Danny Elfman: ‘I always saw myself as an alien as a child’

Nov. 19, 2010 | 2:27 p.m.

THE HERO COMPLEX INTERVIEW: DANNY ELFMAN (PART 2)

Fans of Tim Burton’s films have come to treasure the scores penned by composer Danny Elfman as an essential part of the viewing experience. For the most die-hard enthusiasts, Warner Bros. has released a special limited edition package, “The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box,” to commemorate the partners’ creative collaboration. Available only through www.elfmanburton.com, the set includes expanded versions of all 13 of Elfman’s scores from Burton’s films — from 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” through this year’s “Alice in Wonderland” — plus rare and previously unreleased music from their projects, a DVD featuring an hour-long conversation between Burton and Elfman and a 250-page hardcover book with a foreword by Johnny Depp, in addition to other collectibles. Elfman recently sat down with Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre to discuss in detail how the collection came together, how his relationship with Burton has evolved over the years and what it’s like to reflect on a shared legacy amassed over a quarter of a century. What follows is the second part of a two-part interview. (In case you missed it, read the first part here.)

alice Danny Elfman: I always saw myself as an alien as a child

Johnny Depp in "Alice in Wonderland" (Disney)

GM: What initially made you and Tim such ideal collaborators, and how has that relationship evolved over time?

DE: What makes anybody a great collaborator? I don’t think anybody can really say. We had similar backgrounds. We grew up on the same kind of movies. We had definitely a bond when we first met, in terms of the horror movies that we both grew up on. Guillermo del Toro in the book [contained in the “Music Box” collection] calls us the “monster kids,” and that really is true. We grew up in a generation of monster movies. But that doesn’t make collaboration, that just makes a meeting point. I’ve worked with other people that I found were intolerable working with who also had similar backgrounds to me. Background only goes so far.

Tim inhabits kind of a strange space, and I found from the beginning that space not so strange for me. I think more important than the monster movies that we grew up on maybe was the fact that we were kind of odd kids and maybe appreciated or were forced into a certain amount of isolation, being not ever part of the center of anything. Tim certainly in his characters always has a tremendous love for the woe-begotten misfit. I always saw myself as an alien as a child growing up here that never could find a niche to fit into. Probably that has more to do in terms of us, personality-wise, finding a common bond. But even that won’t get you from the beginning to the end of a film score. That part, who knows? That’s the mysterious part that no one could say.

GM: Do you two have a creative shorthand after all these years?

DE: We really don’t. Tim talks about this in the video part of our interview. He says he actually gets offended when people imply that we have an easy way of working together, and I know that we don’t.

GM: But wouldn’t that be the safe assumption for most people, given how frequently you do work together?

DE: I could see why everyone would think that, but it isn’t the case at all. In some ways it’s gotten much more difficult. The difference is that we both probably know at the end of it all, he knows he’s going to get a score that’s going to work for him, even though we may have to go through a big, difficult journey to get there. It might be easy, it might be hard. I know, no matter what I go through and sometimes it’s torturous, I’m going to have a score that I’ll feel proud of and he won’t force me to do stuff that I really don’t want to do. When you work multiple times with somebody, you have that in the back of your head, you’re not going to be forced into a place you don’t want to go. Then, however much torture you each have to go through…

GM: Is it really a torturous process?

DE: With Tim it can be. Sometimes I’ve joked that I get two basic reactions from him when I’m playing him music for the first time. One is his face is in his hands, he’s pulling his hair. You’d think I was pulling out his intestines. The other is very concentrated, looking serious — he’s following it and maybe at the end he’ll nod a little bit. That’s about the most excitement I expect to get, and that’s fine. The face in the hands means we’re not there. We haven’t got there yet. It’s killing him. Often it really is a slow process of experimenting, finding those things. Then expanding that. He also then grows into how the whole score’s working, the shape of it. There’s no way to ever know what’s in a director’s head, and they can’t express it either.

edward2 Danny Elfman: I always saw myself as an alien as a child

Johnny Depp and Dianne Wiest in "Edward Scissorhands" (Fox)

Tim is much less vocal than many directors I work with, but it still doesn’t matter. You could vocalize about what you’re looking for music to be, what kind of music you want it to be, you can talk about that forever — it doesn’t really help you. Whatever you play a director, it’s not going to be what they’re thinking. It’s not going to be what they’re imagining. It’s totally abstract, more than anything else in their process. And that, I think, is why a director often ends up sticking with a composer. They can get a drawing of the costumes and the sets and really work with it. They can go hands on, but with the music, there’s no hands on. It’s out of their realm. They can’t take a pencil to paper and go, “Like this.” It’s a very abstract thing. To be a successful composer, you have to be almost as much of a psychologist as you do a composer. You have to be able to understand your director. When they say they don’t like something, do they mean the melody? Do they mean the orchestration? Sometimes it turns out it’s one instrument that’s carrying the melody. You never know.

GM: I wonder how many directors have the facility to talk about music in the same way you can.

