Danny Elfman knows the score: Tim Burton ‘opened every door for me’
Fans of Tim Burton’s films have come to treasure the scores by composer Danny Elfman as an essential part of the viewing experience. For the most diehard 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 by ordering at 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 hourlong conversation between Burton and Elfman and a 250-page hardcover book with a foreword written by Johnny Depp, in addition to other collectibles. Elfman recently sat down with Hero Complex writer Gina McIntyre to discuss in detail how the collection came together, how his relationship with Burton had evolved over the years and what it’s like to reflect on a shared legacy amassed over a quarter of a century. Look for Part 2 of the interview Friday.
DE: It’s so far out of my realm of what I know, collectors’ things like this. I’ve never owned one. It’s been a whole kind of learning experience. Richard Kraft, my agent, this is really his baby. I tried to explain that in the opening letter [included in the collection]: This isn’t the project of an agent doing something for his client, this is the product of a major film-music geek who lives for this kind of thing. We had many discussions. I was really resistant to putting on certain kinds of material I thought was private and trying to understand who it is that buys these things and what they’re like, slowly trying to get an understanding of the kind of person who really looks for the odd, the rare, the unreleased. I thought, what if Bernard Herrmann had done half a dozen more movies with Hitchcock over another 10 years. He’s the only composer out there that I would probably get a little nutty over. His career with Hitchcock I think of as this great collaboration, but it wasn’t that long. Then not only would I want the box set, I would want anything — if he sang into a tape recorder, I’d want it. I’d want everything. Using that as a model, I started finally to [think], I should let some of this stuff go, even though it’s embarrassing.
GM: How involved were you in the process of assembling the set? What embarrassed you exactly?
DE: They came to me with the idea. I just imagined it would be a collection of CDs. Only a couple of months ago really did [Richard] arrive, saying, we have our deadlines. I thought, oh my God, I have to edit and master 16 CDs. It was a huge amount of work. It’s really a good thing I didn’t think about what it would involve [beforehand]. … Everything anybody approaches me about that’s an extra anything, I go, “I don’t have time, I don’t have time.” I found myself in the middle of this huge thing. Richard and one of my assistants, they spent months combing through boxes and storage rooms. I write about this in the project. It’s very bizarre. There’s not a single thing I’ve collected over my entire lifetime that I haven’t saved — things that I shouldn’t, artifacts, things that I’ve come across — but I’ve never, ever saved a piece of music. Everything got thrown into trash bags and boxes and only because I think various assistants or housekeepers were afraid to throw it away — because I never gave any instructions about anything — it got dumped into storage rooms. I think I have seven storage rooms, none of which I’ve ever gone into. They just sifted through box after box.
In between an old box of unplayable synthesizer parts and old toys and books, there would be a box of cassettes, unmarked. … They spent months sifting through hundreds and hundreds of hours of old audio cassettes and DAT tapes. When they finally came to me a couple of months ago, it was like, “Alright, we’ve sifted through this stuff, but now, you’ve got to listen to everything.” Then there was the incredible experience of listening to 25 years worth of work, both released and unreleased.
When I was talking about the embarrassing part — my demos. I never expected one of my synth demos of a piece of music would ever be for anybody’s ears. There are two levels; there’s one I call a work tape, which is me working stuff out. … Work tape is getting to the point where I’d even play it for Tim. That was very strange. I’m not a composer that puts a lot of polish work into their demos. … I’m probably in the minority that doesn’t invest in really extensive libraries of stuff and/or have people that work with them just for that purpose of polishing up and making these demos really spiffy. Every demo, every work tape is my own hand. There are mistakes, bad notes, bad playing, and probably the most embarrassing thing is the early synth sounds back in the mid-’80s were really bad. By today’s standards, it would be like what you hear in a kid’s keyboard. In the middle ’80s, that’s kind of what there was. It’s embarrassing because everything’s of my own hand, and I’m not a great keyboardist, and the earlier they are, the more embarrassing they are.
GM: Are some things more embarrassing for you than others?
DE: The demo for “Batman” is an incredibly embarrassing thing. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that suddenly these demos are becoming less cringe-worthy for me, somewhere between the middle ’90s and 2000. The sounds just got better. In my opening letter, I try to say, you know how we look at old science-fiction movies with really cheesy special effects and go, well, that’s what they had. You can’t compare that to today. It’s the same with these. In the middle ’80s through the early ’90s, the sounds that we had to work with were what they were. You didn’t think about it at the time. It’s incredible for me to think now, this is a demo that I actually played for Jon Peters and Tim Burton to sell the “Batman” theme in 1989. Now it sounds so horribly bad, if you put it on, somebody would laugh. But at the time, everything kind of sounded like that. It was a lot better than banging on a piano and singing them a melody, which before that period, that’s really what you did. For “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” that’s what I did. I vowed I would never, ever do that again. I quickly embraced the technology to work up pieces of music to sound listenable. … I had one of the very first Macs ever, a very primitive version of what I have now, but the sounds available were very minimal. I remember I had a little box and it had strings long, strings short [laughs]. That’s it. Two string choices. Trumpets, French horns, trombones — one, one choice of each — and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between the French horn and the trumpet because they all sound like car horns at a certain point. It was still, for a director, a lot better for them to understand what I’m doing than playing on a piano and trying to sing a melody.
