To celebrate the release of the Danny Elfman and Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box, Danny Elfman recently sat down in front of an excited audience at the Grammy Museum's intimate Clive Davis Theater in downtown Los Angeles, California for a lively Q&A with The Grammy Foundation's Vice President, Scott Goldman. In the third and final segment of the interview, Danny discusses his transition from Oingo Boingo into film composing, how he finds some criticism inspiring, and the five projects he sees looming on the horizon...
Scott Goldman: I want to talk just for a minute about Planet of the Apes, only because: classic film that everybody knows, also classic score -- Jerry Goldsmith’s score -- and here you are now remaking the movie. And you talked earlier about how you want to go into a project blank, you don’t want to be thinking about anything else, and here you’ve got the history behind this. How did that play in your head?
Danny Elfman: I’d gone through that a number of times in different ways -- a little bit on Batman, where everybody was like, “You’re going to use the TV theme song, right?” No. When I did Mission Impossible, I really wanted to get Lalo’s theme, but how to incorporate that but still get an original feel for the score? And then Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were two really uh-oh -- once again, it gets into sacred territory. Just like with Nightmare and the Broadway-loving critics of animated films, which I don’t have a problem with. I just don’t like Broadway. [Laughs] So I had to run afoul of them -- there was no way not to, and once again, when you’re getting into sacred ground, Planet of the Apes was a much beloved score.
Charlie and the Chocolate factory, I mean Willy Wonka -- that was a much beloved movie. So there’s really no way to approach it, other than to just forget about it. You just don’t think about it. No matter what you do, you’re going to catch a lot of shit, but by that point, I’d been catching so much shit for so long that it’s like that shit-catching was actually fuel. When I was with the Mystic Knights, we got trashed by theater critics. Then, when I was with Oingo Boingo the band, people wrote nostalgically about the Mystic Knights, like, “Oh, they were good. The band was awful.” And then when I started composing, I got nothing but horrible notices for over a decade, so that became a fuel for me, really from the beginning. I think my single most motivating factor, from day one, was as simple as, “I’ll show those mother-fuckers.” [Laughs]
SG: That works. Is that still working for you?
DE: Absolutely. It’s like, “I know I shouldn’t be writing a film score. Fuck you! Here it is.” That’s a really powerful energy source. You can either get energy from love [laughs], or you can get energy from scathing critics. It’s a very powerful force when you’re trying to constantly show, “Oh yeah? Watch this.” Often I think about a section of a movie and there’s somebody I’m really pissed at at that moment who I had a bad encounter with and it’s like, “I can’t wait for them to hear this scene, the mother-fuckers. They think I couldn’t do their movie? Wait ‘til they hear this scene in this one. He’s going to have a few moments where’s going to doubt whether…you know.”
It’s bitterness. Bitterness [laughs] is a useful and powerful tool if you can turn it into a positive inertia. That is the key. Bitterness, if you turn it inward, just destroys you. But if you turn it into pellets of fuel, if you can put it in the furnace and turn that into, “I’ll show them. Fuck them,” it becomes a really powerful energy source. The thing that helped me a lot is I came from being in a rock band, and when you’re in a rock band, you have to take an attitude like that from day one. Everything you do is like, “Oh yeah? Well fuck you. This is what it is. Come and listen to it or don’t listen to it, but this is what it is.” So when I approached composing, I took that attitude with me, and it was very useful because if you’re worried about that, your work is going to suffer.
SG: But as opposed to being in a rock band where “Fuck you” works because you’re in the band and this is what we do, when you’re composing for film, there’s the director, there’s the studio, there’s a lot of other people who can…
DE: You can say “fuck you” to anybody but the director. “Fuck you” goes to those who doubt. The director has hired you because the director doesn’t doubt. So the director has shown faith in you. Then you take on the psychology of the dog that’s taken in out of a rainy day -- the starving dog. It’s like, “You’ve shown faith in me?” I will return the faith with enormous amounts of loyalty. So the psychology is a very different psychology there. In other words, the doubt is the “fuck you” part of it. It’s like, “You don’t think I can do this kind of thing? I’ll show you that I can.” But the director has hired you. The director has not shown any doubt. The director, in fact, may have even put themselves in jeopardy for bringing you in there, maybe putting themselves on the line. So you in fact become incredibly motivated to give them something that they’ll want to use.
