On The Score with Danny Elfman

Film Music Radio
Uploaded 2008.07.08
Source: FilmMusicMag.com
Transcript provided by Blunt Instrument
[intro part-snipped]
DANIEL SCHWEIGER [sounding like Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, and I had the image before I could stop myself]: And this summer, Elfman's genre guns are blazing once again with Wanted and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, two scores which use [??] percussion, ominous orchestrations and no small amount of macabre humour as the film's anti-heroes take on armies of assassins and unholy creatures. Yet Elfman will also be light on his melodic feet as his ballet Rabbit and Rogue premiere's in Orange County in early August. Now here to talk about his scoring for the realms of popcorn darkness and the artistic stage is composer Danny Elfman. Welcome down the score, Danny.
DANNY ELFMAN: Hi, thanks.
DS: Well you certainly have two big bang-up scores this summer, and let's begin by talking about Wanted. The director Timur was.. were you always the compsoer in mind for this for him?
DE: Oh, I have no idea. I just know that when I got a call about meeting him I was enthusiastic, having seen Nightwatch, and before I even saw Daywatch I was already a big fan of his. So he was kindof already way up on my 'interest list'.
DS: What was it about his work that appealed to you?
DE: Well, I thought Nightwatch was just wonderfully insane. It had this amazing energy and he clearly had a great eye, and I loved this Russian sensibility that he had - this really dark sarcastic quality that's very Timor and very Russian. And I didn't really know what the movie was that he was doing here in America but I was just hoping some of his schizophernia would be preserved, and so I went up to Chicago and I met him and said my five words of Russian that I speak. And I just saw a few scenes - they weren't done shooting, a little bit, but it was enough to see it was pretty insane and I just think that he's a talent that's going to be around for a while; so I was really anxious to have a chance to work with him.
DS: I'm a big fan of Nightwatch and Daywatch myself and I think, you know, that his kinetic style really translated to Wanted. It's a fun, violent, black-humoured movie, and your score really hits all those notes, and one of the things that hit me first off was during the training montages you have this whole Russian dance melody going on for.. You wouldn't really think these kind of rhythms in a film like this.. was this a direct salute to Timor? The da-da [etc. the hero's theme]..
DE: No, no, and believe it or not I had to apologise when he came in. I said 'I'm not doing this because of your nationality.' I said, 'When I'm unleashed on my own, and I do what I wanna do, I end up going to my own Russian roots.' So what I did was I wrote two versions of that scene, from tp to bottom, two completely scored versions, and I said, 'Okay, here's the one you're probably going to like,' and I played it for him. You know, it was propulsive and had a lot of energy and tied into some other motifs that he used in the film. And then I said, 'But, having heard that, now here's the one that I really... I think it's a lot less obvious of the kind of thing one might play and you're probably not going to like it, and don't think that I wrote this because you're Russian, this is, like, from me.' Then I played him the second piece, and he said, in his very Timor-like way (he just listened and didn't make any expression, goes), 'Mm, mm, interesting. Can you play it again?' I played it again. 'Can you play the first one?' I first one. 'And can you play the second one again?' And I played the second one. 'Mm, mm. They're both very interesting. They're both very interesting.' And he didn't make a decision, and I said, 'Well, you've time to decide, and in fact if you're not sure, I'll do them both for the movie.' And then over the course of the next 3-4 weeks of working he said, 'You don't have to score the first one. I really like the second one.' So I said, 'Great, great,' so it's just me having fun. The montage was a fun montage and I love doing crazy montage, so really anytime you turn me loose on something like that I'm gonna do two or three ideas, and usually the one on the farthest side gets rejected, and in this case it didn't. So, God knows I've written crazy stuff before for other montages and films, just most of them don't make it to the cut, and I understand, especially in a big budget movie this is kind of a really playing against the grain kind of music. But I think it really makes the scene dance, comes alive, and he's like, 'I love it I love it. It makes it into a ballet,' so it stayed in the movie. I was really surprised. But it wasn't because I was working with a Russian, it just popped into my head and I was just enjoying myself, just one late night of me really enjoying myself.
