Danny Elfman of Corpse Bride [Interview]
Front page: EXCLUSIVE Danny Elfman Interview
Subtitle: The movie maestro talks Corpse Bride, film scoring and his
falling out with Sam Raimi
by Adam Swiderski, contributing editor
Danny Elfman first rose to fame as part of the quirky new wave
group Oingo Boingo. Since then, he's taken the world of film-scoring by storm,
beginning a long-running partnership with director Tim Burton (including work
on films like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Batman) and creating
great music for the likes of The Simpsons, Men in Black and Hulk.
In 2005, he collaborated with Burton on two distinct projects - Charlie and
the Chocolate Factory and the stop-motion animated film Corpse Bride.
We had a chance to talk to the man about bringing the dead to musical life,
the decline of the big movie theme and his contentious experience working on
UGO: Can you talk a bit about your process for Corpse Bride?
Once you were handed the project, how did you begin to conceptualize what you
were going to do?
DANNY ELFMAN: Corpse Bride was different from most
movies. Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and Corpse Bride,
unlike the other 50 movies I've done, where I step in at the very end...I had
to be involved at the very beginning. So they were unique that way. Corpse
Bride, like Charlie, I was involved with almost two years before it was
done, because all the songs had to be finished and produced before the scenes
were shot. So, in Corpse Bride, I really got hired the same day for that and
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Tim. It was pretty funny. He told
me about Charlie, and I said, "Oh, yeah, great. Sounds fun." He told
me there might be songs, and other little bits, and I said, "Oh, great.
When do you need those?" "They need them really soon." "Oh,
OK." "Oh, and remember I told you about Corpse Bride about
six years ago?" "Yeah, I remember you told me about that." "Well,
that's going into production right now, also." [Laughs] "Oh, alright,
does that have songs?" "Well, it might." "When would you
need those?" "Immediately" [Laughs]
So for the next year, I was essentially shuttling up and back between writing
and producing songs for both films simultaneously, kind of like a ping-pong
ball. It was much different than a normal film, because I spent really the better
part of a year up and back in London writing and recording these songs, way
before the movies were finished and I could score them.
UGO: Was it hard for you to separate those two worlds, working on two projects
at the same time?
DANNY: Well, the scores were already designed to be back-to-back,
because I actually can't work on two scores at the same time. But with the songs,
it worked out because once we decided how many songs, roughly, were going in
each film, and the tone of the film, I knew that all the songs for Charlie were
going to be pop or rock tunes; like, kind of strange, retro pop motifs. And
I knew all the songs for Corpse Bride were going to be more in the classic
song style - closer to Nightmare Before Christmas - Gilbert & Sullivan
meets Cab Calloway meets Cole Porter meets Rogers and Hammerstein, or whatever.
And knowing that helped me a lot, because as I moved from one world to the other,
the genres were completely different, and it allowed me not to get confused.
UGO: The Corpse Bride certainly seems like one
of the more intricate projects you've done, with all those different influences.
Going in, what were your thoughts for each song?
DANNY: Well, in the script, originally, there were places for songs, and John
August had written lyrics or ideas. And so it was kind of like, at first, "Well,
this'll be easy. I'll just go with that." And the first song, "According
to Plan," I followed the gist of what was laid out in the script. Even
though I rewrote a lot of the lyrics and changed some of the intent of the song
as I actually did it, the idea of what was happening between the two sets of
parents was kind of there, and I used a lot of his lyrics in that song. So that
made it easier, having some place to start. From that point on, I really left
what had been done and went off on my own, just because, thanks to the nature
of animation, the characters come in and out, they change intent; there's so
much evolution in that process that I began to kind of evolve, you know, "Where
do we go next?" The "Bonejangle"s tune, what was in the script
was a completely different song. I felt very strongly that I needed to get a
real backstory, and learn in the song how the bride got in a wedding gown under
a tree - not in a graveyard, not with anybody else.
