Web of sound

'Spider-Man 2 Magazine asks composer Danny Elfman about the challenges of scoring the webslinger's second big screen adventure'
By Ian Spelling
Spider-man 2, the official movie souvenir magazine, 2004.summer
[Bluntinstrument note: this interview was given before other composers were brought in to re-write cues for the film]
Danny Elfman's credits as a movie score composer span nearly 25 years and encompass some of the best and coolest movies over that time. There's no doubt that his scores have been a huge contributing factor to the success of those movies.
It all started back in 1980, when he wrote the score for The forbidden zone, a film directed by his brother, Richard. In fact, Elfman's band, Oingo Boingo, was pretty much invented to perform the music for that film, but then attained pop icon status in their own right. Elfman's film work continued, though, with catchy songs for mid-1980s' comedies Back to school and Weird science. Subsequent scoring credits included Dick Tracy, To die for, The frighteners, Men in black I and II, Spy kids, Red dragon, and The hulk. He also whipped up the instantly recognizable theme tunes for TV's Tales from the crypt and The Simpsons.
However, Elfman is best known for his long associations with directors Tim Burton and Sam Raimi. For the former he's scored Pee-wee's big adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Planet of the apes, and Big fish, among others. For the latter, he handled the music on Darkman, Army of darkness, A simple plan and Spider-man. Now you can add Spider-man 2 to that list.
How did you hook up with Sam Raimi and how have you kept the collaboration going as long as you have with him?
Well, it was real simple with Sam. I had seen Evil dead II and I was a huge fan. He got on this short list with my agent, where I'd said, "If this guy ever calls, put him on a special music-work-with list." A lot of people end up doing the same thing with Sam. There were some real hardcore fans of that movie. Amazingly enough, I did in fact get a call. I met Sam in the middle of the night. My band was in Los Angeles, performing at the Amphitheater. I remember going late at night onto the set somewhere downtown, where they were shooting this rain scene for Darkman. Sam immediately said, "Get this guy a raincoat." He handed me a bucket and said, "Now, you stand here, and when Liam Neeson comes stumbling out of the alleyway, and I give you the sue, throw the bucket of water in his face." Before I knew it, I was on the set doing this ridiculous stunt. First off, I was getting drenched. It was a complete deluge that they'd created. I was recreating a splash of a car going by and getting Darkman as he tumbled out of an alleyway in the rain. So, if you go back and see the movie and you see a big splash hitting Liam Neeson, that's me throwing the water at him! In the process, Sam got me drenched and I started to get a cold. That freaked me out because I was performing. That's how Sam endears people. He makes them suffer so that they have a stake in the show. It worked. He made me suffer and we've been working together ever since...
Darkman was among the earliest of Raimi's studio productions, and it was modest in comparison to Spider-man and Spider-man 2. How has he evolved as a filmmaker with the mega-budget movies?
Having worked with Tim Burton and Sam, they're both quirky, odd little film-makers who have made major transitions to huge films, but are still quirky guys. I'm not sure how Sam has changed. He had this style all the way back, in his early low-budget films. He had a frenetic quality to his camera, and it influenced a lot of other directors. He just had this wildness and freedom in the way he shot his action sequences, which were great even when he didn't have huge budgets.
It was kind of natural to look at Sam and go, "Ah, he does these crazy sequences." On the other hand, he still is—and always has been—a big cornball, and I use that word affectionately. I'm the first to tell him that he's a big old cornball. He loves that corny old romanticism of old films, and it shows up in his early films and in his new films. It's in Evil dead and it's in Spider-man.
He loves tapping into a genre like comic-book or horror and having fun with it. He loves that genre stuff. That's the good side of corny. It's the same with Quentin Tarantino. He's doing stuff that, on the surface, makes you think "What a corny thing to do." It becomes a really fun thing as opposed to cornball in the manipulative, emotional television way we're used to.
Going back to Spider-man, how pleased were you with that score?
No more or less than I am with any of my scores. I was very unsure that I did anything more than a fairly competent job. That's usually how I feel at the end of a movie. Usually later I might go, "Oh, that came out pretty good." So now I think, "It came out pretty good."
What were the influences on the first film's distinctive score?
