, Serenada Schizophrana, featuring
his first major orchestral piece, is being released by Sony/BMG Masterworks
on October 3rd. Tell me a little bit about the Batman theme, I mean I understand
there's a story to how this music was written.
DE: [Chuckles] [evil voice:]There's always a story. [old man yank:] I got a
story for every one of those scores. [normal voice] The funny story about the
Batman theme is Tim flew me out to the Gotham City set - and he was only half
done shooting - showed me a little [assembly?] and they just walked me through
the set, and I was just soaking up the vibe. And on the 747 on the way home
this kindof melody starts in my head, and this feel, and it's like "I don't
know, what is this thing? Is this Batman?" And I don't have the ability
to write music without having some kind of keyboard. It could be a Casio, it
could be a grand piano it doesn't matter, but I have to have some kind of keyboard
if I'm going to put out chords and melodies on paper. So I can't grab a napkin
and write all these parts down. But I always carry a tape recorder with me because
my bets ideas have always hit me while driving in the car - I live in L.A. ...
So I get this [thing] and it won't get out of my head so I start rinning into
the bathroom about every 15 minutes and I'm like furthering this idea but I'm
trying to do it in layers - okay this is the beat, the theme, okay here we have
the French horns coming in, okay first have to bring the trombones bom-bom-bom..
trumpets... - and I'm kindof doing it like that. I sounded rather like a Salieri,
you know, Mozart in the film Amadeus, dictating, but..
JS: Well, let's hear how it turned out. This is the Batman theme from my guest
JS: Alright, so here is the Batman theme as we all eventually heard it, but
it began, Danny Elfman, with you making frequent trips to the bathroom onboard
DE: .. and the stewardesses are starting to freak out, because I'm like running
in every 15 minutes and now every time I come out "Sir, can we help you?
Are you alright? Is there anything we can get?" "I'm fine, I'm fine."
Now every time I leave there's more than one of them, and they're looking at
me - what going on in there? Is he shooting up? What's he doing? Whatever it
is we don't like it. And it was very tense, but I was able to nail it enough
that when it landed and played the muzak which erased my memory - you see when
the plan lands and that landing music..? that they used to do?
DE: That's like, you know, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind, 's like the memory music eraser. I knew it wouldn;t survive the landing,
so I had enough notes to be able to get it back.
JS: Alright. Now do you still lock yourself into your basement to compose?
Is that your emo?
DE: Yah, I'm still in the basement.
JS: And, ah, you know, what about the much-rumoured group of musical elves.
People say you've got a whole bunch of people to help with arranging and composing
and orchestrating and all that?
DE: I wish. Because if I had them I would have had a lot more fun over the
last 20 years.
JS: Yeah. Well it sounds like you've had a fair amount of as.. you know, in
doing what you've done with Tim Burton and..
DE: The work is fun but as any of my friends and family will testify, I'm the
least free person on the planet. You know, I'm working most of the time and
when I work I don't go out. So if I start a film I have a going away party because
noone's going to see me for three months, and it's pretty intense. I work really
hard. I'm looking for those elves! The much rumoured elves! It's like I say
my little prayers at night and say,"Where are you?".
JS: Where are my elves? The Serenada Schizophrana, first major orchestral piece...
did you like it? Will there be more?
DE: Oh there'll be more, and I really enjoyed doing it. And I hope I get to
do more, and I hope people get a chance to check out Schizophrana.
JS: The CD is out on October 3rd. Danny Elfman. My guest on Soundcheck. Danny,
a real pleasure to finally meet you. Thanks very much for joining us.
DE: Thank you. The pleasure was mine.