DE: It’s worse when they have a lot of musical ability, because they’re describing things in a musical way but it still isn’t what they’re expecting. Warren Beatty was like that. He’s a musician. He’s a better musician than I am. He can sit and play the piano. I can’t sit and play the piano to save my life. It doesn’t help. It’s all visceral, it’s all feel. You just have to get to the gut or not.

GM: Do you approach working on Tim Burton’s films differently from other projects? It sounds like you don’t.

DE: I don’t necessarily approach them differently, I probably feel just a bit more expectation. Over the years, when I’m doing one of Tim’s films, it’s like, wow, this is No.6, this is No. 7, this is No. 8, this is No. 9. There’s a lot of fans; they’re expecting something good. Sometimes I have to get that out of my head, a level of expectation that it needs to be more than just a regular score, it has to have something special about it. If you do that, you start to paralyze yourself. For a writer following a successful book, that can be murder for them. They might say, “I can’t necessarily deliver what I did in my last novel; I’ll try to do something different, but the expectations are now high.” It’s the same. It’s why many of my friends are writers. Writers understand composers better than any other type of artist.

GM: Which of the scores included in this collection are among your favorites and why?

DE: Listening back to everything — which I just did last month — I couldn’t pick a favorite. “Edward Scissorhands” will always be a real kind of magical experience for me. It was just one of those scores that went down without a lot of struggle. I didn’t feel any high sense of expectation. It was a weird movie. There was no template with which to start at all. Because of that, it was pretty liberating. It was a low-budget movie, so there were no other voices involved. Low-budget movies are always great that way. They feel a little more free. It just kind of came out. I didn’t feel it was necessarily the right thing, but it’s pretty pure to what I was attempting to do. I did go through quite a period before the movie came out where I thought, “I did something that’s pure to myself, but it’s not right for the movie.” I did go through a period where I thought I kind of failed. It became ironic that that ended up becoming my most known and imitated score of my career — a piece that before it came out, I was thinking, “I like it, but I don’t know that it’s right for the movie. I think I may have screwed up.”

GM: And “Batman” was the most difficult?

DE: “Batman” was by far the most difficult. I had never done a big film. There was a lot of pressure to bring in another composer. There were actually two different camps wrestling me out of place. One, the initial idea of Jon Peters, was to have Michael Jackson, Prince and George Michael score the film. Prince would do the Joker theme; Michael would do the Batman theme; George Michael would do the love theme. That didn’t really leave much room for me to do anything. Then there was another sensible voice from Warner Bros. to bring in a composer like a John Williams or somebody like that who could do a big film. There was one side wanting it to be like a pop thing, totally different than anybody was expecting. And then the Michael Jackson and George Michael thing kind of fell away and they were just left with Prince. They wanted me to co-write the score with Prince, and I didn’t want to do that.

I really had to prove myself. There were a lot of voices against me, which I completely understand. I’d done nothing but comedies, quirky comedies. I didn’t even know myself if I could do that movie. I felt like, given a chance, I could come up with something. It was my 10th film; I was just confident enough to think, “Maybe I could pull this off and bring in something original.” But I was wrestling with my own demons — “what if I’m wrong, what if I’m not ready, what if I’m not capable, what if they’re right, what if they do need a more experienced composer for this?” The only thing I knew I didn’t want to do was collaborate. It was tough. I had to really hang in there and there was a period where I had to step down and then got called back in. That was a tough fight on every level.

“Edward,” contrary to that, was a film that was under the radar straight down the line. It was just Tim and I doing our thing and nobody else asking to sit in. It was so weird of a movie, I mean, really in all of his early movies, I felt like we were having to invent some kind of music. On “Pee-wee” there was nothing for sure. It was just my lucky break that I jumped into a style that caught people’s attention. “Beetlejuice,” very similar. Certainly “Batman” and “Edward,” right up to “Nightmare Before Christmas,” there wasn’t much to go on for these things. I wasn’t trying to make a career out of it, especially in the beginning. The thing that served me best was, if this doesn’t work out as a career I’m fine with that. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody other than Tim. I even expected the music in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” to get thrown out, not by Tim but by the studio.

nightmare2 Danny Elfman: I always saw myself as an alien as a child

Jack Skellington in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (Disney)

GM: Obviously “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has such a huge following and has lived on a major way. Was that anything you could have anticipated when you were working on the film?

DE: Not at all. Once again, we were hanging out there dangling on our own. The first preview of “Nightmare” was catastrophic. That’s the first time I spent an extended period of time [on a film]. I was used to spending 12 weeks, 12 weeks, 12 weeks. Suddenly I’m close to two years on a project. I wore all these different hats. I worked so hard on it, and before it was released you could see it going down the drain. Disney didn’t understand what it was. There was a basic understanding that kids hate this movie and/or it was too scary for kids. You were in one camp or the other. Either it was too scary for kids or they’d hate it anyhow, it didn’t matter. Kids going into a Disney animated musical, they were expecting “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid” or something. This was not that. As Tim said at the beginning, he said, “This is going to be a real challenge, our hero for this movie has no eyelids. He just has sockets.”

