[Title unverified]

[Author details lost]
Penthouse, 1999.11
I'm on a quest. You might even say that I'm obsessed. I've flown from New York on a dubious discount airline, and I'm sleeping in an unheated pool house somewhere in the nether reaches of the Hollywood Hills—in the very heart of the kingdom of fantasy and weirdness—all just to meet the elusive Danny Elfman. You may not recognize his name, yet here in Hollywood he is truly a lord of the realm. He's written scores for some 40 major motion pictures. Not only prolific, he can write inventive, quirky music for any kind of movie, from the gothic Batman to the celestial Edward Scissorhands, from the gamelan-infested menace of Dead Presidents to the lush, hypnotic Black Beauty, from the blues-combo lurch of Midnight Run to the string orchestra of Dolores Claiborne to the out-of-tune pianos and bent banjos of A Simple Plan. The antic theme music for TV's The Simpsons? Elfman again.
Still, a celebrity he's not, and probably never will be. For better or worse, celebrity is reserved for movie stars and a handful of directors. To the movie-going masses, screenwriters, film composers, editors, and cinematographers are all arcane stuff—end-credit cuneiform, along with truly mysterious entities like gaffers and best boys. But here in Hollywood it's a little different. Here, Elfman is revered. Producers pander to him, studios throw mountains of money at him (a million dollars a picture), directors beg him on bended knee to score their movies: Please, Danny, just sprinkle a bit of Elfspritz on my lumbering project. Make me look good, baby! They all want a touch of his brooding soul because that old Elfman magic can make or break a film. A brilliant soundtrack threads its way through a movie so subtly you hardly know it's there, but its very "invisibility" is the source of its power. From moment to moment the music is subliminally cueing your emotions, persuading you to believe manifest absurdities.
"Soundtracks are shockingly powerful," says Jon Turteltaub, director of the Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding, Jr., thriller Instinct, which Elfman scored. "By the time the director gets to the composer, he's been on the movie more than a year. He's pulling his hair out to make the movie as good as it can be—it's a miracle he got it this far—and now somebody is going to come in and possibly undo all this work with a lousy score. You're praying the composer is going to bring this thing to life as only music can. Watch a movie without music or with the wrong music—it's another movie."
And Elfman, at the age of 46, is not just any music spritzer; he's the reigning king of the movie composers. Hell, he's well-nigh historical. As his brother Rick Elfman, who directs independent movies, says: "There are many great sweeping scores, like Maurice Jarre's score for Lawrence of Arabia, but who are the artists? Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver), Nino Rota (81/2, The Godfather)—and Danny. They wrote the book. With the anomaly of the zither player who did the score for The Third Man, the book is closed." Of course, there's also the guy who wrote the Pink Panther theme (Henry Mancini), the guy who did that ocarina thing for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone), and the guy who came up with the bass riff for Jaws (John Williams). But if you had to choose just four film composers for the ages, Danny Elfman would have to be one of them, and he's living here now among us.
I finally track Elfman to the Sony Studios lot in Culver City, where he's working on Instinct. The Sony executive building is a high-and-wide totalitarian-looking pyramid of glass and green stone that looms over the lot like the Mayan temple of a thousand-year reich—the Reich of Illusion! There's a ten-foot neon G clef in pink and blue above the entrance to the sound-recording stage. Beyond a two-foot-thick refrigeration-type door is the sound booth, a huge, high-ceilinged war room of cutting-edge electronic gadgets humming and clicking, talking amongst themselves. MIDI samplers, Auricle electronic metronomes, sequencers integrating the different synthesizer tracks, and a couple of 48-track mixing consoles are minded by rows of engineers and techies who twiddle and toggle their twenty-first-century gadgets with lugubrious concentration.
As if at home in his rec room, Maestro Elfman, at once absentminded and ferociously focused, pads around the booth in gray stocking feet. At the slightest tremor of a wrong note his antennae twitch like some earthquake-predicting mantis. "Wow!" he says when someone hits a sour B flat, "that really woke us up in here. It was better than a cup of coffee." Pacing up and down like a child actor playing Captain Ahab, Elfman carries on a stream-of-consciousness conversation with himself. In a sort of verbal counterpoint, he makes abstruse jokes ("There are too many Injuns in this hospital") and delivers mock Shakespearean asides ("Scoff all you wish, churls"), while issuing arcane instructions to the orchestra ("Really hit the D on 82") and reciting dialogue from a private scenario ("See how he beats me and he beats me until there's nothing left!"). His manner is witty, irrepressible, playful. Almost dizzy with childlike excitement at this huge toy he gets to play with. He reminds you of a punky Mozart—at least Mozart as played by Tom Hulce in Amadeus. "Have the horn player hold it there," he instructs the conductor. "For about a year and a half—two whole notes, until he turns blue." High in one corner of the booth, the finished cut of the movie is being screened on a large TV monitor synched to the dialogue, sound effects, and soundtrack. In the scene we are watching, the pathologically simian-obsessed anthropologist played by Anthony Hopkins overturns a table in a fit of rage. The jarring dissonance of the soundtrack is a startling burst of abrasive, chaos-baiting modernism straight out of Bartok or Penderecki, composers the average moviegoer is hardly likely to embrace. I mention to Elfman how odd this is.
"Film scoring," he says, "is the only medium in which people who'd never normally listen to anything dissonant are listening to it because of its strictly dramatic underpinning. If you put a song in a scene you have an immediate reaction. One person will think it's cool, the other thinks it's fucked up. With a film score you don't get that reaction because people just accept it as part of the language of the film. People don't ask, Is this my taste, is this what I listen to? They don't listen to Penderecki; they're not aware of it, so it doesn't bother them." The technicians in the booth are like the crew of an intergalactic spaceship. On the other side of a huge picture window sit the musicians of the orchestra in concentric circles. With their wooden and brass instruments, their quaint little sticks and strings, they seem like creatures from another century. The musicians are mute except when instructed to play. Somnambulists sawing away at their ancient instruments -- time zombies!—all under the supernatural control of a whimsical red-haired man in his stocking feet. Maestro Danny Elfman—I go in for a close-up. White, pale Hapsburg skin. The complexion of someone who never goes out in the sun, like the hemophiliac courtiers you see in paintings by Velazquez. Hair of such startling redness it resembles the underpainting on a dented car or a Renaissance portrait in which the color has oxidized. Mustache and beard of the same jarring redness, but so wispy they look like they've been stuck on with spirit gum. Thin, mad-scientist glasses. He dresses with an eccentric's disregard for fashion. Paramedic-green T-shirt, black jeans rolled up at the bottom, and socks. Socks! Socks without shoes is the latest affectation among the Hollywood elite. Just that morning I'd read about Sean Penn taking his children to school. He walks them from the car to the school entrance in his stocking feet. The last time I was out here it was shoes—very expensive shoes—without socks. It's all very casual here in the booth. But with the clock ticking at thousands of dollars a minute, you know everybody is making a concerted effort to keep it light. There are about 20 technicians in the booth, some of them making $300 an hour, plus the 97-piece orchestra.
A couple of techies are catching 40 winks on the plush leather couches, and who can blame them? With the endless repetition of tiny sequences, the kab-balistic shoptalk and retakes, it's obvious these scoring sessions are ultimately brain numbing. It could drive anyone to heights of whimsy, and it doesn't take much to elicit whimsy from Elfman. Occasionally he'll bring in a bullwhip to crack when things get slow, not that odd an idiosyncrasy for Hollywood. But how many composers bring a shrunken head under glass into a scoring session with them? Uncle Billy sits on the mixing board, lips sewn up, black wiry hair still growing out of the parched skin of the skull, terrified beady eyes still screaming. I get my first whiff of the dark side of Danny Elfman.
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