Composer can't compose himself

by Jeff Strickler
Star Tribune (Minneapolis - St. Paul), 2005.07.15
After 25 years of composing movie soundtracks, you'd think that it might get easy. Or, at least, easier. But, as Danny Elfman will tell you, that's not the case.
"When I start a project, I'm no more confident now than I was 55 films ago," he admitted by phone about today's opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
"It still stresses me out. And I still go through that stage when I make things miserable for everyone around me. I feel so much pressure, and there's never enough time. It's as if someone says: 'Say something really, really smart—right now!' There's that kind of feeling."
Charlie marks the 11th collaboration between Elfman and director Tim Burton, a relationship that started with Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985. One might think that their familiarity would help ease the process, but that hasn't happened, either.
"It's always been difficult, and it still is," he said. "But difficult in a good way. There's a process of finding the musical heart and tone of a movie. It's a lot of work, but, hopefully, it culminates in something that's worth the work."
Elfman felt extra pressure on this project because the tone of the story is so ephemeral. Usually, he doesn't start working on a score until the director has a rough cut of the movie. But in this case, he and Burton started working together a year before shooting started.
As part of that procedure, Elfman laid down his voice track for four songs that are sung by the Oompa-Loompas, who work in the chocolate factory. To get the feeling of a large group of singers, he laid down six tracks for each part.
"If there were four harmonies, I would lay down 24 tracks," he said. "If there were two backup parts, I'd do 12 tracks. Then, if there were three 'tra-la-las,' for instance, I'd lay down another 18 tracks. I did it all in my basement, just screwing around with a microphone and a guitar."
Elfman, one of the founders of the rock group Oingo Boingo, always does the voices for the demo. So he was pretty casual about it. Later, Burton decided that he was going to use Elfman's multiple-track takes in the movie.
"That call wasn't made until the very end," he said. "I was ready to bring in singers to re-record, but Tim wanted all the Oompa-Loompas to have a common link that tied them together. And that link turned out to be my vocal cords."
Although his soundtracks are released separately on CDs—including the Oscar-nominated score he did for Big Fish—Elfman said he never takes that into account when he's writing.
"I was reading a review of one of my soundtrack CDs that said the music was awkward and difficult to listen to," he said. "Well, yeah. It wasn't written to be listened to individually. I write music to accompany pictures."
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