DS: And it's a surprisingly thematic score. You have a very strong five-note motif, you have several sub-themes. Where did the central theme come from?
DE: Well the central theme, like all my central themes, came from an improv in a particular scene and this melody came out of it, and I was saying, 'Wow, this is interesting'. Timor heard this theme and he said, 'This is the steps of fate,' and he says, 'We'll use this as the fate theme, for the loom and fate,' And I wrote, without a picture, this extended sequence, kindof an imaginary piece of music three and a half minutes long, because he was going off to shoot a prologue, and we ended up shooting to this whole piece of music, and used it.. and none of it ended up in the movie. It was really sad that the prologue isn't in there. In the end I think nobody really understood it. But I hope someday maybe in the DVD release or something like that you'll actually get to see the prologue and hear the music that I wrote for it, but that theme is all over the movie.
DS: And on that note neither is the original ending in the film.
DE: Right. The original ending is not in the film either. They shot a new beginning and a new ending, which is something I think.. you know, Timor's always conjuring, so it wasn't like the typical thing where we previewed the movie and there were problems and we re-shot because this was before we previewed. It was just his continuing exploration of the story he wanted to tell, and I think he had this beginning, this prologue in mind from the get-go, and then as the movie evolved he really wanted to shot it. The ending was a perfectly suitable action movie ending. It wasn't very wild: it had a lot of action.. but.. it wasn't...
DS: As interesting.
DE: It wasn't as interesting, and that is an idea that I remember he told me about it when he first first had it.. 'I have this idea for an ending. We're going off to shoot the prologue and I'm going to try to shoot this ending at the same time.' So he just kindof thought of it, and I didn't ever see the ending until I saw the movie two weeks ago because he just described it to me.
DS: How did all these changes affect your score?
DE: Um, it really didn't because I'd already written the prologue that didn't make it into the movie for him before going off to do Hellboy, and the end they just picked up a cue from elsewhere in the film. You know, I wrote extra music - I know I was going to have to disapppear to do Hellboy, so I actually wrote about 10 minutes of extra music for him that was for no scenes in particular, just for him to have plenty to use, and also because in Russia in his previous movies the composer wouldn't necessarily write a piece of music for every scene to picture.
DS: What's really cool about Wanted, it kinda continues this rock-and-roll guitar sound that drove The Kingdom, which is more electronic but it's very much in evidence here.
DE: Well I think if anything it's a counterpoint to The Kingdom because The Kingdom was very guitar-based but was very melodic, and I was playing with almost a clean guitar, and.. I did some distortion on some repeating effects and things like that in The Kingdom, but the main themes for The Kingdom were all very clean, almost bluesy. And Wanted was anything but clean. It was like pulling out the nastiest sounds and trying to keep [an] almost.. I hate to say heavy metal approach, but that was definitely more the tone for Wanted than the more evocative bluesy kindof melodic guitar The Kingdom had.
DS: And I believe after Mission: Impossible this is your second train smash-up scene.
DE: [snip] Well I scored a train smash-up in Spider-man so it's my third.
DS: [snip]
DE: Can't have too many train smash-up scores.
DS: Is there a trick to writing for the sound effects for this?
DE: No, you just write knowing you're not going to hear any of it but you pretend that you will because the director's always really think that they will, and so you write as if it will, but you know, secretly, deep down inside, 'I'm not gonna hear any of this music.' So it's kind of a little depressing writing for this scene because you know you're not going to hear anything. You'll hear a few notes, you'll hear some chords come through, but you have to write it as if it really matters. Every action scene I write I write as if it really matters - I try to catch everything even though I know in the end the reality of contemporary films.. in the scene itself you'll catch maybe ten percent of it.
DS: What's really interesting about Wanted is the spotting, the music you hear in the parts you didn't expect to hear any music, and the music drops out in the parts you expect to hear it, like the long slow-motion kiss between Angelina and James McAvoy - it's just a heart-beat, there's no score - in any other movie there'd be score there.
