[Interview with Danny Elfman]
By Nuno Markl
2000.03.04, Portuguese film festival, Fantasporto
Complete transcript donated by the author, and presumably unpublished in this form in his current job as critis and reviewer for the Portugese edition of Premiere magazine
In the Gramophone Film Music Guide foreword you say
"God bless the film music nerds who keep the torch burning". Don't you think
nowadays people are paying more attention to filmmusic, or is it just when Celine
Dion is singing on the soundtrack?
No, it's for nerds. Definetly for
nerds. People are getting less open because there are less
orchestral scores released. Soundtracks, every year, mean more and
more song compilations, songs "inspired by". What I call songs
"inspired by", are songs that music supervisors and the studios
wished that were in the movie very badly.
I've been noticing lately that you have been having just one
theme or suite in some soundtracks like Good Will Hunting or Anywhere but
here. How do you feel about that? Don't you have any sort of control over
Oh, no, no.
There's no control. It's just marketing, you know? The albums are
not about the movie: they are about marketing. I understand that,
you know, people are trying to sell the movie and make money, and
the marketing of an album is the same as the marketing of a movie,
so… I can't really blame them. It's a little bit sad for the movie
because, more and more the soundtrack album doesn't necessarily
represent the movie. I didn't hear the soundtrack to Anywhere but here, maybe it did represent the movie. But Good Will Huntingdidn't represent the movie at all. I don't know what's the
point in releasing an album like that, because nobody is happy: the
people who saw the movie and buy the album aren't happy… It's like,
who's it for? I don't know.
Making soundtracks is known to be a lot of stress, one of
the loneliest jobs in the film industry and people aren't always nice. So, why
do you keep doing it?
Oh, I don't care about that! That
respect from my colleagues - it's not what I got into composing for.
I've never felt a part of that community, but I never felt a part of
the rock n'roll community when I was in a rock band, so it's really
no different. When I was in a band, I felt very alienated from the
rock n'roll community, and as a film composer I felt very alienated
from the composing community.
You're almost like a Tim Burton character, in a way.
makes perfect sense, oddly! That's what I always felt all my life.
In the other hand, they have had their supporters and fans, and as
composer I know I have people who appreciate what I do, so you think
about that, not about what your so called "community of colleagues"
thinks of you, one way or the other. Because, you know, there's so
much politics and jealousy.
Johnny Depp says his relationship with Tim Burton is so special
they don't need to finish their sentences when they talk to each other. Do you
feel the same about Tim Burton?
Yeah, it's not a very
verbal relationship. We do less talking about the music than just
about any other director I've worked with. And we communicate much
more by hand gestures than by verbal communication!
Tell me about the soundtracks to these two films opening up
in Portugal, Sleepy Hollow and Anywhere but here.
In Anywhere but here they f-cked up the soundtrack real
bad, so I don't really want to take any association with that, one way or the
other. All the scenes where I feel my music worked they actually cut the music
and put songs in, so I'm extremely disappointed the way that came out. There's
a bunch of songs in the film and they are kind of stuck - one stuck here, other
stuck there… And they didn't decide until the end [to do so]. It's almost a
random thing. Contrarily, the other extreme is Good Will Hunting. Gus
Van Sant knew, from the very beginning, that there were certain songs that he
loved and that he had a feeling where they would go, and because of that I was
able to work with Elliot [Smith], and work with Gus, and there were times when
we all would sit together and play the guitar and play ideas. I was then able
to make my score interface really well with Elliot's music. I could make a piece
of score end to the same key and flow into the introduction of Elliot's songs,
so you really couldn't tell the difference! That was the best experience I had
in terms of working with an artist on songs. And it's simple because of the
wisdom and foresight of the director, knowing what he wanted and sticking us
together. So I wish that more directors had the foresight to do that. I knew
where Elliot's music was going to go, Elliot knew where my score was and there
was no competition. It was like we worked together. The other extreme is Anywhere
but here where every piece of dramatic scene was a competition where someone
wants a song in, I'm told to write score and we're competing for the same scene
because the marketing forces are very strong.
In a case like Anywhere but here, who's fault is it?
The director? The producers?
I have no idea, you know!
