[Interview with Danny Elfman]

By Nuno Markl
2000.03.04, Portuguese film festival, Fantasporto
Source: http://elfman.filmmusic.com/interview/index.html,
Complete transcript donated by the author, and presumably unpublished in this form in his current job as critis and reviewer for the Portugese edition of Premiere magazine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 those editions?
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.
Yeah, it 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?
No! I 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 moment.
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 knows?
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 script.
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 know?
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! (Laughs)
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?
No 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.
But 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 twice.
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 get many.
I know you like to discover new sounds, alternative kinds of music.
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.
Well, 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 hard!
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.
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