Danny Elfman on Music from the Films of Tim Burton, Pee-Wee and panic
Beginning July 6, Danny Elfman will bring his excellent orchestral extravaganza Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton to New York’s Lincoln Center. The show first emerged a few years back following the release of the massive Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box, made its debut at Royal Albert Hall in London, and has since appeared in a number of European cities and in Los Angeles. “Since the first shows I’ve been nagging the producers constantly for two years, ‘What about New York?'” Elfman told Entertainment Weekly. “The two cities of my life are L.A. and New York. I know there’s a big beautiful country in between, but they’re the only places I know, and I couldn’t rest until we got this show to New York.”
In a recent phone conversation, Elfman told EW about the origins of the show, his first meeting with Burton and the inherent panic of his process.
Entertainment Weekly: How did this show first come together?
Danny Elfman: It probably germinated about five years ago when we did the box set. That was three months of digging into my old stuff, which I never listen to ever. It was so fresh in my mind that I think my agents, who were producing that, saw an opportunity. We talked for 20 years about concert suites, and I never wanted to do it, because it’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of work toward the past, and that’s a real problem for me. I always liked going forward. So I resisted, but they came to me with the offer to do this concert at Albert Hall. I thought if I was ever going to do it, now was the time to do it, so I cleared another three months in my schedule to concentrate on it.
In working on the box set and this series of suites, are you still re-discovering elements of the music?
There definitely was looking back and doing the box set. When I opened it up to do the orchestration, it was a different kind of challenge. In some of the suites, I just left everything as-is, but the challenge was getting 15 suites into a two hour concert. I’d try to look at each of the major suites in three levels. One is the main themes that people would like to hear represented, and how can I put these together in a concert situation. Two, if somebody really knew that score, what part of the score would they enjoy hearing that’s not obvious because it’s not a major thematic part of it. Then on most of them, I tried to write something fresh and new that was a transitional area or a fresh section that had never been done, just to keep it fresh for myself. I pretty much did that on most of the suites.
What pieces tend to get the biggest reactions in performance?
Definitely Batman. Edward Scissorhands. A Nightmare Before Christmas. Beetlejuice. It varies, actually, but those things for sure. I knew I just had to do it in a way that made sense to me, and what I didn’t know was whether it would make any sense as a unified piece. There was no out-of-town performances, and no rehearsals to work out anything. As my wife told me at the time, it was completely going out on a high wire with no net. That first show at Albert Hall was probably the single most terrifying live experience I’ve ever had in my life. By far. Because when I was in a band, a band builds slowly. You’re playing to 50 people, then 100, then 1,000, then 5,000, and along the way you’re building a repertory, and people know what to expect at your concerts. There’s really no template for this. What is a concert of your film music supposed to be like? There’s nothing to go on. If it was only six or seven suites, it’d would have been self-evident how to put them together. But for 15 of them, I couldn’t tell if I was making the biggest mess of my life or if it would make sense. And then when I agreed to come out and sing, it just exacerbated it 100 fold.
Was there any narrative that emerged for you organically?
No, in those 15 films, there’s really nothing that ties them together much, and it’s exactly that that makes it a difficult concert to play for an orchestra. Every time an orchestra has to learn it, it’s a bitch. When you’re playing one score, you get the tone and the gist of it and it carries from piece to piece. With the Elfman/Burton show, every time you get that thing going, it stops and restarts and takes a different attitude. It really requires a different level of attention.
How long does it generally take an orchestra to learn it?
It’s generally two days.
Those must be an intense two days.
Really intense. We’ve even done shows where it’s one day and a dress rehearsal, which is impossible, but that’s the way it often is. That’s the reality of putting on an expensive concert. My concert life has been a series of terrors. My concert debut was with the American Composer Orchestra in New York at Carnegie Hall, and the second time was a ballet with ABT at Lincoln Center. I’ve never had the luxury of taking it out of town first and having a couple of performances to make some tweaks. With the Albert Hall Elfman/Burton show, with two hours of freshly orchestrated music, two days is barely enough time just to find typos.
Was Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure your first experience with film music?
When I was with this theater troupe, the Mystic Knights, I wrote music for them to be played to my brother’s film Forbidden Zone, which is a late night cult film that still has a very loyal following. Tim knew of me through Oingo Boingo, but Paul Reubens knew of me through Forbidden Zone, and he made a note in his mind that he wanted to work with whoever did that. Even though it was five years later, he remembered that. So both things in my life had a hand in whatever made my name pop up between Tim and Paul.
What was that first meeting with Burton like?
We really just talked about how we grew up and what we were into. I talked about my love of Bernard Herrmann and the films I loved growing up, and they were really a lot of the same films he grew up on. We both grew up in Los Angeles and we both really grew up on movies, specifically horror movies. My entire childhood was basically growing up with horror, science fiction, and fantasy. So we had a lot of common ground. I met with him and went home, and I had a tune in my head that I thought was kind of fun, and I did a demo on a four track tape player, playing all the parts, and I made a cassette and sent it to him and never expected to hear from him again. But that piece of music became the main title of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and it got me the job. I was really shocked.
Besides Hermann, were there other composers who you counted as inspiration for your own work?
There were. I’m kind of the case of a fan entering the sport of my nerdy fandom. By the time I was in my early 20s, I was really into film music. I was a huge fan of Nino Rota, who was obviously a big influence on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. But I was proud that I could hear the styles and identify the styles of Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Dimitri Tiomkin and Jerry Goldsmith. I was coming from a place where I really had a lot of inspiration, because I was kind of a film music geek. For me, the movie that caught my attention in the first place and made me notice film music is The Day The Earth Stood Still. That’ll always hold a special place. I grew up in the era of Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and even as a kid, I knew that if I saw Herrmann and Harryhausen in the same credits, I was in for a real treat. I saw two movies every weekend practically every weekend of my life during my childhood. That’s a lot of movies.
Do you have a set way you work, or does it depend on the project, or the director? For example, is your process Burton process different from how you work with Gus Van Sant?
I don’t know if I have an established way, and if I have one I don’t know what it is. Basically I watch a movie, then sit down and try to swallow the feeling of panic that’s welling up, like “What if I f— up and can’t think of anything?” From there, I just slowly try to let some music come out. It’s not much of a technique, but that’s what it boils down to.
Does that moment of panic happen every time?
With the exception of the four or five sequels I’ve done, I would say yes, every time. A sequel is the only time I know what is expected of me, and I’ve already been down the path with the director, and I even have the advantage of a theme or two. Everything else is, “Holy s—, here we go again.”