Cameos: Composer Danny Elfman

by Rosina Rubin
Premiere Magazine, January 1991
Watching the rough cut of a film he is scoring, Danny Elfman hunches in his seat, singing notes into a pocket tape recorder. These abbreviated melodies capture his first instincts about the movie, harmonizing on its ideas and emotions. "One of the great challenges," he says, "is to get inside the director's head and view the film through his perspective."
For eleven years the lead singer and songwriter of the band Oingo Boingo, Elfman has recently become one of the most prolific composers in Hollywood. He has scored fourteen films, including Pee-wee's big adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Dick Tracy, and Darkman, and last year his theme for the TV show The Simpsons was nominated for an Emmy. An album of his film and television work, "Music for a Darkened Theatre", was scheduled for release by MCA in November, shortly before his fourth collaboration with director Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands, was due to hit the theaters.
Elfman, 37, says he was terrified when Burton hired him to write his first film score, for Pee-wee's big adventure. He'd had plenty of experience writing rock songs, with their verse/chorus/bridge format, but this was something else again. "In pure film composition, there are no rules," says Elfman. Soon he fell in love with the freedom to change tempos, rhythms, and keys at will. Imagining that he was once more a teenager sitting in the Baldwin Hills theater in Los Angeles, Elfman thought, "What would I like to hear?" The answer was Pee-wee's simple yet energetic theme.
Elfman's music becomes just another character in his films, Burton says, infusing even "corney ideas" with integrity. "A lot of composers just turn in the score," the director says. "Danny really works it out with you and lets you be a part of it. That makes it very exciting."
"It's kind of like two kids working in this big playground," says Elfman. "Tim's movies are all so different from one another. I know whatever he's going to give me is not what I'm expecting." He describes his music for Edward Scissorhands, a poignant fairy tale starring Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, and Dianne Wiest, as "pure and sweet, with a trace of sadness"—a departure from his cartoon-heroic scores for Batman and Dick Tracy.
Elfman's musical range and richly textured imagery are praised by the other filmmakers he's worked with. "He has a very great, old-fashioned sense of drama that he creates through his music," says Sam Raimi (Darkman). Adds Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy), "I find Danny to be firmly energetic in getting what he wants in the collaborative process. He has irony, sombined with an unashamed romantic spirit."
Film scoring is a high-pressure enterprise. Delays in the early phases of filmmaking often tranform what seems like a luxurious schedule into one in which "you start battling for days, literally," as the release date looms, Elfman says. Between his form work and touring and recording with Oingo Boingo, he has little spare time.
"I'm a real workaholic," says Elfman, who composes in twelve-hour stretches. "When I sense a real challenge, like 'This is impossible,' that's when I get fired up." Working with a familiar team helps bring sanity to the process: fellow Oingo Boingo member Steve Bartek has orchestrated all of Elfman's scores, and music editor Bob Badami and conductor Shirley Walker have been involved in most of them.
The time is ripe for Elfman to cash in on his reputation, but he prefers to focus on feeding his creative spirit. "I want to find interesting projects where I can really let my imagination wander," he says. In time, he hopes to move on from comedy and fantasy to weightier drama films. "I'd kill to work with Kubrick and Coppola and Scorsese," he says. "And I'd almost kill—I'd injure horribly, I would maim—to work with Demme, Cronenberg, and Lynch.
"All I can hope is that I have the ability to keep expanding musically, because when I tire of a certain style, I can't keep doing it," Elfman adds. "I'm not that type of professional who can just go, 'What the hell, it's a job.'"
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