DE: Yeah, there was a lot of talk about that. At first I told him I'd write something but then he really wanted a song and then it's like my time passed and I moved on, and in the eleventh hour I think he dropped the song and just decided to do what he did, and I never wrote him a piece because at the time when I had left the movie he was still convinced that it would be a song spot. I'm glad. I think it would have been corny with the song in. I like the way he played it.
DS: Yeah, I thought that was pretty cool.
DE: I mean, he dropped out music in a lot of odd places, and as I expected, he moved a lot of music around a lot too, but it's all cool. He's an imaginative director, and I think that is a director's prerogative. I always tell them, if you want to move around, hey if you can make it work, go for it.
DS: Now, in terms of songs you do a number called 'The Little Things'[snipped garble]. Tell me about your song for Wanted.
DE: Well, it's a funny story because they had a song in this scene that they really really wanted, and then there was a point when they weren't sure they were going to get it, and so they came to me and said, 'Can you just take this riff - a riff from the movie - and just put a beat to it and see what it's like?' I said, 'Alright,' so I did. .. Originally it was for a piece of score for the scene where he smacks his so-called buddy with the computer keyboard.
DS: And that's a great segue from score to song.
DE: Well, it wasn't a song. I wrote it as a piece of score but it just had that bass line, which is a bass line I use for that character. And then he listened to it and he goes, 'No, no I think it should be a song.' And then, like, towards the end.. I get a call from Kathy Nelson over at Universal who said, 'Can't you just try putting a lyric to that, just to see.. you know they're not going to use that. They're going to want an anthem or something.' And so I put a verse down.. I brought that same piece of score up, I put a guitar on it and I put one verse, sent it out there. And Timor called, and said, 'No, no, tnank you very much but I think it needs to be a certain type of a thing' - I said 'No problem, just trying to help.' Now it's, like, way down the line, it's six weeks later, I'm finishing Hellboy [2] and I'm about to leave for London, and I get this call saying, 'We changed our mind, we really want you to do the song, but you only have one verse. Can you do a chorus?' And I said, 'Oh my God, I'm about to leave, and I'm on another movie!' So I pull up my guitar, I write a chorus really quickly and I send it out - they're never going to use this [but] anything for Timor. Now I'm already in New York, I'm doing the rehearsals for Rabbit and Rogue en route to London to do Hellboy [2], and I get this call saying, 'Timor wants the song in the movie.' I said, 'I'm gone now. It's to late.' What could I do? So I remember, like, 'Alright, I've got to come up with some more lyrics.' So I'm sitting in my hotel room in the middle of the night after rehearsing all day on this ballet and, like, just exhausted, and banging out some lyrics, and I get to London, and they're, like, 'Can you record some vocals while you're in London?' I said, 'Sure, if he really wants me to. I don't know, are you sure?' And so after 12 hours of scoring and mixing Hellboy [2] every day, I'd go into a booth and pull out a mike and I'd try to lay down some vocals, but it was really a bitch because after being in the studio for 12 or 14 hours, it's not the easiest to, like, 'Alright, I'm going to, like, do a vocal.' And Kathy brought in Dave Sardy [?] to lay down tracks - there's nothing I could do about producing or laying down tracks! I'm gone! It's like, 'I'm physically gone, you should have thought of that a month or two ago, I would have been happy to.' So she says 'Talk with them,' so I talk with Dave and [he says], 'It sounds cool if you want me to take a crack at it.' I say, 'Take a crack at it, brother. Go for it.' So he sent over some tracks to London and I was like, 'Great, okay,' and we went up and back, I had some suggestions and we played a few things, and I said, 'I'm good with this,' and so over a couple of nights I laid down vocals, and I sent it in, and to my astonishment they're going, 'It works great! We love it, we love it.' So then - here's the clincher - I get another call saying, 'Timor really wants you to sing it in Russian.' I go, 'I can't sing in Russian.. Timor must be pals with every Russian band that exists - I can't believe there's anybody he doesn't know in Russia. Why can't he.. 'No, no, he thinks it would be really great if you did it.' 'Oh man.' So now I'm in my final three nights of mixing Hellboy [2] and about to go back to New York to actually do the performances of the ballet - Rabbit and Rogue, and I said, 'I can't do Russian.' So, 'We'll have someone to do the translation,' so they send over lyrics.. I still.. just need help. And so they hired a woman who spoke Russian to be, like, a coach, and I have to tell you it's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Russian is a m*****-f***er of a hard language. It's really difficult. All Slavic languages are for English speakers. I mean there's consonants that we just don't put together. There's a 'Z' before an 'S' and there's six different ways to say the letter 'E', and it was killing me because again it was after mixing - I'd go in, and she'd sing a line to me and I'd sing it back to my ear exactly the way she was singing it to me, and she'd laugh. And she'd go, 'Oh no, instead of saying the word "alive" yous aid the word "potatoe",' or something like that, something equally as ridiculous. And she's laughing, and I couldn't hear the difference, honestly, between what she's telling me to do... and I just did it one line at a time, and it was so hard. And again it was like, 'Ahh, I know they not going to keep this and use it, but for Timor: alright,' 'Cause if I like a director... if we get along, if we have a rapport, if there's respect on both sides, which there definitely was, there really is nothing I won't do. I mean, if the director says, 'Will you crawl over this glass - it will really make a big difference - I beg you, please crawl over the glass,' you know for most directors most of the time, there's a couple I'd tell to f*** off but there's got to be at least a half dozen or more that, 'Alright, I'll do it, f*** it, for you.' So.. it took me three nights. Literally, at the end of the first night I just got one verse down, and so in Russia you'll hear me sing in Russian, I guess.
DS: We gotta put it up on iTunes.. In hellboy, the thing that connects the two films, they're essentially movies about outsider superheroes - one is a super-assassin, the other is a super-demon - and your music for both of them has a sense of this wonderful ridiculousness of both films.
DE: Well, the only reason I did them both back to back is that I knew that they had really different tones to them. I met Guillermo and I was actually on Hellboy [2] first and so when I met Timo about Wanted I said, 'Time-wise technically I could just make this work.' But I was concerned tonally. I didn't wanna do two scores back-to-back that were the same tone. And it was not until I met Timor and saw the footage, I said na-na they're really different: Guillermo wants a really romantic hommage to Bernard Herrmann and occasionally being silly, but the heart of Hellboy II is still a big, romantic, old fashioned orchestral score, and.. I knew that the centre of Wanted was going to be a very different, a weird twisted kindof sarcastic thing, and something much... I don't know how to describe how it's different, but I knew that the sensibility was very different. And so I was able to go from one to the other and feel like I was still doing two very different things, otherwise - cause each of them has 80 minutes of music so it would have killed me if I was doing two romantic scores or two scores of the same nature. Other than the fact that they both had big action sequences, which was really brutal. But if you take away the action sequences from the two films the scores are very different fortunately.
DS: For me the closest cousin of Hellboy II is Nightbreed, and that's a score and a film I like better than anybody else. Especially in Hellboy II you have a wonderful goblin market scene with the tribal percussion, tonnes of demons and monsters running around..
DE: Oh yeah yeah, I forgot about that, that was really just fun. That was kindof going back to backaways. But Nightbreed was also essentially a really romantic and somewhat old-fashioned score, and I love when a director will let me kinda do something that's more like a nod to my own roots. With Guillermo there was one sequence I finished for him, [he said], 'You know, with this music, you're making me feel like I'm 13 years old again.' And I said, 'Well, this is kind of the stuff I listened to when I was 13,' so there was a lot of that element in Hellboy which was really fun to be able to do that. The whole thematic romanticism of the prince and the princess and mainly the golden army - the whole thematic side of the golden army which was very Herrmannesque - and there was a lot of moments where I got a tremendous delight - as did Guillermo - in feeling like we're scoring like a George Pal/Harryhausen film here, and that was great fun.