Like I said before, it's understandable. The studio, of course, is
taking money from a record label for the soundtrack album to the
movie, so there's a lot of pressure for the soundtrack album to be
tightly associated, so the director and the producer start feeling
the pressure. I have a personal thing, that if I know a film has
taken a bunch of money from a record company, usually I'll avoid
scoring that film because I know there's going to be a lot of
pressure. And I should have known that, in Anywhere but here that
was going to happen. There was a connection with a record label… So
I understand why they are pushing to get each of the commercial
songs in. If I were them, I'd do the same thing! I'd say it's really
my fault for allowing myself to become kind of seduced by the
director into the movie, because my instincts told me: "Stay away
from this, this is going to turn nasty in the 11th hour" and my
instincts were correct. But I liked the director, so...
At least did you like the film?
think it was softened up. The final editing, and the final ending of
the movie I think is much weaker than the one I scored. It's just
one of those things, you know. In the 11th hour pressure builds,
things soften, a new ending was shot… When the new ending came in,
the film lost me forever! I originally wanted to take my name off
the film, but I decided to keep it.
You could have invented an Alan Smithee for the film composers.
Yeah. Danny Smithee! On the other hand, Sleepy Hollow
was an enormous amount of work, but I was happy with it, of course. It was so
much visual fun!
I had planned to ask you if you had ever regretted doing music
for any film, but now I see Anywhere but here is a perfect example.
Oh, I got many films I regretted!
I've done 36 or 35… I don't know, thirty-something films and I
probably regretted at least a third of them. But you hope -
everybody hopes! - to be in a good film, when you start working on a
film. It happens that, very often, they don't end up being good
films, but if you're committed to it, you're committed to it and you
do the best you can. But yes, there are many films that I wished I
knew, "OK, this is not going to be good". It's the same with actors:
you roll the dice, every time you accept a film. Nobody ever sets
out to make a bad film and, like actors, we're in the similar
position of reading a script, talking with the director, "this could
be good, this could be fun, maybe this will be interesting". And,
sometimes, in the end, you go: "Oh my God, what was I thinking? What
have I done?" On the other hand, sometimes it's the other way
around. And I have to say it cuts both ways: sometimes you pass on a
film that looks it's going to be not good at all, and turns out to
be a really good film that you wish you'd done it. So, there's films
that I didn't do and wished I had done and there's films that I did
do that I wish I hadn't done. But that's the same for everybody in
all sides of filmmaking. Unless you're lucky enough to come in and
see the finished film and then decide if you want to do it - which
is very rare! - you're going on faith and you're going on the
When are you making a rock album again?
It's hard to say. I just have so many goals
right now. Musically, that's not at the top of the list right now. I
want to do albums, solo albums, but whether it's rock n'roll or not…
I don't know. I want to do composition. I want to do something
that's strange. Experimental. Something that will use a lot of
percussion. So that's much more intriguing to me than just the
desire to sing songs.
Are you still planning to direct the musicals Jimmy Calicut
and Little Demons?
Anything can happen at any time! Just last
week, a producer approached me about another script that I wrote
eight years ago called "Julian" and so now that's revived for the
moment, and I'll be doing a rewrite on it. But who
What do you think of the way bootleg versions of Jimmy
Calicut and Little Demons that can be easily found in the net?
You know, scripts get around,
everywhere, all the time. So it's not that hard to get a copy of the
I mean the demo songs you recorded for those projects.
Again, we send demos
around and eventually they end up in somebody's hands who's
unscrupulous, so… There's really nothing you can do about it. You
can't just get too upset by it. I don't really care, it's not like
it's causing me any harm and it's not taking away sales because I'm
not selling that, so… You know… Whatever. (Laughs). Why get that
upset? I've been upset about other things: when an income tax form
of mine was being sold on the Internet through Ebay. That upset me
very much, because now I have to get a new social security number,
which is very, very difficult. So that's the kind of stuff that
really gets me upset. But, you know, a spec of a script or some
demos just flowing around… Why should I be that upset, you
Do you keep in touch with your fan sites in the net?
No. I feel that if I start doing
that, I'll have to get involved… It's like my first years as a
composer, when I was under attack all the time from the film
composing community, because of the misinformation. At a certain
point I was spending so much energy to defend myself, that I just
stopped. Forget it. Let them say what they want, let them spread
lies. And it's the same about the web sites, unless I get involved,
there is a lot of misinformation, lots of people saying things… And
it's not worth it. Because I'll start defending myself, correcting
this and that and there's not enough time in my day to do these
minimal things. I find that it's a waste of energy trying to defend
oneself, trying to correct the misperceptions, you know what I mean?