“Beetlejuice” and “Nightmare” and “Edward,” they all had horrible preview screenings. Tim talks about it in the book. “Beetlejuice,” they tried to take it away from him. They were going to re-edit it and call it “House Ghost.” I think it was only because they finally got to the point where they gave up on the movie that they decided not to take it away from him and it was low enough budget. If they’d spent more money on it, they probably would have ruined it. Same with “Nightmare.” Disney was like, “We just don’t know what this is.” “Edward Scissorhands,” oh my God. I was at a preview in Orange County for “Edward Scissorhands” where guys in all earnestness were talking about the character that Anthony Michael Hall played, who was clearly the antagonist and going, “You know, I really feel for that guy!” I’m sitting there listening to that. Wow… Helpful notes.

GM: What ultimately ended up happening with “Nightmare”?

DE: In the case of “Nightmare,” they saw that Tim had all this talent and they’re like, “We have these drawings, we have this project that he started years ago, let’s give it a go.” They never tried to change it. Thank God, but they didn’t know how to market it. All the merchandising was canceled a month before the movie came out. Richard Kraft, my agent, he says, “I’m going to put my son through college” on free merchandising that he’s hoarding. He nabbed up all the things he could get from Burger King, the little watches … he pretty much did. Nonetheless, they were all difficult projects.

In Tim’s case, people were willing to take a chance but they weren’t spending tons of money. “Batman” was expensive, but the other ones all weren’t. There was a real difference in how a studio treats something — they don’t get it, doesn’t look like it’s going to sell, they didn’t spend much, they just kind of send it off like a little sailboat as opposed to creating a marketing campaign that’s really going to sell the movie. It’s also really understandable that Disney didn’t know what it was. Look at what they’d had to deal with. How do you market a movie like that for a company that’s never marketed anything remotely like it? They weren’t creatively trying to change anything, I think they were really supportive, they let him do the thing, they didn’t try to tell him what to do, they just didn’t know what to do with it. I’ve been through horrible experiences where I’ve seen studios misbehaving in the worst possible ways toward a film before it was released. This was totally not that.

Personally I was really hurt. I just felt terrible that all this work was going to disappear. It was hurtful that they just didn’t get it, but it was what it was. So the fact that it developed a life over the next decade, slowly, was outrageously unpredictable and exciting. That never happens. How many films can you think of? “Donnie Darko,” “Nightmare Before Christmas” — there’s those few that develop their following after the fact, but there’s so few. It was an amazing thing. I was in Tokyo with Tim for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” going to toy stores and there was Jack Skellington and Sally stuff everywhere. Tim’s going, “I don’t know what half this stuff is! I’ve never even seen half these things.” For me, that was the realization that this thing has really developed its own life.

I have to say, Disney, to their defense, later they did realize, “We have something of value here” and they’ve done a great job re-releasing it, putting out these other soundtracks. It took them a while and once they did, I think they’ve done fabulously picking up an older project and trying to bring life back to it.

GM: Since the experience of assembling the “Music Box,” have you gotten better about archiving your own material?

DE: Since the last two months, I’m searching actively now for about 20 other scores. I’m trying to get film mixes for early stuff. I’m talking with older music editors I’ve worked with, looking for old hard drives, and I’m trying to find all my printed music. I didn’t save a single piece of manuscript and so we did find a lot, certainly not everything. The real fun thing for that was, before “Pee-wee,” — this was back in the mid ’70s — I wrote a thing called “Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto No. 1½,” and it was the first real composition I ever committed to paper. I taught myself to write. I made myself write this thing down, and it was only because of that composition that I took “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” I realized if I could write that, I could write this.… [My assistant], in her searching, she found the manuscript for that.

charlie Danny Elfman: I always saw myself as an alien as a child

Freddie Highmore in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (Warner Bros.)

GM: It must have been exciting to see that again.

DE: Yeah. It’s not like I hate all my [stuff] and I want to burn it. I just never thought about anything: Once it was done, it was done.  There’s some psychological thing that I don’t quite understand of wanting to push the stuff away. I never want to listen to anything ever. I never ever listen to my own stuff with Oingo Boingo or film music unless I have to.

GM: And you’re going to write the score for Tim Burton’s new animated film “Frankenweenie,” which is currently in production in London?

DE: I never assume I’m going to get the call. I’ve always tried to clear my time for Tim over the last 25 years. I get unavailable really quick. I’ve always tried to keep an eyeball out on what he’s doing. I figure I may get the call, I may not, but I’m going to make sure I’m making this time is available.

— Gina McIntyre

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Comments


One Response to Danny Elfman: ‘I always saw myself as an alien as a child’

  1. Mark LaFlamme says:

    I keep the "Nightmare Before Christmas" soundtrack on my playlist. Awesome when you're set to shuffle.

    Mark LaFlamme
    Author of "Box of Lies"

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