DS: In spite of this wonderful old-school Herrmann-Harryhausen score you have these really wonderful outsider moments in the score - this kinda 50s jazz music as Hellboy and his team arrive at the museum with the tooth fairies. And.. I think you have a theramin or something going on..
DE: Yeah, there's a theramin moment for the revival of the tooth fairy. And that was just more like the lighter fun moments, you know, where the tooth fairy comes alive, and like there's a little bit of a James Bond-yness here and there, and that's more like the tongue-in-cheek side of the Hellboy character. And there's like three times I think I did that funny thing that Guillermo wanted me to do, which is: Hellboy is making this big entrance and is always going to follow it with some kind of 'Huh, hey, how're you doin' or like the second time a huge he says 'You can't make it big enough' after the entrance which I'm playing his big thematic fanfare which he stumbles and goes, 'Hey, hey,' like that kinda thing. So he's drunk at that moment, so that's kindof.. Gullermo's humour. It's like playing a big fanfare always followed by a, 'Hey, how're you doin' [laughs].
DS: I mean it's such a wonderfully absurd film, I mean you've got one of the best sequences in the film which brought the house down when Hellboy makes Sapien do an impromptu.. not-a-karaoke of 'Can't smile without you'..
DE: ..I know, that's really good..
DS: ..was it hard for you to judge where the music should be wacky and where it should be serious in a score like this?
DE: No. It was so easy because really any time we're on Hellboy, just kind-of bopping around, doing his thing, it's always going to be kinda tongue-in-cheek a little bit - keping that humour alive. Any time we're on the golden army and the prince and the princess - or Abe even, because he falls in love with the princess - that side of it is always going to be.. bigger, romantic. So it was very easy in that sense to known when to be tongue-in-cheek and when to suddenly turn on the juice and get big and romantic.
DS: Is a score like Hellboy II closer to your heart than anything else?
DS: You know, I really can't say that it is. I just.. certain things hit moments where I'm really pleased with those moments, and on Wanted, every time I was on that Steps of Fate theme and what you're calling the Russian theme from the montage, I was really enjoying myself, and I said, 'That's very close to my heart!' - you know, rthat thumping rrn-tun-tun-tun,jjn-tun-tun-tun [Bluntinstrument's Shostakovich Stomp] I could have written that thing forever, I mean I could have done variations on that piece for ever, I just love doing it. And when I get to turn on the romantic juice and the big old-fashioned [joo-joo??, ca.25'50" in interview] for Hellboy II or the stuff that Tim Burton lets me do frequently, that's also very close to my heart. So it's impossible to say that one is more me. I look in any movie I'm working on for something where I feel like I'm really getting my teeth into it and I'm having fun, andso I was just lucky that those two films both have really a lot of stuff that I got to really (kindof) feel like, 'This is really me,' I'm really enjoying myself right now.
DS: Now, in terms of work that's close to your heart you have Rabbit and Rogue, which is a ballet that you did with Twyla Tharp. Tell us about this.