So, really, I got involved with all the story people: Mike (Johnson) the director,
and Tim (Burton) the co-director and the storyboard guys, who were constantly
coming up with ideas and things and evolving the story as it went. And we'd
kind of, like, sit and talk, and talk, and I'd write down lots of notes, and
come up with ideas, and run them by them...so I'd come back with a couple pages
of thoughts and notes. I liked the idea, for example, that she's eloping, and
this guy blows into town, and he sweeps her off her feet. But why is she eloping?
Her daddy doesn't like him. She grabs up the jewel - first it was a ring, and
then the song was changed to include these jewels - and, I thought, "How
does she end up under a tree, dead?" Well, OK, she's arranged to meet him
at this spot under a tree in the middle of the night. How does she not know
who it is? Because a dark figure is coming. Is it him? She's just about to see
who it is, and suddenly everything goes black. So it kind of sets up the idea
that that's why she's there. That's why she doesn't know who killed her? That's
why there's a mystery. That's why she's forever lost in love, never being fulfilled.
So that's how I approached it. And then it was the same with the next songs
that I wrote.
UGO: Did you find that your ideas were affecting the overall direction of the
DANNY: Well, it's kind of hard to explain. In animation, there's a script,
and everybody's starting with that, but the animators are breaking down dozens
and dozens of scenes. So there might be a certain section that three crews are
already working on, that's all worked out. But then there's a whole other section
where it's kind of broadly laid out, but it really needs more stuff, it needs
ideas, it needs to flesh out with storyboards and animators, and Tim, and everybody's
going to chip in. It's much more collaborative than a regular movie. And then
it evolves and they'll keep redoing storyboards. There was a point where they
brought John (August) in two or three times to come up with new dialogue: "Oh,
yeah, we have a new idea for this scene!" So, it's kind of like that. We're
all getting pulled in over and over again as the thing kind of comes together
UGO: Do you find it a different process writing a song that you're going to
sing versus something another actor is going to sing?
DANNY: No, because in the beginning, I sing everything
when I'm doing the demos that have to get approved. So what I do is, I do a
version of every song for Tim. He hears it. Then, if he approves it, I'll take
the ones with female vocals and bring in a singer to sing it, because it's too
embarrassing. [Laughs] My first versions are just falsetto; they're just ridiculous.
So, at least I'll have a male voice singing the male parts and one female voice
singing the female parts. They're just temporary at this point. And now the
songs are going into production, they're going into editorial, they're starting
to block it out, and I really wasn't thinking about it being for me or not.
In fact, specifically...well, in Nightmare Before Christmas, I kind of
knew by the time I was done singing the demos that I was going to be singing
Jack Skellington, because it just felt so correct for me to do, and I related
to the character so much. But in this movie, the Bonejangles character that
I sang, I specifically wrote NOT for me. I wanted and imagined a rougher voice
than mine. And we auditioned almost 40 people, and we recorded three. I mean,
I was doing sessions in London and New York in this huge search to find Bonejangles.
After submitting, like, three finished versions of the tune, Tim called me and
asked me if I would do it. [Laughs] So, in that case, it was reluctant, whereas
doing all the vocals in Charlie for the Oompah-Loompahs was real fun and easy
for me, and doing all Jack Skellington's songs felt real fun and natural. This
one, I kind of had to get pulled in.
UGO: Was there a conscious decision to limit the number of songs in the movie?
DANNY: Originally, there were going to be five; I actually
wrote five. And then, as we went down the line, one of them got cut, because
they were trying to keep the time limit and keep things moving. Basically, Charlie
and Corpse Bride, there were five songs each when I first started. I
wasn't assuming they would all end up in the movie...well, I knew in Charlie,
they were, because that was essential to the plot, that these four kids each
meet their demise, and each time, Oompah-Loompahs come out and come up with
this morality tale. That's exactly what happens in the book. So there was no
question in Charlie that there'd be the welcome song and then the four
songs for the kids. But in Corpse Bride, like in Nightmare, it
was kind of like, "Let's just do these songs and lay it all out and see
how it all fits, and we'll see what makes it." Four out of five ended up
in the film, and I wasn't totally surprised one way or the other.
UGO: You've done a lot of genre films over the years, and one of the trends
that we've noticed recently is that movies are shying away from the kind of
big, recognizable themes you found in past works like Star Wars and Superman.
Do you think that's a trend, or is it just that we haven't heard something that's
resonated like the classic themes do?
DANNY: No, it's definitely a trend, but I don't think
it's any intentional trend. What you have is that people are trying to reinvent
stuff. They're taking a position, like, "I'm going to come in here and
do this completely different and make it fresh." And therefore, it needs
new music not connected to the old music, you know what I mean? My own opinion
is that they lose something when they do that. The studios don't really understand
that part of the process very much, so I don't think they get involved one way
or the other. But, you know, a filmmaker coming in for Batman 3 says,
"I'm going to make this completely different than Batman 1 and 2, so we'll
come up with something completely different." Well, they did, but they
lost something, because [Laughs] I wrote a really good theme for them. That
theme wasn't being carried, and it would have given...I mean, you'd think one
would learn from Indiana Jones and Star Wars and Superman,
and stuff like that, that audiences really get this extra juice from a theme,
something coming back that they know, that's familiar to them. But they really
don't get that quite any more. So I'm not sure. I heard that, in the new Superman,
they're smart enough to incorporate, even though they're having a new composer
come in, John Williams' theme. Now, I don't know if that's true or not, but
if they do, that's the smartest thing they can do. If they don't, they're just
going to make another big mistake.
It has to do with filmmakers wanting to express their own identity in a new
and different way, and not many filmmakers today understand the concept of themes
tying things together in a way that kind of gives you a little bit of a thrill
in the pit of your stomach. But it's always been erratic that way. You know,
the Star Trek movies...sometimes, they used the Jerry Goldsmith theme, and sometimes
somebody would come in and say, "No, I don't want to use that. I want to
do something new and fresh." Well, every time they used that theme, it
was great; it lifted the film. And every time they didn't, there was something
kind of missing. It's not that the audience was aware that there was something
missing, but there was a bit of juice not delivered. So, I think that's, to
me, the best example. And I think studios really leave that to the individual
directors, and it's common for a director to come in and go, "No, no, no,
no, I don't want to use that old theme. I want to come up with something new
and better. I don't want to be connected to that last film! I didn't like that
film." Whereas, from the audience standpoint, it doesn't really work that
UGO: Is that something you strive for when you're composing an original score,
to find one big theme that's going to resonate with everybody?
DANNY: Well, I don't know if I'm going to find something
that'll resonate with everybody, but I knew at the end of Spider-Man
and at the end of Batman that I'd written a really good theme - a theme
that could break down real simply, it can get quirky, it can get big, it can
get small. Ultimately, when I try to develop that kind of theme for a genre
movie, I try to make it very simple so it can either play out in a full minute
version, or it can play for seven seconds and still express itself. And that's
what a good theme for a genre film needs to do, because you're kind of going
in and out of action sequences, and sometimes you only have six seconds. You've
got to give it a moment, bring it in and then be gone. But that's really the
classic style of film-scoring. If you look at what Max Steiner and (Erich Wolfgang)
Korngold did - who, to me, really defined this whole type of genre - they constantly
would go in and out of their main theme. Moments. Seconds. Gone. You know, you're
playing music, and suddenly (hums a theme) and then it's gone. And that was
the main theme that you heard for a second, and it just, like, catches your
attention and focuses you right on the character. What they developed back in
the old, old days, I think was really brilliant and so, when I approach a big
genre film like that, I really, in my mind, think that way, because audiences
aren't even aware that the music is doing this certain thing, injecting this
energy and having this theme coming in for a moment energizes this moment...connects
them to this thing they're not even aware they're being connected to, and then
BOOM - it's gone. And so, it's a way of lifting and enhancing the film in a
way the audience might not even be aware of, but it just adds a little bit of
UGO: You talk about directors trying to put their own stamp on things...have
you ever had a situation in which a director's asking for something that goes
against your own instincts and, if so, how do you deal with that kind of situation?
DANNY: Very rarely, but it does happen, and it is one of the hardest things
for me, being a composer, when a director asks you to work against your instincts.
I really don't take to that well, and I'll resist and present the most compelling
argument I possibly can [Laughs]. I've really only run afoul once in 20 years,
so I consider myself lucky, because I've had it pop up a number of times, and
I've always been able to work my way through it...sometimes, with a huge amount
of effort, and a sales job to the director to get them to understand why imitating
this other thing that they've been hearing in their temp score for a long time
isn't the best idea for the film. Because usually, when you're going against
your instincts, that's why - a director's been hearing something, and they just
can't remove themselves from it.
But I have had many times where I've written something, the director didn't
like it, they asked me to do something against my instincts, and I went back
to the drawing board and created a whole new piece of music that was fresh,
that I felt would bridge the gap. "OK, this is closer, I think, to what
he's looking for, that isn't there, but it's not something as off the mark as
what he's telling me he thinks he wants." And it's like I said, with almost
100% success rate, in terms of pulling that off - although it's a lot of extra
work. But many times - and even with Tim Burton - I work really, really hard
on stuff, and have to go back to the drawing board. But, in the end, I've never
had to go completely against my instincts, and in 12 films with Tim, as many
struggles as we've gone through - and we've gone through many - I've never had
to play music against my instincts.
In fact, very often, I've redone stuff because the director's instincts and
mine aren't quite on board, and in redoing it and rethinking it, I've liked
what I've come up with the second time even more. That's happened more than
once, where I go, "You know, I have to rethink this. Something isn't working
here - I'm not selling the director." And I'll go back to the drawing board,
and I'll go, "Why?" You know, take myself right back to square one.
What is it they're looking for that isn't happening? I'll look at what I did,
and I'll see. I'll get it. This thing here reminds them of a certain feel -
I understand. Oh, yeah, it's this string melody here, doing this thing...OK,
I get it. The process can be quite excruciating, but, you know, the moments
when you finally figure it out...I swear to God, sometimes I really feel like
I'm a mathematician, working at the chalkboard [Laughs], desperately searching
for the solution to an equation. And when you finally get it, it's like total
euphoria, especially when you're on the clock, you're under pressure, and you
want to do something good, but there you are at the chalkboard, going, "Why
doesn't this equation equal the right answer? There's something wrong in here!
Where is it? Where is it?" And, like with mathematical equations, the answer
is usually something very simple, but totally not obvious, except in hindsight.
UGO: What was it like working on Fable? Do you
have any plans to work on future video game projects?
DANNY: Oh, yeah, I would gladly. It was fun. Every year,
I do usually either a commercial, or a television theme...Fable was much
like the same type of a thing. Sometimes, I'll just do a theme for a movie where
I don't have to do the score. And these are for fun; this is just for my own
pleasure. And, you know, whether it be Desperate Housewives, or Fable,
or Calvin Klein commercials, or Nissan, that I've done a bunch of...I know it
sounds weird, doing commercials for fun. But you have to realize that films
are so intensive, it's not uncommon for me to lose three or four months of my
life - and I mean completely lose. No one sees me, I don't go out for dinner,
I don't go to movies. I'm locked away. I have a going-away party. It's always
been like going to prison. So to have a job come along that's going to be three
days, or one week, and the quickness and simplicity of it...it becomes really
fun. So in that sense, doing this commercial, doing this theme, working on a
video game becomes really fun, because I'm just going to approach it really
viscerally. Just, like, bang! Look at it. What do I feel? Write this music.
Write it quick. Two days later, get their notes. One day of changes - bam! It's
done, we're in front of an orchestra. And that kind of crazy quickness becomes
a real pleasure for me.
But yeah, the answer is yes [Laughs]. I welcome all kinds of projects that
are really quick, and working on Fable was really fun.
UGO: You mentioned the one time there was an impasse.
Was that Spider-Man 2? There's been a lot to come out in the past couple
weeks about the situation between you and Sam Raimi. Do you care to comment
on that at all?
DANNY: Well, yeah. I mean, that's the one, first and only time on any film
that I've had to turn my back and just split, and go, "Do whatever the
f*** he wants. I really don't want anything to do with this any more."
So, it was really sad, and it was really a shame, but this is a case where something
weird happened, which I will never understand. But it was as dramatic as anything
I'd ever seen in terms of a shift in a person that I knew really well. And he
needed EVERYTHING to be just like the temp score, and no matter what I did,
it wasn't close enough to the temp. Now, you have to understand, two-thirds
of the temp was my music, and I still wasn't getting close enough to it. So
I didn't even seem to have the ability to adapt myself, a version of my music
[Laughs], to a sequel from a skew that I'd written already. I mean, we're talking
like minor increments, tiny little changes, something being slightly different,
was totally throwing them and rattling them.
Like I said, I've been in some REALLY tough situations, and I've
been through many films where there was a complete battle - the producers, the
studio having problems, working with the director to solve a problem, re-scoring
at the last second to solve a problem - but I've always been in synch with the
director, and there's no limit to the amount of pain I'll take with the director
against problems that are out there. You know, we had a tough time on Spider-Man
1. The studio wasn't convinced, I had written this romantic theme and they
weren't happy with it, and I did these last-minute scoring sessions where I
tried seven different arrangements of this one piece, and they were complaining.
Finally, in the end, everything was fine. Ironically, that same piece of music
that everybody was so unhappy with in the first Spider-Man made its way into
the temp of the second Spider-Man, and the adaptations I did of that theme got
thrown out, and they ended up putting in the ones from the first movie again...which
now became perfect [Laughs]. With success, things have a way of going from,
you know, "Doesn't work, doesn't work," to "It's perfect! Don't
change a note!" [Laughs] It's pretty amusing and weird at the very least.
But that was a one-off...like I said, 55-ish films, that was the first time
I'd ever been in that situation. And it being a sequel made it exceptionally
perplexing, because the whole pleasure of sequels is that you've already nailed
the tone of the film and you know what you're doing. And so I was 100% confident
in everything that we were doing, everything I was doing. And the freak-out,
the panic that happened on that film was like nothing I've ever seen. It was
like when a bunch of eight-year-olds go insane because the teacher suddenly
disappears from the room or something. It was like Lord of the Flies; suddenly,
there's no supervision, and they're just running amok, and you're looking at
it going, "Oh, my God, these kids are completely out of control. What are
they doing?" So, you know, like I said, success does really weird things
to people in weird ways, and it's not always a good thing. I wish them well
with Spider-Man 3, but I sure as hell won't be involved.
UGO: Do you ever see yourself being able to work with Sam Raimi again?
DANNY: Let me put it this way: It's the kind of experience that's every reason
I could think of to want to get out of the business that I'm in. Witnessing
that was like...you know, there have been a half a dozen times I've said, "You
know what? I'm out of here. I just can't take this any more. It's too intense,
it's too political. It's so hard to be creative." And then something comes
up, and everything's fine - I'll do another film, or at the end of that film
that I'm so unhappy on, suddenly things work out, and I'm happy. At the end
of the day, I'm going, "OK, it was hard, but it was worth it." And
then there are those certain films that come along that, whatever they are,
fuel me for a couple more years, because it's so creative and interesting, and
the way it came out, I'm so pleased...I mean, I'm so pleased with so little
that I do, I'll come out with something that really seems interesting and like
I accomplished something, and that'll fuel me for a long time. And then, contrary
to that are these productions where it really is like the kindergarten out of
control and you're in the middle of it, and that just makes you want to go...it
makes me long to be back in the restaurant business, let me put it that way.
And so, no, Spider-Man 2 was the kind of movie that made
me go, "This isn't movie-making, this is insanity, and I want to be as
far away from this as possible, because this is going to make me so cynical."
I don't want to become one of these grumpy old craftsmen who kind of bangs 'em
out and doesn't care [Laughs]. And that's the risk. You start working in a certain
kind of environment, it's impossible not to become cynical, just to take this,
"Ah, f*** it, just give 'em what they want. Who cares? So they're insane.
It's their show. Who gives a f***?" And I've struggled really hard over
20 years now not to get cynical about the process of film music and filmmaking,
and not let it ever become just a job to me. Unfortunately, that means I get
sometimes more wrapped up in it than I'd like to, at the end of the day, and
it becomes more of an emotional thing for me, and it becomes more personal for
me, and everything else. But it's the only way I can really approach it.