There weren't any. I never watched the cartoon series. I was aware of a theme song, but I've never actually seen the show. So that definitely was not an influence. Whatever my influences were for Spider-man they were the same that they'd be on any big genre film, probably going back to the 1940s and 1950s. My influences in that type of film tend to come from (Erich Wolfgang) Korngold and Max Steiner and these kinds of guys. When I'm trying to find my heroic themes and what I'm doing with the action stuff, I'm always going to lean in their direction.
Then, of course, there's kind of a skewed sensibility—I don't know quite where that comes from! I think that's just a perversion of different things from my past that I can't quite identify. I always turn the clock back if it's a big, heroic story. Especially if it's a cartoon thing where the heroism is really big and bold and in-your-face, the heroic quality of the score and the character are not supposed to be disguised, because the character is in fact a hero.
When you do a sequal, how tricky is it to balance creating something fresh while repeating certain familiar cues?
It is tricky. Usually, when I come back to something a couple of years later, it's all moved out of my consciousness. If I did a sequal within a year I'd have everything fresh in my head, every cue. I tend to retain an entire score in my head for six months to a year. Then, between a year and two years, I've done a couple of other films and it gets diluted. The details of it start to disappear. when it's a couple of years later, I have to re-listen and get back into it. I'm thinking, "Where do I do variations? How to I keep this interesting?" There are certain moments where there's just no reason to do a variation. So far on Spider-man 2 I've written most of the big cues. I'm only going back to a cue from the first film once so far, and it's something where I wrote a new one and then listened to the old one that they had in the temp score, and I had to reluctantly admit it worked better than what I'd created this time., Everything else I've been starting from scratch and liking much more than the dropped-in versions from the first score.
I've been finding ways to deviate from the original score. But then there is a certain point where you've got to come back to the center of it because it is a theme... The audience supposedly knows it, and you don't want to deprive them of the chance to hear something again that they really liked. On the other hand, I don't like to lean on that as a crutch.
Your Spider-man 2 score runs to about 82 minutes. How will that be broken down and what do you score first?
Half the score is going to be short cues, 30 seconds, 45 seconds, 48 seconds, a minute and 10 seconds, that kind of thing. It's going to be music that's going to be tying one scene to another scene, or playing in the background and getting us from one moment to the next. Another part of the score is taking a more frontal approach for playing big emotional dynamics. If you nail those cues, you've got the heart of the movie. I always attack those first. when I did Big Fish I spent weeks and weeks on one cue, which I normally wouldn't do, but it was a 12-and-a-half minute cue, and I just knew that if I got that particular cue, then I had the movie. I knew that within that one huge sequence, it had every emotional beat of the movie, and all the themes and all the characters.
I always get a sense early on that there are certain scenes that if I can nail them, then I've got the core of the movie and everything will spin out from there. I will attack the toughest stuff first, always. I like to feel that I've got the tone and the heart of it nailed, and then I can spiral out into the more peripheral cues.
Which, if ever, do you take greater pleasure in: watching an audience in a movie theater reacting to your music or passing someone somewhere who's listening to one of your scores on CD?
If somebody is listening to the soundtrack that means they actually care about the music, and that's always a special treat for a composer. Especially in a genre movie like Spider-man, it's amazing if you can hear much of the music in the actual movie. Most people aren't really going to notice it. It may affect them in ways they're not even aware of, by they may not notice it. You'd like to think that they would, by you've got to realize that many people don't. I think the music in most films is much like editing. You can have an incredibly edited film, but people aren't aware of it even though the editing is affecting how they perceive the film. They don't come out and go, "That was such great editing." Most people tend to just notice the performances. They'll notice that the sets are big and great looking. They'll notice that the costumes are beautiful. They'll notice if the effects are amazing or not. Of course, they'll notice that actors. They may not notice the not-in-your-face things. It's always gratifying when somebody does, in fact, notice your contribution. I take an attitude of not expecting people to notice my contribution.
Are you seriously thinking of pulling back from scoring these blockbuster movies?
I am going to be accepting less of these projects: really big, mega-fest action films. They're hard on me, physically. I have hearing damage and it's getting harder for me to work on these big, really loud films. I'm not saying I don't like these kind of films. I love doing Spider-man. These are really fun films to do.
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