Martian melodies

by Bill Warren
Starlog, 1997.02, Issue #235
While Mars Attacks was a surprising experience for producer Larry Franco, and an involving one for screenwriter Jonathan Gems (STARLOG #233), it was something more than either of those for composer Danny Elfman. "For me, the most exciting thing was the fact that Tim Burton and I were on the film together. We had a kind of falling out, and hadn't spoken in a while, but we made up and came back together. It felt good, just like a family thing. As often happens in families, it gets very emotional, and you're not calling each other, you don't see each at the next Thanksgiving dinner. Then, time goes by, and you go, 'I really miss that person.' You find that yeah, it's workable, and you resolve these things. We've done some good work together, and I think we both recognize that. Coming back together felt really good, so working with Tim again is very cool.
"Our brains work on the same wavelength," Elfman explains. "The hardest part of being a composer is not really playing a melody for the director, or deciding whether to use a synthesizer or a piano or whatnot, it's really finding what the director get's excited about. It's finding the movie's tone, and Tim's films have such an unusual tone that nailing that becomes such an important thing."
Five movies with Elfman scores have appeared in 1996, (Freeways, The Frighteners, Mission:Impossible, Extreme Measures, Mars Attacks), but he hopes to slow down a bit in coming years. "I'm not happy if I go from film to film, like a composer is supposed to be able to do; it makes me kind of crazy. I think two films a year is the right number," he explains.
Elfman also has ambitions beyond composing. "I've written three screenplays; one of them had financing to go in 1995, but I'm down in the world of independent filmmaking, and that's rough-and-tumble. One of them I would direct, the others, I wouldn't. I plan to commit the bulk of this year to getting more projects created. I have one musical written and I'm going to start another - ghost stories and fun stuff."
As a teenager, Elfman (previously profiled in STARLOG #147) didn't have any thoughts of being a musician. "I grew up on movies. I didn't grow up on music; I got myself into it accidentally. When I found myself doing music, it caught me totally by surprise. I didn't even start playing an instrument until I was 18. I had a lot of friends growing up who were musicians, but I wasn't one of them." But he did eventually study music, and created the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, later just Oingo Boingo, and eventually just plain Boingo. The band's music is hard to describe; there are elements of pop, jazz and alternative rock, but Elfman's movie music is radically different from Oingo Boingo's.
"I was a major, major movie fan when I was a little kid," he says. "I grew up down the street from a movie theater, and I was there practically every weekend of my life. So when I got my first movie, I never thought twice about it. I wouldn't have done a rock 'n' roll movie - I didn't like rock 'n' roll, contemporary film scores. Instantly, I just switched mindsets back to when movies were the center of my life. It was really pretty easy, just going back to what I loved most - movies.
"Tim and I grew up on the same movies from the same era. His favorite movies and mine were many of the old horror films, the Roger Corman movies. His idol was Vincent Price, mine was Peter Lorre. We both loved Japanese SF movies. We have many references that I'm sure we'll touch on musically in Mars Attacks. But I still want to have a feel that's unique to this film. I'm not going to try to parody any of those styles, but there will definitely be moments where you'll feel echoes from the old movies. Clearly, this is the classic SF arena; our Little Green Men *are* little green men. There's a fun spirit to this movie; the Martians are like evil little children".
His method of collaborating with Burton is basically intuitive. "It's like having fun. Even on the biggest movies we've done, when we get together to do the music, it still takes on a quality of two kids working on a school project after class: 'Hey, wouldn't this be neat? What if it did this? Oh yeah, that would be fun.'"
Elfman is aware that Burton has been criticized for being, well, weird, an opinion, or attack, that Elfman understands. "Tim didn't come out of a film school as a film purist, just the way I didn't come out of music school as a music purist. Everything is intuitive with him, and he has his own world; everything gets filtered his way. A Batman/SF purist is *not* going to like Batman, because it's not true to the comicit's true to Tim Burton. If someone is an absolute Mars Attacks! fanatic, purist to the cards, they may *not* like the movie, because it's not the cards, it's Tim Burton. There is a difference. He gets inspired by these images, but he creates something that's all his own.
"I've been criticized my whole career the same way for my music. I'm not an orchestral purist. I don't look at certain very popular music modes as the bible. I vary from it, and in varying from it, I get many people who really, really dislike what I do. I just don't do things 'right'. Even Bernard Herrmann is usually not at the center of a trained purist's repertoire. It would be Erich Wolfgang Korngold, John Williams, moving in on a very specific motif revolving around certain forms of classical music that evolved into film music. Even though sometimes I'll touch on those, that's not the center of where I come from. My music is not for purists of specific film styles, and Tim's movies are not for purists of science fiction stuff, where any variation is going to make them upset."
Elfmanwho will next score this summer's SF adventure Men in Black—asserts that both he and Burton are themselves lifelong fans of SF and horror movies. "It's just the difference between being a science fiction fan and trying to do something unique, and being specifically a historical fan where all you're doing is re-creating something that already exists. It's the distance between being a carrier of the torch and being a kind of artist. When Tim takes on a project, he's taking it on as an artist. He wants to give it his own identity. He's not carrying on some torch that has to be passed to him, to keep the Dark Knight alive, or to keep these trading cards intact. Instead, it becomes an inspiration to take off into his own world. For me, that's 10 times more interesting.
"There are a lot of odd filmmakers out there who haven't been 100 percent consistent, but who make some original stuff and make money often enough that they can keep doing it. And," says Danny Elfman, "thank goodness for that! I'm glad that there are a handful of twisted, odd filmmakers. I pray every time that David Cronenberg comes out with a movie that it will do well. I light candles for him. I pray when the Coen brothers come out with a movie. I want them to keep making movies. It's just that simple: Please do well! Allow this person to keep making movies!"
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