Danny Elfman on Tim Burton, Gus Van Sant, and why it's so hard to sing in Russian: An EW Q&A
Ever since he first laid down tracks for Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure 25 years ago, composer (and erstwhile ’80s rock star) Danny Elfman has crafted scores for dozens of iconic films and television shows.
You can scarcely swing a cat without bumping up against an Elfman creation, be it the opening songs from The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives to now-legendary themes for flicks like Batman and Spider-Man.
You’ll get to hear him again in some of the biggest movies on the horizon, including Real Steel, Men In Black III and The Hunger Games, and if you’re interested in his past work, he recently released a 16 disc retrospective box set of his collaborations with Tim Burton. This week, he also just opened Cirque Du Soleil: Iris in Los Angeles. EW caught up with him recently, and he told us his memories from some of his favorite projects.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
“If I were to list my favorite collaborations with Tim [Burton], I would say number one would be The Nightmare Before Christmas. It was the purest, simplest process I had in all the years with Tim. There was less pressure, and the results came from the ability to kind of wander. We didn’t know how to start doing a musical; there was an animation crew ready to go and there was no script. So we started with the songs. And literally, he’d come over and start telling me the story.
I said, ‘Just tell me the story like you’re reading a book to a kid.’ So he’d take out some pictures and tell a little bit of the story, and as he was telling the story, I’d start to hear an idea for a song. Usually about three days later, I’d play him the song, and then he would tell me more of the story. Ten times we got together, he told me a story and I wrote the songs. When I was writing lyrics for [Oingo Boingo], I would write about abstract things or things that annoyed me. I could be bitter or facetious about something. I had never written anything where I told a story and wasn’t sarcastic in the process. It was a new experience writing lyrics for songs that were doing a complete narrative.”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
“I had a similar experience with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was like I was having too good of a time. Writing down all the voices, playing the parts, doing the demos for the five tunes, that had to be the next best collaborative fun. And I say ‘collaborative’ on both of those because much more than I’ve done on any film with any director, including Tim. It really was a collaboration.
Those songs in the original [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory] are iconic, but I didn’t care. I had no trouble divorcing myself from those songs. I’ve dealt with that a couple of times. You know you’re dealing with something that’s going to make a lot of people angry, and you just can’t think about it. Same with Planet of the Apes, which is a famous Jerry Goldsmith score. No matter what you do, you’re picking up something that’s sacred for some part of the culture, and if you think about that for two seconds, it’s just going to make you anxious. The best thing to to is to just go, ‘Well, whatever. That thing was that thing, and this is a different thing.’ You either forget about it or you pay homage to it. There’s really nothing in between.
We decided early on that we weren’t going to pay homage to the original. Tim made it really clear from the beginning that we weren’t even going to get close. In fact, he wanted to do the opposite. He wanted to pick these crazy pop styles that might exist in Willy Wonka’s world. The first he wanted to do was Bollywood, then he wanted to do some ’60s psychedelia. He had all these ideas – ‘Can we do a little bit of ABBA, a little bit of Beach Boys? We have to have a funk tune for Violet, like ’70s funk.’ It was just a great time that had nothing whatsoever to do with the original. That opened the door to great silly fun.”
“Nobody had any idea what we were doing on that movie, so we were just inventing some new toy off on our own. We were left completely on our own. It had no model at all for how to score it and what it was. Tim couldn’t find any temp music for Beetlejuice that would work. The title character doesn’t appear until more than a half hour into that movie, and I had to let the audience know what the film was, even before they got to the first scene. They had to know they were watching a raucous film, even though that film doesn’t get raucous for another 40 minutes. I think that helps when you get the audience in the right frame of mind, because then they’re prepped for that. Even though they know it’s low-key in the beginning, it’s going to get wacky.”
“Edward was this pure joyful experience, just a very simple thing. Beetlejuice was the same, but it was pure silly fun. Two counterpoints emotionally, but equal in terms of fun and ease. I didn’t ever think that consciously, but I know the music was pouring out in a way, flowing in a real steady, easy manner. I didn’t know on either film whether I was doing a good job or a terrible job. I thought they could both come out atrocious, but they were so much fun to do.”
“Working with Gus Van Sant on Milk was hard work, but at the end it was so rewarding. We didn’t know how emotional or not emotional to get. The first idea was to use a sort of operatic base because Harvey Milk listened to opera, and I actually wrote 20 minutes of score based on operatic themes I was developing. At a certain point, we realized it didn’t work. Opera tends to be emotional to the point of being melodramatic, and it was overstating the emotions in the film. We kept exploring and found some other thematic pieces until it worked, and suddenly it opened up this new door. It’s like discovering gold after digging a giant hole and finding nothing. After that it was easy.”
To Die For
“Much like Beetlejuice, nothing seemed to work for temp. I had the pleasure of seeing the movie in a preview without the music and watching the audience be totally confused. After the score was in, the preview got much better because I was able to bring a tone to the film. Nobody quite understood what the film was, and the music going in helped the audience understand what the tone of the film was. They knew that To Die For was a dark film about a murder, but the score let them know it was OK to snicker and laugh a little. They didn’t understand that at first, that it was OK to have fun with the film. So I knew I had to do that right away, starting with the opening titles.”
“I don’t think about pop music a lot. I’m busy all the time. If someone asks me to sing something, I’ll be like, ‘OK.’ The producers of Wanted had been struggling to get a song together, and Cathy Nelson from Universal said, ‘Why don’t you take a theme from the movie and turn it into a song?’ So I did, and I laid down a bass line and did one verse and one chorus and sent it out, and I didn’t think about it again. So Wanted is done, and I’m off in London scoring Hellboy with Guillermo Del Toro, and I get a call from Cathy. And she said, ‘Remember ‘The Little Things’? That song you did for Wanted?’ And I said, ‘Uh, no.’ So she sent me an MP3, and [director] Timur [Bekmambetov] decided that’s what he wanted. They needed it in about a week, and I was in the middle of scoring in London. So I wrote another couple of verses and a chorus and did my best to demo it in my hotel, and suddenly we had to go record it. I got a producer named Dave Sardo, and he came in to lay down the tracks, which I wasn’t really able to be there for. But he used my demo as a guide, and I went there in between sessions for Hellboy. We were working around the clock, and I would take a break and go into a side studio to record the vocals.
“And just to torture me more, Timur wanted a Russian version. And I asked him which Russian singer he was going to use, and he insisted that I do it in Russian. So after a double session with the huge Hellboy orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, I met with a Russian coach. But Russian is really hard, especially for an English-speaking person. So we would go over it line by line, and I would sing it back to her in Russian. To my ear it was exactly how it was supposed to sound, but she was constantly laughing, because I kept getting it wrong and couldn’t even hear the difference. By the end of that session, I felt like my brain was spent. There was no more brain. It was gone. I will never think another thought. Trying to sing in Russian murdered me. But it does exist. “The Little Things,” in Russian, sung by me. Those are the sacrifices we make for directors we love.”
Read more on EW.com: