Interviewed by Ben Wener
Orange County Register, 2005.09.23
It's Tuesday morning, I'm on the phone with Danny Elfman, and
very quickly the conversation has turned to his instinctive working relationship
with Tim Burton.
There's an obvious reason for this: The eccentric auteur Burton
has another delightfully macabre animated project, Corpse Bride, about
to open in theaters, with songs and score by Elfman.
Who else, right? That's the real reason to discuss Burton-Elfman
dynamics: Of the dozen films Burton has directed, plus a few he conceptualized
(like The Nightmare Before Christmas), Elfman scored all but one, Ed
Their partnership dates to 1985, when the loony Pee- wee's
Big Adventure served as both an expressway into Burton's warped world and
former Oingo Boingo leader Elfman's entrée into film composing. That
same year Boingo released "Dead Man's Party," the album that finally
brought the offbeat L.A. outfit some mainstream exposure.
The pair shared a fondness for campy sci-fi and the playfully
ghoulish, and an affinity for alienated anti-heroes populating both environments.
For the next decade, Elfman split his time and energy between establishing his
film- score credentials and forging ahead with Boingo, resulting mostly in a
massive SoCal following that made the band's annual Halloween haunts a rite
of passage akin to midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Elfman rapidly solidified his reputation, not just via Burton
vehicles, though fantasy fare (two Spider-Man blockbusters, the Men
in Black flicks) and animated themes (the one for The Simpsons, which
even small children can hum, is his) are still specialties.
His work with Burton, howeverfrom Batman
to this year's Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryhas formed one
of the most distinctive director-composer teams in recent movie history. The
most famous, unquestionably, is Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Not far
down the list, closing in on Hitchcock and ultimate film maestro Bernard Hermann,
is Burton & Elfman.
"So I imagine you have a lot of freedom with Tim," I said.
"Well, yes and no," the amiable Elfman replied. "In the beginning
(of a new film), I have total freedom, because Tim doesn't like to talk about
movies. Some directors will get into elaborate deconstructions about what every
character is thinking, underlying things that aren't on-screen. And that doesn't
really help me. You can talk about movies till you're blue in the face, but
no matter what I write, it's not going to sound like what the director has in
It's not until a draft of a score is presented that most directors can start
verbalizing what they really want. In Burton's case, though, there isn't much
"Eventually he'll react, but I have to interpret his reaction: 'What about
this is troubling him now?' He doesn't really put it into words. His face, his
body language, his hands - that tells me more."
Reading each other has become second nature. Consider their spotting sessions,
in which director and composer go through a film pinpointing music cues, determining
their purposes. Some sessions can last two days; Burton and Elfman's last about
"With Tim it's like, 'Music should be here make sure this is dark here
we want to feel sad here. You know what to do.'" That's why they keep teaming
up; there's comfort in a creative understanding.
But can that risk repetition?
There are clear similarities between Nightmare and Corpse
Bride, for instance, so much so that the earlier film's music was used in
the new title's trailer. ("I've heard Nightmare in dozens of trailers,"
"I like to think I can still surprise, but the reality is that if you
do three films a year, every year, you're not going to surprise every time out.
Composers constantly fall into that trap of repeating themselves. The trick
is to maintain that ability to surprise."
I wondered if that was what led him to a life of film composing in the first
place - that perhaps he had lost the ability to surprise with Oingo Boingo.
Not really, it turns out.
"What you can do with a band is limitless. The audience may not buy your
records, but you can do anything. With film composing, you have to serve someone
Why, then, did he disband Boingo with a series of farewell shows at then-Universal
Amphitheatre in '95? Simple: Performing became burdensome and unhealthy.
"When it got to the point where I was on stage doing songs I had been
doing for 10 or 12 years, it just became too painful." Plus, it took a
huge toll on his hearing; Elfman still suffers from tinnitus.
"The last five or six years I was in the band, my instincts were telling
me I was doing myself a lot of harm - and I was right. I really should have
gotten out sooner than I did, and I'm incredibly regretful that I didn't because
I'm paying the price for it now."
Thus, anyone still harboring delusions that one day Boingo will reunite should
snuff out those pipe dreams. The most singing you'll get out of once- manic,
orange-haired Elfman will be occasional movie songs (two in "Corpse Bride").
Yet Elfman has only fond wishes for his former band mates, several of whom
are grouping for a one-off Halloween-ish show Oct. 29 at the Grove of Anaheim.
"Anybody can do whatever they want with (Boingo). I lay
no claim to it. I'm happy to see that music live on, and it really doesn't bother
me - as long as I'm not asked to participate. To me, it's the past, and the
past should stay the past."