I’ve always been a big proponent of working out my ideas that way so I can hear what I’m doing and what I’m playing [for the director] is really trying to be a facsimile of what he’s going to hear with the orchestra. As each year went along, [the demos] sounded more like what the orchestra was going to sound like. Today, it still doesn’t sound as good as an orchestra, but you can hear the whole progression from, I think the first demo is from 1987 [for] “Beetlejuice” and “Alice” being the last demos. That was the embarrassing part. I decided if I’m going to do that, I might as well put on the stuff that’s interesting to me, and the stuff that was interesting to me was the stuff that didn’t make it in the score. I did a lot of moments of purposely picking a piece of music that isn’t exactly the piece as you hear it in the movie. I guess once you open that door, you might as well embrace it and let the listener who is interested into the process of how I put something together. By the time I got to “Alice,” I did a thing where I picked the one thing, the “Alice” theme which was on the CD, and I did three other versions of it going backward — an earlier first orchestral attempt at something that never got used and two or three synthesized versions going back to where you could just hear the beginning of the melody and now you can hear the B part of the melody. Now you can hear the whole thing, and then you can hear it go to orchestra, and then you can hear the final thing. If one was so inclined, they could hear the development of a theme, how I work.
GM: In the culture that we live in now, where people listen to DVD commentaries and watch behind-the-scenes features so frequently, there would seem to be a real interest in seeing exactly how something like that comes together.
DE: I don’t know whether this type of person who’s really interested in this … level of minutiae and detail, whether it’s 10 people, hundreds or thousands, but it doesn’t matter. That’s who we put this together for. However many or few they are. The book, the same thing. At first I thought, this is going to be viewed as the most self-indulgent thing ever. I would die if I read that. Again, Richard was like, “No, no. … You have to think of this not as a biography but really extensive liner notes.”
GM: How much of an impact would you say your partnership with Tim has had on your composing career? Didn’t he initially come to you to ask you to score “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” before you had considered writing music for film?
DE: I’d never even thought of it. I was a film fan, and I was a film music fan. At that point, Bernard Herrmann was a god. I could listen to the scores of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and [Erich] Korngold and identify them. I was really proud. I could hear something and go, “That’s definitely Max Steiner,” and Nino Rota was huge. I was a fan. Really it was almost like, the best way I can describe it, which I’ve often done: If you’re a basketball fan and you’ve always got court-side seats, you’re right there on the floor, and you know the game, and you’re a fan of the game, and you know the moves, you know the players, but you’re just a fan, and suddenly somebody threw you the ball and said, “Come on, get in the game.” This was a case of going, “Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” It was way off my radar, the idea of a fan becoming a player is not something a fan ever expects. My first reaction was actually to tell [Tim] no. I came home and met him, really liked him, I did an eight-track demo of a piece and sent it on a cassette, never expected to hear again, and two weeks later, I got the job. I said, “Tell him I can’t do it.” [For the record: A previous version of this post misspelled the first name of Nino Rota as Nina.]
Then I decided, I’ve never backed away from a challenge before, it’s on his shoulders if I blow it. It will be a lesson, don’t go to rock-and-roll guys for film scores. I did have this pre-Oingo Boingo background with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo where I was writing music for an eight-piece ensemble. I decided if I could write for eight pieces, I could write for a dozen pieces. If you can write for a dozen pieces, you can write a film score. Even though my first score was 65 players, you’re not writing 65 parts. You’ve got groups, you’ve got your violins, you have your cello, you’ve got your trombone and your French horns. You’re not really necessarily writing for that many parts. Especially as I look back, it’s a good thing “Pee-wee” was a very simple score. That was the first thing that struck me when I listened to it because I hadn’t heard it in all these years.
Tim opened every door for me. Every score for the next 10 years opened up a new side of my career. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” got me offered every quirky comedy … made in Hollywood. Out of the blue, I’m offered 10 movies, and they’re all kind of contemporary, slightly — some of them were not so quirky — comedies. Then “Beetle Juice.” Oh, fantasy, you can stretch out a bit more. Then “Batman,” that was the roughest of my career — the time where I really had to fight for something — [it was,] “Oh, do a big movie.” … Then “Edward Scissorhands” and it’s like, ah, well, romantic, sure. Every one of those was opening up another door. Suddenly, the offers after each of those would be of a more diverse nature. By the time I got to “Batman,” I wanted to keep doing it. I’d thought of my band as the day job, and this was my night job, my weekend job, my side project. By the time I got to “Batman,” it was like, no, I’m enjoying this and was putting a tremendous amount of time [into] trying to learn the craft. Tim used to joke in between each of his films, I was doing four. “Pee-wee” was one, “Beetle Juice” was five, “Batman” was 10, my 10th film. “Edward” didn’t quite make it to 15, I think it was 14 or 16 or something. He said, “How are you doing all of these films in between each of my films?” I told him, if I don’t, I’m not going to be able to do each of your films because each film was asking more of me. I didn’t want them all to be like “Pee-wee” with a different melody or different tone.
— Gina McIntyre
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