Also, when you know that it’s useless doing the job unless you can convince them that that’s part of it -- it’s a whole different psychology. So you start out a job, you have a lot of cocky confidence, but at the same time, you are like the dog that was rescued out of the alley…
I used to joke with Tim — when I met him, his idol was Vincent Price and mine was Peter Lorre. And in the movies, Peter Lorre was often persecuted in so many movies -- he was the tortured, persecuted one. Vincent Price was frequently the one…he’s the one who pulled the switch on the pendulum. He was lowering the pendulum down. [Laughs] So it says a lot about the director/composer relationship because when you’re in that situation, the director is Vincent Price -- they are Master of the Universe, and they might be half mad. And the composer is the mad, tortured, demented, trying to be brilliant but often not, but attempting to scratch their way through and convince the Master of the Universe that they’re worthy of their attention and letting them live, which means not getting your score thrown out. Because that’s the equivalent. You get your score thrown out, you’ve just had the pendulum cut you in half. So you have to convince them, through all kinds of different ways, that you’re worthy, and you have to work really hard. So, at the same time, I have a lot of attitude towards the world in general. I work incredibly hard to make my directors feel what I’m doing, and often taking a big chance with what I’m doing is worth taking a chance on.
SG: Let’s take a couple of questions from the audience:
Audience Member: Since you just brought up cartoons, I was wondering if we could go back to your very early career in movies, and talk about the influence the Fleischer Brothers on the Elfman Brothers…
DE: The Fleischer Brothers were a huge, huge influence. Right from the get-go… I don’t know what it is -- somewhere in late high school years, I became infatuated with early jazz pre-1938, and actually throughout the entire ’70s, pretty much. I wouldn’t listen to music written after 1938. I was one of these snobs. So there was a whole world of music… I didn’t know who David Bowie was. I didn’t care. I didn’t listen to the radio. I became real intensely nerdy. So the Fleischer Brothers was a key because the Fleischer Brothers had these performances that didn’t exist anywhere else.
I loved Cab Calloway’s music, and in the early Mystic Knights, I performed four different Cab Calloway songs, loved doing the arrangements -- the arrangements were great. But those Betty Boop cartoons would feature Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway, and often in a performance that was particularly liberating. So if you were a real Cab Calloway-phile, which I was, there was no other performance for “St. James Infirmary” or “Minnie the Moocher” but for those Fleischer cartoons. Because I had a lot of other recorded versions, but none of them were quite as good. So he got these incredible performances from these amazing jazz artists, and put them in these insane acid-trip, psychedelic cartoons, and it was a huge fuel [thank you for noticing (laughs)] for my early years.
AM: You brought up “Minnie the Moocher.” How did Forbidden Zone come about? How or why did you guys do Forbidden Zone?
DE: Well, not “guys” -- it was my brother [Richard Elfman]. He did it, and I just did my part and gave him music, and then I agreed to do the scene and do the song. Because we used to do “Minnie the Moocher” on stage, so he wanted to take that into the film. But that was just his desire; he wanted to start doing film, so that’s when we parted ways in the Mystic Knights, because originally he was the director, I was the musical director, and then at a certain point he went off to do Forbidden Zone and I took over the Mystic Knights and took it in a more musical direction where everybody played instruments. So it was less theater and more music in those later years, but Rick and I both loved this kind of stuff, the same stuff, because that’s what we did in the Mystic Knights -- Cab Calloway, Minnie the Moocher… So we performed it in the Mystic Knights, and then Rick really wanted to take it into the movie, so of course he had to change the lyrics to make it work.
AM: When you look at the finished product, are you self-critical, or do you see yourself as great as we see you?
DE: No. I haven’t worked on a film yet where I finished it and thought I’ve really nailed it. And the stuff that I’m most well-known for, I was actually most insecure about. I felt confident that I’d done something interesting in Batman, but I didn’t think I’d done a great job. Edward Scissorhands I actually thought I’d done a terrible job when I was done with it. Nightmare Before Christmas was just fun, and I didn’t think about what kind of job it was. It was just fun.