DE: Well, ABT (American Ballet Theatre) came to me two years ago, year and a half I guess, with the possibility of a commission (I'd had a commission a year earlier for a piece that played at Carnegie called Serenada Schizophrana which I was lucky to be able to record, and there's a CD out there) and they liked that and they thought, you know, maybe I'd be interested in a ballet, and I was. So I flew out there and I watched their gala, and in it was a lot of pieces from their repertoire, and it ended with Twyla's piece which she did in the upper room for Philip Glass. And so I met with them the next day and they said, 'Well, who do you want to work with?' and there was really only one name.. at the top of my head was Twyla Tharp. And they're like 'Nonononono, she's very difficult,' and, 'She won't want to do it,' you know, 'She'll be very tough to get to.' I said, 'Alright, well, then..' I really don't know.. there's no other choreographers that are popping right into my head. They said, 'We'll send you some demo reels of other choreographers.. you may want to take a look at some of the stuff and see who you connect with,' and I said, 'Great.' So I went back home and I was waiting for that, and I get a call less than a week later saying, 'Can you by any chance come back to New York. Twyla really wants to meet you.' I said, 'Sure,' and I just flew back and hung out with Twyla for an afternoon, and.. it was really simple.. 'What do you think? Do you want to do ballet?' 'Yeah! Let's do ballet!' And, like, 'Shall we do a narrative or just go for straight music?' And we talked about that for a while and thought, you know, doing a narrative ballet (means a story ballet) for half an evening ('cause the commission was for a 45 minute ballet, which was half of an evening's work) and she thought and I thought that's a little bit tough to do, 'cause we each had stories we'd thought of, we'd talked about fairy tales and stories, but felt that it'd be cramming it to make it in 45 minutes rather to take an hour and a half and do a full-length ballet. And she said.., 'Just start writing some music and then let's just see where it goes.' And we played some records, and she played one of the things she was listening to when I came in - was a Scott Joplin opera. And so, going home I remember thinking, 'I don't know what I'm gonna write, but I will try writing a rag for her 'cause it was still fresh in my mind from having been in her appartment. And I went home and I wrote about thirteen, forteen pieces of music over I don't know how many weeks, and came back, and figured, 'Well, I'll see what she likes and doesn't like,' and she was immediately, 'Oh, I want to start with this.' And I wrote her a rag and she loved it. Just, 'I think you should go from the rag and this jazzy thing you wrote here. Can those be together? And, you should go to this, and I think you should end with.. this piece here would be a fantastic ending.' So I like went home really rattled, like, she loved everything, and I go, 'How do I put this together?' And it took a while.., and I just kept going in and playing her music and talking about it more and she would have ideas for the shape, and, 'Here, could you stretch this out?' and, 'Here's where I think it should be a pas de deux,' and, 'I think I have an idea for this.' So I just kinda kept writing stuff and putting it together and runnign it by her,and she'd give me her input, and it was really about the easiest collaboration I've ever done. I mean, it was so simple and so much fun. And then I did demos of everything, and then went away and did movies and suddenly came back and was, like, 'Oh, we're going into rehearsals soon.' And, like, 'Oh may god.' So.., 'We're there?' And she's like, 'Yeah, we're really there.' And, 'So, okay, we'd better start.. tightening stuff up and finishing it, and I gotta get it all written down and printed music out and scores together.' And so I started kinda banging away trying to do all the work that needs to be done and actually get it to score shape, and the next thing I knew it was, like, you know, rehearsals in three weeks. We've got our first orchestra rehearsal.. It's really.. I wrote a very difficult piece. I didn't think so at the time, but of the pieces I wrote for her, some of it had electronics in it, and.. samples and sounds and things like that, and I thought, 'Well, you know, Steve Reich does this, we can do this.' You know, it's not that unheard of. In the end it was insanely difficult, and if I ever do another ballet I will try to make it simpler because the reality of having just three days to rehearse with an orchestra with the piece that i wrote was impossible, so it was a really really difficult week, and I made a lot of changes and tightened stuff up, and tried to then play along with these electronics and stuff like that was not easy, but in the end it was great. .. It was really challenging and difficult and I'll never forget seeing the first rehearsal with the dancers and, like, I couldn't believe it. It's like here's this music.. I'd no idea what to expect. And Twyla's amazing. She's just like.. Like you were saying with Timor doing stuff where you didn't expect and music where you didn't think.. and no music where you think it would be.. She would do really big stuff in sections where I thought this would be a little thing, and there was a big section of music and there'd only be two dancers dancing together. I'd go, 'I thought everybody would be on stage.' It's all very much different than I expected but really brilliant, and I've so much respect for her and it was an incredible experience. I mean, opening night at the Met in New York for Rabbit and Rogue was one of the most intensely frightening experiences of my life