When I started getting e-mail, I felt it was really time consuming,
because some people get really wrapped up in weird little things,
and rumours, and even personal things. And I thought: that's what
they want. They want your reaction. Ultimately I ended up going -
"this is just a huge energy drain, I don't want to fight with this
person, let them say whatever they want!" If they want to say that I
go out in the world and f-ck goats, then I just ignore it or say,
"yes, I love it!". If they want to say that I steal all my music
from a slave composer that I've got chained up on my basement whom I
feed scraps of bread to - good, yes, I do that! In fact I have ten
of them down there! If people want to say that they have the missing
tape of me singing the entire score to "Batman" that I gave to a
composer who actually wrote the score… Why am I trying to defend
myself from such a stupid and absurd thing? "Yes, of course, I sing
all my scores and give them to a composer and he does all the work
and then I show up a month later and take all the credit!" So, when
things go to that level, it's so crazy and you have so much of it
that it's better just to...
Just sit and watch?
Yeah, it's better just to sit and watch and go,
yes! I do this! Something else writes my music! I'm a pederast! I'm
into bestiality! Necrophelia! Come on, lay it on!
What about the ballet version of Edward Scissorhands?
Are you working on new material for that show?
Well, I'm not working on that yet. It's still
been talked, we're in the talking stage with Matthew Bourne. And I
love Matthew, he's great and I hope it happens. He's just a
wonderful and creative person.
Are you working on new movie soundtracks at this time?
movie soundtracks right now.
You played a very convincing Satan in Forbidden Zone.
Do you have plans to act again?
Never! I did a small acting part in Sam Raimi's new film, The
Gift. I did this only two weeks ago. Sam tricked me into it and it's the
only time I did straight acting all my life.
Can you tell what kind of character do you play?
It's in a dream. It's a guy playing a
fiddle, and he speaks lines to Cate Blanchett. It was the most
humiliating experience of my life! (Laughs) I wish and pray that
they cut the scene from the movie!
Even if that happens, maybe it will end up on the DVD release,
in the deleted scenes!
Yeah. Anyway, if I could pay them to
re-shoot it and put in somebody else, I would do that in two
seconds! (Laughs) It's so horrible, horrible! So bad! And it's a
speaking part. And it was outdoors and I had a dialect coach because
I had to speak in a southern dialect. It made me vividly and
abundantly clear to me that I can't act.
You were great in Forbidden Zone.
that wasn't acting. That's lip-synching songs and that's fun. I can
do that. But there's a huge difference between performing a song and
speaking lines. Speaking dialect! And I will never do it again, as
long as I live! (Laughs) They will never trick me
Are you doing the soundtrack to The Gift?
Yes, I probably will be doing the soundtrack to The Gift.
What kind of music do you listen to? What was the last record
you bought? Soundtracks, or...
No, I don't buy many soundtracks.
What was the last record I bought…? (Thinks) I don't go out a lot to
get records, I go out about every three, four months. And I don't
I know you like to discover new sounds, alternative kinds
Yeah, exactly. The
last record binge I was on, was a lot of classical stuff. And a
little bit of Cuban.
The Flubber soundtrack has indeed a lot of Cuban influences.
they wanted the dance piece to be like a samba, so it has also an
influence of that kind of thing.
Maybe you don't know, but several Portuguese movie critics
said that it's Danny Elfman's music and that dance sequence you scored that
saves the film.
Really? That's interesting. You know, the
thing I'm most proud about that was that I gave them an idea for a
beat to animate to, and they didn't. And the animation took a
completely different beat than the one I had written. It was a
mistake in communication. So, rather than them animating to a piece
that I wrote, I had to write music to what they had done, which is
very difficult in animation. You always want the animator to animate
to the beat that you have composed. By mistake, they hadn't. So the
piece I'd written was much faster than the piece they had animated
to, so I had to make it look like they had animated to my music and
in the end I was very proud of the way it turned out. That was
If you could choose a soundtrack for your life, which one
would you choose?
It would have to be like a tie bewteen Nino Rota's Fellini
Casanova and The Godfather, and Ennio Morricone's Once Upon a
Time in America. Some where in there. You'd think that Bernard Herrmann
would be in the top of the list, because he's still my favorite composer. But
just as actual listening soundtracks, those are my favorites. Because there's
a difference between what I think is the best soundtrack in a movie and listening
to a soundtrack album. If I had to take a soundtrack with me to a desert island,
it would be those three.