This is where Tim and I, I think, are similar. My agent is sitting out there, and he knows what a terrible salesman I am when I meet directors because I usually go, “I think I can do something interesting for your film,” and you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to go, “Fucking right, I can do this, mother- fuckers. Take this fucker apart and just nail it.” That’s what directors want to hear, and I’m usually going, “I think I can do something interesting.” But in all the years I’ve known Tim, I’ve never heard him say more about one of his own films than, “I think it came out interesting.” So it makes sense for me. All you hope for is to try to do something interesting, and it maybe has moments that get better than interesting, but I don’t come from a world of cocky, “Yeah, that fucker’s nailed.” Ten years later, I may listen to something and go, “That came out pretty good.”
It’s really hard. After 25 years, I still do, generally speaking, a really shitty sales job when I’m with directors because they’ll ask me, “What would you do for this movie?” And I go, “It just depends on what kind of movie it turns out like. I mean, there are so many ways to score a film.” That’s not what they want to hear. The way to get a job is to tell them exactly what you’d do, even though you probably won’t do that.
So, for young composers, that’s probably the right thing to do -- just bullshit, because composers have been full of bullshit since day one. Ever since Bernard Herrmann said, to answer the question, “Why did you write the Psycho score for strings?” “Because it was black and white,” and people still say that now. Of course that was bullshit. Citizen Kane was black and white. That doesn’t mean anything. It’s just something that popped into his head. So that is part of the job. None of us know how what we make work works, and I think any of us that are any good, in particular, don’t know what we’re doing really, or how it works. So I think the ones who are really confident usually are because they’re just going to mimic something else. But bullshitting pays when you’re selling yourself. You can just pretend you know what you’re doing.
AM: Do you miss singing live in front of an audience, and do you have an outlet for singing? Because you have a wonderful singing voice…
DE: Oh, thank you. [Laughs] No, I really don’t. I was on stage for 17 years with Oingo Boingo, so probably 26, 27 years total on stage -- over 25. And I think I had stage fright for every one of those, every show, every one of those times. So there was always that getting ready for the Halloween show, and I felt it was this huge pressure of like, I have to learn everything, I have to do a bunch of songs I don’t like doing anymore…
So I liked singing, but I never had the knack, the ability that a successful rock… If you’re in a band, you have to really love… Like being a theater actor as opposed to a film actor. You have to be able to get up there and do it every night, every night, every night and just love it. And I didn’t. I really didn’t like doing any song I’d written after two or three years, so when you’re in a band for 17 years, you’ve got some built-in problems. I never wanted to do it. All I looked forward to doing was new songs, but you can’t do a concert and just do new songs. It just doesn’t work. So it was an un-reconcilable dilemma, and when I stopped performing, it was a relief to not have to always worry about my throat, my voice, and be so constantly obsessed with how my throat was doing every morning when I woke up, and how much voice I’d have after a performance for the next night -- if I’d have 80% or 50% or 75%... A huge chunk of my life was an obsession with these fragile things, these vocal chords, which are incredibly unreliable. And I envied the drummer, I envied anybody else -- they could bang…
Even if they’re going to have a cold, they can bang on the drums, they can play the guitar, you take some Sudafed and wipe your nose every now and then, nobody knows you have a bad cold. But when you’re the singer, you can’t hide it -- you lose your voice. So I was happy to let that pressure go. I still enjoy singing, but I don’t miss the pressure because I love performing, but I wasn’t cut out for touring and what you needed to do. I loved performing; I didn’t like touring. I didn’t like the repetition. I never liked touring more than 30 days, and you can’t be in a band and just tour 30-day tours. You have to tour for six months.
AM: Could you talk a little bit about when you decided to go into classical concert music and writing in that vein, and I know you did the ballet, and what you felt the difference was between scoring for film. Because that is all about the music. You have to write something that’s totally self-contained…
DE: The reason is real simple -- it’s called staying sane. Because for ten years I went between the band and scoring, and it was a love/hate thing, but it kept the balance. And then for the next ten years, I didn’t, and I found myself really losing it. I had to find something else, so I started writing scripts, and I wrote three scripts and sold them, but I never really stuck with it. But I had to do something else, and then I realized I’ll take this commission. And when I did that, I realized I need to do something every year that’s not for film. I haven’t been totally true to that, but I’m trying, and I know exactly the piece I wanted to write this year. I want to start doing chamber music now; the ballet was a great experience. And these things are great pressure valve releases because I can’t do just film music or I’ll go nuts.