because I knew - it doesn't sound like a ballet that any ballet lover is going to expect, and Twyla's stuff is also so different, and there was just no way to know how an audience was going to react to this. .. The music.. I'm very consciously not writing 20th Century composition in the way that a ballet person would think of a contemporary composition. I'm taking lots of old motifs, things from my imagination, putting them together, creating a kind-of mash [mush?] of styles that should never live together, and forcing them to; and trying to create something original but all created from pieces of music that are not (I don't know how to describe it).. it's something that Bernstein used to do really brilliantly was to take popular motifs and put them together in a really wild way; and I think I was trying to write something in my own imagination that my 11 and 15 year old god-children could listen to without having any conscious education of contemporary music, which was very difficult to listen to for most normal people. So I know this sounds weird but I was trying to write a really wild and original piece of orchestral music that anybody could listen to and not find daunting or impossible - which is mostly what happens now with contemporary music - and something that took no musical background in order to listen to. In short, that an 11 or 15 year old could listen to. So that, to say the least, is the polar opposite of what one expects to go hear of a new commission of 21st Century orchestra.. at the Met. And I think people were expecting something much more dissonant and modern. And what I presented was insane but not dissonant. And, er, I dunno, I guess people have to, like, check it out for themselves - it's a really.. odd piece, but it was an incredible experience, and waiting for that last reaction at the end of the 45 minutes - 'cause there's very few breaks, and Twyla never does a moment where a ballet dancer stops and puts their arms out for an applause, so there's like no applause moments from the beginning to the end of the 45 minutes - and I was expecting boo's, I was expecting silence, and so at the end of that period o time which I described to a Japanese journalist (who I did an interview with at the time) as the night of a hundred heart attacks, cause I really did.. First off I didn't know if the orchestra would get through the piece from beginning to end - which they'd never played as a single piece from beginning to end until the opening night - and secondly I didn't know if at the end of it there'd be complete silence from thousands of people. And so it was scarier than any f***ing thing I've ever done in my life. It was more like doing, if I was in Oingo Boingo playing Universal ampitheater, but for whatever reason I was playing for an audience of 4,000 people that had never heard of me before and had no idea what to expect. And there'd be no chance for them to let us know until the very end of the show. It'd be like that might have felt, of course which is impossible, but that's the only thing I can relate it to - what it's like to do a concert, a show, performance, and have no clue if the audience loves you, hates you or is completely indifferent until it's all over. The reaction was wonderful, but what a relief.
DS: Now, along those lines Forbidden Zone, which is your first score, is coming back as a colourised movie - this is a wonderful film that your brother Richard directed.
DE: Yeah.
DS: And it's going to be playing at the American Cinemateque. What's it like to have this come back colourised for you?
DE: Well, you'd have to ask Rick.. For me it's still the same music, so it's not different for me, but I think that it's great for him, and for fans of the movie it'll be like a whole different experience.
DS: Now, I have to mention one film [which] I think [is an] extraordinary film, and one of your best scores in my opinion, and probably a movie whose soundtrack will easily out-gross the actual film is Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure, a film about Abu Ghraib.. It's hard enough to watch the film once; I can only imagine what it was like to watch those images overandoverandover as you're scoring it.
DE: Oh I had so much fun scoring Standard Operating Procedure. Everybody kept asking me that saying, 'Oh my, God you must be so depressed.' I said, 'I'm having the time of my life, and loving this.' 'Cause you have to realise, Errol didn't want me to score the picture. He wanted me to look at the movie and then just start writing music, thinking of the movie. And I did, I just start[ed] writing music. I had the best time I ever had in my life. I mean, he's so wonderful and he's so imginative, and I just start writing and writing and writing, and then in the end I did actually take some of the pieces I'd written for him and then do them to picture, because they cut them in and I thought they didn;t quite fit. Then he was, like, 'I want you to do this to everything,' and I go, 'Well, I can't - we don't have the budget to record it all both ways.' But I tried to pick a number of scenes that he thought were important, and then take what I'd already written and then he'd already cut in and then do a little bit of re-composing it into the scenes. But only for about 4 or 5 scenes was I actually going to picture, and the rest I just was watching the movie and then scoring. I loved working.. It wasn't depressing for me at all. I was writing really freely, and when I'm writing freely I don't care what I'm watching - it could be like Abu Graib or Pee Wee Herrmann - I'm happy. So I was happy writing Standard Operating Procedure and it really was a great experience for me, and I'm sorry more people didn't see the film. But hopefully it'll find a life over time.