It’s such a weird, freaky art form. Just to be able to write music and let it go anywhere it wants and not stop just when I get rolling with an idea that I love because the scene stopped. Or have to hear the music buried under sound effects and go, wow, all the detail I did there was really for nothing. It’s all for the soundtrack album -- certainly can’t hear it in the movie. You have to bear that reality. And then, when you write pure concert music, you go, well, for better, for worse, when it’s played, when it’s listened to, it’s going to be heard. And I can just let the things run amuck. So that’s the main thing -- it’s starting a musical idea and letting it run amuck to stay sane.
AM: What was going through your mind when you were transitioning to composer from the band?
DE: It was really difficult. There were a couple of films where I would split my salary and I’d say, “Okay, I’ll take half the salary and give the band the other half,” just to buy the time to do the film because I need to do these films, but it’s taking time away from them. So it was a tremendous amount of guilt because I was loving what I was doing more and more, and I was beginning to see that I had a facility. I didn’t know how good I was, but I knew that I had a facility for doing it. I had a temperament that seemed to work for that. I didn’t kill any directors, I had this commitment. So there were ten really difficult years of guilt and trying to find ways to balance and keep both things alive. And as my daughter knows, I worked about 18 hours a day, and I worked all the time.
AM: In the same way that, when you score music for Tim and it might open doors or you, do you think you open doors for Tim, scoring his movies?
DE: No, I think Tim’s movies would be successful, regardless of who did the music. I don’t think the music can make a movie. I like to think that if I score a movie, it makes it a little more something, that his films got a little extra something, as I felt when I watched the Harryhausen films with the Bernard Herrmann scores. Clash of the Titans didn’t have a Bernard Herrmann score, which I missed, but I still enjoyed the movie. But I liked Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad a little more because it did have the Harryhausen score. So I think he still would have had the same exact career without me; I just hope that I’ve added some element to his films, that’s all.
SG: Last question: what’s next?
DE: I had planned on taking off the end of the year, writing for myself, and then taking more time next year. And as it turns out, I have five films booked, which is the most I’ve ever had in the future, which is weird. I’ve never been able to see more than two or three ahead, and I don’t like, actually, having my future all booked up. So it’s a very weird thing because it’s like, “Oh, I see. Fourteen months of my life is already totally spoken for,” and it’s scary, but it just happened. It’s a two-Tim Burton year, and a Sam Raimi, so there’s three. I’m not going to say no to Tim and Sam -- that’s already three movies. And then Men in Black, well of course I don’t want somebody else to do number 3, so there was another one. And then another one called The Hunger Games popped up, which seemed like really interesting thing. Different -- and different catches my attention in a way that’s like, “Oh, I can’t ever pass up a chance to do something different.” So that deal’s not even closed, it may not even happen, but we’re well along with that.
And I’m doing, at the moment, Cirque du Soleil [Iris], which also turned into four times the job that I imagined. It’s like doing four films back to back, because it’s like scoring scenes in film, and as you finish the score, the director says, “Oh, and I shot a whole bunch more footage for it just yesterday.” Oh. “And it’s twice as long now.” Okay, let’s start all over again. So it’s a constantly shifting thing, and incredibly interesting and different, but it’s gobbled up many more months than I could have imagined. So it, in fact, is probably going to take me straight up until… Oh, Frankenweenie, of course, is in there, as well as Dark Shadows. I’m already having to start to write pre-production music for Frankenweenie and for Oz because of stuff that they’ll sing to, the theme… So it’s going to be an interesting period, after which I hope to take a big chunk of time off and write a bunch of concert music that I have in my head.
The Danny Elfman and Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Box was released May 3, 2011 by Warner Bros. Records.
All photos by Martin Santacruz, Jr.