DS: Now, later this year you're going to be re-teaming with Gus Van Sant, whom you were Oscar nominated for Good Will Hunting, and this film is Milk. Sean Penn gives an amazing performance as Sean Milk, who was assassinated. Tell us about what we can expect with this project.
DE: Well, I'm already in the middle of that, so I'm already deep into Milk world, Harvey Milkworld. I'm really enjoying it. It's a drama, and a great way to foolow Wanted, Hellboy II with a movie that has very little sound effects and no fighting at all. And I love working with Gus, so.. He hasn't heard a note yet, but I've been writing for two weeks and he'll hear music soon. But I really don't know what to expect other than.. Sean Penn and the cast.. do amazing performances, and Sean Penn is great. And I'm enjoying myself so far, but, er, hopefully it'll stay on track being really wonderful.
DS: Now this, I expect is going to be just a big, artostically rewarding summer for you as a composer. Do you hope between Hellboy [2], Wanted and the ballet to get that recognition as someone who was a 'artistic composer' and someone who was a 'popcorn composer' and deliver us both?
DE: No, I'm not really hoping for anything. All I'm ever hoping for is just a chance to write. So I've had a fun year going between all these different kinds of things, and great challenges. I mean, Standard Operating Procedure and Rabbit and Rogue were both completely new things for me: scoring a picture without looking at a picture; scoring a ballet, which I've never done - not scoring, creating a ballet; doing these two wonderful action films and then going to a lovely drama. I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody but myself that.. there's still a way to keep writing imaginatively somehow. It's all I wanna do. So, as long as I keep getting the chances to do that, that's all I want.
DS: For me you're at your best when you're scoring films projects about outsiders. Do you view yourself as an outsider to Hollywood who's more than proved himself, who's really made it?
DE: I'll always feel like an outsider in Hollywood, and even though I know that I've achieved a lot of recognition, and.. they pay me a lot, er, occasionally!, I still feel as much an outsider now as I did when I started. So, yeah, I'll always felt like an outsider as a kid when I was in a band. I didn't feel any association with any other bands really. I felt like I was just on a universe unto myself - for better or for worse - I mean I would have liked to have, I just never.. it was just, like, our own world. And as a composer it just goes with the territory being in your own world. I mean, in 23 years I've hardly ever met any other composers, so it's not like you have any raport with a musical community, of other writers. It's a world that's completely solo, up until the very last second, when you're round suddenly a whole orchestra for a few days. But for anywhere between 6 and 12 weeks I'm working every day by myself. Maybe twice a week or three times a week I'll get a visit from a director and there's two of us and it's back to solo, and suddenly I'm with 90 players for 4 days and then back to being solo for 3 months. So it's easy to feel that way, and since I've felt that way my whole life anyhow, of course I always lean towards the outsider in any story. That's what I gravitate or grab onto.
DS: Well thank you so much for joining us with On The Score, Danny. Wanted is now in theatres with its score on Lakeshore Records, and Varese Sarabande releases the soundtrack for Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which opens on July 11th. Then you can see Forbidden Zone at its retrospective screening with Richard Elfman at the American Cinemateque in Hollywood on July 30th. Danny Elfman and Twyla Tharp's opera [sic.] Rabbit and Rogue is at the Orange County Performing Arts Center from August 6 to August 10th. Go to OCPAC.org for more information. Our show today has been recorded and edited by Alex Silverman and produced by Mark Northam, and I'm Daniel Schweiger - showing you that it's music that makes the movies groove with On The Score at FilmMusicMag.com.
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